I think the course of personal identity moves across four, basic developmental domains, though not everyone explicates and integrates all four domains. The four domains are sensory, physical, mental and spiritual. In keeping with the present focus, let’s refer to them as the sensory self, physical self, mental self and spiritual self. In the following I will set out a hypothetical description of how this development unfolds.
The development of selves is largely a process dependent upon differentiation. A new born infant initially identifies with its sensory field and has a sensory self. With time and experience, a process that differentiates the self from the sensory field begins. This starts with differentiating various aspects of the sensory field from one another and assigning them the status of being separate “things.” For example, think of a bird and its song. At first, the bird and its song are part of the generalized, unified sensory field. With experience, an infant begins to recognize the bird as the source of the song and to consider the two as an integrated whole that attention turns the bird into an object of consciousness. Once captured as an object of consciousness, the bird and its song become abstracted through visual and auditory representation. With that comes the ability to recall a memory that encodes the bird symbolically. This memory allows the bird to be isolated, explored and manipulated symbolically as an object in consciousness. This cognitive possession of the bird and its song differentiates it from the self and make it a separate object within awareness.
This process of differentiation goes on until a clear sense of two categories develops: self and other. By “other” is meant things that have become differentiated as separate “things.” The next step is begun with the question, who is this self that is aware of all these other things, which can be turned into objects of consciousness? At this time, the thing that garners the most attention in awareness is the physical body. The physical body not only has been differentiated from the sensory field but has also been recognized as the seat of a great many subjective experiences. It experiences emotional reactions, thoughts and feelings along with auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile sensations, among others. All this appears to be localized in the physical body. Under these conditions, it is very easy to identify oneself with the body. Hence, we have the physical self. The former sensory self has been transcended but the transition from sensory to physical self integrates the sensory self into the physical self.
The real fireworks begin with transcending the physical self and arriving at the mental self. With the beginning of the mental self a significant change in perception takes place. Up until this point, perception has been largely a bottom up process, which means that perception is relatively unhindered by filters. As language skills grow and experience is reconstructed with visual and linguistic symbols, a shift away from a focus on the physical body begins and is accompanied by a change of focus to mental activity. Not only are memories encoded but are also interpreted. Memories are assigned meanings and so begins the creation of a personal past. Perception now begins to shift toward a top down process, which means that perception comes to be a process subject to filtering. We also learn that we can describe and interpret imaginal outcomes thereby conjuring up a future. The narrative approach to life has begun in earnest. Our mental self becomes absorbed with the content of our mind.
With this mental focus, our narratives and their meanings begin to organize themselves into an hierarchy of beliefs about ourselves and our lives. Along with the mental self, ego arrives on the scene. Our identity has now transcended the physical self. The physical self, along with the sensory self integrated into it, has been incorporated into the newly developed mental self. The first stage of the mental self could be described as egocentric. We are consumed with ourselves; with our self narrative. We narrowly perceive the world through a first person perspective.
As we gain experience, develop cognitively and become more sophisticated in our thinking, our narratives grow more complex and our perspective broadens into a second person perspective. This new stage in the mental self could be described as ethnocentric. We now include in our identities others who belong to groups in which we are embedded. Our identity now includes our family and family friends. It may include others similar to us who, for example, are members of our religion and attend services with us. It will grow to include “outsiders,” known to us, who share our beliefs and other characteristics such as ethnicity, language, dress, food habits and so on. For some of us, development becomes arrested at this stage due to a constrained range of experiences. A constraint on our range of experience results in a lack of opportunity for new cognitive growth. Often, the constraint is imposed by our narratives and the beliefs about the world that they impose on our perceptions and the meaning we attribute to them. Things such as racism are usually grounded in an ethnocentric identity.
If we do continue in our development, the next stage in the evolution of the mental self could be described as sociocentric. We now have acquired the ability to take a third person perspective. We can identify with a much larger social group than in the past. Our expanded narratives gives us a social perspective that is much broader than our previous provincial identity. We can now bring into our identity persons who differ from us in significant ways because we share a broader membership with them. For example, if we strongly identify with our nationality, we can incorporate people who may have significant differences from ourselves into our identity because they too are American or French or Chinese and so on. It is likely that the upper developmental limit for most people is a sociocentric perspective. People that we might describe as nationalists are probably operating from this level of identity.
A small number of people who continue to develop will transition to a worldcentric perspective. The final step in the development of the mental self. They now identify with a context that exceeds the boundaries of nation states. Such individuals become “citizens” of the world and identify with humanity in its many variations. All the previous self identities and narratives related to those identities have been incorporated into and subsumed by the new broader identity. These are people who advocate for just treatment of all living things, of a more holistic approach to the health of the planet and sustainable styles of living. Many of us would consider this the pinnacle of human cognitive development, which it may be in a sense.
Yet, there remains, at least, one more development related to self or identity. This transformation goes by various names but in the first paragraph it was called the spiritual self. Transcendence of the mental self to the spiritual self could be described as arriving at a Kosmocentric perspective. This is a relatively rare occurrence and you probably have never met such a person. One reason that it is so rare is because almost everyone becomes deeply entangled in their ever more complex personal narratives or more simply stated in their mental self. As one spiritual teacher put it, we are “lost in our minds.” The mental self lives through symbolic representations of the past and for imagined futures and gives little attention to the present. What goes unrecognized is that recall of narratives about the past are about things that no longer exist, if they ever did, and that narratives about the future are about things that may never come to pass. The only reality that one can truly grasp is the one that is fleetingly present in the moment. One likely distinction between the earlier selves and the spiritual self is that the former are largely governed by processes associated with the left hemisphere in the brain and the latter in the right hemisphere. It is the difference between a particularlized and a holistic grasp on our experienced reality.
I ask that you contemplate the following questions carefully. Are you really the stories (narratives) that you tell about yourself? Do these narratives feel love or anger? Can your narratives think about things? Who is it that knows your subjective experience? Who is editing and telling these stories that you live by? It is certainly not the narratives that you associate with your name; e.g., Bill Smith or Mary Jones, doing all these things. So, who is doing it? If you like, you can read a poem that I wrote that also addresses this issue here or read a more complete list of questions here.
It would appear that you have a subtle self that is the observer of all that you are. It is not your sensory field though it is aware of the sensory field. It is not your physical body though it is aware of the physical body. It is not your mental activity though it is aware of your mental activity. It is your uncluttered ever present conscious awareness. The spiritual self has always been present but your attention has been elsewhere. You’ve lived much of your life consumed by distractions. If you can identify with the spiritual self you will have a unique perspective that still has access to all the prior selves that you’ve grown through, if they will still serve you, but you will not be entangled in them.
One person, the late Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who connected with his spiritual self and became present with his pristine conscious awareness described living through the spiritual self as the “high indifference.” What he meant by this phrase was that he seldom needed to interpret his experience through narratives. He seldom found beliefs that gave meaning to those narratives useful. Thus, he found little use for judgment and was open to and accepting of life as it passed through him. He found that he was emotionally disengaged from most events taking place around him. The people involved in those events were entangled in stories that often competed with one another for the status of “truth.” This does not mean that he did not engage the world. What it means is that he engaged the world through discernment free of any narrative generated prescription about how he should engage it.
He found that being fully present in the world required little attention to the world of the mind that consumed those around him. Giving little attention to the mentally constructed world gave him a clearer view of what was important and when he acted he was more likely to have an effect on something that mattered. The late Abraham Maslow, a developmental psychologist, described the pinnacle of his developmental pyramid as self transcendence. It is a rising above the mental self and all that went before it. It is an experience and there is no formula for creating a transcendent experience. It is an internal journey following a pathless path. It is awakening to one’s true nature and being released from ignorance.