We are a multitude of selves! YES! (But who are these selves?)

Not just one apple on the old apple tree

I am going to type two pages of a book into this blog.  Two pages, mind you! 

You must understand that these two pages Mean Something to Parts of Me.

The book is “Living as a River” by Bodhipaksa.  The subtitle says “Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change”.

The book is mostly about the Six Element meditation.  That is a practice of contemplating the water, air, fire, earth, space and consciousness elements within and without.  You see that none of these elements are really the self.

You say, “Nope, not me, not me, really not me” and pretty soon you get it that we’re not really a self and wa-la!  you’re enlightened.  (Or you meditate on these for 87 years and loosen the grips on your attachment to yourself as something solid and defined and independent.)

Pardon the interruption from the usual format of this blog where writing is utilized to describe, to intuit, to etch moments of presence.  This blog insists upon being written because I insisted–during a couple of years of spiritual blithering and blathering–that we are not simply one self in a body.  We are a multitude of selves.

If you already believe we are a multitude of selves, see if one of your selves wants to read on.

If you don’t believe, I’ll bet a) either one of your selves will get curious or b)  you’ll scurry frowning on to a blog that doesn’t type verbatim TWO PAGES from a book.

Here we go.  Typing fingers, take it away!

The lack of a central control system is mirrored in the modern hypothesis that we have multiple selves.  Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby.  How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, has written about the multiplicity of selves he’s observed in his work and in his personal experience.  “Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another,” he wrote in an article in The Atlantic.

Bloom’s view, he says is “conservative” in that “it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on.”  But his view is also radical in that “it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head.  The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence.  They have different desires, and they fight for control–bargaining with, deceiving and plotting against one another.”  (Bloggers note:  Or agreeing with, working together, compromising.)

The experience of competing selves can be seen in the everyday experience in which one self wants to lose weight and the other wants to enjoy pizza.  But we can also experience multiple selves when we find ourselves arguing with another person inside our head.  Who is arguing with whom?  Who wins in such a debate?  Who suffers from the insults that are bandied about?  In a more amical tone, children often have conversations with imaginary friends.  But who is talking to whom?  Bloom recounts that the writer Adam Gopnik’s young daughter had an imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli–a hip New yorker whose central characteristic was that he was always too busy to play with her.

In the multiple-selves model, the self is just a temporary hijacking of executive control by one particular constellation of priorities.  Consciousness in this view is not an enduring “thing” but a series of events popping in and out of our existence.  Of course we still have a sense of having a permanent self, but this doesn’t seem to correspond to anything that exists in reality.  The theory of multiple consciousnesnesses, each doing its own thing with other consciousnesses, has as far as I know no explicit parallel in Buddhist teachings (although the teaching of the five hindrances suggests five emotional centers around which multiple selves can constellate).  And yet the notion that there is an absence of a unified self is very much a part of traditional Buddhist thinking.  The observations of Buddhist meditation clearly suggest that there is nothing corresponding to a unitary self, although there will almost inevitably be a belief in such a self.  This belief is near-universal and compelling.  But it simply does not correspond with what we see, either on the basis of sustained introspection or in terms of what we know about how the brain works.

I was so thrilled–no, delighted–to read this last night that I almost danced to the moon!  OK, one of my selves almost danced to the moon! 

The pertinent question, if one agrees to the theory of multiple selves, is WHO ARE THESE MULTITUDES OF SELVES?   Who am I beyond the selves?  The insight that we are not solid, that multiples of selves exist within, loosens our identification on rock-hard thinking that we’re an independent being separate from the world around us.

The answerless answer to the question which brings us to the truth of what/who we are brings us directly into the flowing river of life. 

Thank you, Bodhipaksa, for your wisdom!

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22 thoughts on “We are a multitude of selves! YES! (But who are these selves?)

    • Laurie, I don’t always keep books these days. If I finish reading this–and decide to pass it on–you may have it. However, the addition of just those two pages may result in keeping the book for awhile… I am glad you were intrigued. Made it worthwhile to type out.

  1. It was through my addiction to nicotine (smoking) that I truly learned about having a multitude of selves. Throughout the beginning of my quit (and during what has to be thousands of failed quits) I would have fierce arguments with The Committee who meet for the express purpose of trying to get me to smoke again (or eat pizza when I’m trying to stick to a healthy diet, or sit on the couch when I need to get on the yoga mat, or have another beer when I should stop at one). A friend (and fellow quit-mate) dubbed them The Committee and it really is an appropriate name for all the selves that argue for something that clearly is not good for me.

    The most important lesson I learned about The Committee is that they cannot be ignored. They need to be acknowledged. It’s only from there that they can be worked with in order to build some sort of compromise. Otherwise, they would yammer, yammer, yammer until I lost my quit. Having learned to work with those other selves, I will be celebrating a full decade of smobriety (a quit term for us ex-smokers) in January.

    I like your questions and your answerless answer. 🙂

  2. Robin, I have some challenges in certain areas related to grasping–grasping at email, at checking the blog, at coffee, etc.–that requires continual dialogue with The Committee. (Never thought of that phrase before–will now use it, if you don’t mind!) They do need to be acknowledged. I suspect there are still teachings in this that I need to embrace more fully. There are ways in which the Committee needs to be honored more before the grasping will cease.
    (Not that I think I am alone in grasping. I think one of the definitions of self includes grasping–a movement toward pleasure and away from pain.)

    I sometimes wish these parts didn’t exist at all. Yet they continually provide richness, soil, compost, wisdom.

    Congratulations on your full decade of smoking smobriety. Do you have any more wisdom about dealing with the Committee?

  3. Well, there was one occasion when I put them in my little toe, thinking “out of sight, out of mind.” And another time I shot them into space but then I worried about some poor space creature having this sudden urge to smoke and then wondering what smoking is and how to do it and why did he suddenly want to do something he’d never heard of before??… lol!

    Sometimes laughter has been the best way to deal with The Committee but it has mostly been a matter of creatively turning around my thinking (or the thinking of the Self that wants to do what is best for me and for my body). I think the multitude of selves just want to experience all that they possibly can and who can blame them? Isn’t that one of the reasons we are here? To experience?

    The Committee has had to learn that some experiences are more likely to lead to suffering. The way to get them to remember that is to follow through on my thinking. If I want to smoke, I lead myself and The Committee through the entire process of what will happen if I have one cigarette or so much as one puff. I’ll probably cough at first. Then I’ll get lightheaded. I’ll enjoy the buzz, the feel of the smoke in my lungs again. (The beginning is the romance and the reason I’ve lost quits in the past is because I never went beyond the romance or seduction part of thinking.) Once I put out the cigarette, I’ll notice the stink of smoking. I’ll probably get a headache. And the worst part of all, I’ll know I’ve lost my quit because all it takes is that “just one.” There is never a “just one,” no matter how hard I try to turn it around. I’ll find myself in a state of feeling like I f***ed up so why not keep smoking now that I’ve already messed up? I know how the process works with me. Plus, The Committee will also be unhappy about having gotten what they thought they wanted. I learned I can’t satisfy The Committee by giving them what they want. They will always, always want more. Or something different. Grasping, grasping, grasping.

    I sometimes wish those parts of me didn’t exist either but, as you pointed out, they provide a richness to life and offer wisdom if we’re willing to work with them.

    Thank you for the congrats. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done so far in life. It’s a nasty addiction, nicotine. That’s what killed my mother. Small-cell lung cancer (which one gets from either smoking or coal mining and my mother was never a coal miner). I know she wanted to quit and tried often. She had a pretty horrible moment when she said out loud, “I did this to myself.” I almost wish I had a picture of that, to pass on to those who are smoking and want to quit.

    Ok. I’m rambling now… time to go. 🙂 I don’t mind at all if you use the term (The Committee). I nicked it from my friend (who, I think, may have borrowed it from her friend and so on).

    • Robin, thank you again for sharing this. I read it several times and referred it to my Committee. (lol!) I congratulate you again for your courage and diligence and creativity and the assistance of your inner selves for helping you change your path. It must have been so frightening to have a mother die of cancer and have that fear on top of your habit. I salute you, dear friend. Thanks again.

    • Bodhipaksa, your reply made me smile all day on Tuesday! It was a pleasure to have the author read and respond to this blog. I’m not quite done with the book, yet, but am eagerly looking forward to reading the rest.

      As for my lack of correct elements–arggh! That figures. I will go and correct this post immediately. The Six Elements it shall be. (Just have to remember what the sixth one is…)

      Good luck with the sales of your book! I hope the River of Life flows back to its wisdom from time to time…

  4. I think that a ferocious curiosity (like yours, Kathy) is required to tra-la! become enlightened. It’s the constant itch of questioning, the fervent desire to keep looking behind the mask of selves, that brings about Awakening. One of my favorite teachers uses the mantra “further” as a way of not becoming transfixed by the sparklies along the way.

    And to Robin, I learned about those voices you call the Committee in one tradition I studied for years. They called it the Itty Bitty Sh***y Committee. The recommended practice for silencing them was to give them a job in another room. Actually quite effective.

    • Yep, Janet…a ferocious curiousity sounds like a correct assessment! I suspect that you have one, too. The mask of selves is so haunting, so sparkling, so encompassing, that it takes something fierce to awaken us from the dream. Love the Itty Bitty Sh***y Committee! smiling…

  5. I love this blog post, Kathy. Immediately I want to inquire about the relation of many selves to our one body, since the body is my current exploration. If my brain is giving rise to these selves, where are they hanging out in my body. Or does my body give rise to them all, and they use my brain to argue with me.

    Whoever, where ever, in the Temple of Wombn we learn that the only way to be with them is to love, accept, welcome them.
    What they want is not pizza, a cigaret, or to plop on the couch with the laptop. they want to be heard, adored, acknowledged. Just like we do.

    And sometimes, they, or one of them, wants chocolate.

    • I dunno, Carla. I don’t know if the body is another “self” or if the body contains the self. I’ve experienced it both ways. I often wonder if the selves and bodies arise in order to be experienced with the deepest love and acceptance. Until we experience them with that level of unconditional love–not necessarily giving them a BOX of chocolate–perhaps it shifts and the river flows on. Maybe?

  6. Mmm…. I’m more inclined towards the Jungian perception of the inner selves than the Buddhist perception, in which we split our selves into parts that mirror or contain the wisdom and foolishness (and often vindictiveness) of people we’ve met, people we’ve known, from our parents onwards (possibly earlier relatives too, for instance, I think I have a version within me of my maternal grandmother). I think it’s a form of survival – having all those diverse parts with just one voice would swamp us, so we split them for easier management.

    I’m aware of a few inner selves. You’ve met ‘Mrs Icy’. There is also a very naive inner child who doesn’t like me talking much about her, so I won’t (I try to honour my inner selves when I know about them by respecting their wishes… well, some of them!).

    There are a couple of books you might find useful, Kathy. They are by Robert A. Johnson (no relation to the bluesman) who is a Jungian, and they are Inner Work, and Owning Your Own Shadow. Inner Work, particularly is good for working through things, as there is a step by step approach and a lot of wisdom.

    • Val, it could be the Jungian perception, as well. My interest has not been with where the selves come from…rather, how we reconcile with them. I have read some of Jung’s work years ago and liked it very much. Thank you for your recommendations. A book you might find interesting is called “Embracing our Selves: The Voice Dialogue Manual.” Hal and Sidra Stone, Ph.D.s, did some brilliant work. I did a weekend intensive with voice dialogue training about three years ago and found it radically changed my percpeption and relationship with the world.

      • Ah – there y’go – I was trying to remember the name of the book so that I could recommend it to you! I have it and have read it several times. Though I’m a bit wary of identifying too many inner selves as I’ve a history of what you could loosely call ‘mental illness’ (that’s a heck of a thing to admit to online! Poor old Mrs Icy, she’ll have a fit!) and there’s always the possibility of splitting in a bad way…

        • Poor Mrs. Icy! (I hope she’ll be OK.) Yes, I have heard that Voice Dialogue is not always the best help for some people with mental illness. That it may be counter-productive. That it might cause more splitting, rather than bringing things together. I am thrilled to hear that you’ve read the book!

  7. Kathy, I really appreciate this. I do try to honor (or at least acknowledge) these parts/selves but more often than I care to admit, get caught up in the momentary drama that they seem to love to create. And I can’t say that I always like the composting process. ……it can be a messy business at times!

    I like this simple way of looking it…..that there are parts of us the way there are parts/shades of the color blue. There is pastel blue which is blue mixed with white. There is dark blue….blue mixed with black. And purplish blue and teal blue and so on. All of them are blue but they are all different hues of this one color. All mixed with some other color. The one thing that they have in common is the blue itself.
    Maybe too simple for a complex subject but it feels always feels peaceful to me and slows down my thoughts. 🙂

    • That composting process certainly can be messy at times! I sure agree. I like your simple way of looking at the different hues of color. That feels comfortable and right. Thank you—I shall meditate on that.

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