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The Several Selves

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.

 

Sex, Sexuality and Philosophy

To follow the analysis that will be presented below, it is necessary to first briefly and broadly summarize two philosophical positions. The reader is asked to bear with me through these summaries. There are two opposed worldviews that one might take as a guide to understanding the nature of reality.

The first worldview is that of Western culture. Historically, this was a theological conception that saw the world as consisting of God and God’s creations, which included humanity (a dualistic view). This conception began to be challenged by naturalists, seeking to understand God’s creation, whose findings conflicted with the understanding adopted by religious authorities. The view adopted by religious leaders was not that of God; i.e., was not based in scripture, but largely borrowed from earlier Greek philosophers. However, this clash grew more intense until the “great compromise” offered by Rene Descartes. His compromise proposed that matters of the material world should be left to the naturalists (subsequently scientists) and that matters of the spiritual world should be left to theologians (also a dualistic view). The divide between science and religion grew until science largely dismissed religious views as irrelevant. This led to the evolution of a perspective that excluded anything non-material from reality.

Scientific materialism posits a point of initiation for matter that is called “the big bang.” When a renowned physicist, who supports this model, was asked where the big bang came from, he replied that its origin was spontaneous creation from nothing. In short, it was a random event with no known cause, though once set in motion, the result is a deterministic unfolding whose final outcome was built into the point of initiation. This view assumes that everything in the universe is composed of material elements and assembled from the bottom up. Thus, everything can be understood by breaking it down into the pieces that it was assembled from and studying the relationship of the pieces to one another. This is what is called reductionism. This view assumes that everything, including life and the universe itself, arose through a random event and has no purpose and therefore no fundamental meaning. Contemporary Western culture has been strongly influenced by the materialist perspective while retaining a dualistic view of how things are structured.

Scientific materialism is the current paradigm of science with the core assumption that matter is all that exists; i.e., monistic materialism. There are opponents to this view who root their opposition in the inability of a materialist paradigm to account for consciousness. Thus, the old dualist division persists to this day, though spirit has been largely replaced by consciousness. Some scientific materialist have attempted to resolve this problem by asserting that consciousness is an illusion. This solution has not been accepted very widely because it is at odds with personal experience. More importantly, there is considerable evidence that consciousness is a reality that must be dealt with, not the least of which is the role consciousness appears to play in the outcome of some quantum physics experiments. At root, these experiments clearly suggest that consciousness is required for matter to come into existence. In short, the collapse of a “wave of possibilities” into an outcome in the material world appears to require consciousness. In other words, consciousness is primary.

From the perspective of materialism, consciousness is an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of matter. It assumes that consciousness is individually generated by aggregates of matter that have achieved a sufficient level of complexity. Implicit in this view is the idea that complex order is the source of consciousness. How consciousness could arise from the combination of elements of matter is unknown. Faced with the inability to posit any explanation, short of magic, for how consciousness might arise from complex arrangements of matter, some “materialists” have hypothesized that every particle of matter contains a degree of consciousness. Thus, it is suggested that complex arrangements of elements of matter that already contain some degree of consciousness produce conscious awareness. This hypothesis fails to explain where any degree of consciousness, no matter how insignificant, came from in the first place. It also has no explanation for how the combination of elements of consciousness containing matter results in conscious awareness. This idea is somewhat analogous to suggesting that if one takes small units of biological matter, such as bacteria, and aggregate enough of them together, a living animal will emerge from the complexity.

There are many scientists, though still in a minority, who consider the current scientific paradigm, rooted in the belief that matter is primary, to be a “dead man walking.” This view is predicated upon an ever accumulating body of evidence that falsifies the paradigm’s assumptions. A noted physicist recently published a paper in a major physics journal in which he unequivocally stated that the evidence supports the view that reality is essentially mental. This doesn’t obviate the accomplishments of science under the current paradigm. It does, however, suggest that the new emerging view makes clear that the current paradigm has limits on what can be known and understood and that those limits are being reached.

The second worldview we’ll discuss is monistic idealism1 (see the referenced note for a fuller explanation), which is the view that everything exists within Consciousness2. This is one of the challenges to the current paradigm of scientific materialism. The core assumption of this view is that Consciousness is all that exists and that it is both infinite, eternal, inherently intelligent and creative. This view does not posit a point of origination for Consciousness. In short, it is assumed that it has always existed. This view assumes that the universe is at root an indivisible whole in which every particle of matter is entangled with every other particle. In this view, matter is a contraction or concentration of Consciousness. The apparent separate constituents of the universe are at root an “illusion.” This view posits that the “illusion” is created by the appearance of complementary pairs reflected within Consciousness. These pairs create contrast effects, which make possible experience. This view suggests that Consciousness created the possibility for experience for the purpose of self-examination, self-awareness and enrichment. This view implies that the universe did not arise by chance, has a purpose and a fundamental meaning.

The view of idealism is that matter is an epiphenomenon or an emergent property of Consciousness. It assumes that Consciousness is a ground state from which everything arises. Thus, everything that exists arises within Consciousness. The closest analogy to this process is probably a dream. Dreams arise in your consciousness and during the experience appear to be quite real. Thus, in a manner of speaking, monistic idealism would say that you are a “dream” character in Consciousness or in Universal Mind. For those familiar with virtual reality games, one might say that you are an “avatar” in a virtual reality3 created by Universal Mind or Consciousness (see the referenced note for a fuller explanation). Material “reality” could be thought of as being generated from a basic division of thought within Universal Mind into a complementary pair such as physical versus biological. From contrasting pairs, experience evolved ever more complex forms, which produced their own sets of complementary pairs. The biological or living forms became “receivers” for Consciousness, which was experienced as an individuated consciousness that is functionally independent from Consciousness. The more complex the life form the more “bandwidth” the “receiver” could accept. In the end, however, there is only one Consciousness (a nondual perspective). Traditionally, this view has been largely that of some Eastern traditions such as yoga. Many readers will immediately think of the Western version of Hatha Yoga with its emphasis on the body. What is referred to here are the traditions within yoga that emphasize a nondual philosophical view similar to monistic idealism and teach practices for the refinement of consciousness; i.e., mental yoga.

Now, let’s examine the implications for the above for one complementary pair that we all have some experience with — sex (male and female). Recall that complementary pairs make experience possible by the contrasts that they impose. To clarify, consider another pair associated with temperature: hot and cold. Without the contrast produced by the pair, temperature could not be experienced. It is also clear that the pair represents a range and does not represent dichotomous categories. In short, there are degrees of temperature along the continuum between the polar anchors for the complementary pair. The greater the points of difference along the continuum the richer the possibilities for experience. Without the experience of the full range of the continuum between the polar anchors for a complementary pair, one can not truly understand the unity from which the pair was derived. For those familiar with the Chinese yin and yang symbols, recall that those symbols for opposites are an abstract representation for complementary pairs. Each symbol contains a component of its opposite and both are contained within a circle representing the whole or unity of which each member of the pair is a partial reflection.

The continuum between the anchor points of male and female includes all sexual variation possible. For purposes of this discussion, the experiences placed under the umbrella term “transgender” (TG) will be considered. The view offered here is that gender is a socially constructed expression of sex and sexuality. While there is some limited variation in sex, there is more variation in the experienced sense of sexuality. The former is anatomical and the latter is probably due to atypical hormonal effects on a developing organism. Gender in this discussion is considered to be a social expression of sex and sexuality, which are convergent in the majority of people but divergent in a minority. Thus, gender is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, though it may come close to that in many people’s experience. By way of analogy, consider the biological experience of hunger. The body generates this experience, which is variable in its intensity. However, the body does not dictate, except in the most general way, what should be eaten to satisfy hunger. How hunger is satisfied is socially constructed. Society determines what should be considered “food.” It also creates customs around how food is prepared, when it is eaten, how it is eaten, with whom it might be eaten, and so on. Likewise, societies have socially created ways in which sex and the experience of sexuality should be expressed — gender. Generally speaking, there is usually a very tight correlation between the appearance of anatomical sex, experienced sexuality and gender.

What are the implications of the above discussion for TG?

Lets look at the implications of taking the position of materialism. For our purposes, a TG individual is someone who experiences some degree of male sexuality while living through a female body or experiences some degree of female sexuality while living through a male body.

Consider a TG individual who is a materialist. Such an individual has to consider his/her experience to be the result of a random and meaningless biological variation — a victim of circumstance. There are some who would argue that their experience is a deliberate choice, not the result of a random biological variation. The choice is often justified on political and or social grounds, which probably serves to give the experience contextual meaning. I don’t doubt that there may be such individuals. I think that most TG individuals, however, feel that their experience was imposed, not chosen, and usually leaves them feeling like a victim, not an agent for social change. In fact, one could posit that taking the position that one’s experience results from a sociopolitical decision is a coping mechanism. A way of negating the feeling of being a victim and constructing some meaning from the experience. Second, scientific materialism is reductionist and therefore depends upon studying relationships between clearly defined elements, which are strictly controlled to minimize variation. The continuum of variation for sex is therefore, from a scientific perspective, a messy affair making well controlled studies of sex and sexuality only possible by focusing on the anchor points and excluding everything in between as confounding variation. It is no wonder that persons on the excluded portion of the continuum have been prone to being minimized, pathologized and criminalized. Fortunately, modern day society is not as tenacious about pathologizing and criminalizing personal expression as it has been in the past. This is not to suggest that it isn’t still a problem of significance.

Now, let’s look at the implications of taking the position of idealism.

Consider a TG individual who is an idealist and especially one who understands idealism through nondual philosophy4 rooted in some Eastern tradition or in one of the increasing number of Western expressions of nondualism. S/he does not view everything as due to blind chance. Such a person is considered to be an individuated manifestation of Consciousness. Such a consciousness is a vehicle through which Consciousness gains experience of its own potential and the unfolding of that potential. If one is a manifestation of Source Consciousness or of Universal Mind, then your experience is not random and one is certainly not a victim of circumstance. Usually, one’s personal condition is viewed as having its origins in a choice made by the meta-self 5 prior to individuated consciousness being expressed in material form. In short, there was an agreement to the current manifestation as a vehicle for the experience possible for that form. This is probably only one of many previous and different expressions and possibly of many more to come. Why this particular choice was made, in any specific case, lies within one’s consciousness but outside of awareness. There are ways of accessing such material but that is beyond the scope of this essay. From this perspective one does not have to take pathologizing and criminalizing by society of one’s being as a judgment of one’s personal worth. This is not to minimize the social injustice that such judgment produces or its impacts. However, if one views oneself as a unique expression of Consciousness and takes one’s sense of personal worth from that understanding, then one has a more positive basis for one’s sense of self and a degree of insulation from the injustices implicit in society.

Finally, let us turn to an analysis of some possible outcomes for a TG individual. There may be outcomes not covered here, but one should be able to work them out from this illustration. Some of the following options will probably only be open to someone who subscribes to a nondual worldview or will certainly be facilitated by such a worldview. As the progression unfolds, a nondual worldview increases in importance.

First, consider an individual on the continuum in unresolved conflict. This conflict comes down to a perceived dualistic choice between the two anchor points (male/female or masculine/feminine). The conflict between the dichotomous anchor points for the continuum is driven in large part by the social narrative about the continuum. The person in conflict is strongly drawn toward the anchor point in conflict with anatomy, which is nonconforming to the social narrative. Such an individual is strongly imbued with the social narrative. The stronger the social pressures the greater the conflict. The social pressure can come from external sources policing the social narrative but will also involve one’s enculturation and internalization of the social narrative. It is probably from this type of conflict that what is often referred to as gender dysphoria arises. Clearly, minimizing susceptibility to external policing efforts will help. Equally if not more important is deconstructing the internalized policing established through enculturation. Psychotherapy, drawing on narrative psychology, can be helpful with the latter.

Second, consider an individual on the continuum who is only moderately drawn to the anchor point in conflict with anatomy. Such a person often will resolve to end the conflict by choosing one anchor point and suppressing the other in this dualistic dance. If the person is male bodied and the choice is to suppress the intrusive sense of femaleness, the conflict is repressed and one’s focus becomes on living through the anatomical sex. There is still potential for negative psychological effects from employing repression, but the immediate conflict has been resolved. The same analysis would hold if the person was female bodied and chose to suppress an intrusive sense of maleness.

Third, consider an individual on the continuum similar to the person in the previous analysis, except the person is strongly drawn to the anchor point in conflict with anatomy. In this case, the decision may be to suppress and modify the anatomical sex and give full expression to the intrusive sense of sexuality. This is what is often referred to a transsexualism. This is a choice that may reduce the conflict one feels between anatomical sex and an intrusive sense of sexuality, but it is fraught with many new potential conflicts. It may also entail a lifetime of pursuing adjustments trying to achieve the perfect approximation to one’s idealized self-image.

Fourth, consider an individual who is a bit more psychologically sophisticated and makes the choice not to suppress but to simply witness and thereby neutralize a choice. In the case of a female bodied person, she lives through her anatomical sex and becomes simply an unresponsive observer (witness) to the arising and subsiding of her intrusive sense of male sexuality. The converse analysis would apply to a male bodied person with an intrusive sense of female sexuality. This approach has the potential to minimize the conflict without the potential problems associated with repression. However, witnessing is a learned skill that makes this a choice only for someone aware of the skill and willing to devote the time and effort to establish it.

Fifth, consider a person who is living through a nondual narrative about his or her life. Such an individual would reject the dualistic choice posed by the anchor points of the continuum. The decision in this individual might be to unify the apparent dualistic choice presented by the continuum. The individual neither vacillates between the apparent choices, employs repression, embarks on bodily modification or sets out to utilize neutralization. In this individual the choice is to integrate the conflicting demands and give expression to a blend of both, which may be made explicit to varying degrees. This might be thought of as a non-binary life-style. Such an individual would also be largely free of or at least largely indifferent to the dualistic demands of social presentation in forms dictated by society.

Finally, there is one additional option available from the nondual perspective but one probably chosen by very few. This is to shift identification from the body/mind to fully identifying with pure awareness. Through identification with pure awareness, there is a merger of the self with the meta-self, to as great an extent as is possible, and still live in the world, transcending duality. In such a state the dualistic world of complementary pairs is transformed into a holistic understanding and perspective. A view from which the pairs creating the potential for experience are seen as mere mirror reflections within the whole. Pure awareness is characterized by neither maleness nor femaleness but rather the whole from which they are reflected into the material world.

Notes:

1.  For an excellent video presentation by a leading proponent of monistic idealism click here.

2.  Consciousness with a capital “C” is used to indicate a reference to the unified and infinite field of Consciousness or Source of all that is. The use of consciousness with a lower case “C” is used to indicate an individuated contraction of consciousness within Consciousness.

 3.  Tom Campbell’s metaphor of reality as a computer simulation

 4.  Below are links to some sources of teachings on nondualism:

The Metaphysical Writings of Bernardo Kastrup

Non-Duality Teachings of Rupert Spira

The Spiritual Enneagram with Eli Jaxon-Bear

New Dharma Yoga with Sat Shree

Living Non-Duality with Robert Wolf

Self-realization and Enlightenment with Jan Esmann

The Tantrik Yoga teachings of Hareesh Wallis

5.  Meta-self refers to that which is beyond or behind the self. This is somewhat analogous to some people’s use of the terms soul and oversoul.