Across many cultures, language attempts to describe the difference between being an individual and an entity intrinsically interconnected with everything else. To do so, we often see the words "I" and "self" used to distinguish these different states. Today, we take an excerpt from The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe where Jeremy Lent explains the divergence between I and self. He also offers insights into the most important relationship in your life, the one with yourself.
Excerpt from the book The Web of Meaning
You meet an old friend in the grocery store. She’s telling you about her difficult time at a company that she’s finally left. ‘I was pushing myself way too hard,’ she tells you. ‘It was wild. I’d accept unrealistic projects from my boss and then hate myself for it. It took a while, but now that I’ve left, I’m beginning to pull myself together again.’
You chat a bit longer, and then continue shopping. You’re glad you had a chance to catch up. But wait a minute! There was only one person you were talking with, and yet your friend was describing herself as though she were split into two. Who was doing the pushing and who was getting pushed? Who hated whom? Who got broken into fragments and needs to be pulled back together – and who’s doing the pulling? Stranger still, you intuitively knew what your friend meant as she was talking with you. Does that mean that you are as split as she is?
Yes, you are… along with the rest of us. It seems that part of the human condition is to experience a kind of split personality, with an ‘I’ engaging in an ongoing relationship with a ‘self.’ We talk about ‘gaining control of myself’ as if there is a battle going on between these two entities. We can view ourselves harshly, as your friend did, pushing ourselves hard or even hating ourselves; and we can equally be kind to ourselves and care for ourselves. In addition to experiencing ourselves as so scattered that we need to ‘pull ourselves together’, we can also be ‘beside ourselves’ with rage, or at the other extreme, ‘be at one’ with ourselves. We can ‘lose ourselves’ in a dance and sometimes ‘find ourselves’ in our chosen vocation.
Linguistic philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson made this remarkable discovery about the inner relationship we all take for granted, and published their findings in 1980 in Metaphors We Live By, which helped catalyze the bourgeoning academic field of cognitive linguistics. They found that this inner split exists not just in Western minds but also in other cultures. A common Japanese expression, for example, is ‘He lost himself because of too much anger.’ It’s a split that seems to pervade all aspects of life from the everyday to the spiritual. In a meditation class, the instructor might tell you to ‘just sit and observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them’. But who is doing the observing, and who or what is being observed – and might be judged?
Each of one of us has important relationships with others in our lives. Whether they are parents, loved ones, children, bosses or dear friends, these relationships are some of the most significant aspects of human existence. But there is no relationship more important than the one you have with yourself. It’s a relationship you’re engaged in every day from when you first wake up to when you fall asleep at night, and one that you’ll remain in until your dying breath. How you conduct that relationship will affect the quality of your lived experience more than almost anything else. In this chapter, we’re going to explore this intimate and complex relationship. As we unravel its intricacies, we’ll find that it also reveals some strange assumptions that the dominant Western culture takes for granted about human identity.
Before we begin, I have a request for you. Throughout history, in different cultures and even in different schools of modern thought, the terms ‘I’ and ‘self’ are used in very different ways – often with contradictory meanings. Discussion of this complex topic can become irretrievably confused when contrasting definitions are being applied. Therefore, if you have a particular definition in your own mind for what ‘I’ or ‘self’ means, please keep it on hold while reading the chapter – and at the end of it I invite you to translate this chapter’s usage into your own terminology in whatever way seems most fitting.
How ‘I’ and the ‘self’ split apart
The split between ‘I’ and ‘self’ most likely occurred early in human evolution, and is viewed by many experts as one of the defining characteristics of humanity. The experience of life as a pure self is an intrinsic part of animate consciousness – that complex array of feelings, impulses, urges, sensations and primary emotions that we share to a large extent with other animals. As we’ve seen, at its most fundamental level, the sense of being a self – and the animate intelligence arising from it – most likely exists, in one form or another, in every living organism. It involves basic biological regulation, the experience of the here-and-now, the very sensation of being alive that is often referred to as sentience.
It also incorporates much more than this primal background state. If I bite my tongue right now, I will experience something in the foreground of my attention that only I can know. If you bite your tongue, you’ll likely experience something similar, but neither of us would be able to communicate to each other exactly what our sensation felt like. These unique, moment-to-moment embodied experiences are known as qualia. They arise and pass in consciousness and can only be felt for that particular moment. As I sip a delicious cup of tea right now, I encounter a distinct taste, interwoven with a complex set of my own implicit associations, that I could never exactly replicate. And now that moment has passed, and it has become a memory. A pioneer of modern psychology, William James, noticed in the late nineteenth century that this ‘fluctuating material’ of his inner experience was ‘at each moment different from that of the last moment’ and memorably coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe it.
Animate consciousness exists solely in the present, yet it can also include implicit memories of the past and anticipation of the future. Imagine an antelope in the savanna lifting up its head to sniff something in the breeze. Once before, when it perceived a similar rustle in the distance along with that scent, a lion had pounced out of the long grass, and the antelope had fled for its life. Now it fears the same might happen again, so it stops feeding and cautiously moves away. This ability of animals to incorporate past experiences into the present is a crucial evolutionary attribute, but it probably doesn’t involve the elaborate reconstructions of the past and conceptions of the future that humans constantly create. As such, biologist Gerald Edelman has called it the ‘remembered present.
How, then, did humans first develop a sense of ‘I’ as separate from the animate consciousness we share with other creatures? Many experts attribute its origins to the complex social interactions that characterized pre-human communities several million years ago. The influential ‘social brain hypothesis’ asserts that humans’ distinctive cognitive capacities are the result of increased social complexity in our ancestors’ lives. When hominids first diverged from forest-dwelling primates in the Great Rift Valley of east Africa, they needed to work closely together in tight-knit communities to survive in a new, dangerous environment. Those with the cognitive abilities to cooperate effectively with their companions were the most successful in passing their genes on to future generations.
An important part of the distinctively human social intelligence that emerged is known as theory of mind: the recognition that other people have minds just like we do, allowing us to guess how they might respond to something by mentally putting ourselves in their situation. If I feel bad when I’m ignored by the others at the evening campfire, I suspect that my friend might feel the same way, so I turn and smile at him to acknowledge his presence. While everyone’s watching that kid playing over there, I know I could sneak that tasty piece of meat and not be seen … but they would quickly figure out it’s gone and that I was the only one with the opportunity. So, tempting as it is, I’d better leave it alone.
Humans are not alone among primates in having this type of social intelligence, but we’ve developed it to a much greater degree. An eighteen-month-old toddler has roughly the same ability to understand the intentions of others as a chimpanzee. But, over the next couple of years, she gradually develops a full-blown theory of mind. It begins to dawn on her that each person has a different perspective on the world: if Mommy puts cookies in a cupboard in the kitchen and Daddy later moves them to a different place, Mommy won’t know about it unless someone tells her. That basic comprehension, arising from theory of mind, is something that a four-year-old can easily grasp, but is beyond the reach of a two-year-old.
Once you see others as separate selves, whom you can evaluate and tell stories about, it’s a simple jump to realize that they see you in a similar way – and to begin imagining how you might appear to them. Neuroscientists have discovered that the same part of the prefrontal cortex is activated when people think about attributes of others as when they think about their own attributes. It’s as though, in the brain’s social intelligence, the community of people important to engage with includes not just family and friends, but also the self.
The emerging awareness of a self, along with concern for what others might be thinking about it, brings into the child’s consciousness a whole new array of complex emotions, such as social anxiety, embarrassment, shame and pride. As a child becomes more aware of herself, she realizes that she has the ability to exert some control over how her ‘self’ acts: whether to pay attention, to try harder or to just let go and bawl in frustration. This emerging skill is known as metacognition: the ability to think about one’s mental states and exert some influence over them. The child’s ‘I’ is entering into its lifelong relationship with the ‘self’.
Author Jeremy Lent
Jeremy Lent is an author whose writings investigate the patterns of thought that have led our civilization to its current crisis of sustainability. Born in London, England, Lent received a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and was a former internet company CEO. His award-winning book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for Meaning, explores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day. He is founder of the non-profit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering an integrated, life-affirming worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on Earth. He lives with his partner in Berkeley, California.