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The sense of “I” or individuality. It is characterized by a sense of personal identity, as well as unity of perception and continuity of “ownership” of experience. Other terms that are related to it are EGO, SOUL, MIND, SPIRIT, Psyche.

While the sense of self is a common empirical experience, yet philosophers, psychologists and mystics who have explored it have not come to a common conclusion on what it really is. Some affirm its existence, but define it in differing ways, while others, such as Hume and the Buddhists, deny its existence altogether as a separate entity.

The earliest explorations of the nature of the self are found in the scriptures of the East. The Upanisads, for example, posit an Atman (Self) or Purusa (consciousness) that underlies human experience. Hindu sources generally identify this Self or Atman with the universal Self, or Paramatman. At the same time, they distinguish it from Ahamkara, or the “I-making” faculty which produces an illusory self.

Greek philosophers such as Aristotle viewed the question somewhat differently from the Hindus in that their discussions centered on the existence or non-existence of a soul. A major attempt in western philosophy to delve into this question was made by the British philosopher David Hume who, in his Treatise on Human Nature, after observing his own consciousness, concludes that there is really no such thing as a self and that we are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity.”

In psychology, this introspective exploration of the self was further deepened with the new science of psychology. William James and Sigmund Freud were early pioneers in this field. James calls this problem “the most puzzling puzzle with which psychology has to deal” (Principles of Psychology). He disagrees with Hume’s view that the self is just a stream of passing thoughts, for this “runs against the entire common-sense of mankind.” He recognized that there was an empirical or phenomenal self (consisting of the material, social and spiritual selves) but that underneath these facets of self is the Pure Ego (or Arch-Ego) which is the source of the unity and continuity of the experience of self.

Freud, on the other hand, functionally distinguishes the conscious Ego from the Id (instinctive drive) and the superego (social conscience). At birth, only the Id is functional, while the Ego and the Superego are but later differentiations of the Id as a result of growth and experience.

Carl JUNG regards the Self as one of the archetypes or inherent structures of human consciousness. These archetypes include the Ego (conscious mind), the Persona (the external self), the Shadow (instinctive drives), and the Anima/Animus (image of masculinity/femininity). These different archetypes are really facets of the self, but each may be in conflict with the other. The process of maturity first involves the conscious recognition of these archetypes, called “Individuation” process. Then these diverse aspects are integrated by the transcendent function, which develops the total Self.

Roberto Assagioli, the founder of the Psychosynthesis movement, assumes an inner or higher self that is at the core of our being, and which is the source of human purpose and destiny. Psychological health is the discovery of this higher self and the expression of its nature in life.

Religious Views. We have mentioned above that the Hindus identify the true self as the Atman. The realization of the Atman is also considered as one’s realization of the Divine or Transcendent Being, of which the Atman is but a spark. In RAJA Yoga, this is the transcendence of the ego-sense or the psychological self. The process of transcendence involves multiple stages until one attains to the highest level, called Dharma-mega-samadhi.

BUDDHISM on the other hand, denies that there is an enduring Self or Atman. This doctrine, Anatman (or anatta in Pali) is one of the three basic truths in Buddhist philosophy: the truths of suffering (duhkha), change (anicca) and no-self. The perceived self is an aggregate (skandha) of five factors: form (rupa), feelings (vedana), perceptions (sañña) latent tendencies (samskara), and consciousness (vijñana). None of these five are enduring, hence the self is illusory and has no permanence. Such an aggregate can be termed pudgala or personal self.

Islam speaks of different nafs or selves: the self that is prone to evil (nafs-i-ammara), the self-accusing self (nafs-i-lawwama), and the self at rest or spiritual self (nafs-i-mutma’innah). In addition other nafs are frequently cited by Sufis, such as the rational and animal selves.

Christianity distinguishes between three kinds of selves: the body (soma), soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) (1 Thess 5:23).

Mysticism. The mysticism of the religious traditions are practically unanimous that the aim of the religious life is union with the Divine or Absolute. This involves not only transcendence of the lower or personal self, but the merging of the higher Self with the Absolute. It is the Nirvana of Buddhism, the moksa or liberation of Hinduism, the fana or annihilation of Sufism, and the Union of Christian mystics. The Atman and the Paramatman are one; “the dewdrop slips into the shining sea” (Light of Asia).

Theosophical view. The theosophical view about the self is basically identical with the Hindu and esoteric Buddhist view. The true Self is the Atman that expresses itself through six vehicles or principles: spiritual soul (BUDDHI), higher mind (arupa MANAS), lower mind (rupa manas), feelings (kama), etheric double (LINGA-SARIRA), and the physical body. This true Self or Atman is different from the reincarnating Ego (the Causal Body or Buddhi-Manas) and the personality or personal self (the four lower principles).

While calling the Atman the true Self, theosophy at the same time states that the Atman is not a personal or individual entity but a universal one, and thus is not really a “Self.”

Atman is no individual property of any man, but is the Divine essence which has no body, no form, which is imponderable, invisible and indivisible, that which does not exist and yet is, as the Buddhists say of Nirvana. It only overshadows the mortal; that which enters into him and pervades the whole body being only its omnipresent rays, or light, radiated through Buddhi, its vehicle and direct emanation. (Key to Theosophy, Sec. 7)

The Atman, according to Helena P. Blavatsky, “is the Universal ALL, and becomes the HIGHER-SELF of man only in conjunction with Buddhi, its vehicle.” In this sense therefore the theosophical view of the Self is not essentially different from the Buddhist view of ANATMAN.



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