On the Elusive “I”

Crowds of people. Crowd behind fence HorydczakIt stands to reason that amid the vast city of merchants Plato once analogized as the individual human being—the various appetites which demand one’s attention, favor, and energy—the truly objective source in charge of these merchants—the highly-phantomized center of self—must be not the emperor, the city official, nor the military; instead, commonplace as it may sound, the authority must derive from the humble shopper, the prospective patron, the everyday consumer, navigating among these waving, wild and roaring street vendors. For Plato’s analogy, this may sound ineffectual, but I would argue it is their everyday nature, being blurred and faceless, unspecific and unremarkable, even imperceptible, that necessarily qualifies the patron for the proper role of facilitator over the self. And why, rather than trusting such authority to the known face, the popularized and identifiable leader, do we need such anonymity to function properly as uninhibited individuals? It is this essence of invisibility which we will discover, as we explore deeper, provides for such profound possibility.

So, how may we understand the human psyche? Calling it a ‘city of merchants’ is artful, but, for practical purposes, less of an effective framework. Nonetheless, it is a good starting point: we can see these merchants calling to us, making sales pitches, pushing onto us an array of goods and services. Another way of conceptualizing these demanding figures could be to label them as identity states: they are the roles we play in life, the masks we wear—they are the difference, perhaps, between “you” with your friends and “you” with your parents—parts of us that want different things: to fit in with our peers, to criticize our adversaries, to garner respect from our elders, to challenge our oppressors…to impress an attractive acquaintance, to ignore our friends’ phonecalls…to  splurge on dessert, to get up early and run. Some of these states may not appear directly oppositional, and indeed they are often not. We may even believe these states do not individually exist, that we are simply an “I” changing and fluctuating depending on the needs of any situation. But this cannot be true, not completely. How can the ‘self’ you are with your parents, a self that makes very particular decisions when responding emotionally and psychologically to that environment, be the same self as when you are on a first date, a self that would make very different choices when confronted with the same premises? You exclaim to your date you “love to party,” you confess to your parents you’re embarrassed by your generation’s “debaucherous inclinations.” In each instance, you feel a conviction, a truthful source of who you are. And yet how can either of those ‘selves’ be truly you if they necessarily conflict? And how can either be the same as the one that is born the second both your date and your parents enter your room? It is most obvious to us, in those moments of direct conflict, that there is something far more complex at hand, that we have a tendency to organize our lives into categories, categories which help foster organized states of being. Each of these states is essentially equivalent in its influence over “who we are” in any given moment, and yet none, then, can properly take the role of the “self.” When we are asked to describe ourselves, we instead describe likes and dislikes, hobbies and careers, achievements and failures, all of these characters of particular zones of association. These zones reinforce our states, they develop and embellish them. Yet their complex nature remains, for the most part, quietly unconsidered. These states are attributed so consistently to the role of “I,” and the role of “I,” as a representation of the self, in this context appears philosophically irresponsible and existentially problematic.

Consider: one of my states, an impulsive type that loves getting “new things,” convinces all of me, one night in a drunken stupor, to buy a brand new laptop computer online. It takes one click. The next morning, upon attempting to reconcile the purchase, another state, a frugal and future-conscious type, takes the stage, berates the choice I’ve made, and berates me for allowing it. More states, ones prone to shame or fear, confusion or clarification, turn to me, turn to all of me, and try and understand what happened, why it happened, and if it is truly good that this purchase—a purchase made three days before rent is due, mind you—was sanctioned. Interestingly, the impulsive buyer state—the one so heavily invested in its sales pitch the night before, the one that was, at that time, chock-full of rationales and self-justifications, has simply vanished, called in sick, made an unfortunately-timed absence, and I am left helpless to defend what appears now to be a very silly decision. This experience is abundant in our lives, and it can range from buying an extra chocolate chip cookie to a Porsche. And that’s simply regarding finances—it can also apply to choices in living situations, careers, life partners…all of these with potential lasting effects. So then, it does matter how we understand ourselves, and it matters more that we have some guiding principle, a sensible buyer, to watch over these states, these systems, to listen, but not be easily swayed.

The organization of a watcher, consciously contrived, inevitably results in another state—a watcher state—designed as a central guide over the rest of the cluster. This type of designation is frequently reported in religious conversions. Imagine, for example, somebody who has become so upturned by a lack of control and guidance over what have become highly-destructive states—impulsive ones, associated with addiction—that their lives have effectively deteriorated, their loved ones have left them, their means of support have dwindled. Frequently, it has been reported, that in these “rock-bottom” moments, a guiding state is formed, one religiously backed, in which a sort of “conversion” takes place, one we can better understand now having used the model of identity states as a method for conceptualizing the human psyche. William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, elaborates on this phenomenon: “to say that a man is ‘converted’ means, in these terms, that religious ideas…now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual centre of his energy…everything has to re-crystallize about it” (196-197). So, when a religious identity state is formed as a guide and watcher over the rest, it filters every other state’s inclinations—from the compulsive online shopper to the drug addict—through religious criteria. Suddenly, that brand new laptop becomes definitively inadmissible—because the converted decides he must resist covetousness—as rigorously inadmissible as drugs or infidelity.

Night watch LundyBut this guiding state, while well-intentioned, is fundamentally ill-equipped. As argued above, all identity states are essentially equivalent in their power and influence over the self. And even the self has remained elusive in this conversion, at best considered as the entire array of these wild states, but our failure at a complete conscious comprehension—and the consideration that an individual can theoretically produce new states ad infinitum (in a sense, under this definition, willfully expanding or “molding” the self)—raises serious concerns still over what ‘self’ truly is. So with the self unclarified and the guiding state still simply just another state, we are left nevertheless uncertain and adrift, never quite in control of who we are and yet exhausting ourselves mentally and emotionally over the efforts. This is in part because identity states are simply reflections of conscious being—that is, they are conscious manifestations of something deeper, iceberg peaks of an unconscious, an unrealized place, hidden deep below dark waters. While these states point to something larger, they are themselves posters for a hidden world, representations of something unseen, in the same way speech is a highly-reductive, highly-confined, and highly-deceptive representation of thought, something infinite and intangible. Our guiding state, then, is, on its own, understandably weak; it is a consciously-willed thing, and its resources are unrealized and untouched. We have no access to the roots. And if our actions are being dictated by sources outside of our conscious peripheral, we cannot expect this guiding state—available to us only as a flimsy poster—to truly influence integral change. Furthermore, our conscious will may work to harm our best intentions for personal change. James expands:

“A man’s conscious wit and will, so far as they strain towards the ideal, are aiming at something only dimly and inaccurately imagined. Yet all the while the forces of mere organic ripening within him are going on towards their own prefigured result, and his conscious strainings are letting loose subconscious allies behind the scenes, which in their way work towards rearrangement; and the rearrangement towards which all these deeper forces tend is pretty surely definite, and definitely different from what he consciously conceives and determines. [Conversion] may consequently be actually interfered with (jammed, as it were, like the lost word when we seek too energetically to recall it), by his voluntary efforts slanting the true direction” (209).

James reminds us that not only are our conscious wills and their representative states weak, they often, when strained by our efforts to do good, work to stifle us. So, something else must be reached outside conscious will; as James argues, “other forces” (208) are required. This process, sometimes referred to as a ‘letting go’ of sorts, can be psychologically fuzzy, but the implication behind its notion is a relinquishing of the reins, an understanding of the limitations of conscious will and a commitment to stepping back. James explains in further detail what this ‘letting go’ might consist of by addressing and quoting Edwin Starbuck, a contemporary of James’s and a scholar. He outlines:

“…to exercise the personal will is still to live in the region where the imperfect self is the thing most emphasized. Where, on the contrary, the subconscious forces take the lead, it is more probably the better self in posse which directs the operation. Instead of being clumsily and vaguely aimed at from without, it is then itself the organizing centre. What then must the person do? ‘He must relax,’ says Dr. Starbuck,—‘that is, he must fall back on the larger Power that makes for righteousness, which has been welling up in his own being, and let it finish in its own way the work it has begun…. The act of yielding, in this point of view, is giving one’s self over to the new life, making it the center of a new personality, and living, from within, the truth of it which had before been viewed objectively’” (209-210).

It is difficult to understand what this process is like without personally experiencing it and by definition, explaining it with finite language fundamentally betrays its true nature. But we can outline it as a reversal of the authority given to conscious and subconscious forces, where, through a relaxed and faithful falling back and a relinquishing of conscious control, one is given access to a greater well of self—the unconscious, which gives life to our identity states, is offered the lead, and with it one is able to observe their nature with a greater distance, and these observations provide one with a deeper understanding of ‘self’ as a whole, and not simply a collection of posters on an impenetrable brick wall. It is this greater self, this invisible unconscious force, which may indeed make up what Plato’s original analogy implied; the faceless array of amorphous patrons, necessarily anonymous to the vociferous merchants, are the embedded representations of central guidance for the individual. The patron both creates the demand, bringing life to the merchants, and navigates their markets, determining needs. The patrons are inextricable, and their part as a collective unit complements the analogy in a way that is more fulfilling, in that makeup of the self which before felt so unfairly incomplete. But who bestows wisdom upon the discerning shopper? Where does this hidden face acquire its force?

“‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity’” (210), says James, characterizing the phenomenon under theological terms. If it is possible to experience the divine, he insists this process of psychological conversion must be necessary. “The throwing of our conscious selves upon the mercy of powers which, whatever they may be, are more ideal than we are…has been and always must be regarded as the vital turning-point of the religious life.” The experience of reaching beyond our conscious selves into a territory previously unknown and for all practical matters may only be perceived non-propositionally seems the most effective outlet for the individual to access the divine. But accounts of these experiences in no way necessitate their reality; psychology just as simply describes the process: “let one do all in one’s power, and one’s nervous system will do the rest.” Regardless of how one characterizes the transformation, the approach remains philosophically reasonable in that it accounts for psychology, for how we as individuals engage with the world, and attempts both to explain our personalities’ inconsistencies (cohabiting and conflicting identity states) and its solution, founded in numerous accounts, relies on a logical and discernable relationship (manifestations, or conscious states, do not have the power of the unconscious from which they spring, and a manifestation created by other manifestations—the guiding state—has no accessible unconscious influence, is problematic and ultimately obstructs one’s true, rooted desire to change). Efforts made to relax, to fall into oneself and gain a greater sense of one’s whole being, to achieve what might be called a state of grace, these objectives can only be considered morally helpful. Whether experiencing this whole, this undivided self, this unseen reality, is something “beyond” the individual or strictly psychological seems less important to me to answer, and at its root problematically dialectical: what is psychology after all but another explanation of phenomena? Is there not room to wear the psychological hat over the spiritual body? Whatever the case may be, and whether or not the more complex parts of this process will remain forever mysterious, I do not believe the religious framework and the psychological framework need be oppositional, need be designed to indignify the other—they are interpretations of the same thing: a transcendent brush, a neurotic stroke.

Ancient brain surgery Miss Helen HeckerCONCLUDING REMARKS

If we understand conversion as a process of more thoroughly, more deeply understanding or ‘seeing’ our true, whole selves, it becomes invariable that we shall recognize our human traits in our human friends, our neighbors, everybody we speak to. The world changes, and the converted perceive an altogether more cohesive scope; we see another’s bad habits, their nervous tendencies, their desires for affection, for recognition, their fear of being wrong, their mask of self-assertions, we see their systemic behaviors, designed in odd and relatable ways, and because we understand, our attitude towards them changes: it becomes significantly easier to remain calm when, for example, we are faced with heated contention. The insult thrown our way can be traced back to a psychological frailty, the look of hurt understood from a reasonable source, the violent arrays of emotion seen for their roots. And it is not from a place of dominion, superiority, or smugness that we access and operate on these observations, but rather a place of love, compassion, and kindness. This loving reaction is not the typical kind of affection we associate with, but something greater, and not perceived through the usual self-centered lens. We see that we are all frightened, anxious, and hopeless beings, we are all stuck on the same boat, and the instinctual response, under these conditions of understanding, is to love and accept the other. To see one fully is, in this sense, to love them.

But this is a rather uncomplicated pursuit in the face of friends, family, and even, to a degree, strangers. What about our offenders? Take the infamous Christian platitude Love Your Enemies, for example, as it burns a hole in our spiritual pockets, asking of us something which, in moderate doses may seem reasonable but in radical portions totally alien: how are we expected to love our enemies—those truly combative, those who are openly hostile towards us? James suggests there is a state the religious-minded achieve in which enmity becomes “an irrelevant circumstance” (283); such a position becomes not simply possible, but natural. We may intellectually understand this transformative experience as deriving from a source of empathy, but, James argues, its place may very well be from somewhere deeper:

“This sentiment…tends to nullify man’s usual acquisitiveness. Those who have it spurn dignities and honors, privileges and advantages, preferring, as I have said in a former lecture, to grovel on the ground level before the face of God. It is not exactly the sentiment of humility, though it comes so close to it in practice. It is humanity, rather, refusing to enjoy anything that others do not share” (324).

The “remorseless logic of our love for others,” as James goes on to reference, becomes the dominant source of our instinct, restructuring what we may have previously believed to be very essential human qualities. And this distinction between humility and humanity suggests a profound logical sequence that conversion necessitates: the understanding of the other as similar to oneself, and the derived source of these epiphanies as a dipping into the well of God, work together towards a higher conclusion: the distinction between individuals is, in a practical sense, illusory, a farce, and we should honor the collective being as the self. Under these revelations, it is not so difficult to imagine such a restructuring of our priorities—for, if the other is deprived of some resource, in a cosmic sense it may be considered that ‘I’ am deprived of that resource as well. The self-serving inclination we often either feel must be revered or disparaged plays a very small role in our actual transformative processes, only how its prefigurations may be more properly applied to this greater well of information. If we are simply blood cells in the body of a universe, and we are able, through miraculous circumstance, to understand this fact, to understand finally that we are simply cells, would we not wish our fellow cells just as safe a passage as our own? Would we not recognize our combined purposes in keeping the body, our body, alive and moving?

The Buddhists call this “becoming normal.” Christianity refers to it as experiencing agape. The loving, compassionate nature derived from one’s true and willful understanding that they are simply a piece of the whole—but indeed they are the whole—suggests a superior human mode of behavior. Perhaps this rhetorical language is extravagant; it is conceivable and common for a human being to understand intellectually the relationships between things (him or herself included) without falling to some higher power, some greater spiritual essence. But these religions urge, of course, the necessity of conversion, the inward-outward process of letting go of one’s conscious will and relying on mysterious forces which ultimately and miraculously guide us to these same conclusions unintellectually. It is essential that this process has murky, unconscious properties—without a discerning witness we are allowed the possibility of a communion with an inconceivable divine source. This interpretation’s psychological and emotional imperatives produce a conviction profoundly stronger and more stable than any consciously-willed, intellectually-based theory can provide. So, extravagant or not, in a period of human civilization in which cooperation, understanding, and peace are of the utmost importance to our survival, it seems ludicrous to squabble over diction. It is our responsibility to thoroughly investigate these experiences and take their claims seriously and with respect. The trepidation around the word “God” by intellectuals such as myself only serves to strangle our effective analysis and tighten our conscious chains and offend our human history…my reverence for some mythic evolution of ‘civility,’ of intellectual sophistication, is weighed bizarrely by my scornful disregard for mystery. Should our cosmic endurance, the fate of our species, be determined by whether or not I feel “awkward”? It is a feat that must be overcome through openness, fearlessness, and maturity.


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