What the self is

The self is a different kind of entity from anything physical. This becomes apparent if the argument from personal identity is considered. Philosopher Geoffrey Madell writes: '...while my present body can thus have its partial counterpart in some possible world, my present consciousness cannot. Any present state of consciousness that I can imagine either is or is not mine. There is no question of degree here (1981, p.91). In other words, if your parents conceived your body a day earlier or later it may have been to a degree different; but you, as a subject, would either exist or not (it would be you or somebody else - no degree). This makes the self unique, and unlike physical bodies, it cannot be described (or imagined), except perhaps as being an infinitely small, indivisible point. A developmental psychologist with a transpersonal bent, Jenny Wade, writes:

Everyday consciousness contains a transcendent element that we seldom notice because that element is the very ground of our experience. The word transcendent is justified because if the subjective consciousness - the Observing Self - cannot itself be observed but remains forever apart from the contents of consciousness, it is likely to be a different order from everything else. Its different nature becomes evident when we realize the observing self is featureless, cannot be affected by the world any more than a mirror can be affected by the images it reflects. (1996, p.56)


This 'true self is recognised and variously described by different traditions as the Atman, spark, centre, apex of the soul, or ground of the spirit. However, sometimes the self is taken as something above and superior, implying that individuals should strive to 'connect with it[1]. Such interpretations can be misleading (especially if it is attempted to imagine that 'higher self). Considering that the self enables experience, and we are experiencing most of the time, the self must already be 'connected. This relationship can be compared to the relationship between somebody who is playing a computer game and the character in the game with whom the player identifies. The player can be so engrossed in the game that s/he may forget shimself and the real world, but nevertheless the one who is experiencing and is the source of any action within the game is the player shimself not the character in the game.

 The self can be considered the focal point of a relatively discrete energy field, and is a property of all life forms. From this perspective, it is universal. Everybody is different, but this has nothing to do with the self. Individual differences are the result of qualitative and quantitative differences in the focused energy and mediums with which the self identifies.

  • [1]. One example of this view can be found in Assagiolis 'Psychosynthesis model.