So you want to be able to think in a different way? My experience of working with groups suggests that starting to do that can often prove to be a bit of a shock to the system: creased foreheads, eyes looking up to heaven, a shrug of the shoulders… I suggest that the first choice of what to think about differently is our SELF. Think differently about the self and all sorts of things follow…


My ‘self’… Your ‘self’… Anybody’s ‘self’…

When we run or attend ‘self’ development courses do we ever stop! to consider what there is about our ‘self’ that can be developed? Do we ever stop! to think about how our habit programmed ‘self’ can get in the way of thinking differently?

Take a step back. Spend some time in your Meta-self…

What the self becomes depends on how we behave towards it   Montaigne

How we learn to think differently depends on how we enhance our awareness of self…

In his brilliant, but apparently neglected, monograph Becoming (Yale 1955), Gordon Allport wonders about the concept of ‘self’—whether it has any substantial meaning.

The Trouble is Words

Language is normally so much an unexamined part of us that we tend to take its seemingly tool-like reality for granted; the well-oiled words just spill out of our mouths in the same way as sweat comes out of pores: over time language becomes so mechanical that we imagine that there’s a one-to-one connection between head&words&things; that what goes on in our heads naturally becomes the words we speak which naturally represent the world of things we imagine we live in. It appears to be a naturally seamless web.

Thinking differently is, amongst other things, about divorcing our selves from the words we habitually use as though they represented precisely what we think.

The words we use certainly come to have a day to day functional meaning but this obscures the fact that they do not have an automatic connection with whatever we imagine we’re talking about. There’s a universe of words and a separate universe of events. Words are the decorations of events that simply happen in spite of what we do or say.

How nice it would be if words were intimately connected with events: we might then be able to communicate in the sure knowledge that whatever we said would be crystal clear to all. We might even be able to control our thinking.

But words are not thus connected.

AJAyer (The Problem of Knowledge) : If our aim is never to succumb to falsehood, it would be prudent for us to abstain from using language altogether. Our behaviour might still be hesitant or misguided but it is only with the use of language that truth and error come fully on the scene. It is only such things as statements or propositions, or beliefs or opinions, which are expressible in language, that are capable of being true or false, certain or doubtful. Our experiences themselves are neither certain nor uncertain; they simply occur. It is when we attempt to report them, to record or forecast them, to devise theories to explain them, that we admit the possibility of falling into error, or for that matter of achieving truth… It is recorded of the Greek philosopher Cratylus that, having resolved never to make a statement of whose truth he could not be certain, he was in the end reduced simply to wagging his finger…

‘Bus-loads of men and women arrived from all over the country…’ This statement can easily be taken as ‘the truth’—there’s not much doubt about the relationship between words and events in it. It’s just that, as Ayer says, ‘the information… is vanishingly small. [The words] point to something that is going on but they do not tell us what it is….’ Even if we knew that the bus-loads were coming to some convention or other we would never know what had motivated each individual to come from far away, for instance. We never ever know the whole story about anything, though we persist in imagining that we do.

We Tend to Close Our Mind to an Excess of Detail and to anything that strikes us as odd…

This we do against the fear that ‘…the brain becomes silted up with a predictive knowledge of the world and thus we fall into sleep…’—a statement that is perhaps a little more problematical than the one about ‘bus-loads of people’.

‘Marriage is a sacred institution…’ becomes a statement pretty well impossible to grasp in any meaningful way.

Abstractions—beauty, truth, justice, democracy, team integrity, punishment, deficit, understanding, consciousness, memory, imagination, for example—are very difficult to define and yet we hear them used as though ‘everybody’ (another abstraction) understands what they mean & how they are being used. In fact they are often used by demagogues and Believers who wish to gain assent by letting ‘everybody’ fill the words with their own meanings. ‘Everybody has an understanding that the deficit must be reduced…’ By a kind of general averaging out of meaning, assent follows—plus the idea that, because of their posh accent or convincing surface argument, demagogues and Believers always know best.

But let us focus on the word ‘self’—what exactly does it refer to? Say the word ‘self’ to your ‘self’ several times—my ‘self’, ‘self’-interest, ‘self’-image and so on—and notice how it comes to seem to be something separate from your general sense of being, from the name you are known by; like all abstractions it seems to have a life of its own, it becomes a little independent part of your being that somehow acts as a focus for all that you concern your self with in life. The very act of saying the word ‘self’ to your self implies separation—speaker and listener. ‘Self-image’ pre-supposes that there is a ‘self’ that something else in you can have an image of. ‘Self-development’ implies that there is a something-or-other that yet another part of you can work some expensive miracle on.

Gordon Allport

In his slim volume Becoming, Gordon Allport comments that it’s ‘all too easy to assign functions that are not fully understood [nor can be] to a mysterious central agency and then to declare that ‘it’ [‘self’] performs in such a way as to unify the personality and maintain its integrity…’

Something more general, more neutral might be more existentially accurate: something like Adler’s ‘life-style’, a ‘style or pattern of being’; the advantage of the latter is that if there is a pattern then one can unpick it and investigate its intricacy, discard the parts of the pattern that are not intrinsic to one’s sense of who one is—ho-hum things like driving on the right or left hand side of the road, not eating peas with your knife, politely holding a door open for somebody following you—but then you could start looking for those things that are ‘propriate’—things ‘central to our sense of existence’. It makes perfect sense to say, “There is a pattern to my being on this earth; I can find it…”

The Proprium

Allport suggests using the concept of the Proprium which ‘includes all aspects of personality that make for inward unity’. He enumerates eight not necessarily discrete ways in which the Proprium functions; we can appropriate these paradigms to ourselves and find that they help to define what has become peculiarly ours.

•    We have Bodily Sense; we are bathed in a sensory stream of events from the outside world; internally there are rumblings and oozings: these together provide a lifelong anchor for us. We locate the ground of our being somewhere in all this: for example when I was a child I vividly recall thinkong that the root of my being was located in a large mole on the side of my foot.
•    We have what we like to call Self-identity, that which we associate with our name; all our thoughts and feelings all down the years belong to it; there’s an organic continuity between the ‘I’ that entertained the belief about the mole and me now—I take my sock off and, though the mole has faded a little, I can still easily locate the root of my being there!
•    Ego-enhancement—we have survival needs which often result in self-assertion; we derive self-satisfaction from what we do; take a pride in it, develop vanity and forthrightness…
•    To assist this process, we identify with all kinds of things outside of us—Ego-extension; here we run the considerable risk of losing our selves in possessions, loved objects, people, teams, causes, loyalties, groups, clothes, nation and abstractions of all kinds that some of us even choose to go to war over.
•    We have a Rational Agent that, by appropriate adjustments and planning, helps to keep us reasonably in touch with ‘reality’; it constantly discriminates between this and that.
•    Our Self-image—the phenomenal self—derives from the way we regard our abilities, status, roles, and aspirations; it may include a vision of self-perfection driving us forward. The self-image guides propriate striving. It is a picture of our self that is not necessarily congruent with ‘reality’.
•    Propriate Striving is that which involves the ego, making for unification of the whole of our being, maintaining the tension of endeavour, expectation, intention; it is outcome-focussed and future-referenced. It’s what is usually called ‘motivation’ but is more about keeping the tension going than any kind of ‘drive reduction’.
•    Somewhere in all this there is a Knower, a Knowing-I; it ‘knows’ bodily sensations, it can discriminate identity, it knows how it extends itself into other things, identifying with them; it knows what it is to strive, to get pleasure from being in a state of tension; it can bundle all this together and call it PROPRIUM. Such broad intentional dispositions are relatively few and it’s possible to distinguish and understand their basic patterning.

So, in order to move towards a definition of my self and to gain a measure of control over the result, I ask my self what are the broad intentional dispositions that have determined, and no doubt will continue to determine, the way I do my life?

My provisional answers would go something like this:-

•    I persist in figuring out the patterns of things. The very concept of Proprium appeals to me because it offers the opportunity to replace the soggy lump of ‘self’ with a complex pattern that I can set myself to unravel.
•    Without really thinking about it, I am constantly looking for connections.  (See my recent Blog called Imagination 3).  PDOuspensky said that, in spite of the fact that things appear to be separate, everything is in fact connected. I teach the Enneagram which is a huge system of systems to do with understanding the way the whole of human personality is connected up together, how it behaves, how it thinks, how it relates.
•    I aim to depict my Proprium—specifically the way in which it can be looked at from different perspectives—the way I can feel it working within, the way I can submit it to intellectual analysis and the way I can move between the different parts to make it work.
•    I am above all a teacher of all this. Give me a new idea and, without thinking about it, I find myself setting about answering the question, “How will I teach that—how will I present it in a way that will appeal to many different learning styles?”

What will your provisional answers be?

How will acting in this way this loosen the possibilities of your thinking?

One thought on “THE THINKING SELF (R6)

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