Getting Lost in Your Own Head: The Search for Your True Self
I’m going to take you on a strange psychological survey that has to do with fabricated selves, religion and mental illness. It begins with nuances in Vedantic ontology and archaic terminologies in a dead language, and it ends with my own addition to an epitaph for god written by a syphilitic German philosopher.
As a Monk I Learned to Obey
As a boy I was trained in classical Vedic epistemology (pramanas), which undergirded the metaphysical truths of the Vedas. According to this epistemological system there is a hierarchy of knowing. Direct perception (with the five senses) and inference (reaching a conclusion via evidence and reasoning) are at the bottom of the scale, whereas insights received via authority (a guru or the Vedic texts themselves) are the most reliable vehicle for the transmission of knowledge. By this logic the powers that be—the priestly and warrior castes in India, and the texts they wrote into law as divinely ordained scriptures—are the only dependable source of information. (The politics involved in this theocracy I leave for you to deconstruct.) In my own case, I lived in the United States and therefore had no priestly or warrior caste to worry about. My authorities were a handful of gurus, who battled over who got to ultimately claim me as their disciple, and the pre-modern Vedic texts.
Arguments from authority aside, I was encouraged to engage in my own highly supervised ‘experiments’ in consciousness (samkhya yoga). This was in an effort to enlighten me to my true nature. But, per the epistemological structure, the system of confirmation was a bit skewed. It was an injunction-based process. The categories of mind were determined and defined long ago, and it was my job to confirm these categories via my own experience. An answer that conflicted with the ‘official truth’ was understood to be a product of my ego and therefore lack of purity. Every wrong answer (or non-confirming result) meant that I had to undergo more purification. This was because personal experience and inference (evidence- and reason-based inquiry) were subordinate to the authority of the scriptures, which had a clearly defined system of metaphysics.
The Meditative Injunction
I was taught to sit and observe my thoughts, habits of mind I had developed over (according to my gurus) millions of lifetimes. I was supposed to separate the different aspects of my subtler faculties, taxonomically naming and dissecting the structure of consciousness as categorized and understood by classical Vedanta. The point of this self-analysis was to realize my true nature as atma and transcend the dross of these impure layers bogging me down in the mire of material existence. Therefore, any non-confirming results via my contemplative practice were the product of my conditioning, delusions promulgated by ahamkara (my ego). The claims made by the sastras (scriptures) were never to be questioned—they were the highest form of truth, and I could not be enlightened until I had realized them.
This had a significant impact on me in my early life. First, it taught me how to access states of mind that were free of discursive thought. At the same time, it crippled me emotionally by convincing me that both my body and my humanity were obstacles to transcendence (you can read more in-depth discussions of this here and here), which was the result of a philosophy that not only conflicted with reality but also sought to supplant it with a finely crafted metaphysics.
This reification of an imaginary reality, which ought to be interpreted as metaphor (at best), highlights one of the fundamental problems with trying to embody an archaic ontology in the modern world. In this respect, understanding the distinction between the abstract and the concrete are essential to living a psychologically integrated and philosophically coherent existence.
David Foster Wallace, in his book Everything and More, illuminates how the distinction between the concrete and abstract underpins some of the most basic functions of adult life. His argument goes something like this:
- As kids, when we first learn arithmetic, we are introduced to the concept of symbols and abstractions. Math teachers (when introducing integers) will first present five oranges (for instance), something that can be touched and held. The children are then asked to count them. Then a picture of five oranges is presented. The picture combines the image of the oranges and the numeral ‘5.’ Then another picture with the numeral ‘5’ and the oranges removed is presented to the children. The children are then taught to talk about the integer ‘5’ as separate from the five oranges. Then they begin to learn that ‘5’ is an abstract concept that can then be used and applied to other objects in the world (pennies, nickels, apples, cans of peaches).
This analogy demonstrates the utility of abstractions and durable symbols for the functioning of daily life. In this regard, chakras and archetypes (for example) are useful in understanding abstract concepts in psychology but bear no more meaningful connection to reality than does the numeric symbol ‘5’ relate to oranges. Likewise, in order to talk about and engage in self-understanding it is necessary to speak in abstractions (of course language itself is a prime example), assigning names and durable categories to intangible qualities of mind. But it is a terrible error to assume that symbols have existential import—Plato might disagree—and even worse to mistake an abstraction for a tangible object.
Of course, the terrain gets much murkier when dealing in qualities of mind than when talking about oranges and cans of peaches. In this regard, DFW’s analogy might be further clarified by Wittgenstein’s clever disparagement of Freud’s notion of the unconscious: “Imagine a language in which, instead of saying ‘I found nobody in the room’ one said, ‘I found Mr. Nobody in the room.’ Imagine the philosophical problems that would arise out of such a convention.” The act of naming, even an absence, creates the illusion of a substance—so too with the idea of an essential self.
I was taught to imbibe the Vedantic map of consciousness through repetition—thousands of hours spent in contemplation until these symbolic representations of different qualities of mind became concrete, something more real and tangible within my subjective experience than my own flesh. This was understood, within the tradition, to be a good thing, since my biology as well as my humanity were considered to be a kind of prison for the soul. The prison of the body and the prison of the mind were things to be escaped via realizing the fundamental illusion of the material world.
In the version of Vedanta I was trained in, the Self (atma, or sometimes purusa) is like the center of a Russian doll—it is contained within many layers of ‘contaminated consciousness,’ merely the witness to all functions of human life and cognition. Each successive layer surrounding the Self is denser (from, for instance, mind to body) and constitutes a deeper form of ignorance.
Here’s a quick rundown of Vedantic ontology (a kind of metaphysics-made-easy):
- The first layer is, according to some esoteric schools, cidabhasa, which means reflected or shadowy consciousness. This shadowy consciousness enables the purity of atma (essential self, almost like a soul in the Christian sense) to contact denser layers of mind. From there descends the hierarchy from
- buddhi (discriminatory intellect, which is said to be drawn to truth) to
- ahamkara (ego, or that which enables or tricks the atma into identifying with illusory selves, such as identification with the physical body or with one’s emotions and thoughts) to
- manas (often translated as mind, more specifically it means something like the source of thoughts, feelings and desires, as well as operating as a kind of telegraphic center of the external senses).
Of course, in this ontology, it is manas that connects these orders of mind to the physical body via an even more complex mapping of subtle energy centers (a topic for another essay). Now, to mix my metaphors, the Self is what gives light (or consciousness) to all these orders of mind and body. According to Vedanta, the hierarchy of these ‘internal organs’ are nothing more than inert husks without atma. Atma is life and consciousness, illuminating and animating these progressively denser coverings of the Self (capitalization in honor of my classical training).
The consequences of mistaking metaphor for reality—the whole menagerie of supposedly false and true selves—made me nearly schizophrenic and OCD. (Disclaimer: Not actually schizophrenic; this is just hyperbole to convey how crazy-making the metaphysics of Vedanta can be. But I definitely had a mild case of OCD-like symptoms.) Obsessive compulsive, in the Foucauldian sense, in that I had internalized the mechanisms of power, becoming my own self-monitoring system. In this regard, I became capable of thought crime, which only served to induce a profound paranoia. As a monk, impure thought (mental content that is not aligned with the purity of sat cit ananda—the true quality of atma) was something to constantly be divesting myself of. Mental purity became an obsession and a compulsion, if only because my immortal soul was in the balance.
This reification of the metaphorical indulged another equally-addictive proclivity: the multiplication of selves. If we are to assert an essential self (a soul) then it must, in order to be understood, be observable. And here is where I got myself into a bind: I was supposed to be experiencing (tasting) the witness (atma), or rather being the witness, but experience taught me that there was a nearly infinite capacity to gain a kind of meta-awareness on your own awareness—something akin to the stoned pothead reflecting on what it means to think about thinking.
Essentially, the search for a true or essential self becomes a kind of infinite regress, which is schizophrenic in nature, producing a nearly endless series of false selves (ahamkara) that one is now suddenly aware of.
I’m not the only one who fell into this trap, and it isn’t just Indian philosophy that inspires this kind of masturbation. Johann Friedrich Herbart (according to Jorge Luis Borges) “played a similar ontological multiplication game” as the one I was playing during my tenure as a monk. Before Herbart was 20 he reasoned that “the self must be infinite, because knowing oneself postulates another self that knows itself, a self that in turn postulates another self.” This is similar to J.W. Dunne (in his An Experiment with Time) who argues for an infinite hierarchy of selves, existing in a dimension outside of time.
In truly great deconstructionist form, Borges finds fault with this logic (“Time and J.W. Dunne,” 1940), asserting that such a multiplication is simply an illusion produced by an intellectual onanism, or “bad habit.” According to him this “bewildering and nebulous hierarchy of subjects, or observers, I prefer to assume [...] are succesive (or imaginary) states of the initial subject.” In essence, as Borges reasserts, this infinitely regressive math “makes an error like the one made by those absentminded poets who speak, say, of the moon revealing its red disk, thus substituting a subject, verb, and object for an undivided visual image. The object is merely the subject itself, flimsily disguised.”
In some respects, this paranoid ontology is the product of a kind of hyper self-consciousness that tricks itself into believing there is more than one person engaged in the combat, not entirely different from the sleeping left-hand game some play in masturbation. There really is no second self (or third or fourth or fifth), but it is an amusing game. This game, however, can be terribly destructive, resulting in self-torture and even suicide—one need only think of the allegory of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In this regard, the ontological hierarchy advanced by Vedanta commits this very same error. I remember reading Cārvāka as a kid (the Cārvākas are an atheistic school of Indian thought from around the 6th century C.E.). The Cārvākas did not believe in an atma or a purusa or, for that matter, the argument from authority that underpinned the other six schools of Indian Philosophy (of course for this reason I was taught to ridicule Cārvāka in the tradition of both South Asian Buddhists and Hindus). In fact, the Cārvākas maintained that such ontological investigations (like samkhya) were utterly useless.
But here again, we find the impulse to multiply. To demonstrate the absurdity of claiming an essential self, the Cārvākas, according to Paul Deussen, asserted that for a soul to be knowable, “a second soul would be required to know the first and a third to know the second.” By pointing out the fallacy of infinite regress underpinning the tenets of samkhya and Vedanta, Cārvāka was attempting to say something meaningful about consciousness, which only modern neuroscience has given us the language to talk about: The brain doesn’t know it is a brain.
The reason Cārvāka utilized the logic of multiplying selves was simply because, as Thomas Metzinger argues, the process of how the self is constructed is not available to introspection and, therefore, any assertions to such firsthand knowledge is suspect. Essentially, it was the best argument these ancient materialists could come up with, armed as they were with only philosophy in an era preceding the advent of science. (Even Schopenhauer relied upon this same reasoning when he said, “the subject who knows cannot be known precisely as such, otherwise he would be known by another subject.”) In fact, it is only through the mediated knowledge we receive through scientific processes like neuroscience that we gain any reliable insight into the structure of consciousness.
This observation lies at the heart of my central thesis, which is: Metaphysics is a useless endeavor that leads to seemingly infinite loops of circular reasoning. We live in a time where science is closing the gap on all of the old questions that once belonged to ontology and phenomenology. And it is up to us, if philosophy is to remain relevant, to come to terms, in meaningful ways, with modern brain science.
Nietzsche said, over a century ago, that god was dead. In 2012, we are beginning to bury metaphysics in the same place we buried our imaginary creators. Except, in this case, I have an infinite number of imaginary selves to mourn.