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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Berne’

Last year I played with the idea of a community of inner selves in a sequence of posts I called My Parliament of Selves. I’ve also dealt with this idea in less personal terms.

I called into question the idea of an automatically unified and integrated self. A vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories, clinical experiences with multiple personalities and auditory hallucinations, as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring are all useful starting points in revising a simplistic view.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

I am also aware of the literature which deals with not just dissociated multiple personalities but also mediumship.

None of that prepared me for the shock I felt on revisiting a diary entry of mine from early 2000, which recorded some dream work I had done. I was looking for some notes I took at about that time on the subject of near-death experiences. This was something altogether different.

One way of working a dream, as I have described elsewhere, is the Gestalt technique of assuming the role of a dream element, whether that be a person or a thing and speaking in its voice. In the dream the night before the entry was made I had seen myself reflected in a mirror as a woman, so, when I woke, I worked on the dream by stepping into her presence and speaking her thoughts.

The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji (for source of image see link)

‘So you have found me at last,” she says out of her mirror. “Do you like what you see? Will you turn away from me again? My delicacy looks vulnerable and you do not trust me in your world. You do not trust me to be your guide. You think I’ll come to harm. I am not so delicate as you think. Or you fear I’ll bring you to harm. Look at my eyes – a deep deep black. I am in a way your soul. I am the unacknowledged strivings of your truest self. I am beauty. I am truth. I am life. I am love. I am your connection with the infinite. Through me you can know what lies out of your reach otherwise. I know what feeds your spirit and what does not. I am the repository of all the rich experiences you have ever known. Who do you think listens to this Chopin you are playing right now? Who responds to the views of Mount Fuji? Why do you never give me the time truly to savour those wonders? Why do you always wrench me away into the arid distractions of your daily unlife? Why when you usually write this journal do you never wait for me to have my say? Why do you fill it will the froth that floats on top of your mind? Is my path too steep for you? Do you fear your being will not bear the strain of it? Do you fear that paying attention to my concerns will make you careless of your responsibilities in the world? That is not true. Working in the world from my perspective will be richer and more telling.

‘When I look back over your day I can explain why you were so silent for so much of it. Do you remember your thoughts about suffering? All the people that you encountered [she names them but it is best I do not for reasons of confidentiality] – they all speak to the same issue. Suffering is not what we think it is. Its fire turns the clay of our imperfections to flawless china; suffering perfects the soul and enables it to rise to its highest destiny.

‘You do not believe that. I can feel the writhing of your disbelief. You revolt against the idea of bearing such sorrows and such pains in this world. You feel you could not ever do so. You want to evade such pain. That may be your good fortune – to avoid it — but it should not blind you to the purpose of suffering in others. Even those who bear it badly will see how they were blessed when they discard their body and ascend. Even if you had been able to think what I am saying you could not have shared it and what you did think was so negative and bleak there was no point in saying it. So you stayed silent and felt sad. If you have truly learned your lesson from this – which I doubt – you will not turn your back on me again. Try what this life is like – the life lived in full consciousness of me.’

The power of this took my breath away. What’s more I was stunned to realise that I had forgotten the whole encounter entirely, even though I wrote it down so fully at the time and added: ‘I would like to pledge that I will explore the world from this perspective to the best of my ability. But can I do so?’

My doubts were clearly well-founded.

There are many ways of interpreting this persona or sub-personality. Jung’s idea of the anima is perhaps the first to spring to mind. One website defines the anima as follows:

The anima is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. It is an unconscious factor incarnated anew in every male child, and is responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identified with the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive influence in a man’s life.

Jung did not see this as the soul in the way my sub-self forcefully asserted herself to be.

The anima is not the soul in the dogmatic sense, not an anima rationalis, which is a philosophical conception, but a natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. … It is always the a priori element in [a man’s] moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life.[“Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i, par. 57.]

And the depth and power of the spiritual insights my mirror-self articulates, especially concerning suffering, seem at odds with all that is written about the anima.

The link with suffering might be giving me a clue to where some of the passion of the persona derives from. I have explored at length how my parent’s grief over my sister’s death four years before I was born scorched my early years.

In addition, the rebukes she spits out about my not devoting time to immersing myself in deep experiences resonates with my work over the years on improving my powers of reflection (see diagram at the foot of this post for my latest perspective on this).

None of this though quite accounts for the sense of a whole personality expressing itself in this outburst – a personality to whom I have denied expression, something I have failed to integrate. I have consigned her to fulminating under the surface most of the time. The anger is searing.

It is possible that the persona was not in fact the anima at all, but rather something more akin to another concept Jung explores in his essay on the mana-personality (Collected Works, Volume 7, page 236). It is something around which the ego unconsciously revolves rather as the earth circles round the sun. He writes:

I call this centre the self.… It might equally well be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all out highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.

The Society of Friends refers to ‘that of God within us.’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself writes (AHW: 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

In The Seven Valleys He quotes ‘Alí, the Successor to Muhammad, as saying:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

1: Lower Unconscious 2: Middle Unconscious 3: Higher Unconscious 4: Field of Consciousness 5: Conscious Self or “I” 6: Higher Self 7: Collective Unconscious (For the source of the image see link.)

There is at least one fully articulated model of therapy that incorporates a sense of a higher self and seeks to help us connect with it: this is Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, which I have explored in various places on this blog. A coloured adaptation of his basic diagram illustrates this perspective clearly enough for now.

Clearly I need to take great care before jumping to the conclusion that this passionate dream element was definitely my Higher Self summoning me to better things. Even so, I also need to think hard before yet again dismissing this experience irretrievably to an  archive shelf somewhere deep in my memory store.

Perhaps a bit of reflection would help?

There is one other theory that might conceivably apply but which has much that feels dubious about it. I will take a look at that hopefully next week. The explanation is a strange mixture of ideas that resonate with and idiosyncrasies that repel me. I want to dig a bit deeper at least in terms of the best bits.

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Cliff

Cliff

. . . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,Section 36)

In preparation for a couple of posts later this week it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence.

A Community of Selves?

I have pondered this issue over many decades. It seems that the person who is writing this now may not be the same person who did the first draft years ago. I am not, of course, referring to my body even though it may have replaced most of its cells in that time, as cell replacement does not seem necessarily to entail self-replacement. As the brain, if not driven to new learning, tends to lose cells rather than grow new ones, the brain I’m using now may be significantly smaller than it was when I wrote the first draft, but will be otherwise the same, I should not be greatly changed as a result.

It is the person that I have my doubts about. I have had to select one of my selves to edit this post at this point, and I had to trust that the me who did so would not be too out of step with the me who originally wrote it!

That the self is vast there is no doubt. According to Bahá’u’lláh it contains the universe enfolded. Other spiritually oriented people generally share the same view. One poet, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

(G.M. Hopkins, Poems Oxford Edition page 107).

R.S. Thomas, also a priest, wrote that:

Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind.

(Later Poems page 99).

But size does not of necessity entail multiplicity.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

The Great Brain Robbery

I have already gone over in detail the implications of meditation and the Third ‘I’ and the threebrain models.

That can all seem a bit dramatic – a bit like the Great Brain Robbery.

It goes something like this.

Lots of people, when they’re explaining the value of mindfulness and meditation, describe the body as our car. So, if I think I’m the driver of this car, in full control, I’m deluded. I’ve been car-jacked.

Yes, my centre of awareness is in the driving seat, hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals, but every seat in the car is taken by a presence that’s holding a gun to my head. Directly behind me is Johnny Fear, known to his friends as Mr Rabbit. On my left is Jimmy Rage, the ‘auld croc.’ Back left is Sissy Thinker, who thinks she’s the brains of the outfit.

In the worst case scenario, I can hear an occasional thud and grunt from the boot of the car where they have locked my True Self, tightly bound and gagged. What he knows but I don’t is that their guns are loaded with blanks. They’re all bluff and thunder but no lightning at all.

When Sissy Thinker has bought into an ideology that sees almost everyone except her gang as a sworn enemy and unbeliever, Jimmy Rage takes control of the car and goes on a killing spree. Either that, or Mr Rabbit grabs the wheel, slams his foot on the accelerator and makes a run for it.

As we’ve looked at those issues in enough detail already, I’ll focus now on how to understand another aspect of the complexity of our interior in less loaded terms, more to do with our cultural conditioning than our evolutionary and instinctual heritage.

The Bahá’í Perspective

To get us going, what might be the beginnings of a Bahá’í perspective on all this?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote (GleaningsCXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

There are many passages in the Bahá’í Writings that explain various ways in which each of us can experience or be subject to divisions within, to a point at which one part of us is even in conflict with another. Such conflicts have implications for our relationships with others but it is not my purpose to consider those in detail now.

The focus of this post is the community of selves within each of us. Where is the evidence that we are more than one self?

The above quotation from Bahá’u’lláh describes us as not inwardly united, which implies that we may be inwardly divided. Bahá’u’lláh also talks of the self but in ways that conflict. For example, we are enjoined to flee the self as a prison[1] on the one hand, and to turn our sight towards it, on the other, and see Bahá’u’lláh as God standing within us[2]. We clearly cannot be talking about the same self in each case. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi develop this idea in many places[3].

Furthermore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes character as coming in three kinds – innate, inherited and acquired: there is also natural capacity and acquired capacity.[4]

There is in addition the question of divine attributes (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XXVII):

Upon the reality of man… He hath focussed the radiance of all of His names and attributes… and made it a mirror of His own self.

This multitude of varied attributes is hard to reconcile into one concept of God let alone integrate into a single self as the unwavering centre of a unified consciousness![5]

If the Bahá’í picture suggests at least a family of selves, what does the Western world think? I shall draw for the most part on psychology in the profile that follows.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

The Psychological Perspective

The layman seems typically to value consistency, which, in effect, means singleness. In psychology too the assumption has sometimes been that there really is a unity, accounting for differences and inconsistencies within the same person by variations of the trait perspective. However a vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories[6], clinical experiences with multiple personalities[7] and the auditory hallucinations of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia[8], as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring[9] are useful starting points in getting our bearings.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child[10]. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls[11] whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

Split-brain research strongly suggests that the left and right halves of the brain function in distinct ways. If they become surgically or traumatically disconnected then the patient can be shown to process reality in simultaneous but conflicting ways. Radical developments in academic psychology and its research take the view that no such thing as personality in the traditional sense exists. We are constructed from our social experience. Roles and the internalised descriptions of others produce an illusion of solid selfness. However, rather as with the proverbial onion, once you take these layers away is there nothing left above and beyond these disparate and ephemeral imaginings!

Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence, expresses his view that our multiple identities are inescapable and to be celebrated (page 172) partly at least because there is the danger of intolerant extremism once we ‘think of [our]selves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on “the other community”) and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.’

Next time we’ll look at some implications of these possibilities.

Notes:

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Persian) no. 40.
  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Arabic) no. 13.
  3. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 64, and Shoghi Effendi in Living the Life 28.
  4. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 56.
  5. See the Long Healing Prayer for a concentrated exposure to this problem.
  6. See N. Ornstein. Multiminds: A New Way to Look at Human Behaviour. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1986.
  7. See A. Crabtree. Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession And multiple Personality. London: Grafton Books, 1988.
  8. See L.S. Benjamin . “Is Chronicity a Function of the Relationship Between the Person and Auditory Illusion?” Schizophrenia Bulletin (1989) 15: 291-310.
  9. See E. Berne. “Games People Play”. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964; and R. Assagioli. Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings. 3d. ed. London: Turnstone, 1975.
  10. For a full and very intelligible description, see S. Woolams and M. Brown. TA: The Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979, pp. 9-40.

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In the Hindu religion, indeed, there are three planes of consciousness – the subconscious (instinctive and affective thought): the conscious (ideological and reflexive thought) and the superconscious (intuitive thought and the higher truth).

(Jean Hardy – A Psychology with a Soul – page 66)

Jean HardyWhen I began writing this sequence of posts I thought I knew what it was I wanted to say. As I got half-way through it hit me that I was writing it in a way that missed the most important point of all for me. So, this is now a complete re-write. What was meant as a simple tribute to the value to me of one school of psychotherapy has become something much more complicated. Why shouldn’t that surprise me!

In the Beginning!

To do this properly now I have to go back to the beginning of my psycho-spiritual journey.

After my father died of cancer in 1967, for seven years I anaesthetised myself. As far as I remember I never cried. I can’t check that out because I wrote no journal then.

I gave up smoking immediately, because I didn’t want to die that early, but carried on drinking because I didn’t want to feel. This carried on until 1974.

That was when I had my weekend encounter group experience in London in the early 70s. It was then I first discovered the existence of an intense pain within me, previously undetectable beneath an invisible threshold I didn’t even suspect existed.

This is what happened as I recall it.

I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the bare walls and uncarpeted steps. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and/or pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there. The process was blended from at least two approaches popular at the time: Primal Therapy and Reichian Therapy.

Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This put my foot on the first rung of a long ladder out of my deep hole. Till then, to use the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy analogy, I had been using the spade of alcohol to dig myself deeper.

I was still largely blind to my predicament. I had no idea what this well of tears signified. Connecting with it rather than concreting it over was hugely important, though. It showed me previously unsuspected depths to my own mind, even if what they meant remained a mystery. And what I could do about it was still unclear.

My move from teaching into mental health marked the next rung on the ladder, but not for any obvious reason that I could have guessed at in advance.

When I began working in the field of mental health, the main problem for me was not the clients but the staff. The tensions ran very high, so high in fact that at the end of about eighteen months or so, of three people who had been newly taken on at the same time, one of us had had a heart attack and the other two were heading for the exit as fast as possible. One of those two, after leaving, could not pass by the place he had worked without his heart racing at the memory of working there.

Things were so intense initially that I needed two glasses of wine to calm me down when I got back home after a bad day.

I began reading self-help books to assist me in managing the stress. I can still remember one key insight, though I’ve no idea now where I read it. The book raised the question of how we should deal with intense reactions to other people’s behaviour. It asked, ‘Why do we give other people so much power over our own minds?’ This was an early encounter with Frankl’s insight that, while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it.

Sad as it seems, that was a revelation to me. I’d thought that reactions were the almost inevitable consequences of a stimulus.

I needed more than that book though to help.

TATransactional Analysis

Transactional Analysis (TA), the creation of Eric Berne, proved to be one of the keys for me to managing this testing situation. I was determined that this bad experience would not drive me out of the career I had set my heart on pursuing.

I attended a TA group for 18 months or so.

It helped me see that interactions between people often took the form of a ‘game.’ In this brief overview I will only explain enough to convey the flavour of this model in simple form: for a deeper understanding a good place to start would be Stan Woolams and Michael Brown’s TA: the total handbook of transactional analysis.

Games are sequences of interactions with a pay off. One person would be unconsciously trying to hook another person into a kind of social dance to their advantage. This is done by acting in a way that consciously and superficially communicates a harmless message, but which also carries a second message beneath its surface with a potentially destructive effect. For example, ‘Can I help you?’ could be an honest offer of assistance. However, if the speaker holds the unconscious opinion that the person he is speaking to is a worthless loser, this is the potential start of a game.

Game quote

To do this they would be acting in a way shaped by unconscious negative patterns of acquired behaviour called scripts, which drive them to try and trigger similar states in others.

Scripts are unconscious patterns of action and reaction, either emotional or cognitive, that lead us to feel or think things and which end up with us starting and/or joining in a destructive dance. The aim of the game is for one of the participants to get a pay-off. This confirms that we are bad or useless, or at least that they are better than us, and wins the game. TA defines these kinds of end results as states of being I’m OK: You’re not OK or even, if the instigators are quite damaged themselves I’m not OK: You’re not OK, or even, if their damage is worse still, I’m not OK: You’re OK. The only acceptable position is I’m OK: You’re OK.

Script Quote

Contaminated ego statesMost of us, when we start off, are not in a good place to keep clear of these games. The Adult part of us, as TA describes it, is contaminated by negative messages we have acquired usually in childhood or perhaps from later traumatic undermining experiences. That’s what the diagram on the left is meant to illustrate. We can’t think clearly or constructively because we have a critical parent shouting at us in our heads and a negative adapted child (ie one who has bought into all this criticism and thinks its true) weeping and wailing inside us, drowning out any calm and sensible thoughts and constructive feelings we might have.

From TA’s point of view the first thing we have to do is become aware of this and begin to realise that all this noise is not reality, so that we can begin to quieten it down and tune into our Adult mind so that we can respond to hooks designed to catch us like fish by ignoring them, and choosing to respond in an entirely different way that cuts across the game and leaves us feeling OK, no matter how the other person ends up. We’re not out to destroy them, merely trying not to join them in their folly and damage ourselves.

This is of course easier said than done, and without the TA group I probably wouldn’t have learned to manage the situation as well as I did. Also, it has its limitations, for example about how we learn to enact our highest values in situations that drag us down.

I’ll take a quick look at a working example next time to illustrate the psychobabble before we move higher up the ladder.

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Cliff

Cliff

. . . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,Section 36)

A Community of Selves?

I have pondered this issue over many decades. It seems that the person who is writing this now may not be the same person who did the first draft years ago. I am not, of course, referring to my body even though it may have replaced most of its cells in that time, as cell replacement does not seem necessarily to entail self-replacement. As the brain, if not driven to new learning, tends to lose cells rather than grow new ones, the brain I’m using now may be significantly smaller than it was when I wrote the first draft, but will be otherwise the same, I should not be greatly changed as a result.

It is the person that I have my doubts about. I have had to select one of my selves to edit this post at this point, and I had to trust that the me who did so would not be too out of step with the me who originally wrote it!

That the self is vast there is no doubt. According to Bahá’u’lláh it contains the universe enfolded. Other spiritually oriented people generally share the same view. One poet, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

(G.M. Hopkins, Poems Oxford Edition page 107).

R.S. Thomas, also a priest, wrote that:

Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind.

(Later Poems page 99).

But size does not of necessity entail multiplicity.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

The Great Brain Robbery

I have already gone over in detail the implications of meditation and the Third ‘I’ and the threebrain models.

That can all seem a bit dramatic – a bit like the Great Brain Robbery.

It goes something like this.

Lots of people, when they’re explaining the value of mindfulness and meditation, describe the body as our car. So, if I think I’m the driver of this car, in full control, I’m deluded. I’ve been car-jacked.

Yes, my centre of awareness is in the driving seat, hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals, but every seat in the car is taken by a presence that’s holding a gun to my head. Directly behind me is Johnny Fear, known to his friends as Mr Rabbit. On my left is Jimmy Rage, the ‘auld croc.’ Back left is Sissy Thinker, who thinks she’s the brains of the outfit.

In the worst case scenario, I can hear an occasional thud and grunt from the boot of the car where they have locked my True Self, tightly bound and gagged. What he knows but I don’t is that their guns are loaded with blanks. They’re all bluff and thunder but no lightning at all.

When Sissy Thinker has bought into an ideology that sees almost everyone except her gang as a sworn enemy and unbeliever, Jimmy Rage takes control of the car and goes on a killing spree. Either that, or Mr Rabbit grabs the wheel, slams his foot on the accelerator and makes a run for it.

As we’ve looked at those issues in enough detail already, I’ll focus now on how to understand another aspect of the complexity of our interior in less loaded terms, more to do with our cultural conditioning than our evolutionary and instinctual heritage.

The Bahá’í Perspective

To get us going, what might be the beginnings of a Bahá’í perspective on all this?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote (GleaningsCXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

There are many passages in the Bahá’í Writings that explain various ways in which each of us can experience or be subject to divisions within, to a point at which one part of us is even in conflict with another. Such conflicts have implications for our relationships with others but it is not my purpose to consider those in detail now.

The focus of this post is the community of selves within each of us. Where is the evidence that we are more than one self?

The above quotation from Bahá’u’lláh describes us as not inwardly united, which implies that we may be inwardly divided. Bahá’u’lláh also talks of the self but in ways that conflict. For example, we are enjoined to flee the self as a prison[1] on the one hand, and to turn our sight towards it, on the other, and see Bahá’u’lláh as God standing within us[2]. We clearly cannot be talking about the same self in each case. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi develop this idea in many places[3].

Furthermore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes character as coming in three kinds – innate, inherited and acquired: there is also natural capacity and acquired capacity.[4]

There is in addition the question of divine attributes (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings XXVII):

Upon the reality of man… He hath focussed the radiance of all of His names and attributes… and made it a mirror of His own self.

This multitude of varied attributes is hard to reconcile into one concept of God let alone integrate into a single self as the unwavering centre of a unified consciousness![5]

If the Bahá’í picture suggests at least a family of selves, what does the Western world think? I shall draw for the most part on psychology in the profile that follows.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

The Psychological Perspective

The layman seems typically to value consistency, which, in effect, means singleness. In psychology too the assumption has sometimes been that there really is a unity, accounting for differences and inconsistencies within the same person by variations of the trait perspective. However a vast body of theory, clinical practice and research has accumulated which calls this assumption gravely into question. Split brain research and resulting theories[6], clinical experiences with multiple personalities[7] and the auditory hallucinations of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia[8], as well as psychoanalytic theory (Freud and Jung especially) and its offspring[9] are useful starting points in getting our bearings.

For instance, Berne, the founding father of Transactional Analysis, saw us as beings organised into at least three different semi-autonomous and incompletely conscious subselves. These he called the Parent, the Adult and the Child[10]. The extent to which these subselves are in harmonious cooperation is one of the determinants of well-being.

A model of therapy often used in coordination with Transactional Analysis is the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls[11] whose most fundamental tenet is that we are divided beings seeking to become whole. His therapy is a form of consultation between conflicting aspects of the person.

Split-brain research strongly suggests that the left and right halves of the brain function in distinct ways. If they become surgically or traumatically disconnected then the patient can be shown to process reality in simultaneous but conflicting ways. Radical developments in academic psychology and its research take the view that no such thing as personality in the traditional sense exists. We are constructed from our social experience. Roles and the internalised descriptions of others produce an illusion of solid selfness. However, rather as with the proverbial onion, once you take these layers away is there nothing left above and beyond these disparate and ephemeral imaginings!

Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence, expresses his view that our multiple identities are inescapable and to be celebrated (page 172) partly at least because there is the danger of intolerant extremism once we ‘think of [our]selves only as Hindus or only as Muslims (who must unleash vengeance on “the other community”) and as absolutely nothing else: not Indians, not subcontinentals, not Asians, not members of a shared human race.’

Next time we’ll look at some implications of these possibilities.

Notes:

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Persian) no. 40.
  2. Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words (Arabic) no. 13.
  3. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 64, and Shoghi Effendi in Living the Life 28.
  4. See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions chapter 56.
  5. See the Long Healing Prayer for a concentrated exposure to this problem.
  6. See N. Ornstein. Multiminds: A New Way to Look at Human Behaviour. Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1986.
  7. See A. Crabtree. Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession And multiple Personality. London: Grafton Books, 1988.
  8. See L.S. Benjamin . “Is Chronicity a Function of the Relationship Between the Person and Auditory Illusion?” Schizophrenia Bulletin (1989) 15: 291-310.
  9. See E. Berne. “Games People Play”. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964; and R. Assagioli. Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings. 3d. ed. London: Turnstone, 1975.
  10. For a full and very intelligible description, see S. Woolams and M. Brown. TA: The Total Handbook of Transactional Analysis. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979, pp. 9-40.

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