Western psychology is oriented toward the individual and therefore its concepts of self refer to the individual self. Eastern thought stretch the concept of self more broadly. The Upanishadic seers of India developed a philosophy of self as early as about 700 BCE. Their concept of self is Atman, the innermost core of our individual being as well as of the cosmos.
Before we come into contact with this self we must become individuals by detaching ourselves from the social collective imprint. In a further step it then matters to discard the identification with our ego personality, with our thinking, feeling, willing and desiring. Only then Atman, the real self in Brahmanical view, can be experienced in transcendence.
Since according to the Indian view Atman is also identical with Brahman, the creative principle, the world-soul, we are in close proximity to the mystics of all times, last but not least to Master ECKHART, who describes this self-expression into the great, the absorption into God as follows:
“Thou shalt at all times sink away from thine yourness and shalt flow into his beingness, and thine yourness in his myness shall become myness, so completely that thou shalt eternally understand with him his unawakened isness and his unnamed notness. ”
If we compare the basic attitude of psychology with these millennia-old spiritual experiences in relation to the self, contradictions result that are expressed in diametrically opposite goals.
Contrarily valued, spiritual qualities
Qualities considered desirable in the context of spiritual experience, in the context of psychopathology are judged neurotic, even psychotic. Thus we find ourselves in a basic discussion about the concept of self and the validity of introspection in terms of Eastern meditation, which postulates a self experienced in meditation in the here and now.
However, such a discussion of principles is beyond the scope of this website. In my remarks I presuppose the experientiality of an “original self” in the sense of a basic postulate; I refer to this self as the primary self.
As I will elaborate I distinguish the unconscious primary self from the conscious primary self. I consider the former as an individual self, which however does not come into being at birth but is already present at the fetal stage. The conscious primary self which can be experienced on the level of zen reality is supra-individual.
The unconscious primary self is also addressed by Western thinkers and psychologists:
JEAN-JAQUES ROUSSEAU (1712-1778), the maverick from Calvinist Geneva not only discovered the world of meditation by self-experimentation. Equipped with this eminently depth-psychological instrument, he also encountered various aspects of the self in his innocent childlike curiosity. “Nothing is so different to myself as my self, therefore it would be futile to try to define myself in any other way than by this unique diversity … At times I am a hard and cruel misanthrope then again I fall into rapture at the charms of society and the delights of love … In a word, a proteus, a chameleon …”.
The true self, the true nature of man
According to RÜDIGER SAFRANSKI, ROUSSEAU described the “true self” as the “true nature of man” in contrast to the self characterized “by cultural illusion and deception”. However, in an effort to change society and its damaging influences on the “natural self”, ROUSSEAU strayed from the original goal of self-knowledge, did not trust the experience of the heart, relied on his thinking, and got back on the beaten path of educators.
ROUSSEAU did not penetrate to the original self, to the “original face” of Zen. Nevertheless his courage and the fearlessness with which he pursued his goals and dared to publish his insights is extraordinary.
Even before the discussion of the self flared up in connection with the insights of depth psychology, GEORG GRODDECK (1866-1933), who is considered by many to be the founder of psychosomatics, described a phenomenon corresponding to the early self with his concept of the “It”:
“Self-knowledge is not knowledge of our I, but of our self, our It. And there is no doubt in my mind that as long as a person’s I-consciousness is still weak, he knows more about his self, about his It, than from the moment he uses the fateful word ‘I’. The word ‘I’ is a pair of glasses – indispensable, unavoidable glasses that force us to see all things especially our self, distorted, disfigured or decorated, that God-nature gave us so that we are not like God. It is not given to everyone to be childlike and those who have been given some amount of childlikeness have no merit in it, any more than the hammer has merit in being a hammer and not a bell. It is not allowed at all times to know oneself. Let everyone rejoice who has moments of self-knowledge. … The greatest king of mankind is the child.”
To be a child – the highest superiority
With his commitment to the child, with his conviction of the superiority of being a child over being an adult, GRODDECK shows that for him the It as the natural self – unlike the psychoanalytic It – is the true basis of being human.
In the sixties DONALD WINNICOTT developed an extended self-concept within the framework of his psychoanalysis. He distinguishes the true from the false self. He describes how the latter develops as follows:
“If the environment does not sufficiently adapt to the needs of the infant, if on the contrary he is constantly exposed to impulses and violations by the environment and forced to react to them, it leads to disturbances in the development of the personality structure, a false self, a pseudo-personality is developing and the actual, true core of the personality must conceal itself or is getting destroyed.”
MARIO JACOBY addresses infant researcher DANIEL STERN’s concept of self:
“Stern proposes … a different terminology. He suggests that one can divide the developing sense of self into three categories:
the ‘social’ self,
the ‘private’ self,
the ‘disowned’ self. …
In the best case scenario these parts of the self in the course of development get closer to the ‘inner design’ of the personality, as corresponds to KOHUT’s presentation, but of course also to the process of individuation in JUNG’s sense.”
ALICE MILLER as well as CHRISTA ROHDE-DACHSER base their theories on the concept of a true and a false self. MILLER in particular did not mince words concerning socio-critical explicitness of her language; in her book “You Shall Not Notice”, she writes:
“The sacrifice of the child nowhere is forbidden; what is forbidden rather is to write about it.”
This sacrifice includes the replacement of one’s “true self” with an adapted “false self”.