Enough With Philosophies of Selfhood Purporting To Be The Change We Need

Authentic Self? Unique Self? Some of the most prominent enlightenment teachings in the Integral community in the past decade have been channeling very old ideas which put the Self at the center of the spiritual life. This is not the way that I will go about my own teaching.

The self rises to prominence in postmodernism (station-stage 4.0), a time of life that psychologists have said is the peak of self-actualization and personal authenticity. In Lingua-U, it’s the Letter S (but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). This does not mean that the self is “invented” in postmodernism, or that previous stages did not have a self-sense, of course. But 4.0 brings a radical inward turn at the break from 3.66 to 4.0, from systematic and world-structural awareness with a genuine drive to resolve tensions between individual and community (as in German idealism and Marxism), and a resurgence of attention on the individual and her or his psychological needs.

The self is the Big Thing at 4.0, as it rediscovers its objective dimensions and then its subjective and then the interpenetrating collision of subjective and objective awareness. It is the rise of “soulfulness” and a concern with “sin” and “salvation” in Christianity or “sunyata” and “samsara” in Buddhism. 4.0 feels like it “owns” spirituality and all spirituality has to ever relate back to its central concerns.

Hence the inclination of some spiritual teachers (yes I’m including Marc Gafni and Andrew Cohen in this pot) to treat enlightenment as if the progress from 4.0 to 5.0 and 6.0 and 7.0 and 8.0 and 9.0 and 10.0 is ultimately just a sense of getting more and more real about the self, whether it is by dissolving it to nothingness (the True Self teachings) or discovering its nondual unity with God or the principle of creativity (the Unique Self teachings).

I think it is a big mistake for individual integral adherents to imagine, from this postmodern stage, that all the future stages of the spiritual life will continue to produce more and more “expansive” and “evolved” versions of the philosophy of selfhood. We don’t become self-actualized at 4.0 and see the rest of our spiritual path get better, new, and improved versions of the same set of concerns. What happens instead is that the self is eclipsed as a concern and becomes decentered as new and different challenges arise.

I would compare it quite literally to what happens when one is reading through a dictionary. Imagine that your favorite letter is N because it contains the word Narcissism, but one day you are flipping through the book and you discover S for Self. It becomes your new favorite, especially if you can add adjective to it and spell it with a capital letter which makes it much more important, so you start reading straight through the book to look for  more great adjectives. Then comes T and then U and then V and then W … and you keeping ask yourself: where’s the Self? What are all these other letters doing, presenting distractions from my real work on dissolving or discovering my Self? Good thing there are lots of new adjectives to describe your emptiness-seeking (like “True”) or your Self-mysticism (like “Uber-Self!”). Doesn’t T know I want to know more about Me, Me, Me? And what’s the deal with U, V, W, X, and don’t even get me started about Y! So eventually you stop looking at other letters and go back to the word Self to see how perfectly you can erase it or how much you can blow it up so it is so big that it includes every other word in the dictionary!

Let’s not judge past philosophies or theologies which have made valuable contributions to our knowledge harshly, because they were more partial than wrong, more focused than comprehensive. Life is about much more than the self. Reality is about much more than the self. Unitive Consciousness is about much more than the self. The problem with these self-philosophies is that they weren’t focused on Life, Reality, and Unitive Consciousness. They were focused on spirituality.

And the story of spirituality (here I go again with Lingua-U) is fundamentally about the concerns of the S. As we say in Tai Hsuan Integral to connect things that we realize are subtly linked that other people don’t, Spirit 𝌡 and Self 𝌢 are identical in subtle energy demarcations at the three most foundational degrees, the Basis, Functioning, and Direction. Moreover, Spirit and Self are united to five of their first six degrees, shifting only slightly from Yang to Yin at the fourth mark, the indicator which distinguishes between the Subjective (Spirit) and Objective (Self) Quadrants in the Four Quadrants.

So don’t blame spiritual teachers for focusing on the Self as their guiding concern. They were truly focused on the appropriate things given the subject matter of their field of specialization. And they were correct to focus on Enlightenment as the goal of spirituality. After all, in Lingua-U, Enlightenment is the Yung to the Yang of the Circle of Existence and the Yin of the Escher Drawings of Shunting.

My critique is thus really about the nature of spiritual teaching, and the occupation of spiritual teachers. If they have a proper developmental orientation and yet stay focused on the concerns of the Self, they will be tempted to project its dynamics up and up into future levels of consciousness. Instead, allow the self to recede in our attention.* Let us treat every station of life as replete with its own important concerns, its own precious Sacred Words, and its own methodologies for progress.

Yes, the self needs enlightenment to find ultimate peace. But there many other stations of life no less important or worthy of attention. If spiritual teachers will insist on only talking about enlightenment, and have nothing to say about 8/9 of the world’s most pressing problems, then they aren’t very comprehensive or inclusive or integral, are they?

A World Teacher must be concerned with more than the self and its dramas, its need for enlightenment. There is a World crying out for Divinization. Who will heed that call?

  • Integral theorists will correctly note that analysts have identified a “self line” which in theory goes up and up and up to the highest altitudes as we evolve. Without denying this or implying we ought not look into self-development, let me just say that theorists who want to focus on the self line do so at an opportunity cost. Every spiritual teacher must decide for themselves how much they want to emphasize self-development over the concerns of all the other stations of life.

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