Understanding the Human Condition has probably been the prime focus of my life. The good Dr Phil has sometimes flattered me by saying that I know more about psychology than most of the psychologists he knows. (On reflection I am not sure this is a compliment to me or an insult to psychologists!)
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that most of psychology only provides peripheral benefit. Psychology, and psychiatry as well, seems bent on unearthing new conditions that disturb the human equilibrium requiring new therapies and new drugs to thwart their evil influences.
This is of course a huge industry. It is no doubt supported by the drug companies and also bolstered by the new-age pop psychologists who claim to have found the key to happiness in “five easy steps” or whatever.
Contentment is the goal of all sane human beings. And I will contend that we all have sufficient resources to find contentment without having to resort to psychologists, psychiatrists, motivational speakers, and dare I say it, even Oprah.
To put it bluntly, our discontent is derived from the fact we don’t know who we are.
Now I have been through this with you in previous essays so I will try not to labour the point.
But if I was to ask you who you are, most will come up with the conventional descriptors of name, gender, personal history, beliefs, nationality, religion and so on. And yet we know there is some essential “I” that would exist even if my body had a different name, a different gender, a different religion, a different nationality and so on. (Today’s identity politics tend to reinforce these rather inconsequential differences.)
It is not hard to understand that “I” am not identified by any of these arbitrary things. It would be hard to justify that our name identifies us when so many assume different names or change their names by deed poll. And most of the other identifiers we choose to hang our hats on are merely accidents of birth, geography and early upbringing. I have in previous essays laboured through the arguments why such identifiers do not identify the underlying “selfhood” of human beings. I won’t bore you with that and accept that those of reasonable intelligence will easily see that the essential self cannot be described thus.
Why do so many of us then identify ourselves in this way? It is simply because we rely on our senses to ascertain the world. We then look at our physical body and decide this must be who we are. This picture is enhanced by our other senses so that not only our sight seems to confirm this erroneous identification our other senses seem to reinforce it.
But it is here that our logic is faulty. We fall into the trap of confusing subject and object. If I can in any way sense my body, then it is clear that the essential “I” is not my body but that which is sensing it.
The ancient Buddhist sages asked such questions as, “Can the eye see itself?” or “Can the knife cut itself?”
It is clear that what the eye sees is not the eye. At best it will be a reflection of the eye. And certainly what the knife cuts is surely not the knife.
Now these simple physical analogies are easy to understand. But what if we look at more abstract notions? Most of us find it hard not to identify with our emotions. We seemed consumed by our joy and overwhelmed by our sorrow. But these are also ephemeral things that come and go, so surely they cannot be components of the real “self”. The enduring “self” certainly experiences such emotions. But again it observes such emotions, and when it understands its role as the subject and not the object it can look relatively dispassionately at any emotional turbulence that is played out without identifying with it.
Most of us identify with our emotions. We say for example, “I am angry,” or “I am distraught”. This is not really helpful because in doing so we allow our emotions to dominate us, as though we have no choice but to submit to them and their capricious impacts.
But these difficulties of identification pale into insignificance compared to other problems the mind creates for us. The mind as we perceive it, seems always full of thoughts. We are always being bombarded by thoughts that largely come to us unbidden.
Now that is not to say that we can’t influence the direction of our thoughts but our best intentions are easily sabotaged. We might for example, think, “What shall I do today? Well first I’d best mow the yard. I wonder if I’ve got enough mower fuel. Perhaps I’ll walk down to the service station and top up my fuel can. While I am there I’ll duck across to the bottle shop and buy a bottle of wine to have with dinner tonight. I wonder if they still have those specials available they advertised last week. There are always some specials available though – just like the supermarket. Which reminds me I used the last of the tomato paste last night when I cooked dinner. I didn’t mind the meal but I wonder my guests really thought. They said they enjoyed it but they didn’t eat very much Some people are hard to please. Take Jeremy for example ” And so on it goes. Chatter, chatter, chatter! Even worse many of us have largely self-deprecating thoughts which run over and over, resulting in the condition we know as despression.
In acknowledging this predilection of the mind to fill itself with inane chatter, the ancient Chinese sages referred to the “monkey mind”.
So let us jump to the chase. What is the essential “self” – the entity that anchors us, that provides our sense of continuity throughout life? It is the faculty we have that observes the mind. The Eastern sages called this the “Witness”. Our bodies change over our lives, our emotions well up and dissipate, our thoughts come and go. The only point of constancy is the capacity we have to observe these changeable facets of our lives.
We will come back to this shortly.
However, we have been led by our socialisation to come to believe that who we really are depends on more ephemeral things, and unfortunately things over which we have little control.
When we identify with these ephemeral things we immediately become vulnerable. If I believe my sense of self is determined by my body I will be obsessed by issues of physical attractiveness, my health and bodily capability, my status, wealth etc. Because such things are often beyond my long term control, I build up elaborate defence mechanisms to protect such a vulnerable self. This is the cause of much psychological dysfunction.
But when I come to realise that I am not any of these things but the essence of who I am actually resides in my capacity as the observer of my body, my emotions and my thoughts, life immediately becomes less problematic.
On the other hand those who have bought into the idea that who they are is somehow associated with their body and mind are doomed to a life of fear and suffering. For them the incessant chattering of the mind must be met by counter arguments and strategies for desperately controlling their lives. Author and spiritual teacher, Michael A Singer, calls such people “worldly” because they believe that the solution to their inner problems lies in the world “outside”. Those who understand who they really are he calls “spiritual”. Such people understand the seat of consciousness is the “Witness”. They accordingly are able to watch their perceived problems be they thoughts, issues of the body or emotions instead of identifying with them.
In many ways this is what the Buddhist sages called “detachment”. Such detachment allows a person peace of mind and importantly generates a gap between the self and thoughts and emotions which enables the world to be dealt with more objectively. But beyond that those that come to this realisation understand that the world outside has very little to do with one’s sense of well-being and are content in themselves without a need for “self” defence negating all those psychological issues that are generated by the illusory self.