July 02


I am happy to present to you an excerpt from the fifth sixth chapter of my forthcoming book, The Soul of a New Self:

We are largely cultural beings. Human beings are not individual separate entities. Human being is a way of being that is held in culture and emerges through individuals. We are a collective being. In fact, even our self-awareness is not something we posses as individuals. We think of ourselves as self-aware, but the capacity to reflect back on our self is not something we could have developed as an individual. It is a collective capacity that developed through interactions between us. Self-awareness doesn’t arise in individuals. It manifests as a group phenomenon. Self-awareness is a characteristic of culture rather than individuals.

Imagine that you were the only human being on earth. You could learn things. You could learn what was safe to eat and what made you sick. You might learn where to find food and how to store it. You might learn how to hunt, how to avoid danger and how to find shelter in all kinds of weather. You could become very intelligent through trial and error, but you would not learn to think in words or self-reflect.

Language emerges as an interaction between people. Our understanding of ourselves as a being that has a name is something we first learn through communication with others, and then it becomes internalized and solidified in the self-communication of thought. Eventually the habit of talking to ourselves about ourselves becomes so ingrained in us that we hardly notice it. We lose track of this self-talk and it simply becomes absorbed into our experience of ourselves. Eventually the things we think about ourselves become fused with our perception of ourselves.

We have learned to experience ourselves as a specific Thinking-Thing, in my case as Jeff. We see ourselves as acting agents in the world, as beings and entities. To liberate ourselves from this flow and become available to initiate a new one, we must take a radically impersonal view of human life. We must see the actions coming through us, me typing and you reading, as the manifestation of personal and cultural flows of being. To clarify this view even further we need to see that human activity is a continuous response to shifts in the circumstances that surround us rather than as the consequences of decisions made by willing agents. This discussion is an intermediate step on the path that leads to the embrace of true authenticity.

Think of a stream of activity that is governed solely by habit. There is no doer that is guiding action; there are just habits that have been learned over time. These habits of activity developed in response to encounters with different circumstances. As we continually engage with the environment, that ongoing encounter stimulates the growth of habits of action, thought and emotion. As long as there is no disharmony between the environment and our habitual ways of acting, thinking and feeling, we remain essentially unconscious.

Think about how you get up in the morning. Most of us get out of bed, make coffee, take a shower, get dressed and leave the house in the morning without really being aware of any of it actually happening. The whole process is simply a manifestation of habit.

Now, what happens if just before we leave the house we reach into our coat pocket and realize we don’t have our car keys? At that point we wake up and become aware of the circumstances around us. Something is out of place. There is a disruption of habit that awakens us to consciousness and initiates the self-conscious and deliberate activity of searching for our keys. We will remain in this awakened state of consciousness until we find our keys. Then we can get back into our unthinking routine and the harmonious union of habit and environment has been restored.

The American philosopher John Dewey wrote at length about how impeding the harmonious routine of our habitual ways of being sparks an impulse to urgency, immediacy and directionality. The disruption of our routines wakes us up to an impulse that is directed toward some possible future like driving your car to work.

Once awake we feel compelled to restore the harmony between habit and activity in service of realizing our directive. The awakened impulse in human beings initiates a process of deliberation in which our minds make predictions about possible outcomes of different courses of action. When a course of action seems to promise the satisfactory restoration of harmony that action manifests through us. If harmony is restored we merge again into the stream of activity. In the case of having lost our keys we immediately start to imagine different places where we could look for them and search where it seems most promising to find them. Once we find our keys we walk out the door and continue unconsciously to work until our next encounter with disharmony.

This all happens without the need to assume the existence of any “ego” or “self” that is a willful agent making decisions and choosing to act. Life is simply an impulse that continually seeks to maintain harmonious union of habit and environment in service of some intended aim. Human beings are simply enacting life’s continuous quest to maintain harmony in service of the future.

We wake up in the middle of a routine of being a human being. Something disrupted that routine. Perhaps it was an awakening experience, or the loss of an awakening experience, or simply an event that stopped our forward movement in life. Something woke us up from the dream of being a Thinking-thing. That disruption creates disharmony that initiates a search for a new understanding of what it means to be human. There will always be a temptation to find some quick solution that restores harmony so that we can return to the unconsciousness of routine. If we resist this temptation we can remain awake.

If we are lucky enough to wake up in the first place, and bold enough to remain awake, we can abide in freedom outside of the routine of being human. If we can find others who are living in that freedom together we can recreate the world. We have a foothold in a reality beyond the normal and we can use that footing as leverage to enact authentic change.