Rethinking the Self
Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating science to issues in society. A selection of these blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Lasse Lorenz.
“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye” (The Bhagavad Gita, 2010).
One of the central tenets of many spiritual philosophies is a deeper connection between individuals (Flanagan, 2018). You might agree that the idea of division in many cases, for instance considering division of nations or division of race, is a product of thought. There is no real border between two countries, it is only a creation of the mind. But what about division of individuals into separate beings? Here the boundaries between reality and thought become blurrier. It is the norm to construct the self around one’s individual mind and body, constraining the understanding of self to one entity. But there is also an alternative view, called self-expansiveness, that suggests that a self-concept can be broader and possibly include other things and beings. For some, this may culminate in the experience of oneness which can be described as perceiving the self to be one with everything. Acknowledging the somewhat unconventional nature of this idea, it could elicit a more hesitant reaction in those taking a more scientific approach to sense-making in life. In fact, you might already feel the first suspecting questions arising in your head. What is an expanded sense of self even supposed to mean? Why is it relevant? And lastly, what does it imply?
“Some have suggested that more expansive selves could be a meaningful factor in combating contemporary humanitarian crises”
Let’s investigate these questions one by one. If I told you that I include you in my self-concept, what would that mean to you? You may take it as a compliment, thinking that it is my metaphorical way of showing you appreciation, or you may conclude that I am likely just some weirdo. Of course you may also feel similarly and reciprocate the feeling. Importantly, self-expansiveness is not just someone’s philosophical brainchild but it actually differs among people in measurable ways (Friedman, 2018). To clarify, it means that the idea of “me” (self as an object, and not “I”, self as a subject), may also contain that which is outside of one’s skin and the present moment, putting the self-concept on a continuum varying along both a space (individual atoms to the entire universe) and time dimension (past events and experiences to possible future selves).
Research suggests that such self-expansion may be very meaningful in its consequences. For instance, Kamis (2014) identified more expansive self-concepts to correlate with greater well-being. Moreover, Hoot and Friedman (2011) demonstrated that feeling interconnected with nature predicted positive environmental behavior. Also, Diebels (2017) established that believing in oneness of humanity is related to pro-sociality, empathic concern, and compassion for others. Subsequently, some have suggested that more expansive selves could be a meaningful factor in combating contemporary humanitarian crises (Machinga & Friedman, 2013). Thus, it seems that the shift in the sense of self from being an isolated entity to an expanded construct that includes others has a meaningful impact on how we interact with our surroundings. This may start to make more sense in light of the debate about whether altruistic behaviors ultimately have egoistic motives (Batson, 1991). Here, the concept of self-expansiveness simply ascribes a new meaning to what can be considered selfish behavior. Namely, if we include others in our self-concept, doing a favor for someone else actually means we benefit ourselves.
“Thus, it seems that the shift in the sense of self from being an isolated entity to an expanded construct that includes others has a meaningful impact on how we interact with our surroundings.”
There is plenty of evidence supporting the relevance of self-expansiveness by showing its positive impact on several domains. But let’s take a step back and think about the implications connected to this idea. Self-expansiveness contends that the difference between “me” and “other” may be more fluid than commonly assumed. Nevertheless, it may be wise to distinguish between the perception of being one with everything as real in a material sense or it being an abstract belief (Friedman, 2018). As such, Flanagan (2018) argues that while the idea of oneness (in the sense that everything is one in a literal way) may be possible logically, there is insufficient evidence to validate its truthfulness. He implies that perceiving an expanded self may not be real but something we hallucinate (note that this hallucination could still have the positive consequences I described before). But quite frankly, it is questionable whether there is such a thing as a real “self” to begin with. Accordingly, Peacock (2018) argues that our sense of self, in the “this is me” kind of way that we experience it, is no more than a necessary illusion that helps us in adapting to our environment effectively. Taking this idea further, our current world and society, as it is becoming increasingly interconnected but also increasingly put at risk, may just provide the right circumstances where more expansive self-concepts can be considered to be adaptive.
It is not difficult to conclude that many types of division are a product of thought and it seems that this is true for the division of “me” and “other” as well. Admittedly, it may be difficult to comprehend what is meant by a transpersonal sense of self if one has never experienced it, much like it was once difficult for people to grasp that the earth is not the center of the universe (Friedman, 2018). Equally, it is naive to assume that an expanded sense of self, the perception to be one with everything, can be the stand-alone solution to contemporary issues we humans are facing (Flanagan, 2018). Nonetheless, the presented evidence outlines itself as sufficient to further explore this concept and eventually be able to identify the full extent of how an expanded self can be of benefit to us humans. In the end, isn’t it nice to think that we are merely like rivers, differing in path and origin, yet emptying into the very same ocean?
Note. Illustration of Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163.
Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Diebels, K. J. (2017). Psychological and interpersonal implications of believing that everything is one: identity, personality, values, and worldviews [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering (Vol. 77, Issue 9–B(E)).
Flanagan, O. (2018). Hallucinating oneness: Is oneness true or just a positive metaphysical illusion? In P. J. Ivanhoe, O. J. Flanagan, V. S. Harrison, H. Sarkissian, & E. Schwitzgebel (Eds.), The oneness hypothesis: Beyond the boundary of self. (pp. 269–284). Columbia University Press. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.7312/ivan18298-015
Friedman, H. L. (2018). Transpersonal psychology as a heterodox approach to psychological science: Focus on the construct of self-expansiveness and its measure. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6(1), 230–242. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1037/arc0000057
Hoot, R. E., & Friedman, H. (2011). Connectedness and environmental behavior: Sense of interconnectedness and pro-environmental behavior. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 30(1–2), 89–100.
Kamis, R. P. (2014). The relationship between expanded concepts of self and well-being [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering (Vol. 75, Issue 4–B(E))
Machinga, M., & Friedman, H. (2013). Developing transpersonal resiliency: An approach to healing and reconciliation in Zimbabwe. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 32(2), 53–62. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.24972/ijts.2013.32.2.53
Peacock, L. (2018). There is only “one therapy”. Retrieved on May 29th, 2020, from Psychologytoday.com.
The Bhagavad Gita. (2010, p.18). Retrieved from holybooks.com