I went and stood outside myself. — Thomas Hardy
Can it be that humanity is really, as George Meredith saw it, "a supreme ironic procession with laughter of gods in the background"? If it is, we need not feel dismayed by the prospect; because there is that in us which is akin to the very gods who laugh. A part of us which can laugh with the gods, knowing that all is well at the heart of things, and that all will arrive in the fullness of time. The faculty given us by the winged imagination, to stand aside and see ourselves, is proof of this. If even one man had only one such vision of himself, it would make it true. Yet any one of us can do it when we will; and by so doing we step across the line that divides us from the gods, and for the time being at least we are on their side.
We may wonder how it is possible to separate oneself from oneself in that way. It is a fairly common experience though, but usually so subjective that we are hardly ever aware of how we do it.
We are always observing others, and sometimes enjoy a private chuckle over their quaint customs and peculiarities; actually this is one way that we can learn the ins and outs of our own nature. But pretending that we are someone else watching ourselves think and act, may have an equal value. It is an oddity, but it can work in a number of ways. A neighbor receives word of the loss of a son in the wars: we feel a sense of shock, but however greatly we may feel for him, it is not the same pang as if our own son had been taken. And as the thing extends itself to persons still further afield, the sense of loss becomes ever more vague and impersonal. In other words, our keenest feeling is still chiefly for ourselves: a feeling rooted deep in us. However, it is conceivable that in a vastly nobler future state of being, the hurt and suffering of others will weigh more heavily with us than our own "throes and sorrows." Perhaps it is possible to cultivate a greater capacity for putting ourselves in the place of another by habitually viewing ourselves in a more dispassionate light.
Say, for example, that we are brought up short in the even tenor of our life by some sudden shock or irreparable loss of friend or fortune, the kind of thing that shakes us loose from all our moorings, so that we feel completely adrift and at a loss. The faculty of detachment will help us to regain our perspective, and give us the will to take a new hold on life. Our keenest fears will subside, and judgment and some degree of vision will come to our aid.
But we need not be in an extremity to make use of this stratagem. Whenever we find ourselves in difficulties with the won't-power within, yet know we have got to make the effort, we have only to "go and stand outside ourself" to find the mainspring of right action. The way to meet the "ordeal by existence" which is what Herman Melville called life, is certainly not just to drift along, enduring the barbs and prods of circumstance. That other one in us has plenty of ideas: it has been observing and evaluating the quality of our accomplishment all our lives. It is a matter of the point of view. Others, we are convinced, should have discipline, should generate effort and sustain it; shoulder responsibility; make sacrifices — in short, maintain an ever higher standard. Then why not we? Pretending that we are someone else — not just another person that we know, but the ideal person who does what we know we ought to do — might do the trick for us.
There is a quaint verse attributed to Jonathan Swift that puts the idea neatly:
In points of honour to be try'd
All passion must be laid aside;
Ask no advice, but think alone:
Suppose the question not your own:
How shall I act? is not the case;
But how would Brutus in my place?
In such a case would Cato bleed?
And how would Socrates proceed?
— But it goes deeper than that. What comes into play, of course, is the higher Imagination: we can visualize that someone else who is ourself, being and doing something just beyond what we thought it was in us to be and do.
The artist before his easel occasionally steps back a few paces to view the overall effect. Men of genius — Keats, for example — talk and write about themselves, but do it as if they were looking on impersonally at the phenomenon of someone else's actions and peculiarities. Edmund Blunden, in a recent book, gives Thomas Hardy something of the same quality. Hardy had so identified himself with certain local landmarks in the ancient Wessex country, that they "held him as if timelessly watching what it had been his destiny to see and feel." And Mr. Blunden adds:
He could thus sum up almost sixty years of his life, as though his literary ardours had been a mere parergon [a secondary thing, an incidental] and as though the real world which he possessed was unaffected by any of the apparent actions and sometimes the disquiets of Thomas Hardy the celebrated writer.
Those who are students of the Bhagavad-Gita — and so many are these days — will see nothing fantastic in this idea of going outside of oneself, but simply the old teaching of non-attachment in action; so that in time the student of life comes to see that he is really doing nothing in carrying out the pure automatisms of his existence — the motivating power is within.
(From Sunrise magazine, June 1952; copyright © 1952 Theosophical University Press)