What is the self?

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Breathing is vital and pleasurable but it is also deeply mystical when attended to. When we breathe in we take in air made of atoms that are separate to our own and we infuse them physically into our bodies. When we breathe out we take something that was part of our bodies and send it out into the universe where it will become a snail, or a cloud or some other thing. To breathe in is to say “yes” to life and to breathe out is to offer proof that all being is one being. Contemplative, or non-verbal, prayer gives us the space to explore the blurred boundaries between self, self-less, and the other. Focus on the breath is one example of contemplative prayer that some find useful. The self is something that we receive by birth and by nurture but it is also something that we construct by our own will. There is give and take in the making of the self and an enchanted self is one that we are active in the creation of.

We construct our self from genetic material and from the stories we are given and by other people but we also choose to beg, borrow, and discard material to reconstruct our self as we learn who we really are. The self is something built via language, emotion, and our experience of our own biology and environment. But what about that biology? Take a closer look and it as much denies us our self as it affirms it. If I eat a sandwich at what point does the sandwich cease to be a separate thing from the self? Is it in the mouth, the small intestine, or the large intestine? At some point in the process of eating the boundaries between “me” and “it” begin to blur.

At the molecular level the same blurring happens. We are made up entirely of atoms and we are surrounded entirely with atoms. Roughly 96% of your body is made of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms. But those atoms are mostly empty space. A hydrogen atom, for example, is more than 99% nothingness! These atoms come and go over our lifetimes through cell death and chemical change. It is only our perception that allows us to distinguish the self from a wall that the self is leaning against. If we could put on magic spectacles that allow us to see only at an atomic level, we would struggle to see where the wall began and the person ends. This is brilliantly illustrated in the Matrix series of films. In The Matrix, human minds occupy a computer program while their bodies are farmed by their robot masters. Those who escape the Matrix are able to peer into it through their own computer but all they see is endless cascading columns of letters and numbers. Same reality: different perspective.

The 6th Century Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, wrote, “You never step into the same river twice”. The water constantly flows so that at any given moment it is different water, a different, shape and dynamic carrying a different load. As the river flows the bed of the river is lifted, crafted, and deposited. We, like rivers, are in constant flux: both on the physical surface and in the depth of our self. The self who woke up this morning is a partial stranger to the self who goes to bed tonight. You are almost nothing and the little that you are is in constant flow with the little that everything else is.

Even if we scale up slightly from the atom it is hard to tell who is self and who is not. According to celebrated microbiologist, Giulia Enders our guts contain 2 kilograms of bacteria – 100 trillion of them. At the moment before birth, we are 100% made up of our own cells, by the time we are fully developed 90% of our mass is made up of bacteria. These bacteria inform how we feel, what sort of foods we can digest, and how our minds respond alongside an intestinal nervous system, as complex as the brain of cat, that communicates itself to the conscious mind at the top of our spines in ways that we don’t control or understand. We are used to thinking of the unconscious and the conscious mind but in reality we have three unconscious minds: the one in the brain, the one in our guts, and the one that connects those two. So when the philosopher René Descartes wrote those famous words, “I think therefore I am” he was just playing around the edges of both being and thinking in a way which we now know, at a biological level, is considerably more complicated and mysterious than we realised.

There is nothing new under the sun, of course. The observation that we are both real and illusion goes back to Buddhism and beyond to the religions of the Indus and beyond even that, perhaps. For Buddhist and modern Hindus all perceived reality is “maya” which can be translated as “Illusion”. My favourite story about this is the one about a guru who often irritated a king by going on about the fact that everything was an illusion. One day the king arranged things so that when the guru arrived in the palace grounds a bull elephant was released to chase him away. The guru ran off, of course, and escaped to the safety of a large tree. The king mocked the wise guru, “It seems you don’t believe your own philosophy since you ran away from the elephant!” But the guru was quick to reply, “Ah yes, your highness, but my running away is also an illusion!” Within Buddhist philosophy there is the assertion that we can experience our absence of self as legitimately as we experience being our self. This takes us full circle to contemplation and the importance of emptying our consciousness of our self into the simple act of breathing in and out.

Last summer, I taught my daughters how to skim stones across the surface of a lake. One of the great things about parenthood is that sometimes, even when you’re rubbish at something, your children still think you are amazing at it. This was one of those times. The ability to make a stone gently touch the water several times as it travels skipping over the top of the water was a magic trick. Strictly speaking, if you throw a stone into a lake it should sink immediately. That had been their experience, anyway. Stones touch the water and immediately it enfolds them and draws them down as they disappear below. But to find a flat, round stone and curl it around your finger so that, when released, it manages to only have a nodding acquaintance with the deep lake before it eventually sinks or lands on the other side, is almost a rite of passage. This is a picture of the relationship between our awareness and its subject: the self. We are unable to disappear into the divine and completely lose our sense of self. If we did so we would be no use to anyone, anyway. But if we can learn to maintain some magical defiance of the gravity of the delusion of self we can still greet the none-Self often without going under. Because the self, or the illusion that we exist, is not our enemy. In fact, it is vital to our ability to function in a world full of Egos: of illusions of self with which we interact. And if neither self nor not-self exist then we can hardly make a hierarchy of them. We learn to skim along the fragile surface of unity with all things. This is what British mystic Evelyn Underhill called, “practical mysticism”. An enchanted activist nurtures a practical mysticism of resistance.

It is not enough for us to understand biologically, politically, psychologically, and sociologically that the self is something built to allow us to function when we are out walking the dog and meeting other human beings out walking theirs. We must often experience the absence of self through mystical encounter with the oneness of all things. Spirituality, the awareness of a non-material reality, is a step towards mysticism but it is not the same. To be spiritual is to be awakened to mystery and otherness but to experience mysticism is to be awakened to mystery and oneness. To allow our spirituality and mysticism to transform or relationship with the other is to be enchanted by all that appears separate from us in everyday life. Spirituality should lead to mystical encounter and mystical encounter should lead to enchantment which is, perhaps, our romantic re-engagement with the world. An activist who does not have a mystical life is like a bear who sets traps for itself in the woods. Vanity, powerlessness, despair and machismo all lie in wait for the disenchanted activist. Vanity becomes a trap when we become anxious about whether we exist or not and look beyond ourselves for affirmation of that existence.


This article is an extract taken from Keith’s book “Re-Enchanting the Activist” which is available to buy on eden.co.uk.

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Keith Hebden is the Director of the Urban Theology Union. Writer, activist, and priest, Keith is committed to continued experiments in nonviolent resistance, community organising, and uncomfortable truth.

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