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What Is Self?
What is the self? To many, the answer might be so obvious that they haven’t given it much thought. Others might proffer up one idea after another and finding each imperfect to an extent that they wonder if the self even exists, and if it does can it be defined. They may or may not realize that this is a question humanity has been asking for millenia, with answers from different eras often addressing not just what we are but who we are at that particular place in time. Nor is the answer a trivial one. Too often we stumble through life and take a shallow view of ourselves, our environment, and prevailing forces. And yet, we can do better. We can be better. Our first step is to become aware of who and what we are.
Which still fails to answer the original question, what is the self? No answer will be completely accurate or at all times precise. Instead , here is a temporary answer, good for the purposes of this book: the self is the aspect of an individual organsim that is aware of its existence as an individual organism. It’s the part of ourselves that we are referring to when we each say “I,” as in “I am thinking” or “I am feeling”, etc. One helpful way to think about the self and become more aware of our complete and total self is to divide it into four aspects: the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
The Physical Self
This is probably the most obvious aspect of one’s self, our physical bodies. Awareness of our bodies when that body is in great pain or distress is usually strong. But when we feel physically neutral or slightly good or bad, we can block our awareness of the physical body and replace it with other levels of awareness, awareness of our thoughts or our emotions, for instance. It is important to remember that each level of self affects the other levels of self. Feeling physically uncomfortable can lead to feeling emotionally uncomfortable, as well as feeling emotionally uncomfortable can lead to changes in our physical feelings.
At a certain point, examining one’s physical self requires an examination of one’s physical environment, such that what emerges is the recognition that the two mutually interact, change, and reinforce each other. This aspect of one’s environment and one’s self interacting with and changing each other is important to remember not only in examining the physical self and the physical environment, but at all levels of self-examination. Just as there is a physical environment that interacts with a physical self, there is a mental environment, emotional environment, and spiritual environment that interacts with each corresponding level of self. This will become vital to our understanding the concept of interdependency that comes up in a later chapter.
The Emotional Self
Being aware of oneself on an emotional level means being aware of one’s emotions. In a culture that values concepts such as logic and reason, emotion often gets undervalued. When people become emotionally expressive others will tell them to calm down or to act rationally. Being emotional is thought of as being out of control. This might give you the idea that emotions are things to be avoided, but such a position would be harmful. Emotions serve an important purpose in providing the self with information about its environment as well as motivation for what to avoid or embrace in that environment.
Typically, when we speak of our bodies or of our emotions, we speak in terms of feeling or sensations, things that come upon us rather than things we create. This gives the impression of passivity. We are slaves to our physical and emotional needs. Rather than choosing how we feel, feelings hit us, and then, we react. The most important thing to remember is that we cannot avoid feeling emotions, but we can intervene and through our actions change how we react to our emotions and this can transform our future emotions in turn. Being able to identify how you feel in any given moment is an important goal of becoming more self-aware.
The Mental Self
The mental aspect of your self concerns your thoughts and your imagination. Like the physical and emotional feelings, thoughts also have to capacity to come upon you without your control, but it is far easier to consciously change your thoughts, especially when you practice being more aware of them in the first place. When people think, they often think in sentences or words, but just as often, they can think in images or words and phrases that act as a kind of shorthand. In these moments, it is quite easy for thoughts to get distorted and not accurately reflect a true situation.
The Spiritual Self
This is not about any one religious belief, nor does it reject religious belief, either. The use of the term spirit here is not meant in a religious sense. Instead, the spiritual self is about your continuing sense of identity. The spiritual self is the realm of what a person values. It’s the world view and the source of motivation. If the emotional self and mental self are about the feelings and thoughts of a person in a given moment, the spiritual self is about the interconnectedness of thoughts and feelings over time that forms into a sense of personal identity.
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