Monday, April 4, 2011

One Self or Many?

The notion of multiple souls in us is a familiar enough concept, although the number we use in the West is usually only two. There is that famous line by Goethe: Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust (Two souls, alas! reside within my breast). Okay, make that three. Freud had his ego, id, and superego. Jung had three for males and more (in a sense) for ladies. In the male there is the self, the self’s female side, the anima, and then the “shadow,” the chthonic, undeveloped soul. The same pattern holds for women, but the animus appears as multiple males, at least in dreams. The shadow in males is male, in females female. The numbers increase in a hurry.

And things get complicated. People say, “I’m of two minds about that.” Does that mean that there is one I with two minds, or two minds each with its own I but sharing one voice and both saying the same thing at the same time?

Sometimes in a milder form another word is used—personality. There are split personalities. This can take mild forms, thus quite different behavior in various habitual settings, at home, at work, visiting the parents. But in some cases it manifests as a formal mental disorder called dissociative identity disorder (DID). It is a real disease; when present, personality A does not even remember at all, or very clearly, what personality B knows, and vice versa; and the behaviors are very different. Does that mean that two or more souls or selves are present in all of us, but usually smoothly communicating? And that in severe cases of dissociation the communications break down or are simply cut off? The disorder is due to trauma in early childhood caused by severe and repetitive abuse. But does one self violently detach itself from a whole range of experience and develop an alternate mode of being, sometimes cycling back? Is one real identity present beneath the personalities? Or is the only substrate of these personalities a single body without consciousness at all? Case stories of DID suggest that one identity remains. Some may be read here, and they suggest that the “alter” is a rogue. Some describe themselves as passengers in their bodies rather than as drivers. Detached behavioral programs seem to run—and the reset key is stuck. But the frustrated person, staring at the screen, is separate. This suggests that personalities are tools, although in practice we identify with them so completely that we think that they are us—rather than structures we have formed and allow to run on automatic. And in cases of disorder, these programs become so automatic that they cannot be shut off, alas, can’t even be seen to be running.

Identification is a key word here. In Sufi circles the concept of multiple selves is used in two different ways. In one these refer to the soul at its various levels of development: commanding, accusing, inspired, and illumined. The Commanding Self is the unreformed natural product in which self-awareness is barely present and the individual is always “identified” with whatever is going on. It is also the conditioned self, just thoughtlessly executing its routines. The Accusing Self manifests higher awareness, hence it displays a conscience. It is accusing—itself; of heedlessness. In the next stage development has crystallized the self enough so that grace begins to flow (or to be perceived). In the last stage the person belongs to the Illuminati.

The second way of talking about multiple selves in Sufi circles is really a part of their methods of training. Here we sometimes hear or read that people have no self; they have selves; now this, now that. Emphasis is laid on this, and the disciple is invited to observe himself or herself. The automatic, reflexive, associative, reactive character of our behavior then becomes apparent. But apparent to whom? Why—to the actual self. So there is a self there after all. And to teach it to become aware of itself, it is told that it isn’t there. A teaching method. Therefore let’s not trot it out as a scientific observation. What is an observable fact is that most of the time in most of our actions, we follow routines. We’re not self-aware. We’re just behaviors. But to control those behaviors, we must develop consciousness. It is there, in potentiam, all the time. But not, as the medievals used to say, in actus. The “natural” behavior of the Commanding Self is purely reactive—however complex that reactive behavior is, and often (as I well know) it can be very complex. It is but one self, but it identifies with its own routines of behavior. It is a base case. The way is upward from there.

Modern psychologies that emphasize multiple selves but never speak of stages of development are simply incomplete. And they maintain this view because of underlying metaphysical assumptions, among which is the absence of an actual, real soul or self. Souls, selves, are mere epiphenomena that vanish into thin air as soon as the brain dies.

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