I was blessed with a happy childhood. In many respects my parents were very late Victorians who were totally committed to our upbringing – but, expressed as duty, rather than affectionate love; but I don’t remember a feeling of being unloved as such.
My early life was not troubled by the fact that we were considered poor – I didn’t starve, and was never left naked. Never ambitious, I was not really a swot, and yet I do not recall being pressed to achieve. I was a member of a community, the community of the church, a close family, and a community of friends. All summers seemed long and sunny. I was just me; but I was happy, so I wasn’t consumed by me.
From the age of five, my father made sure that I received a Christian religious upbringing. I was a willing soul until I reach fifteen years of age, when I rebelled – not against my parents – but against their theological beliefs; although I still considered myself to be spiritual – a feeling I couldn’t explain or articulate at the time; and not until quite recently. My religious experience did, though, take me out of myself (which the Ancient Greeks called ekstasis or self-transcendence); this left me with a sense of awe and wonder of the world and the universe.
The Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, reckoned that philosophy begins with wonder, which is probably why, in my early 20s, I became interested in philosophy – but again, I didn’t understand why I was so compelled to study it. When at home on leave from the Royal Navy, I would frequently stay up all night talking to my father about religion and philosophy – I liked the Socratic dialogues so, naturally, I took on the role of Socrates!
After leaving the Royal Navy, however, and entering the world of work, I created and cloaked myself with another, more troubled self – a self created by pressures of work and civilian life, which I had not previously encountered. This begs the question, then, is there a core self – or Being that is unaffected by outer conditions and circumstances? Before we can answer that question, we have to consider how the mind creates the world – and the self.
Creating the world?
When we look out on the world, it seems to us to be so concrete. Our senses give us the world and everything in it to us directly doesn’t it? Or does it? Philosophers have argued over this problem for hundreds of years; but most would now agree that we do not perceive the world directly – we recreate it in our minds by reconstructing that world using the phenomenal data given to us by our senses. This process is called sense-perception. (Empirically-minded philosophers allege that this is the only way that we can acquire knowledge, while other more rationally-minded philosophers would argue that our knowledge is innate. Others contend that it is a bit of both.)
Consider this: our eyes do not perceive – they are equivalent to a pair of 40mm camera lens; if the mind didn’t process sense data, our field of view of the world would appear upside down! This is because our eyes invert the world, just as a camera lens does; and like a reflex camera our mind needs to invert the data from the eyes again to bring the world right-side up.
So, how does the mind reconstruct the world we see? It does this by aggregating all the perspectives we have of an object. Consider this table, on which I am writing this piece: If I stand still and view the table I see one perspective of it only; If I view it from above, for example – the table appears as a two dimensional square – just as a “flatlander” would see it; but, as I move around the table I see many different perspectives. My mind aggregates all these many perspectives to present to me the table as a whole. This is so well done by the brain, that the table appears concrete.
So, the world we perceive isn’t given to us directly – it is a model of the world; it isn’t objective either: it’s very subjective – I might be colour-blind, for instance.
The 18th century German Idealist philosopher, Emmanuel Kant – following on from some of the world’s Empiricist philosophers, such as Locke, Berkeley and Hume, stated that while we can more or less perceive the world quite accurately in good light, we can never view that world “as-it-is-in-itself.” In other words, such knowledge of the world is never direct – it is second-hand, as we have seen.
Creating the self?
Dame Shirley Bassey used to sing: “I am what I am; I am my own creation.”
Nice song, but what is the “I” that creates the self? The self isn’t consciously created: it is created by our conditioning and our past experiences, certainly; but nevertheless, the self-model is created and buried in our subconscious, without our asking and remains hidden until revealed by circumstances which triggers its awakening. Buried are: fears and phobias, experienced abuse and neglect (especially lack of love), and other sources of negative emotions especially if experienced when very young.
Similarly, when we ask that self-directed question: “Who am I?” can we give a concrete answer? Well, as you should eventually see, most of us cannot; what we consider to be our “self” is also reconstructed in the mind from “sense” data – like the table in my study. But it is this “self” that interprets the world; so can we rely on that interpretation if we cannot really rely on the self we’ve reconstructed? Well, we can if we seek to “Know Thyself” in the full light of “inner illumination.”
In the 19th century, another German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer – who was greatly influenced by Kant, (and, interestingly, came to the same conclusions as the ancient Indian Hindu philosophers) – took Kant’s philosophy a step further. He reckoned that while we cannot perceive objects in the world “as-they-are-in-themselves,” we, too, are objects in the world. Schopenhauer’s great insight was that, since we possess reflective minds – we do have access to the (psychological) self “as-it-is-in-itself.” Doesn’t this give us an excellent opportunity to know ourselves – as we really are?
So when we look out on the world, we perceive it indirectly; but when we look at our inner world – I mean really look – we have the potential to “perceive” it directly – provided our self-created ego gets out of the way of this perceiving. So, eventually, we should be able to answer that question: “Who am I?”
We have considered how the self is created. How does the School, then, help us to know this self and, subsequently, know our true Being? The next blog will consider this.