What is The Self? This is perhaps the longest running discussion in philosophy; and, there are lots of divergent opinions about what constitutes The Self. The purpose of this composition is not to wade into those deep waters. I write this piece to talk about a cultural phenomenon that has been taking place, almost unnoticed and unremarked upon, over the last few decades.
It may have been taking place almost completely under the radar; but it may also be one of the most significant transformational events in human evolutionary history. It may even be a species-wide, survival-instinct motivated mutation. There is a new human self that is emerging.
Before talking more about this remarkable transformation, however, I need to set a baseline of some sort for what is ordinarily considered “the self”.
It is the sense of personal identity. It is the consciousness that is aware of being alive, that thinks, feels, remembers and experiences itself as being separate from other individual selves and from its environment. It is not the physical self; but encompasses the physical self (body). It is not the ego; but encompasses ego. It is not the conscious mind; but encompasses the conscious mind. The self knows it is existent and has a sense of mortality. In other words, the self knows that it is alive and knows that it will die.
So The Self is some personal sense of being an identifiable, unique and transient piece of Universe. I think, therefore I am. I feel, therefore I am. I act, therefore I am. I will die, therefore I live.
Human beings tend to be self-absorbed. They are not only concerned almost uniquely with their own wants, needs and desires, they have somehow also managed to convince themselves that only the human creature actually has a developed sense of selfhood.
For the most part, they do not even conceptualize that the sun, or a collection other stars called a galaxy, may have a sense of self. Or imagine that a mountain or a valley might have a sense of identity. Or that a tree or an entire forest might feel alive. Or that a river might know its own uniqueness even as it flows into an ocean that likewise does not have a sense of self. The common person sees selfhood as a human quality. Religions do not assign souls to rocks or tigers or a cabbage. Only human beings get to have a soul.
And that has been the accepted norm when the idea of self is thought about by the average person or philosophized about by deep thinkers.
Over the course of human history, there have been a few anomalies to that norm, such as The Buddha; but the overwhelming majority sees selfhood as a human gift; and one’s own sense of self to be limited to the mortal body that is inhabited by the temporal mind and possibly by an immortal soul.
However, that conceptualization of self has been radically changing amongst a growing number of individuals in the period of time that I have been walking around on this planet… since the middle of the twentieth century.
It is not that people are starting to think differently about what The Self is; or that philosophers are willing to assign a sense of selfhood to our pet dog or to that playful dolphin held captive in the amusement park.
No. It is a much more radical transformation than that. More and more people have actually developed (and more and more children are being born with) an expanded sense of self. They feel themselves to be more than their individual selves. They identify with their environment, with the earth, with the cosmos. They feel themselves to be integral to and to coexist with all creation.
“We are not just a skin-encapsulated ego, a soul encased in flesh. We are each other and we are the world.” ~ Charles Eisenstein
“I am not some tree hugger trying to protect the rainforest. I am a part of the rainforest acting to protect myself.” ~ John Seed
To stand upon the Earth and feel the Sun upon your face and not sense that you are of the Earth and of the Sun is the old sense of self; it is believing yourself to be separate from your world. The new expanded sense of self feels connected to the world; feels integral to cosmos.
The Expanded Self knows that the Universe exists in me as I exist in it. There is only yoUniverse. There are no separate selves; only separate perceptions, separate perspectives, separate ways to perceive and experience the whole. You are the Earth. You are the river that flows, cascading down the mountains to rush toward the sea. You are the tree that dances in the wind and sheds its leaves to carpet the forest floor.
And being the Earth, things like the Alberta tar sands development are felt like open festering wounds upon your body; and things like the Fukushima nuclear disaster are felt like searing poison running through your bloodstream; and things like the destruction of the rainforests are felt like the torture of the lash tearing the skin from your body.
“We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings.” ~ Joanna Macy
The Expanded Self embodies compassion. It embodies empathy and compassion like the old sense of selfhood embodies ego and personal identity. Empathy and compassion are as inherent in its beingness as are the ability to think, to perceive and to choose.
The Expanded Self seeks to be in communion with the world it inhabits. It sees interconnectedness and meaningfulness in all existent things. While the old sense of self perceives Universe as a machine comprised of separate material things and physical processes whose workings can be understood by using logic and reason, the Expanded Self perceives yoUniverse as an entity comprised of consciousness and energy as well as physical components.
In other words, the Expanded Self sees the Universe as incorporating the physical, the mental and the metaphysical in the same way the old sense of self conceived itself alone of incorporating a personal body, its own mind and spirit. So the Earth becomes not just the third rock from the sun infested with various life forms, it becomes a living entity with consciousness and self-awareness. The very attributes that the old limited sense of self ascribed to itself, the Expanded Self ascribes to the world it inhabits because it sees itself as being inseparable from and integral to its world.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ~ Chief Seatl
And although this Expanded Self is, in one sense a new phenomenon, it is also a resurgence and an expansion of an ancient worldview that has its roots in the ancestral voices of Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal cultures around the world held this view of the interconnectedness of self with world long before the Western world’s perception of man’s place as separate, apart from and superior to the world around us became our dominant mythos.
For a couple of millennia, humans have tended to dismiss this historical wisdom by labeling those ‘animistic’ beliefs as primitive, pagan, superstitious and ignorant.
BUT, it has been our current society’s primitive conceptualization of consciousness and limited understandings of selfhood that have lead to the denigration of our environment by denying the sacredness and interconnectivity of all things.
AND, it is our present pagan attitude that allows us to sacrifice entire species on the altar of material progress; and enables us to wreak havoc on the ecology of our planet in the quest for greater personal power; and the pursuit of never ending greediness to fill up an empty soul caused by the limited sense of self.
It is our contemporary superstitious fear of our own natural surroundings that prevents us from recognizing our intimate connection to all things made manifest within this magical and alive universe we inhabit.
It is the ignorance inherent in the limited sense of self and beingness, and our modern ignorance of the universality of consciousness, that keeps us trapped in separation and fear. Only a willingness to allow this Expanded Self to arise and transform the very concept of what it is to be human can save us from the destructiveness of the personal ego-driven sense of self.
“The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightening and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees, – all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.” ~ Thomas Berry
As we collectively, as a species, stand at the edge of oblivion because of the problems we have brought upon our selves by believing in a limited sense of self, we must not just allow this Expanded Self to emerge, we must do everything, individually and collectively, to encourage it to blossom forth.
This is my direct call to you to empower your own Expanded Self to emerge.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ~ Albert Einstein