What is the self?
We want to be ourselves, we want to love ourselves, we want to improve ourselves — despite the fact that we sometimes can’t help ourselves.
What is this ‘self’ that we’re so preoccupied with? We know that psychological growth involves a healthier and more appropriate relationship with ourselves. But what exactly that ‘self’ is remains elusive, obscure, and almost mystical.
In this article, we’ll read about the self as understood in psychology as the ego. Then, we’ll transition into talking about the self as a transcendental subject, using Buddhism as our guide. Finally, a trip into psychedelia will give us an understanding about how the ego can fade away and give rise to the subject.
The Freudian ego
We’re all familiar with Sigmund Freud’s tripartite division of the psyche into the id, ego, and superego. In this structure, the ego is a mediating factor which balances the wild and socially-unacceptable impulses of the id against the civilized demands of the superego.
But this technical picture shouldn’t detract from the sheer everydayness of the ego. In German the word for it remains Das Ich — simply, the ‘I’ — and in this formulation we see that the ego consists very plainly of what we say about ourselves. We are nurses, we are lawyers, we are accountants; we are straight or bisexual; we are socialists or Republicans. These attributes we ascribe to the pronoun ‘I’, and consequently, they form our ego.
We speak about our ‘I’ in a very careful way. Listening to his patients speak during a session, Freud noticed certain moments of hesitation, distortion, censure, and disavowal. He theorized that during these moments, thoughts and feelings were emerging which were totally antithetical to the person’s sense of self. The I — the ego—was a strict demarcation of mental contents into self and non-self.
Add to this inaugural clinical observation that the subterranean impulses in question were basically aggressive or sexual, and also that the person’s ideal self is a socially-constructed rubric, and you arrive at Freud’s id, ego, and superego.
But again, we don’t need to view the Freudian ego as performing something abstract as ‘channeling id impulses’. It can very simply be understood as the set of attributes which we willingly ascribe to ‘the I’ of our everyday speech—and just as importantly, the set of attributes which we guard and deny with vigilance.
The ego as gestalt
The Freudian ego is a demarcation, readily apparent in our speech, which selectively includes and excludes mental contents from the space of self-identity. To understand how these contents can be distorted, we need to understand the ego as a gestalt.
In our everyday experience of the world, we encounter things ‘out there’ and learn about them based on sensory information. This idea is intuitive enough, but in reality, we aren’t building up our understanding of our world in this strictly bottom-up process. We are also, at the same time, imposing certain conceptual structures on the sensory information, which influence our experience of them.
These conceptual forms are called gestalts, and they ushered in an entire discipline of experimental psychology known as the Gestalt school. Visual illustrations of gestalts have given us some of the most recognizable optical illusions, like the following:
On first glance, we perceive this image to be a white triangle overlaying four shapes. However, closer inspection reveals that the white triangle has no substantive existence of its own — its presence is only suggested by cuts in the surrounding four shapes. You can prove this to yourself by noticing that the triangle has no border.
In fact, if you stare at the center of this image and hold the surrounding objects in your immediate attention, you will perceive the white triangle fading away. But look away, then look back, and the white triangle will miraculously reappear.
This should convince you that there are actually two ways of seeing this single image: the first, as a white triangle, and the second, as a series of odd shapes. And yet, interestingly, we’re biased towards seeing it the first way. Encountering this image in our everyday awareness, we simply see a whole white triangle.
This is an example of how a gestalt influences our daily perception. The gestalt at play here is something like ‘triangle-shape’, and we impose it onto the visual information we receive from the surrounding objects.
This next example is even cooler:
Here, first glance presents us with a white sphere surrounded by black cones. But closer inspection reveals that the image is constituted only of carefully-placed black cones, the position of which only suggests the presence of a sphere. Once again, a gestalt of a ‘sphere-shape’ caused us to encounter this image in a particular way.
Tentatively speaking, we can also understand the ego as a kind of gestalt. But now, the bottom-up information isn’t visual stimuli. It’s the variety of facts, opinions, and experiences which we take as constituting our identity. In other words, we can also understand that a kind of ‘self-identity’ gestalt is at play during our everyday experience.
Pareidolia and distortion
So far we’ve established that the ego is like a gestalt, only instead of being imposed on our field of vision, it’s imposed on the field of mental contents which constitutes our self-identity. To understand how this imposition comes about, we first have to understand pareidolia.
Pareidolia refers to our tendency to find patterns in random noise. As human beings we’re constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our world and seeking to find patterns.
A good demonstration of pareidolia comes once again from an image:
At first glance, most readers will spot a face in this rock formation. By now, it should be familiar why we do this. Faces are important things, so our cognition is primed with a gestalt for ‘face-shape’, leading us to perceive a face in the stone.
But the interesting point here is that, as much as we’re emphasizing objects in the rock-formation that resemble a face, we’re also suppressing parts of the rock-formation that don’t. In other words, the face-gestalt is not only highlighting certain parts of the visual information, but deleting parts as well, removing them from our awareness.
The lesson from paradolia is this: by influencing our perception of the world, gestalts are minimizing as much as they’re amplifying. And the ego-gestalt is no different.
Let’s call the gestalt which constitutes the ego the ego-structure. Like Freud’s ego, it’s responsible for a process of distortion and transformation. But instead of being a distortion of id-impulses in accordance to the rules of the superego, it’s a distortion of the facts and experiences we encounter in the world as a function of our self-identity, analogous to the way that paradeiloia distorts our perception.
The most transparent way that our ego-structure distorts our perception is in the formation and reinterpretation of memories. Consider these two examples:
- If we’re told to think back to our high-school years, there isn’t some objective ‘memory bank’ that we recall. Rather, our remembering is always a process of reconstitution that depends on our mood and mindset in the present moment. If we’ve recently been turned down for a promotion, we may remember high-school as a series of vivid failures. If we’ve recently been reevaluating the quality of our friendships, we may remember high-school as a series of vivid relationships.
- Driving home from a party, we remember the events of the past night in a descriptive, linear manner (provided that not too much alcohol was involved). But as the date of the party continues to recede weeks and months into the past, you’ll inevitably find that certain moments are remembered less, and certain moments are remembered more. These may be joyful or embarrassing moments, involving others or totally private, full of feeling or strictly abstract: but no matter what, whatever personal significance they have on you that day will ensure that they’re crystallized in your mind as the party plunges further into the past.
These ‘crystallizations’ of past events are a necessary aspect of our memory, but if they’re too rigid and inflexible, they can become pathological. And trying to breaking out of them will take us away from a conception of the self as an ego-structure and towards a conception of the self as transcendental subject. To get us there, we’ll take a slight detour into Buddhism.
Immanuel Kant was a philosopher who demonstrated that our experiences are presented to us under certain conditions. We find that things are ‘out-there’ in space, and ‘moving’ in time: these aren’t features of the things in themselves, but rather, mental categories which we use to encounter and interpret the world.
Another one of these conditions was what he called the ‘transcendental unity of apperception’. This is best illustrated if you imagine yourself in a kitchen. Baking some brownies, you might in a single moment experience the smell of chocolate, the humming sound of a fan, and the warmth of the stove on your back. These are all stimuli of different kinds, but we don’t experience them in a disjointed way: they are all presented, in a unified way, to our consciousness.
The consciousness involved here is a transcendental subject, a ‘seat’ of all experience, which we understand to be that which ‘does the experiencing’.
What’s the significance of Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception? It’ll lead us to another way of understanding the self, not as an ego-structure which distorts our mental contents, but rather as an ever-present seat of experience.
In chapter 4 of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we find a good description of the self as transcendental unity. The best way to understand it is to see how this self is inherently paradoxical.
One one hand, it’s constantly changing. Sitting down to meditate, you experience a sequence of thoughts, impressions, and mood-states that follow each other with some kind of internal logic (although not always in a clear way). This experience is constantly transforming, like a stream of water.
But on another level, this experience is always staying the same. From the perspective of the experiencer, things don’t change at all. The content of the stream of experience has no effect on the seat which observes it, which remains uniform throughout.
Chapter 4 describes this state of awareness, and the paradox which it engenders, naked perception. It’s a felicitous name, because it brings us back to the psychology in Part I. The kind of present-awareness described in chapter 4 is ‘naked’ because it is stripped, not of clothes, but of the ego-structure which would otherwise shift through, distort, and conceptually elaborate on the ideas brought to our stream of consciousness.
So the meditator, by cultivating his transcendental self, is transcending the ego-structure by allowing thoughts to arise spontaneously: without the manipulations of the ego-structure.
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
We shouldn’t forget that The Beatles were a major artistic expression of the philosophical wisdom of the 1960s, and as such, it’s no surprise that they give us an excellent description of the transcendental subject.
The song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ starts off with these mystical and thought-provoking lines:
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream /
It is not dying /
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void /
It is shining”
Surrender to the void, it is shining: in this single line we find a perfect expression of the paradox mentioned in Chapter 4 of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Beatles visited India to learn a form of meditation called transcendental meditation under Maharishi. They knew that in the meditative state, a person experiences this paradox of a shining void: a seat of mental experience which is itself empty and insubstantial, and yet always fluctuating with mental contents.
So when we nakedly perceive ourselves, we surrender our ego-structures and let our spontaneous experiences and thought-associations simply happen. And here we find that the transcendental subject is the perfect name: we do not manipulate our consciousness, using the ego-structure, but rather allow ourselves to be subjected to it. And herein lies the skill of the transcendental meditator.
We’ve read about the distinction between the self as ego-structure and the self as transcendental subject. Now we take a trip to psychedelia for a striking example of the transition between the two.
Among psychedelic culture the idea of an ego death is well-known. It signifies a kind of ‘breaking-down’ of our sense of self: a destruction which is simultaneously constructive because, to the experiencer, it seems to open up new opportunities for being.
We can understand this ‘death’ as the destruction of the ego-structure. And what does it leave in its place? Here, an excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” will come in handy:
“For relief I turned back to the folds in my trousers. “This is what one ought to see,” I repeated yet again. And I might have added, “These are the sort of things once ought to look at.” Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their Suchness, not acting a part…”
After ingesting four-tenths of a gram of mescaline, Huxley experiences the world without the distortions of the ego-structure, the supplier of “pretensions” and “parts” to act out. The world is “sufficient in its Suchness”: it appears nakedly, without the trace of what Buddhists would call conceptual elaborations.
The ego-deceased becomes completely absorbed and caught up in the world because the distinction between self and world vanishes. What’s left is the transcendental subject: not self, not world, but a seat of experience which flows effortlessly.
Of course, it doesn’t take psychedelics to experience the passing away of the ego-structure. We can do it by meditating: by cultivating the awareness afforded by naked perception, which doesn’t seek to distort mental contents in terms of a self-identity, but rather is subjected to them in complete acceptance.
In our everyday awareness, the self takes the form of an ego-structure, which distorts our present experience in a way that’s equally deleterious as it is constructive. But through meditation, we are capable of expanding our awareness so that the self takes the form of a transcendental subject, which doesn’t impose any structure to our experiences but simply lets them be.