Does the self have any value at all?
A running motif in my writing is how the self (or ego) is often trying to do the work that rightly belongs to the Soul (or sovereignty) of each of us.
I’ve written pieces critical of positive self-body image concepts. I’ve criticized mainstream self-love work. I think it’s a bad idea to seek to seek to discover your life purpose. I’m against teachings about getting “out of your head and into your body”. And I think trying to foster self-worth in your life only ends up making you feel even more worthless.
Actually I’ve gone so far as to say (live, on air!) that essentially every teaching imaginable starts in dehumanizing negative shame and disconnects us from our unique wholeness, our personal essence, our true ground, our sovereignty. And while that’s a broad brush I mean pretty much everything there: psychotherapies, soul practices, and basically all spiritual teaching.
While it might seem at first like there’s not much connecting those threads there is a link. That link is the self. Positive body (self) image. self-love, self-esteem, self-worth. All incorporate the self (the ego) as part of the work. As I argued in all those previous pieces while I think those kinds of teachings are all well intentioned I think they ultimately fail in that they are making the locus, the do-er of the work to be the self (ego) when in reality that kind of work belongs to the sovereign personal essence.
I don’t want to rehash those arguments here. In response to those pieces however I got a number of people asking if I thought the self (the ego) had any real value whatsoever. Did I think the self could be the centre of any valuable set of practice? If I didn’t like self-love or positive self-image or self-esteem or self-worth was there anything self-oriented at all that deserves time and attention?
Yes I do think there’s important work to be done on the self (ego) level. I just don’t think it’s the work of creating worth, loving oneself, or embodiment (among others). This topic is near and dear to my heart actually. I wrote a long piece that I presented at a conference more than a year ago on precisely this subject. I’ll do my best to digest that argument here.
So what do I think is the genuine valuable work of the self?
The first and perhaps most important work is for the self to recognize that it will die. This might seem a strange (even potentially morbid) initial response but actually it’s far from it. The self must confront the reality that it’s existence is inherently mortal and therefore intrinsically bound to death. Heidegger, for example, said that authenticity was being-with-death, i.e. being with the reality that one is bound to die.
Everything that we believe about ourselves, everything we have done or not done, as a self, will come to nought. It, along with us, will die.
The existentialist tradition focused on the necessity of facing this potentially shattering truth. For the existentialists this recognition of the inherent mortality and finitude of human life was a sorrowful and grief-soaked one to be sure but it was not devoid of redeeming qualities. For the existentialists admitting that human life is mortal is not automatically a depressing recognition. It can be a liberating one. Mortality gives life meaning. Because life is incomplete, because it is bound to death, then what we do matters. For Heidegger care derives from the inherently mortal nature of human existence. The mortal nature of existence is the source of so much wondrous art, of compassionate and just ethics.
What is left is for the self to have what Paul Tillich called “the courage to be.” Courage is the choice to remain in integrity and not fall prey to the tendencies to disintegrate in the face of death. To become responsible for the whole of one’s being and one’s choices (or as much of those as any person can), this is one of, if not the, most important aspects of work of the self.
Arrayed against courage, against authenticity as the recognition of death, lies two extremes false positions: denial and despair.
On the other hand, despair faces the reality of death but then becomes overwhelmed by it. Despair collapses and loses all integrity, hope, and courage.
Between these extremes, the middle way here being courage. Courage both faces and also stands grounded in the reality of death. Recognition of death and death’s role as teacher in our lives, runs against the grain of so much contemporary personal development work. Where the emphasis is always on personal gain, personal attainment, on consumption of spiritual experiences, on growth as an end in itself (rather than a piece of a larger ecology of truth).
So that is the first path for the self.
Now to the second major category of genuine self-oriented work and practice.
To explore this second category I first need to make a conceptual point around the difference between the ego and the self. It’s a bit technical but not too complicated so please bear with me for a second.
While I sometimes will refer to the ego or the self interchangeably to be technically correct the two can be distinguished from one another (both conceptually and experientially). When I say experientially I mean you can actually feel the difference between being identified as an ego and being identified as a self. I realize that sounds super abstract but it is a core distinction.
When being technically precise, ego refers to an experience of the world in which one experiences oneself to be a thinker living in their head. There’s a stream of mental chatter, a kind of play-by-play announcer in our heads constantly analyzing and judging every experience according to whether ti’s good or bad, pleasurable or painful, positive or negative.
Ego is pretty straightforward. I think this one is easy to recognize both conceptually and experientially. As an ego, you “have” a body. As an ego, you refer to “your body”, as if “your body” were A) something other than “you” this thinker subject-figure and B) something you own, a kind of possession.
This split between body and mind is built into the ego. This is the key point. There’s no way around the body and mind split from the point of view of the ego. The ego identity is always one in which you are identified as your thoughts and then you “have” a body over and against you (i.e. your thoughts).
So as an ego you are the mind and you have a body and the two are radically disjointed. My argument against things like positive body image is that they reinforce (usually unconsciously) the split between body and mind. They treat the person as this inner ego thinker figure who has an “image” of their body and the key is to make sure that image is a positive one rather than a negative, critical one. But the body isn’t an image. Or rather only if you’re an ego do you have an “image” of “your” body. Since in this case the body is now an object of your representation or imaging rather than say treating the body as subject (not object).
Which brings us to what it means to be a self rather than an ego.
If you are identified as a self then body and mind become one integrated process. You aren’t a person who “has” a body, as if “your body” were some object outside of you (i.e. this mini-thinker person in your head).
Rather as a self, as a bodymind, you feel with and as conscious bodily existence.
As an integrated bodymind self, you realize the body is a feeling mechanism. You experience thought as intrinsically embodied. You don’t have to “get embodied”, you realize and feel that you are embodied automatically. You realize thought, emotion, and sensations are the feeling aspects of human bodily existence. You don’t need to “embody” your thoughts or “embody” your emotions or anything like that. You simply realize emotion is bodily.
The human body is a feeling body.
The great Carl Rogers referred to this mode of experience as “organismic experiencing”.
Others call it becoming a human animal, aka a humanimal (human + animal).
Erik Erikson created the symbol of the centaur, half-man/half-horse to symbolize this realization (or if you prefer mermaids like my wife does, then mermaids symbolize the same thing.)
Organismic experiencing, the humanimal, the centaur, the mermaid. All of them point to the same thing: being a bodymind. Not being a mind that has a body (that’s an ego experience) but being a conscious bodily being (self).
As mentioned, this is why for example I’m (partially) critical of body-image movements because it reinforces the view of the ego — that one is a mind that “has” a body. The body is treated not as a concrete organic feeling being but rather as “a body image”, a mental projection or image of the body created by the ego mind.
Rather one should be the body, feel as the body, feel through life bodily, feel with bodily human existence.
This is the second great tradition that the self can work on. The self can either be an ego-self or it can be a centaur-self. The self, in this second way, learns “organismic experiencing.” That is each of us can learn to experience a way of life in which body and mind are seen as two sides of one coin, two facets of one underlying integrated reality.
If the existentialists are the great teaches of the first path of the self, it is the humanistic psychological and somatic therapeutic traditions that are the masters of the second. Some paradigmatic teachers and modalities in this lineage would be:
Watch this video of Ido Portal teaching animal movements to the human body.
Ida Rolf (founder of Rolfing) once said that psychology has too often treated the human being as a mind that happens to be housed in some appendage called a body. While psychiatry (and the medical and scientific mainstream more generally) treat the human essentially only as a body with some weird and ultimately meaningless form of self-consciousness.
What she argued was necessary was a third option that the body was itself a subject. That the body was conscious.
The second path of genuine self work is learning to (re)inhabit our human animal vitality.
Since the body is conscious, since the body is subject (and not object), then one can feel themselves as bodily beings. I’ve been taught (in this tradition) not to feel “my gut” because that is still privileging the position of this thinker-ego and subtly disconnects me from “my” gut which is now an object.
Rather I feel as and with gut.
I don’t feel “my” gut. I don’t even feel “the” gut. I feel, for lack of a better word, gut-ness.
Since the body is subject every organ has its own tone or feel. Liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, even brain. Every body system has its own tone or feel: muscles, bones, nervous system, skin. (I can’t claim to be able to feel all these but I know people who can and do.)
By doing these kinds of practices you become conscious of the conscious nature of human bodily existence. It’s not that you need to bring your consciousness “down into the body” since that idea privileges and assumes a view where consciousness is inherently disembodied and has to be “brought down” because somehow it’s “up and above” the body.
Rather in this path you learn the body is already conscious, it is already a feeling subject.
What the humanistic and somatic traditions realized (through experience) was that there are a series of gifts or fruits that automatically take place whenever the centaur, the mermaid, the human animal is accessed. There are positive benefits of doing this practice. These benefits happen automatically as a result of this work. Almost like a grace. These positive benefits are an extra bonus, a result of the practice. They aren’t the goal. The goal is deeper connection to human animal vitality.
The first fruit of this practice is spontaneity.
We become far more spontaneous when we access this dimension of our being. This spontaneity can show up in our emotions — we feel freer to express what we’re feeling at the time we’re feeling. We express a wider range of human emotionality and crucially we can flow back and forth and through the emotions much more quickly and cleanly. Anger becomes cleaner, as does sadness, as does happiness, as does fear.
The spontaneity can show up in all kinds of areas of our life. We might have less awkwardness around our sexual and erotic energies (that’s definitely part of conscious animal vital existence). The spontaneity can show up physically in movement or dance or athletic experiences.
The second fruit of this practice is creativity & imagination.
When we merge both our animal (bodily) and human (conscious) natures a third thing happens that is greater than the sum of the parts. That which emerges as a result of the union of the animal and human is creative expression. Spontaneity leads to more flow. That flow can move through any aspect of our humanity and what comes out of that flow is more creative expression.
The third fruit is resiliency.
Resiliency is the ability to both to contain and handle a stronger range of experience as well as the capacity to bounce back faster when we get knocked down (as we inevitably will) by life. Resiliency involves flexibility, adaptability, and strength (basically in equal measure).
The fourth fruit is intrinsic will and desire.
I’m currently the father of a toddler girl. Being up close with such an instinctual being reminds me (on a minutely basis!) how much power and energy is bound up in our instincts. But in and of itself the instincts can be blind, erratic, and wild (see toddlers). On the flip side, the mental-rational cognitive structure of humans has more perspective than the more instinctual early energies but it can become quite desiccated.
When we unite our instinctual and rational energies we open up a place that incorporates the best of both while releasing their shadow tendencies. The net result of combining both the early instinctual energies with the later rational-cognitive ones is (surprisingly) intrinsic motivation. With spontaneity and creativity comes deep urges, profound longings, that move a person from within. These desires more organically arise. They feel almost as if they well up from the base of one’s being.
Entire industries (self-help, business & athletic performance, among many others) are built around trying to motivate people. But when this aspect of our humanity is accessed the need for that totally drops away as the motivation becomes more and more self-directed, self-generated for the person. They don’t need to be motivated from the outside. The motivation bubbles up from within. There is a natural desire to express the creative urges welling up in the person. They are, in essence, self-authenticating.
And as I’ve been saying, all of these fruits arise quite naturally, spontaneously, almost as an after thought, once you learn how to deploy your attention to the feeling dimension of your bodily being. Once you learn to experience the body as a feeling organism all of these other traits (increased resiliency, spontaneity, creativity, imagination, intrinsic self-motivation) all occur as a result.
The great humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of self-actualization, a term that gets thrown as a cliche nowadays. Self-Actualization is an idea that has been misused and abused now for some time. But what Maslow really meant wth the term was this reality I’m exploring here. When the self is integrated as a bodymind, as a human animal, it starts to automatically exhibit all these traits: resiliency, creativity, inherent will, spontaneity, organismic (aka somatic) experiencing-feeling, as well as states of deep flow.
While the ego seeks or desires these states of being, the self (as integrated bodymind) actually lives them and therefore doesn’t desire them. The upshot of these modalities of integrative bodymind practice, there is no real emphasis on positive self-talk. There aren’t positive affirmations or positive self-image. You don’t have to say positive things to your reflection in the mirror. You don’t repeat phrases to try build up your self-esteem. In this traditions you focus on the practice of being a bodymind. This integrated human animal self doesn’t need positive self-affirmation or self-talk. Only an ego needs that. An ego is always in a deficit position and therefore always has to be built up. An integrated self is in a position of greater resiliency, spontaneity, and resource and can much more easily access inherent drive and willpower.
Think of that for a second. Think of how much money and time and energy is being spent on creating the sense (however fleeting) of positive self-regard? Think of all the self-help, positive self-talk work. All of it is barking up the wrong tree. It’s assuming the identity of the ego and then trying to strengthen what is a lesser developed aspect of our humanity and trying to make it something it can never be. Rather than simply focusing on building a sense of integration as a human animal, as a conscious bodily being, and watch the need for self-esteem vanish.
Now this self-actualized, creative, resilient, spontaneous integrated human animal is still going to die (self practice #1). It’s still mortal. No amount of actualization or deeper integration is going to undo the nature of created reality — all beings that are born also die. It’s just that in self-actualization the in between part (aka your life) is way more enjoyable, meaningful, and creative.
The last thing to say about this centaur/mermaid/human-animal/integrated bodymind self is that it is the best and proper platform from which to undertake journeys into the realm of the soul and to realize our spiritual nature. Soul work and spiritual practice that takes place from something other than a healthy integrated(ish) bodymind self is starting on shaky foundations. When the spiritual path is undertaken from the ego position (as opposed to integrated bodymind) then it leads to spiritual bypassing.
So this second path of humanimal integration is crucially necessary on its own terms as it liberates creativity, somatic sensory capacities, intrinsic motivation and will, imagination, and spontaneity. It’s also vital as the ground upon which one can investigate their soulful and spiritual dimensions of being human, opening the path to the meta-integration of our being (aka our sovereignty).