We live in fractured times. Our experience of reality and ourselves often seems to be dominated by a sense of isolation and separation. In the cannon of philosophy this sense of division is often spoken about as a product of The Western Enlightenment.The Enlightenment’s monumental leap forward in consciousness was in large part a movement of objectification.
The great Enlightenment thinkers made the heroic effort to dis-embed themselves from the life process,to carve out an intellectual space that was separate from nature, from life,and even from themselves. From this new vantage point they could look back and understand nature, life and themselves.
No longer were we simply tossed on the seas of reality with no outside reference point to navigate from. We had created a way to separate ourselves mentally from the world so that we could keep track of everything, identify the patterns through which reality was unfolding, and be in a better position to predict future events.
Imagine taking someone like Rene Descartes on a month long tour of modern Paris and you will get a sense of the advances that have been made through the miracle of objectification. I can only imagine Descartes falling to his knees in a modern hospital, or an airport, or even a movie theater, weeping to see the miracles that he helped make possible.
And yet this great leap forward also came with its unanticipated negative consequences. We had created a space within which we could separate and look back on the world – but had we lost our connection to the world? Had we severed a cord that could not be rejoined? Had we permanently distanced ourselves from the world? Would we now always be separate?
Rectifying this sense of separation and isolation was part of what was driving the Romantic thinkers of the 18 and 19th centuries and the Existentialists of the twentieth century. They were aware that something had been lost in the human spirit through the process of objectification. Some essential connection to who we really are had to be reclaimed.
To begin a personal exploration of this sense of isolation and separation the only thing we have to do is look at our experience right now. Can you find the part of your self that is separate from you and is watching you? We refer to this simply as being self-conscious or self-aware. When self-consciousness gets strong and negative we call it neurosis. When it gets strong and positive we call it vanity.
This self-consciousness when it is not extreme is a good thing. It allows us to be able to watch ourselves and make better decisions and faster corrections. But it has also left us with a deep sense of being a split personality. Most of us feel very divided at least at times.
If you think about it, you might find that there is a deep sense of separation and isolation at the core of your experience. You don’t really feel like you are a part of anything. In every circumstance you feel outside of everything looking in at it. Even your experience of being you is usually one that you view from an outside vantage point. Those rare moments when you find yourself inside of life, deeply absorbed in something so that you forget yourself, are moments of happiness, joy and even bliss.
The American Psychologist and Philosopher, William James, was very bothered by the sense of separation or division in the self. He himself suffered from a very neurotic and indecisive personality and he knew that there had to be a deeper unity of self underneath it all.
This post is the start of a series in which I will explore the sense of separation of self from reality in an effort to discover how to come in from the outside of reality and finding a way to stay on the inside of it.