From ‘self’ to ‘Self’?

In the Hindu traditions we find two fundamentally different notions of ‘self’. There we have the little, or lower self, ‘jiva’, and the Higher Self , ‘Atman’. In other spiritual traditions we also notice how these two concepts have established themselves in the minds of mystics and non-mystics alike. And because of the pivotal role these two terms often play within these traditions, it may be worthwhile looking at these also from a purely humanist perspective.

Ever since humankind started to reflect upon its own inner potential, whether through forms of prayer or other contemplative and meditative practices, there existed the notion of some kind of lower, materially-bound ‘self’ in comparison to a higher, more spiritual ‘Self’. Correctly understood, this division between these two ‘selves’ could be regarded as a useful and realistic point of departure for those who want to come to grips with the subtle differences between ordinary and spiritual life. Placing them as opposites on a continuum of our human potential, they suggest the potential we have for freeing ourselves from the bondage of self-limitation, human-created suffering and unintelligent living.

However, exactly because these two human expressions have not been placed on such a continuum of human experience, but have been presented as having two distinct origins, i.e. the ‘Self’ as having its foundation in God, Brahman, the Absolute, and the ‘self’ as being a mere expression of human nature, many students of life felt the necessity to abandon ordinary life in favor of reaching for the ‘Self’ which has its roots in the ‘Great Other’. Here we notice the first gesture towards detachment from the world, and presumed attachment to God. Naturally this false notion of ‘Self’ which associates it with some presumed ‘Absolute’ set the quest for spiritual living in direct conflict with spirituality as a purely human experience. The spiritualization of our being became essentially associated with an idea of ‘other-worldliness’ which bears little relation to our actual human experience and the true expression of our spiritual qualities as part of our human potential.

This notion deeply conditioned humankind’s search for meaning, integrity, love, intelligence and a greater humanity. It made us look elsewhere or ‘beyond’ for guidance into the light of these refined, yet perfectly accessible, human qualities. It turned us from becoming direct experiencers of our own unfathomable human potential, to believers in God as our ultimate and final refuge. And it is for this very reason that many of us are still struggling with spiritual immaturity despite our belief in the power of our gods to ‘spiritualize’ us through prayers, contemplation on their presumed form, offering sacrifices and other gestures to please them in the hope of becoming decent human beings.

God as projection is created and sustained by thought. And to put our faith for inner development in the care of a mere concept, however, benign and presumably powerful, is to remain caught in the entanglements of the very process (thought-projections) from which we need to stand free for our true spirituality to reveal itself.

The living truth of these two concepts: ‘Self’ and ‘self’ is that both are expressions of our human condition. The sense of ‘Self’ is true and real when we have freed ourselves from the limiting and binding power of ‘self’. Both are expressions of our potential. As humans we have the choice either to live in the dimmed light of our conditioned intellect, the thought-attention reality and the lack of love associated with all forms of self-contraction, i.e. ‘self’, or we can discover how to live as the truth of our deepest potential, i.e. ‘Self’.

‘Jiva’ (‘self’) is nothing but the reality of our limited self-vision. The little self is indeed little. It is limited both in its function and scope for potential to apply itself as an effective instrument for meeting the challenges life presents us with. The reason is that in the activities of the little self there is always duality. There is always the sense of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’. Here ‘I’ am the important one and the intelligence associated with this lower functioning cannot but contemplate the fulfillment of the demands coming from its chronic sense of self-consciousness. These demands condition our behavior and greatly diminish our ability to think for ourselves, to be pro-active and creative in our decision-making processes, to love freely and to bring the intelligence of intuition and insight into our daily functioning. J.Krishnamurti once called the “I” as ‘series of resistances’. This is quite true as the ‘I’ with its specialized and deeply personalized demands, offer constant resistance to the ever-flowing nature of life. But because life has no regard for the dictates and expectations of the limited self-sense, the ‘I’ finds itself in constant conflict with most aspects of its encounters with living reality.

The ‘Self’, functions from a categorically different base within our human potential. It takes a broad perspective of all the little things the ‘self’ chronically occupies itself with. It sees clearly and acts from a deeper, more functionally related, intelligence than the little self. Because it experiences life directly and not via the agency of thought-interpretations, it can respond to challenges holistically and freely, without projecting its own unrelated demands on every challenge it meets and interacts with. The ‘Self’ manifests a particular truth about human life: it operates from the principle that intelligence and love are one undivided unit for relating to life as a whole. It intuits that intelligence without love is mere intellect and that love without intelligence is nothing but sentiment. From within the wholeness of the ‘Self’ our experience expresses itself as non-dual. And this non-duality manifests in our human emotions as love and intelligence. We could also describe this as the intelligence of love.

The problem the artificial division between “Self’ and ‘self’ created is therefore not founded on the fact that they are functions of two very distinct states of being, but rather that they were presented as having categorically separate origins. Both ‘Self’ and ‘self’ are manifestations of our human potential. The one is not from heaven and the other from down here. To seek for spiritual fulfillment from within human nature itself and to have as one’s focus some ‘divine’ element beyond human nature necessitate two totally different and irreconcilable approaches. And this is why there is so much confusion within the spiritual traditions with regard the process of spiritualization. Once belief becomes the basis for spiritual practice, no fundamental point of departure could be established. Neither could these paths agree as they all differ in their conception of the ‘Ultimate’. No wonder these paths all try to outdo one another with regard to their practicality and effectiveness.

However, when human experience itself is used as the measure for integral (spiritual) living, no such problems of confusion and mixing of categories could arise. Everything becomes more or less verifiable on present evidence and could be mutually explored from within such experiential evidence. Despite our superficial acquired differences, we are fundamentally much the same. This implies that there are vast areas of overlap in our experiential potential, and this applies particularly with regard to our inner development. The movement from ‘self’ to ‘Self’ could thus be explored in many ways most of us could experiment with quite readily. We start our inner journey from the human condition and reach aspects of our deep inner potential also from within our human condition. The ‘self’ and ‘Self’ now clearly lie along a continuum of human potential, even if they arise from very different aspects of this potential.

Finally there is no clear break between jiva and Atman, little self and big self. This is what makes the humanistic approach to spiritual life so holistic and completely integral. And needless to say: utterly human-centric.

Möller de la Rouvière

May 2010

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