Mark Twain once remarked: “I have lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened.” In this simple phrase, he illustrates the paradoxical plurality of the self. Just who suffered these troubles that never happened? Is our learned literary friend bi-polar?
The truth is there are two ways we experience our “selves.” One is real and the other a convenient and useful abstraction made possible by the existence of the other. First and foremost, we are an “experiential” self, moving through time and synchronized with the march of the universe. From this vantage point, we remember and project a mentally constructed “narrative” self. It is the self we remember ourselves having been and is the self we project into the future. It is our ego, our minds own image of its self. As a product of our thoughts, it is also a fiction.
Originally a blessing, yet in reference to our narrative self, we have been hypnotized by our capacity to conceptualize. We believe the thoughts of ourselves to be the real when in reality it is that subtle somewhat—filled with unbridled and immeasurable power—that holds all creative power. It is the pure awareness within us that is able and creative enough to give rise to the convenient yet illusory ego. An imagined narrative self. But we must remember that our ego is but another one of the mind’s concepts. A tool to be used in thought. An entity we use to reason with, granted but a thread of existence by the power of unfettered imagination. A power we all hold within. A power we can learn to command.
I remember leaving work one day and driving out of the parking lot I accidently cut-off my boss. For the next few minutes, I was swimming so deeply in the anxious would-be, could-be, what-is-my-boss-going-to-think-of-me thoughts that I almost rear-ended another vehicle. This shock came as a satori, a Zen term for a sudden enlightenment. I had left my anxious thoughts a world away and in rejoining the sensuous world I found it to be alive and beautifully vivid. For a brief few moments, I was completely beyond thought and became a mirror of the world, liberated from the useless thoughts of myself. What a blessing; the return to what is.
You see, we are forever locked into an unending movement; the present moment. An unstoppable dynamism that is and forever will be our directly lived experience. This is the home of the “experiential” self and it is the self we ought to reacquaint ourselves with. Even if to only give ourselves some respite from ourselves.
In thinking, we constantly betray this privileged gift by giving ourselves up to the thoughts of ourselves — we subconsciously assume the narrative self is “more” real or more important. This is the most absorbing psychological issue almost everyone is unknowingly facing — or to say it differently, are psychologically hypnotized by — the fact that we’ve lost our true identities to imagined ones. We give far too much up to our mental fictions at the expense of missing the real. The actual self that matters and moves in unison with the weight of universal inertia.
Most times, we are enrapt and self-hypnotized by our own thoughts, whatever may be their nature. They are the most harmful when they are unconsciously self-directed. By this error, we suffer “troubles that never happen,” having lost touch with the sensuous world around us—that we, in the grandest sense, are.
We self-sabotage and suffer imagined scenarios. Imagined events. Imagined conversations. Imagined paradigms that are not in themselves nor ever will be existentially real.
We spend far too much time considering the hypothetical and at a great cost. We miss out on life.
The redundancy of thinking about a hypothetical self may even keep us up at night. We imagine how situations may unfold only to realize that things “never go as planned.” Why do we bother putting mental energy into fictions?
Another way to think of—and overcome—the narrative self is to understand that it exists in the same ontological space as does mathematics or Harry Potter if you prefer. Both are human constructs, ideas that only we have a shared access to as we can dip our thoughts into pure conceptualization. All of these concepts—math, magicians, and memory-made selves—live in the purely metaphysical world of the abstract human mind. Both mathematics and memory-made selves serve as functions in the realm of the mind. Mr. Potter is just entertaining imaginative play.
Like an image in a mirror that only exists by virtue of what it reflects, the autobiographical self is the same. An illusive reflection held in the mind’s eye of the pure awareness that perceives it.
The self that is a projection is not the same as the self that is able to project.
It is only the experiencing self—the witnessing presence—living in the present moment that is capable of reaching into its “store” consciousness can—using memory and imagination—construct a fantastic version of itself. Provided you’re like me or our friend Mr. Twain, you may need some help in escaping the redundant thoughts of yourself. Therefore, we would do well to learn how to bring this narrative self under conscious control. The first step is recognizing that we do it. The second is to begin to analyze it introspectively.
Neuroscientists studying meditation have discovered that people who practice mindfulness meditation are more easily able to disengage from narrative types of thinking and re-center themselves in the present. To switch between selves. This equates to greater happiness and less stress, all the while teaching us the importance of conscious thinking. To think with purpose and to bring our will into our thoughts and not just our actions.
We must learn to steer away from self-directed, irrational thought. Learning how to think by way of meditation may be one of the most important endeavors one may ever undertake. Learning what types of thought are self-sabotaging and irrelevant is a profound step on one’s intellectual and spiritual journey. Consider, if given a choice, would you rather re-hash an experience that upset you, reliving it in your mind or consider a simple thought like how a seed lies dormant before planting? Some things are just more interesting than others.
So, every day take some time to step away from the world and meditate and focus on what is right in front of you. Greater happiness and clarity await. Not a bad deal for taking a break and reacquainting yourself with yourself.
The author, Casey Mitchell is an avid reader and incurable thinker who finally thought to pick up the pen to share his thoughts on life and love and the meaning of existence. A lover of philosophy, he is consistently perplexed and amazed by the ever-unfolding universe. He is the creative pulse behind ThePathofTrancendentalWisdom.com and writes to share his curiosity and thoughts about this mystery we live. If you’ve enjoyed this piece please consider purchasing his ebook Our Spirits: The Impulse to Explain from Amazon.
This article (The Plurality of Personhood — The Secret of the Self) was originally created and published by The Path of Transcendental Wisdom and is published here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Casey Mitchell and ThePathofTrancendentalWisdom.com. The words may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this copyright statement.