Because we can see people’s bodies, we are aware of the many variations in human appearance. It’s obvious that, despite basic similarities, everyone looks unique. Each of us has many other unique physical features such as voice print, retinal scans, and DNA. I wonder, however, whether we realize how unique we each are in our invisible selves — not just in our general personality, but also in the specific ways we perceive, think, and feel.
It’s natural to assume that most people’s senses and mind work more or less the same way ours do because we have no direct knowledge of other people’s internal experience. In the same way, we may at first think that all families organize the details of their lives the way our family does, or that all sensible people hold values and concepts similar to the ones we grew up with — until we live around people with different habits and beliefs. Still, our inner selves are so private that we may never become aware that generalizing from ourselves to others is inaccurate.
If we compare notes with others about our inner experience, we may be surprised to find how different people are. One person may feel psychologically connected to the world, another as radically separate as an atom. With some, their awareness stands back from the play of consciousness and events, while others feel wholly absorbed in their life experience. Some people feel divided, as if made up of several separate “selves” or various layers of masks or screens. Others may experience themselves as a continuum or a single self. Memory works in a variety of ways, with recollections taking the form of static photos, movie clips, feelings, shapes, etc. People also display qualities we can talk about in terms of contrasting pairs such as analytical/synthetic, abstract/concrete, evaluative/analogical, and inductive/deductive. Popular concepts such as psychological types, learning styles, and types of “intelligence” are crude classifications equivalent to categorizing people’s appearance by general body type or by hair, eye, and skin color. We may be intrigued by these broad classifications, but such rough categories give us no inkling of the vast range of human inner uniqueness.
We often realize that other people’s senses are more or less acute than ours, but may not realize that they have sensitivities and qualities we aren’t even aware of. In truth, we have no idea of the varieties of human awareness and perception. We are in the position of a blind man being asked to describe the diversity of human appearance. So when we try to answer “who are we?” we can really know only ourselves and no one else, no matter how open or intimate we are with another. Perhaps that’s one reason the Greek oracle advised visitors to “know yourself” — it is the only subject we can perceive directly and from the inside. And even here, our consciousness filters and shapes our knowledge just as language filters and shapes our thoughts.
Discovering who we are is challenging and requires becoming a scientist of our own psyche. So often we identify with our thoughts, feelings, moods, or even our actions or appearance. Our self-image may be a fixed picture that has grown up over years, based in large part on what others tell us and what we tell ourselves. For we are just as apt to stereotype ourselves as we are other people. Such pigeonholing is a lazy strategy which saves us the trouble of having to figure out and deal with things through our immediate experience. It is the same mental process we notice when people are asked to draw an object in front of them, such as a chair or face. Instead of drawing what they actually see, they are apt to draw a caricature, a symbolic cultural shorthand for the object. Getting around this mental tendency and learning to really observe and record what’s before us often requires effort and training, or a return to a kind of psychological innocence.
When we begin to observe ourselves the way a scientist might observe an animal in its environment, we see that our thoughts and feelings come and go in our awareness. They are not our consciousness, but rather its contents. We become more aware of our ego or ordinary sense of self as part of us rather than the center of who we are. Its judgments, worries, and concern with past and future are simply ever-changing aspects of our awareness. We may also notice that sometimes aspects from our environment are reflected into our psyche, while at other times the universe acts as a mirror so that everywhere we look we see ourselves. More often we are unaware of these processes.
But where are “we” in all these psychological phenomena? No matter how long or carefully we observe ourselves, there is always a part of us that we can’t perceive as an object. This “watcher” is fundamental in the sense that we can’t get behind it or beyond it. To transcend it is to become one with the mystery behind duality. Sometimes this happens spontaneously for a short while; sometimes it is achieved through preparation and effort. Perhaps this underlying awareness is the core of who we are, our “self,” not in the sense of an unchanging soul but as the core from which our evolutionary histories and life experiences unfold, the center around which our “unique” individuality forms and progresses.
In any case, doing away with the assumption that we already know who people are, inside and out, allows us to remain open to the wide variety of what it is to be human. It reminds us of the many mysteries involved in the vast Unknown we and all our fellows help form. So why not become scientists of human life, keen observers ready to be surprised by even the commonplace and familiar?
(From Sunrise magazine, Summer 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)
Man has no body distinct from his soul; for that called body is a portion of the soul discern’d by the five senses, the chief inlets of soul in this age. — William Blake