We all have a self-image. We all have a subjective identity fashioned over the years from the material of thought, feeling, sensation, posture, and movement. The overall image we have of ourselves, however, seldom bears any resemblance either to how others see us or to our inborn potential. As a result, most of us live stunted, illusory lives expressing only a small part of who we really are and can be.
Our self-image begins its formation during our first days on earth as a subtle interaction between our genetic inheritance and our familial, educational, social, and cultural conditioning and experiences. Depending on the kind and quality of experiences we have, this image begins to take on certain definite physical, emotional, and mental characteristics, powerfully shaping the way we see and relate to the world. Unfortunately, since a large part of this process takes place in childhood without our awareness, we tend to take our self-image for granted, as though it were given us by nature.
As we grow older, our self-image begins to crystallize and often not only cuts us off from our own inner potentials but also creates a deepening division between ourselves and others. Fortunately, however, cracks often appear in this psycho-physical structure through the shocks of our life. Difficult confrontations with our friends, families, and the everyday situations of life call our self-image–and its attendant attitudes–into question. At those moments, if we allow ourselves to experience the partiality of this image without recoiling, we may sense, at least briefly, that we are living in only a tiny part of ourselves. And, if the shock is strong enough, we may actually find ourselves in the face of the unknown: the mystery of our own being.
It is this experience of confronting the unknown, of being in question, that opens the door to awakening. If we observe ourselves honestly when we are in question, we may get a glimpse into new areas and dimensions of ourselves, as well as potentials that we never knew existed. We will also see just how powerful our self-image, our sense of “I am this” or I am that,” really is.
Most of us are unconscious slaves to our self-image. Our energies are constantly being mobilized to defend the identity that we present to ourselves and the world. This process of self-defense is an exhausting one, ultimately dulling our mind, feelings, and body, and making us less sensitive to the world in and around us.
Awakening requires that we find ways to put our self-image into question and start experiencing the truth about who and what we are. For the problem is not that we have a self-image, but that it is so partial and incomplete. At best, it expresses yalmost nothing of our real potential. At worst, it is fabricated almost entirely out of illusions and falsehoods.
There are many ways to become more conscious of our self-image and loosen its tyranny over us. Whatever experiments we try, however, it is important to remember that this image has been many years in the making, and that a direct assault on it will bring little benefit. However incomplete or false it may be, we depend on it for day-to-day living.
Experimenting with Our Body Image
An excellent first step in becoming more conscious of our self-image is the on-going exploration of our “body image,” of our body as we “sense” it to be. Our body image has to do with the way we experience the overall surface of our body, our skin, as well as our skeletal joints. What many of us don’t realize is that the skin is the largest organ system in the body, constituting about 16 to 18 percent of our total body weight and providing more than one-half million sensory fibers to the spinal cord. Most of us, however, have a very incomplete or faulty “kinesthetic awareness” of our bodily surface and joints. And this faulty awareness–with its many gaps, distortions, and areas of vagueness–not only impedes the overall functioning of our organism, but deprives us of many rich impressions of our physical being. When we use our body well, however, expanding our awareness to simultaneously include as many parts of ourselves as we can, our kinesthetic sense becomes more balanced and our entire organism begins functioning as a more finely tuned instrument of perception and action.
As an experiment, sit or lie down quietly for about 15 minutes after you’ve read this paragraph and simply be sensitive to your body as a whole. See if you can sense the skin everywhere on your body. If you are attentive to yourself during this effort you will undoubtedly note that there are huge gaps in your overall sensation. Check, for example, to see if you can sense your toes, behind your knees, your back, the back of your neck, your head, your nose, your eyes, your ears, and so on. If you try this experiment at various times of the day, you’ll begin to see just how weak and incomplete your kinesthetic awareness is. You’ll also begin to sense recurring bodily tensions and distortions related to various mental and emotional states, which will give you insights into your overall self-image. But even more important, as you allow impressions of what you are experiencing to enter your awareness from parts of your body that you are seldom in touch with you may feel yourself being energized in a new way, as though these impressions actually “feed” your organism at a very deep level.
As I wrote in my book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, “Our self-image is also inevitably bound up with the particular ways we attempt to present ourselves to the world. The clothes we wear, the hair styles we choose, the furniture in our homes, the cars we drive and so on are all direct or indirect manifestations of this image, as advertising and public relations professionals know so well (it’s how they make their living). What is not so well known is that it is possible to gain access to our inner world by experimenting with these outer manifestations.”
For example, the next time you go shopping for clothes begin by ignoring the clothes you like and trying on some clothes that you don’t like. Then look at yourself closely in the mirror, being attentive to your inner reactions to what you see. Be honest about your reactions, about what you see and feel. If you’re really adventurous, purchase some clothes that you don’t like and wear them to an important social occasion (be sure to buy them from a store that will let you to return them later). You can also experiment in this way with your hair, makeup, and so on.
What these experiments show so clearly is that we are all “stuck” in a particular way of presenting ourselves not only to others, but more importantly to ourselves. We are used to seeing ourselves in a certain way, and if we alter that way even briefly our perceptual expectations are thrown into temporary disarray, thus allowing the various attitudes associated with and even underlying our self-image to become more visible. By altering our presentation it is thus possible to catch a glimpse of some of the many hidden springs of our behavior. We will also begin to see just how pervasive our self-image really is.
Experimenting with Being Right & Wrong
There is almost nothing that happens in our ordinary lives where our self-image is not called into play. When we are at work, for example, and we are criticized or praised, we all have habitual responses. If our self-image is that of a person who is usually “right” about everything, we will seldom take criticism as an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves. Instead, the criticism will make us defensive, shrinking our awareness of the moment and calling forth our suit of psycho-physical armor. If on the contrary, our image of ourselves is that of someone who is usually wrong about everything, we will again learn nothing. For again our consciousness will shrink and false attitudes of incompetence and humility will substitute for real perception.
Unfortunately, though we may agree with this analysis now, we quickly forget about it when we are in the thick of things. An excellent experiment, therefore, is to decide in advance to take one of these situations and try to respond to it in a new way. For example, if you are the type of person who is always right, allow yourself to be wrong the next time that you are criticized. And when your mind starts defending itself, don’t give in to it. Instead, simply observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise and see if it is possible to look honestly at yourself and your motivations. If, on the contrary, your image is that of someone who is usually wrong, perhaps you should defend yourself and explain how in fact this time you are right, mustering every argument that you can imagine. Whether you’re right or wrong doesn’t matter for the purposes of this experiment. What does matter is that the repeated effort to struggle with the habitual manifestations of your self-image will help you become more conscious of it and learn more about its power over your life.
Experimenting with Winning & Losing
This kind of experimentation can be brought into many aspects of your daily life. Next time you’re playing chess, tennis, bridge, or some other sport or game with someone you habitually beat, or that you seldom beat but are about to now, allow yourself to lose without the other person knowing that you are doing it intentionally. This won’t be easy, but it will be revealing. Or if you are someone who always has to have the last word in an argument or discussion, give it up in a particular instance and watch what happens in your thoughts, feelings, and body. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who seldom ventures forth with the last word, take a chance and make sure the conversation ends with what you would really like to say.
Though often difficult to actually try (in the heat of the moment we usually “forget” all about them), these experiments can be very enjoyable, since they loosen up our attitudes toward ourselves and create subtle situations in which our family, friends, colleagues, and others can relate to us in new, freer ways. Their real point, however, is not to change our self-image, but rather to help us observe it in action, to begin to include it in the larger field of our consciousness, and thus weaken its hold on us. It is important, therefore, that the experiments be undertaken in a gentle, light way and not be discussed with those around us. Otherwise we will end up having to explain and defend ourselves instead of simply experimenting. If we carry out these experiments regularly in this way they will not only help us become more conscious of what is going on in us and others, but they will also help us feel the urgency of the living question that lies at the heart of awakening: “Who am I?”.
Exploring Our Many “I’s”
What I have suggested above is really just the beginning of a possible exploration of ourselves. In our daily encounters with others we are given many opportunities to see our self-image in action, to see the precise way that it shapes these encounters. We are also given numerous opportunities to see that beneath this overall image each of us has of herself or himself, which is often referred to as “ego,” resides a plethora of personalities or sub-personalities, what G.I. Gurdjieff called “many I’s.” At one moment we can be the loving or disapproving mother or father; at another, the shrewd or inept business person; at another, the admirer or angry critic. We can be and are many things: seekers, followers, leaders, skeptics, optimists, victims, lovers, teachers, students, and so on–with all the attributes that define these different sub-personalities–though each of us generally manifests a habitual and limited repertoire of these “I’s.” Most of these “I’s,” however, are subsumed under our general self-image, which tries to control ourselves and our world and protect us from harm, and are seldom clearly seen or heard for exactly what they are. We can be “the angry critic,” for example, without really understanding the actual motivations of our anger and criticism and the defining roles they play in our lives. Yes, we mostly believe we have “good reasons” for our anger and criticism, but we seldom see how this sub-personality returns again and again, shaping our relationships with ourselves and others in often undesireable ways.
If we really wish to explore our self-image more deeply and open to the truth of our lives, we must learn how to let these “I’s,” these sub-personalities, speak to us honestly about themselves and their roles in our lives in the larger context of wholeness, a wholeness the includes all the sides of ourselves. Instead of identifying the whole of ourselves with each specific voice as it speaks (or rejecting that voice because it doesn’t fit in with our self-image), we must learn how to embrace all these “I’s” and their voices and, as they arise, welcome them into the spacious consciousness that is who we are at the deepest level. Only in this way can we discover the true freedom and joy that are our birthright.
Copyright 2008-2015 by Dennis Lewis