Self-hood - An Appraisal

December 06, 2019

Self-hood might be said to be what is felt, maybe passionately, by an individual to be the innermost identity of that individual; and to be that apprehension of mind that without which being acknowledged, by an outside source, or else internally by the identifying person, would cause that person to feel to have been deprived of the anchor point for any integration of thought and feeling that person might consider themselves to have once had.

As we say – feeling 'all at sea'.

Many of us identify ourselves by use of outside factors – other persons – modes of employment – physical or mental attainments – to be achieved or already in possession of – and so on – and sometimes a mixed bag of these things makes up a sort of raggedy somewhat hazy view we have of our identities.

And this is often where our self-identity intermingles with our ambitions for ourselves, or our fantasies about ourselves – mingles with things not yet, or to be, achieved by us in our lives. And this aspect of hope, fantasy, ambition, determination we hold onto, is at once part of our identity but also it maybe askew with what is attainable in fact or else likely to be within our capacities.

Some of us internalise somewhat our sense of whom, what, we consider ourselves to be. Maybe all such self-hoods originate from outside sources, and are abstracted and rarefied by us into what might be termed loosely 'Ideal Forms'; however, for certain, the persons who self-identify thus are usually more deeply concerned with attempting to be critical about their own behaviours and hoping to attaining some success in hitting a mark, reaching a standard of self and thought and actions.

The difference writ large might be stated as between a person who aspires to be a professional person, and a person who aspires to be a good Buddhist – the one being intent on attaining a standard 'in the world' and 'of the world' and another intent on a goal which for the most part is determined in its success or failure by unseen internal measurements and efforts. The first cannot realise their aspiration without obtaining markers and positions in public life; the second might do so without having any empirically objects, external public markers or positions, that indicate success.

Now in the second case, of becoming a good Buddhist, a criticism might be levelled that this is an identity and an aspiration which being for the most part almost wholly internalised within one's mind; and so it is a self-obssessed one, selfish maybe, and maybe also narcissistic, and is in a sense navel-gazing?

The person identifying with and aspiring to a professional place in life on the other hand might be considered to be aiming at attaining a standard publicly open to inspection and useful to the community, and outward looking and so less wrapped up in self or in introspection etc etc.

I would like to draw your attention to a piece of writing by a man named Frederick W Robinson, a 19th century preacher, who makes a clear and very useful distinction for distinguishing practical applications of abstract and internal sets of factors which provide identity and aspiration; and their full and comprehensive life-use and value as self-identifications and aspirations. He writes:

“...Christianity is the eternal religion, which can never become obsolete. If it sets itself to determine the temporary and the local, the justice of this tax, or the exact wrongs of that conventional maxim, it would soon become obsolete – it would be the religion of a century; not of all. As it is, it commits itself to nothing except eternal principles”

Frederick W Robinson's distinctive distinguishing mark here is vital to understanding, especially understanding in those who externalise aspiration and identity for themselves, the irrefutable case for internalised identity and aspiration based on eternal principle being able to be proven to entail the very opposite character to it being self-centred, narcissistic, navel-gazing etc etc.

Robinson tells us correctly that Christ does not tell us or else go himself deciding, declaring, who should have what share of family inheritances, or whose is the civil and legal right to tax money, nor whether their claims to money are valid or not. That for Christ to have tried to do so would have scuppered Christ's work in the world; and that work included asserting as universal truths those commandments he bids us follow.

As universal truths they cannot be constrained into particular application; but this is not to say they are of no use, no needed. Instead they are the preconditions of human disposition absolutely required, and before espousing which no adequate attempt at particular justice or forgiveness or any of the Christian virtues may be attempted.

They are such prerequisites, and reach into our psyches so deeply that they are indeed a way of life; I would assert with Christ -The Way of Life.

I do want to say here that such a disposition as Christ recommends to us is not enough for a person to obey and so be a Christian. This is an aside point but so important it has to be said and pointed up here. The Person of Christ inbreathed, internalised, embedded, instinct, in a psyche has to be present in all His glory and value before the disposition is able to be aimed at as being the aspiration and purpose of one's lifetime. Holding to the Christian virtues alone cannot be accomplished without such acknowledgement of and belief in Christ the Person Himself. Selfhood, as an identity and as aspiration, in its more jealous forms, will otherwise always be present in such force that any real progress in attempting likeness to The Person of Christ will be unavailable.

There's no compromise here – one is in the final instance, either for Him, with Him, or against Him.

The Zen figure of the Master who is asked by the pupil how to reach Enlightenment is an apposite parable here. The Master tells the pupil to observe a stick poking from water and how the refraction of light has the stick appear bent. The Master then says to the pupil (that for the pupil to reach, to have reached Enlightenment) “Don't think about it'.

The emphasis here is on an ability in pupil to deny thinking about an item when a) told explicitly by a Master (or maybe anybody?) not to think about it – that is, to deny the wilfulness, the contrariness, of human curiosity and human will in general; and also b) to obey a command without rebellion or upstart perturbations, objections, doubts etc intruding in on one's thoughts. Notice too that the Master does not say why such an attempt not to think about the stick if successful would reveal to the pupil Enlightenment. The pupil has either to obey blindly or else to figure out for herself how such a purposed act of 'stick-denial' connects with Enlightenment.

Whichever of the two paths is better is a moot point. Not to ask oneself about why the stick and Enlightenment are important denies oneself understanding of what one is doing and why. Whereas to ask oneself what the stick has to do with Enlightenment is a kind of rejection of the standing of the Master himself; a sort of questioning of his integrity, his claims to Master-hood, and his veracity. And here lies the paradox.

Similarly Christ tells us that we should lose our life in order to find it, that we should give and so without us having designs of covetous desire we shall receive. Unless we give in this way there will be nothing from Christ received by us. This is a paradox being a close parallel to the Zen Master's 'parable'.

And so this disposition of mind, abstracted from the Scriptures into a form of universal principles, all being upheld in us - in so far as one is able to sustain the task - by the Person of Christ; this is no small or easy or unimportant thing – not for the person attempting it nor yet for the persons in society and family who are acquainted with and know the character of that person.

Both the Zen 'stick parable' and the ideal Christian disposition (what St Paul calls 'the mind of Christ') are about human beings dealing appropriately with the self as ego, as self-love, as self-centredness, as self-righteousness, as self-acclamation and so on – you get the picture?

In order to obtain the peace offered by Buddhist Enlightenment (although many other things are attained by achieving it also, I'm sure) I would think denial of thought about the stick would be a prerequisite. And this peace would have arisen in large part if not wholly from a pupil having cast away, ignored and so obliterated, all those niggly disturbances our minds suffer concerning our money, standing in the world, ambitions, desires, wishes, angers, frustrations, regrets and such and so on to infinity(?? it sometimes seems??). Likewise for a Christian to have obtained in full (if it's possible?) 'the mind of Christ' she would have also lost herself entirely to the same niggly titillations of desire and naggings of wants and regrets that the Buddhist pupil would have banished as well. And so she would be enjoying that beautiful 'Peace of God which passeth all understanding'.

The poet TS Eliot, his work is often criticised, I have read a Classics scholar of great accomplishment and fame in his time, who had joined in the noisy chorus come from outside the Christian Church which complained that TS Eliot in his later verse had lost his great talents for poetry, or has chosen not to use them anymore.

The criticism was to my mind founded wholly on a matter of whereabouts one stands in the world, on whether one takes a secular or a religious view of things. The earlier poems of TS Eliot very much display their author's bitter argument with a post-world-war-one world Europe, and with the hopelessness of a spiritually disposed person after such a catastrophe, for him to do anything but rage and be scathing about society, life, and about the possibility of religious belief.

That Eliot came to religious belief as a Christian in mid-life caused his rage and angst to subside in great measure, and this changed radically his approach to his art. One of his most notable lines of verse I believe is this: “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still” Here is that request, prescription even, for attaining a sense of peace in a world filled with disturbances to the soul and the heart. Not just those outside pressures everywhere impinging on us, but also our million inner antics which mess up our equanimities.

Now theologians have a Christ Incarnate who is a Person of Godhead who has 'emptied' Himself or else has ''put by to one side” whilst in earthly life all of His Godly powers and attributes; so much as for Him to have been born to be able to experience all kinds of human experience in the full, and as a human being be experiencing pain and joy suffering and elation etc etc. This idea of Christ 'emptying' Himself before Him being born Incarnate, is useful to help us understand Buddhist Enlightenment, and also that 'Mind of Christ', and in a lesser way, the later poems of TS Eliot.

I myself would not want to press the term 'emptying' too far in regards to mere human lives and psyches; better for myself would be 'filling oneself' with the Spirit of Christ; because we as humans have nothing but mostly impediments in the mind to be divested of and that prevent good and true actions. Thus to divest oneself of negatives is to be importing positives I think – at least psychologically-speaking?

Only there is a difficulty that the phenomenon of inner peace (from God) manifests itself to the secular soul as loss, as a placation, and maybe an anodyne kind of fantastic escapism? As if one had had a lobotomy (I'm being sarcastic). Such a peace is not properly understood by outsiders to it. Such a peace detracts from one's kudos in the eyes of outsiders. A dotage. A cave-in. Resultant on character weakness.

Eliot gave us perhaps as his greatest achievement; one of the great achievements of the 20th century and maybe beyond; perhaps up there with Milton and at least with Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, even with Shakespeare in poetic power?

The important thing though is Eliot's spiritual achievement in an age of cynicism and trending all away from the value of the Gospels and the religious outlook. Just a few years before had appeared watershed dramas such as 'Waiting for Godot' or works such as 'Being and Nothingness” Eliot found for himself the gift of Christ's love, at a dark time when Christ was felt widely to be no prophet in our own countries.

Eliot's later verse then is not devoid of, emptied of, divested of power, poetry, attainment but it is I believe pitched at a level higher than is his former verse. Instead of Eliot being 'original' as in Prufrock and The Waste Land, his discovery and emphasis has been on the fact of the redundancy of originality, its spuriousness and its lack of proper foundation.

Again and again he is at pains to say that at the foundational level of human life one is able only at best to say universal eternal truths in a way appropriate to people in the age one lives through:

“what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”