Souls aren’t very fashionable but the ‘self’ and all that it implies, including our value as individuals as well as the myriad ways in which we are part of a bigger stream of consciousness or life itself, is a live concept that has perhaps never been more written about.
Shifting the ground, however, doesn’t get us out of the conundrum of the meaning and boundaries of self and everything else. As Marilynne Robinson has pointed out, even if we take our questions of self and soul and consciousness into the realm of neuroscience and the physical,
on scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given.
This echoes Virginia Woolf:
One can’t write directly about the soul directly. Looked at, it vanishes.
Memory, time and the construction of self
Similarly the mathematician and doctor Israel Rosenfield writes in The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness that memory and consciousness are co-terminus. We live with a profound sense of subjectivity, such that what we believe effects how we experience and describe reality and yet we feel that
we are experiencing the objective truth about the world, and we call that knowledge; we usually think of knowledge as something that can be understood and also transmitted from one person to another.
But Rosenfield objects that consciousness is not contained in memories of experience filed in the brain.
consciousness has a temporal flow, a continuity over time, that cannot be accounted for by the neuroscientists’ claim that specific parts of the brain are responding to the presence of particular stimuli at a given moment. Our perceptions are part of a “stream of consciousness,” part of a continuity of experience that the neuroscientific models and descriptions fail to capture…
Writing about the temporal nature of what it means to be human, Rosenfield goes on:
… the continuity of consciousness derives from the correspondence which the brain establishes from moment to moment. Without this activity of connecting, we would merely perceive a sequence of unrelated stimuli from moment to unrelated moment, and we would be unable to transform this experience into knowledge and understanding of the world. This is why conscious human knowledge is so different from the “knowledge” that can be stored in a machine or in a computer.
Memory is what powers this continuity of consciousness, giving rise to both identity and creativity and this is always relational. The relation of
my body (more specifically, my bodily sensation at a given moment) and my brain’s “image” of my body (an unconscious activity in which the brain creates a constantly changing generalized idea of the body…) It is this relation that creates a sense of self; over time, my body’s relation to its surroundings becomes even more complex, and, with it, the nature of myself and of my memories of it deepen and widen, too. […]
the act of memory is one of my relating to myself, or to others, or to past experiences, or to previously perceived stimuli. This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, …
And so we develop a unified sense of self, one that feels precarious is we experience doubt or ambivalence, but nonetheless is at the core of our humanity.
Yet, whilst all of us will recognise the role of memory, relationality between the body and consciousness and the temporal flow that connects us to the language of ‘self’, there are traditions that question this language and it seems increasingly clear that ongoingness is very far from any monolithic conception of the self as fixed and discrete.
Self and other: hitched to everything else
Thinking about the mystery of identity, Walt Whitman put it poetically:
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal…
We discover ourselves only to find that the ‘self’ is a slippery notion.
As Robert Penn Warren writes:
The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.
This takes the relational conception of the self to a new level. That we are ever self in isolation or self as separate seems illusory. The essayist Lewis Thomas has captured this persuasively and beautifully in the eponymous essay of his collection, The Medusa and the Snail.
He notes that we are more conscious than ever of ourselves:
The popular magazines are filled with advice on things to do with a self: how to find it, identify it, nurture it, protect it, even, for special occasions, weekends, how to lose it transiently. There are instructive books, best sellers on self-realization, self-help, self-development. Groups of self-respecting people pay large fees for three-day sessions together, learning self-awareness. Self-enlightenment can be taught in college electives.
And yet language gives us a different perspective on ‘self’.
The original root was se or seu, simply the pronoun of the third person, and most of the descendant words, except “self” itself, were constructed to allude to other, somehow connected people; “sibs” and “gossips,” relatives and close acquaintances, came from seu. Se was also used to indicate something outside or apart, hence words like “separate,” “secret,” and “segregate.” From an extended root swedh it moved into Greek as ethnos, meaning people of one’s own sort, and ethos, meaning the customs of such people. “Ethics” means the behavior of people like one’s self, one’s own ethnics.
Not only does the etymology point to something altogether more collaborative that hints at the necessity for connection in forming a sense of self, but Thomas also goes on to discuss how the idea of being ‘unique’ and ‘individual’ is commonplace:
Even individual, free-swimming bacteria can be viewed as unique entities, distinguishable from each other even when they are the progeny of a single clone.
Moreover, it appears that biology did not have segregation in mind when it developed distinct selves:
The markers of self, and the sensing mechanisms responsible for detecting such markers, are conventionally regarded as mechanisms for maintaining individuality for its own sake, enabling one kind of creature to defend and protect itself against all the rest. Selfness, seen thus, is for self-preservation.
In real life, though, it doesn’t seem to work this way. The self-marking of invertebrate animals in the sea, who must have perfected the business long before evolution got around to us, was set up in order to permit creatures of one kind to locate others, not for predation but to set up symbiotic households.
The anemones who live on the shells of crabs are precisely finicky; so are the crabs. Only a single species of anemone will find its way to only a single species of crab. They sense each other exquisitely, and live together as though made for each other.
Thomas illustrates this insight through the relationship of a common sea slug and the medusa of a tiny jellyfish. The parasites seem to live not for themselves, yet they still procreate, producing full-grown jellyfish while the snail’s offspring become engulfed in medusa’s tentacles, but not as prey. The snails gorge on the jellyfish until they become mature sea slugs and all that remains of the jellyfish is the attached parasite, safely attached, ready to begin the cycle again.
It’s an extraordinary and powerful metaphor of the connectedness and interdependence of everything, so compelling that it questions the whole notion of a discrete self and echoes the sentiments of the naturalist John Muir:
when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
A thousand possibilities
Our sense of self and the delusions we take on in order to maintain a sense of separateness is something considered by Dag Hammarskjöld in the collection of his diary entries and musing, Markings:
At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many Is. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one — which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.
The sense of setting ourselves up so fixedly, aggrandising the ‘I’ against the other becomes particularly urgent in relation to those we love.
When you have reached the point where you no longer expect a response, you will at last be able to give in such a way that the other is able to receive, and be grateful. When Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover.
Like Whitman, Hammarskjöld agrees that the surrender of self to other in relationship is illuminated by the surrender of self to nature.
Whitman puts it like this:
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on, [and] have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
While Hammarskjöld writes:
So rests the sky against the earth. The dark still tarn in the lap of the forest. As a husband embraces his wife’s body in faithful tenderness, so the bare ground and trees are embraced by the still, high, light of the morning.
I feel an ache of longing to share in this embrace, to be united and absorbed. A longing like carnal desire, but directed towards earth, water, sky, and returned by whispers of the trees, the fragrance of the oil, the caresses of the wind, the embrace of water and light. Content? No, no, no — but refreshed, rested — while waiting.
In another entry, he considers what it takes to surrender ourselves to Nature’s embrace:
The extrahuman in the experience of the greatness of Nature. This does not allow itself to be reduced to an expression of our human reactions, nor can we share in it by expressing them. Unless we each find a way to chime in as one note in the organic whole, we shall only observe ourselves observing the interplay of its thousand components in a harmony outside our experience of it as harmony.
Landscape: only your immediate experience of the detail can provide the soil in your soul where the beauty of the whole can grow.
Unless we are at peace with our natural environment, how can we be at peace with one another? And how can we be at peace with either if we are busy defending the boundaries of ‘self’, shoring up the illusion of fixed persona who cannot be assailed but instead lives to dominate, conquer and consume? To honour the other and to recognise our connectedness is deeply soulful and demands a largesse that Hammarskjöld committed himself to:
To remain a recipient — out of humility. And preserve your flexibility.
To remain a recipient — and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.
A wild self-forgetfulness
What does this mean to us as writers and creatives?
It seems to predicate an unselfconsciousness as Madeleine L’Engle explored in Glimpses of Grace. The self is neither constant nor rigid and to behave as though it is undermines any attempts at creativity.
… we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.
Extreme self-consciousness is, L’Engle points out ‘hubris’
… pride: pride in the sense of putting oneself in the center of the universe. The strange and terrible thing is that this kind of total self-consciousness invariably ends in self-annihilation. The great tragedians have always understood this, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. We witness it in history in such people as Tiberius, Eva Perón, Hitler.
Creativity is the opposite. It is observing without judging; it is play and joy; it is flow and concentration in wild self-forgetfulness.
L’Engle describes it in relation to playing music:
I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.
These are states that the writer knows, loves and seeks:
They are states that decry holding ourselves together in stiff pride, free of risk and in tact as sovereign individuals.
This deep diving into writing and creativity instead requires
The sense of being beyond ‘self’ is so vital to the artist’s practice that the more tentatively and flexibly we can hold our opinions and worth the more likely we are to create. As Borges puts it:
there is no whole self.
To return to L’Engle, the idea of a fixed self-image that we zealously guard is more prison than liberation.
I haven’t defined a self, nor do I want to. A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming. Being does mean becoming, but we run so fast that it is only when we seem to stop — as sitting on the rock at the brook — that we are aware of our own isness, of being. But certainly that is not static; for this awareness of being is always a way of moving from the selfish self — the self-image — and towards the real.
Who am I, then? Who are you?
We are who we are becoming, and this is an endless narrative with leaky boundaries.
Our becoming ‘isness’
Of course, we all have interior lives, but the enormity of our subjective experience of consciousness can be held in creative tension with the realisation that the monolithic ego is a prison.
It’s a tension that Walt Whitman describes lyrically in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
These multitudes become an interior consciousness:
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity — yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre,) creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven. The quality of being, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.
But there remains the need for transcendence, for not allowing consciousness to solidify into a self-important overarching ego:
True, the full [wo]man wisely gathers, culls, absorbs; but if, engaged disproportionately in that, [s]he slights or overlays the precious idiocrasy and special nativity and intention that [s]he is, the [wo]man’s self, the main thing, is a failure, however wide her/his general cultivation.
This transcendence is easier to conceive of when we see ourselves not as discrete lumps, separate, other and (too often) superior, but as narratives in the making. Stories unfold, they curl back on themselves, pick up influences, are symbiotic and complex and fluid. Stories are soulful, brimming with consciousness but always alive to the other.
What story are you becoming?
Becoming a different story
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