The multiple selves or ‘I’s’
Most people lack a stable, unified consciousness and are prey to the fluctuations of their minds. Because they are at the mercy of outer and inner influences, their behaviour will vary as a function of their mood and their state of health.
RAMANA MAHARSHI: “An ‘I’ rises forth with every thought and with its disappearance that ‘I’ disappears too. Many ‘I’s’ are born and die every moment.”
Yet it is characteristic of undeveloped humanity to assume that they have a coherent, stabilized personality. In actual fact they have a multiple and changing personality. “You have to know, and to feel, how many ‘people’ there are in you. You may feel like one person, but in reality you are many.”
The Commanding Self is composed of a complex of “selves.” This is the totality of what the ordinary (raw) man or woman considers their personality. It is characterized by a shifting series of moods and personalities whose rapidity of movement gives the individual the impression that his consciousness is constant or a unity. It is not in fact so. (1)
One of the starting points in many esoteric teachings is the proposition that there is an absence of unity and a permanent ‘I’ in almost all so-called normal human beings.
“You have been continually changing; you are in a state of flux. No identity of yours has remained as a permanent feature.” Gurdjieff forcefully articulated this vital idea:
In reality there is no oneness in man and there is no controlling center, no permanent “I” or Ego. This is the general picture of man. Every thought, every feeling, every sensation, every desire, every like and dislike is an “I.” These “I’s” are not connected and are not coordinated in any way. Each of them depends on the change in external circumstances, and on the change of impressions. Some of them mechanically follow some other, and some appear always accompanied by others. But there is no order and no system in that. Each of these “I’s” represent at any given moment a very small part of our “brain,” “mind” or “intelligence,” but each of them means itself to represent the whole. When man says “I” it sounds as if he meant the whole of himself, but really when he himself thinks that he means it, it is only a passing thought, a passing mood, or passing desire. In an hour’s time he may completely forget it, and with the same conviction express an opposite opinion, opposite view, opposite interests. The worst of it is that man does not remember it. In most cases he believes in the last “I” which expressed itself, as long as it lasts: that is, as long as another “I” – sometimes quite unconnected with the preceding one – does not express its opinion or its desires louder than the first. (2)
Teachers from many spiritual traditions assert that our states of mind are in constant flux and forever changing. A permanent unchanging self does not exist except conceptually:
Each of you has different roles in this life, each of you wears many different hats, but are you fundamentally aware of your own true person? Who is the real you? There is no unchanging ego, there is no entity called a soul. Everything is constantly changing in the stream of cause and effect. What has appeared vividly one moment is gone the next. Moment after moment, it streams along.
Beyond this coming and going, this appearing and disappearing, there is nothing else. Phenomena are coming and going, and when you ask what is real, you have already missed it. It’s gone. We pass from one conditioned state of mind to another. (3)
The many contradictory “I’s” in a person cause all sorts of problems in the everyday life of the raw, undeveloped individual. “This explains why people so often make decisions and so seldom carry them out . . . or a small accidental “I” may promise something to someone else at a certain moment simply out of vanity or for amusement and the person may have to pay for it all their life.” Allegories are employed in certain spiritual teachings to convey the idea of multiple “I’s” and lack of overall conscious coordination in most human beings. For instance, Gurdjieff compared the chaotic state of most people’s inner life to a house with servants but no master:
Eastern teachings contain various allegorical pictures which endeavour to portray the nature of man’s being from this point of view. Thus, in one teaching, man is compared to a house in which there is a multitude of servants but no master and no steward. The servants have all forgotten their duties; no one wants to do what he ought; everyone tries to be master, if only for a moment; and, in this kind of disorder, the house is threatened with grave danger. The only chance of salvation is for a group of the more sensible servants to meet together and elect a temporary steward, that is, a deputy steward. This deputy steward can then put the other servants in their places and make each do his own work; the cook in the kitchen, the coachman in the stables, the gardener in the garden, and so on. In this way the ‘house’ can be got ready for the arrival of the real steward who will, in his turn, prepare it for the arrival of the master. The comparison of a man to a house awaiting the arrival of the master is frequently met with in Eastern teachings which have preserved traces of ancient knowledge, and, as we know, the subject appears under various forms in many of the parables in the Gospels.(4)
Since each individual is composed of countless “I’s” which alternate as circumstances and external conditions change, any attempt to find a single, unchanging “I” in the undeveloped human being is fruitless.
(1) Idries Shah The Sufis (New York: Anchor Books, 1971), p. 333.
(2) P.D. Ouspensky The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (New York: Vintage Books,
1974), pp. 14-15.
(3) Maurine Stuart Subtle Sound: The Zen Teachings of Maurine Stuart (Boston: Shambhala,
1996), pp. 93-94.
(4) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt, 2001), pp. 60-61.