OK, so what is a self and what exactly are we mastering?
You'll find a lot of answers regarding this, many of them in conflict with each other. As we are talking about something fundamentally existential if not phenomenological, the narratives go in all directions. Religious philosophies will have their own spectrum of suggestions. Science, itself, an evidence-based belief system, will provide you with many more.
If we smear our investigation across that whole spectrum, we can arrive at an overview that suggests our self is a definition of our existence. 20th century epistomologist, Gregory Bateson, in describing the essential creature of evolution describes an " an adaptive organism and its environment." I find that a useful starting point.
Note, Bateson names a binary - "an adaptive organism and its environment". Both elements interact to form the whole of this adaptive being. As I'm less concerned with your personal interpretation of who you are and more with your nature as a dynamic adaptive being, I'm anchoring these ideas in Batesons descriptive notion.
Adapting is the operative term here. As the cosmos is a flux of changing state, adapting to those changes is key for any of us who exist. All definitions of self that populate our intellectual history are definitions of how we adapt to this deeply changing state. So, I further root the idea of self mastery squarely in the art of adaptation. We either do that well or we don't. If we do, we, at least, survive; possibly even thrive. If we don't, well, it cuts this conversation short.
Our self then, is this binary presence of an adaptive organism and its environment.
Our definition of self - beyond the descriptors of science, is our personal interpretation of what it is to be this adaptive being.
More importantly, we don't personally treat this idea as a theoretical. For almost all of us, our self definition is hard and fast, something we defined "on the job" as we have adapted from our earliest days until now. It is "who we believe we are."
Behavioral science has suggested that our self-definition evolves through three veins:
- what the world tells us we are;
- what we tell ourselves we are from our experience and
- a combination of these two.
In all cases, this personal, behavioral analysis is always defined in our relationship to the environment we live within. If we are born with serious health complications and grow up living in hospitals, that environment will color our sense of self one way. If we grow up in the lap of luxury and live the life of the idle rich, we will see ourselves in another way. Environmental variations are endless. So are our responses to them. Therefore, endless are the ways in which we can define who we are in the environment.
If we wish to explore this in depth, we can study the vast body of research available in our current knowledge of early childhood development. A lot is now known about how the neurons and synapses of our brain form and these are the very biological structures that encode who we think we are. In all cases, these nervous structures and the beliefs they encode form in response to either our genetic code (to make us human) and then, in response to how we learn our environment and how those conditions teach us to adapt.
Wow! Can that ever be a broad territory!
There is no question that we are actually something present in the world. There's no question that we are from our beginning actively learning to adapt to where we are. One of these is a priori. It shows up and organizes the beast we ride on. The other is a posteriori and defines who we are from the experience of riding that beast.
You have, no doubt, done your own personal research on who you are.
Perhaps you've researched your genetic background. Perhaps you've lived a reflective life in which you combed the memories of your experience and tabulated who you believe you are in the context of your memories. Perhaps some of those memories are traumatic and buried, hiding salient insights into why you are the way you are and why you do the things you do.
Fine. Some pattern resides within your neuronal complex that says you are someone.
No matter what that looks like in your thoughts and feelings, several issues are relevant to the one who wishes to self master the art of adapting to their environment.
First, in a universe of ceaseless flux, you formed these ideas on an isolated set of personal experienced you had in the limited world of your upbringing along with the limited world of your adult experience. No matter what any of us have been through, we haven't been through everything, so our sense of self is, at best, a picture of who we think we are from just the stuff we think we know. On the face of it, that is simply inadequate. That definition of self is in no way equivalent to who we actually are in the big picture of existence.
Secondly, whatever we imprinted in our memory regarding ourselves in response to the experiences we've been through, that's done and done. None of those conditions exist anymore. Those we learned from our very likely long gone from our life. No matter how static our life may appear to be, nothing in existence is stable and constant. We live in a changing state. So, the world has moved on. It's different now.
Typically, however, our identity of ourselves has not moved on. We retain the formation of our early life as the identity of our whole life. That is very simply, a bad fit. It is no longer an accurate depiction of our adaptive presence in a changing environment.
Another critical point to consider is the influence of outside narratives on our sense of self. From the time we were born, the world has bombarded us with messages of what we should think, who we should be and what we should do. This powerful, relentless assault of forced identity is structure to massage our beliefs about ourselves to behave the way others want us to.
That has a direct, economic, social and political effect since what we believe about ourselves directs how we apply our energy or, as its proxy, spend our money. "I will tell you who you are, then you will behave as I want you to behave."
In the whole, that has nothing to do with our native state as an adaptive organism and its environment. It simply enslaves us by the nature of our beliefs to the machinations of others.
Can you say "echo chamber?" The most wealthy and powerful can.
Probably of greatest significance is the understanding that our brain, and therefore, who we think we are is fundamentally plastic, fundamentally formable (as it was from our conception onward) and even now, re-formable by both others and ourselves.
OK. That's a broad outline of how our self gets formed.
Here's the question: "Is any of that accurate?"
How much of that is useful? And, most basically, who is forming our sense of self? Does the vision we hold of ourselves reflect our own highest aspiration or are we pawns in another's game (even if the other is our childhood persona)?
When we undertake any practice that leads us to our own self mastery, we are directly confronting all of the pre-existing templates by which we define ourselves. Those patterns have very substantial electro-chemical patterns in our brain. Neurons retain them. Synapses apply them. They are written into our cerebral code. They can take work to remove, practice to reform.
But then, they're plastic.They are re-writable. We can clean out the outdated junk in our personal processor. We can even scrap the entire operating system and encode something more accurate, something more adaptable in our complex world. That can be done now. It can be done at any time.
Self is not a constant. It is a reflective, moving target of who we think we are in relationship to the world we live in. What exactly are the limits of that? What are the limits to who we think we are, to what we might become?
What does it take to explore those options?
The journey we make to do that can take a while but it always begins right here, right now, right in the middle of what we are doing. Because of that, it is intimately accessible.
We can begin by exploring how we deal with our perceptions of the environment. Are we seeing things clearly for what they are as opposed to what we think they should be, what we want them to be?
What is the quality of how we analyze those perceptions? Do we have fixed rules for assuming what any perception implies? Are our assumptions correct?
What do we believe about the world? Do our beliefs match the reality of the world "as it is?" Do we actually believe these ideas or have we merely borrowed them, adopted them from another? Did those we borrowed them from even have a clue about how the world works? And, why would we think they accurately apply to us?
St. Paul describe belief as "confidence in things unseen." What is unseen, of course, is most of our existence. We only take in a micro-fraction of reality, so what is it exactly we are having confidence in?
Based on these many beliefs, what impulses are we subject too? What habits and obsession repetitively drive our response in a chaotic world? Do they help or harm?
Just how in command are we of the constellation of meta-cognitive behaviors that rule our day-to-day responses in the world?
When we master the self, we take direct command of what we perceive and believe. We work actively to eradicate
- false signals,
- false interpretations,
- false assumptions,
- false efforts
that impede our ability to know the world directly and adapt masterfully.
Rather than allow ourselves to be driven by outer influences only, we re-train or brain to become "inner-directed," to evolve and rely upon inner signals we have refined and polished from a more open-ended process of relating to the larger world.
It's a big undertaking.
We engage in the exploration of everything we believe we are with the purpose of discovering who we actually are in the midst of our ongoing adaptation to the ever-changing world.
You can imagine, that to do this well, we benefit from a certain openness. Perhaps, the one who self masters needs to re-assert the wonder of the young child:
- Not have so many answers.
- Embrace a few more questions.
- Welcome some adventure and a sense of discovery.
In fact, given that the cosmos has no intent to settle down into any kind of routine anytime soon, an open, spontaneous sense of wonder might be the perfect method of navigating an open-ended, expansive experience.
Perhaps what the self masters is the ability to live in the undefined. To frolic in insecurity. To relish the open ended discovering of something no one knows anything about?