In all that follows, I speak of the self. The self is the only real problem in life. Getting rid of the self is freedom. This sounds paradoxical, and on the face of it, it is.
You might well say “Surely I, whoever I am, am my self?” Well, you presently do construe yourself as being made up of your self as “I” and the intimate part, the “me”.
For as long as that is the case it is indeed true.
But really, this is not the truth of you. Let’s resolve the paradox.
The Critical step
To start to be rid of the self, it is first necessary to understand completely –to ‘see’, even if only for a split second — that the self is the source of all (psychological) pain, misery, and suffering. It’s the source of all problems. It is a liar1, a thief2, yet nothing more than an echo3. It started out as a servant, offering to aid you, and ended up as your master.
For as long as I (whoever I am) love my self as being my me, I won’t get rid of it. Only when I see it for what it is now – a great lump of misery falsely claiming to be me – will I be willing to get rid of it.
And the next thing that will happen is that the self will formulate a plan for getting rid of the self, which will conveniently for the self take forever and be impossible of enactment!
It wants to be in this space — your space. It will not readily leave. Only awareness of what it is will start to keep it out.
And then it has to be starved out — diminished — by not feeding it. You must weaken its grip on you.
But even that will not help get rid of it.
One day it will collapse, but not by any action of the self.
The origin of the self
Where does the self come from?
It starts out in early childhood as an entity constructed by the child, with guidance from parents and teachers, but especially from life experience and impressions of what would be desirable, and also by simple copying and modelling of admired, impressive4 or forceful adult behaviour.
Then as painful experience accumulates in life the self develops further as a protective reaction to shield the individual from any unresolved pain. It does this by developing an unfeeling shell around the soft underbelly of the sensitive ‘me’. It purports to be a protection, and for a time it may indeed have that function. However perfect the circumstances of the individual life, it is very rare (unknown?) for there to be no unresolved pain in a life, no felt ‘injustice’ in a life. All that pain is put away from the sensitive me, and is absorbed into the shell of the self. Thus the pain is quietened, but not then faced, resolved, or dissolved. And the self develops an increasingly rigid inflexible, reactive, and at times — especially for men — violence-inciting ‘protective’ shell.
It is well known that it is quite common for young children, after they have ceased to be infants –without speech– to refer to themselves in the third person. This seems to be sometimes regarded as pathological. In fact it is simply what is true for that time: the child is constructing a self with a name, that they do not yet construe as being identical with the one that is talking.
For most children sooner or later they do construe the self, the named self, as being identical to what they are. That is, they identify with their constructed named self.
It’s amusing to note that the parents also may refer to themselves in the third person when talking to young children, especially when guiding or moulding behaviour:
“‘Mum/mom/mummy’ or ‘Dad/daddy’ is not going to do that, because…”, or “Come on, do it for Mummy!”. This makes it fairly clear that the one that is speaking is describing the role that is being adopted — by their self…
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
A role, of course, is the part that an actor plays (from French rôle – the roll of paper with the speech for the part written on it). And in Ancient Rome, the actors used various different masks or persona to represent the role that they were currently playing, as the same actor could play different roles.
Persona is the root origin of our word personality. And it is this adopted mask or ‘self’ — and again, this is a constructed named self, a played part, a role — that the child (and that means you, and once me) puts on as its self and then construed as its self.
Personality is frequently conflated with character, but in truth is substantially different5. Character is the inherent unique and unchangeable individuality, the ‘stamp’, of any manifested being.
Character versus Personality
Babies are born with a unique character, but no personality. It’s easier (because there’s less emotion and attachment involved) to see the difference between the two in animals, including in domestic pets. Puppies or kittens all have slightly or sometimes greatly different inherent characters, but they will never adopt a personality or a role. Animals, and of course humans, can however be trained to behave in certain ways or to do certain tasks. With animals we recognise that this is a procedure of shaping behaviour by conditioning. We are less ready to see that the same applies to human schooling.
A necessary evil?
Please note that in identifying this constructed self as false I am in no way saying that its development is unnecessary. It would appear to be an absolutely required stage of individual evolution. It’s a necessary step before any further step can be taken.
Maurice Nicholl, a psychiatrist and follower of Gurdjieff, wrote in one of his originally-unpublished commentaries (I paraphrase) that the function of the false self was to provide the energy to enable the transformation6.
This would appear to be possibly experientially true, viewed from here.
Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, in the last phase of his work, pointed to the ‘self-transcendent’ level of individual development. In this model fulfilling most of the ‘lower’ levels of development was seen as a contingent requirement to get to the final one7.
Here again the progression through the various developmental stages is seen as being a necessary, if not a sufficient, precursor to self-transcendence.
And in the End…
…The love you take is equal to the love you make…The Beatles Abbey Road (Fair Use claimed)
Eventually and, indeed, in the end, freedom lies in discarding the attachment to the false self and standing naked without it. And yet this is something that cannot be done by the self.
When it’s done, it’s done for you.
Note: some of the narrative here is fairly traditional developmental psychology. See, for example:
…and there’s much more.
- — a liar, for it calls itself ‘I’
- — a thief, for it steals your life and energy
- — an echo, for it repeats your own insights back to you as if they were its own
- “capable of making an impression on the mind or senses, tending to excite attention and feeling”
- Ultimately from Greek kharaktēr ‘engraved mark’ also ‘symbol or imprint on the soul’ (Etymology OnLine).
- See http://gurdjieffclub.com/en/maurice-nicol
- More on this here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/25429678