The Becoming Self

Originally printed in the March - April 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Mills, Joy. "The Becoming Self." Quest  90.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2002):58-63.

By Joy Mills

NASRUDIN, THE SUFI WISE FOOL, is the subject of many stories. Here are two.

Joy MillsOnce on a journey, Nasrudin stopped for the night in a town where he did not know anyone. He found an inn and slept comfortably, but the next morning on waking, he discovered to his dismay that he did not know who he was. He thought about this for a time and finally decided to go out into the market to see if anyone recognized him. Of course since it was a town in which he knew no one, obviously no one knew him. After wandering around for a while, he decided to go into a clothing store, where he tried on several suits and jackets, but none of them seemed quite satisfactory. Finally, he asked the shopkeeper, "Did you see me come into your store?" The shopkeeper, mystified by such a question, replied rather sharply, "Of course, my good man, I saw you come in." "Well, tell me then," said Nasrudin, "how did you know it was me?"

It may well have been in the same town that Nasrudin went into a bank to cash a check. The bankteller asked him if he could identify himself. Nasrudin took a mirror from his backpack, looked into it for some time, and finally declared, "Yes, that's me!"

We may chuckle at such stories, but consider, do we really know who we are? Are we certain of our own identity? When we look in the mirror each morning, who is it that looks back at us? Is the "I" who looks the same "I" who looked yesterday? Is that "I" the self, the me, the singular one who feels sad or happy, who thinks and ponders and wonders? Is there a self at all?

When we say "I" it is obvious that we do not always refer to the same entity within ourselves.There may be, indeed there is more than one "I" within us, and yet the sense of being an "I" is a very precious possession. How often we guard that identity which we feel at any particular moment to be the essential "I," the self that is the me-ness of me, that defines me and identifies me.

The questions seem to be endless. Just who am I? Who is the self to which "I" refers? Am I the contents of my skin, this strange assemblage of organs, tubes, and fluids? Or am I the contents ofmy inner world, my thoughts and feelings, the totality of all I am aware of? Does this "I" expandand contract, come and go, with the fluctuations of my consciousness, moment by moment? Or am I everything I have ever been aware of, everything that I have experienced, thought, and desired, even those things I have forgotten? The really big question is this: Even when my body disappears, as it will, is there some other structure—some other "I"—that will support my inner world, that will go on experiencing, thinking, being? Allied to that question is another big one: If I am convinced of the concept of reincarnation, who is the "I" that reincarnates? Will I—whoever that "I" may be—even recognize myself?

Questions often wake us up to the realization that perhaps even the simplest ones have no easy answers. While none of us is likely to stand before a bank teller who has asked us for identification and pull out a mirror in order to confirm our identity, we do produce some kind of image—usually the photo on a driver's license—as proof of who we are. And in the everyday world of physical reality, that kind of identification suffices since it proves that I am who I say I am. Then we go our way, perhaps to a Theosophical talk, to find out who we really are!

Theosophy does not so much answer the questions raised above, as provide a perspective from which to view the "self." Ultimately it is we ourselves, however we conceive of ourselves, who will answer the questions. There is a certain trap, of course. With whatever self you answer the question today, you may well discover that, like Nasrudin, you wake up tomorrow not knowing that self and therefore having to find a new self who will reanswer the question. Questions have a way of popping up again and again, of never staying answered very long, at least questions of the kind posed here. And selves also have a way of changing, of never staying the same for very long. Consider whether you are the same "I" you were ten years ago, or even yesterday!

In The Key to Theosophy (33-4), the questioner asks about the distinction between the"true individuality" and the "I"of which we are all conscious. HPB responds in part:

We distinguish between the simple fact of self-consciousness, the simple feeling that "I am I," and the complex thought that "I am Mr. Smith" or "Mrs. Brown." . . . You see "Mr. Smith" really means a long series of daily experiences strung together by the thread of memory, and forming what Mr. Smith calls "himself." But none of these "experiences" are really the "I" . . . nor do they give Mr. Smith the feeling that he is himself, for he forgets the greater part of his daily experiences, and they produce the feeling of Egoity in him only while they last. We Theosophists, therefore, distinguish between this bundle of "experiences," which we call the false (because so finite and evanescent) personality, and that element . . . to which the feeling of "I am I" is due. It is this "I am I" which we call the true individuality.

Elsewhere HPB refers to that basic duality as a "lower" and a "higher" self. Yet these distinctions do not fully answer the simple question, "Who am I?" As observed above, questions have a way of reappearing, and the self who identifies itself has an uncomfortable way of metamorphosing into another self.

The reality of a continually changing self is illustrated in a statement made by an adept teacher. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett consists of correspondence between two Englishmen who were early members of the Theosophical Society in India and those individuals whom H. P. Blavatsky designated as her "teachers." Early in the correspondence, one of those teachers suspended writing to Sinnett because, he said, he was to go on a retreat and would be incommunicado for some time. When he did take up the correspondence again, he informed Sinnett, "I have been on a long journey after supreme knowledge . . . . I am 'Self' once more. But what is Self? Only a passing guest, whose concerns are all like a mirage of the great desert."

Reading those words, one could well ask: was the teacher the same person after his long journey,after the retreat during which the correspondence had ceased, as he had been before undertaking that search for "supreme knowledge"? A close examination of the letters written to Sinnett and his colleague, A. O. Hume, both before and after the event termed a "retreat," reveals some interesting differences. No one could possibly undertake such an inner journey, in the quest for spiritual knowledge, without experiencing some internal change. And out of such a change in consciousness, there could well arise a new sense of self.

So far, the term "self" as used here suggests a separate entity, a static thing, whether identified as personality or as individuality, a thing higher or lower on some scale of reality. But what if the self is not a thing, however many guises it may wear or transformations it may undergo? What if the self—whether higher or lower, whether spiritual or bounded by the temporal and spatial dimensions of existence in this world—is not a thing? What if the self is a process? What if that process is not only "a becoming"—an evolving, developing, unfolding movement—but is, at every stage along the way, "most becoming"—beautiful, harmonious, fitting, meaningful?

Take the example of a rose, which evolves from a bud to a fully open flower. The movement from bud to flower is the developmental process of the rose. At the same time, each stage is in itself beautiful: the bud is as "becoming," as beautiful, to the essential roseness, as is the fully open flower.

The psychologist, Robert Kegan, writing of the stages in human development in his book, The Evolving Self, has pointed out that the word "person" refers as much to a process as to an entity. He states, "Western grammars separate entities and processes as if the distinction were absolute." Further, he adds, while we may accept the thesis that "what is most fundamental about life is that it is motion rather than something that moves," our language constrains us to experience our own I-ness, our own personhood, along with everything about us in the world as things that move. Students of The Secret Doctrine will recognize in Kegan's thesis the fundamental principle enunciated by HPB that motion—the "Great Breath" as she termed it—is primary. That motion is intelligence, consciousness, and space itself.

Kegan then suggests that our notion of "human being" has been colored by two major ideas which, as he has put it, "have had an influence on nearly every aspect of intellectual life in the last hundred years." The first of these ideas, again one to be found in The Secret Doctrine and given increasing attention today by many leading thinkers particularly in the field of physics, is that "persons or systems constitute or construct reality." That is, we create the world; what we see is always a function of what we are; we live in a participatory world. The second great idea, according to Kegan, is again a very familiar one: there has been a shift from an "entity-oriented perception of the phenomena of investigation to a developmental, process-oriented perception," from a static view of ourselves and the world to a dynamic view. According to contemporary chaos theory, we may say that the world is a flow!

The self, then, may be seen as a process, which we generally call a becoming, with never-ending possibilities of transformation, metamorphosis, or transmutation. From such a point of view, the "self" is—as Carl Jung pointed out—both a symbol of our wholeness and an expression of the "numinosity of a God-image." Or we might say that the "self" is an inner image of the One Reality. And when the expression in the world of that inner image is harmonious and whole, the self we reveal is truly becoming.

M. Esther Harding in her book The 'I' and the 'Not-I' has elaborated on Jung's proposal that"each individual life is based on a particular myth," stating further that we ought each to discover what our own basic myth is, so that we may live it consciously and intelligently, cooperating with the trend of this life pattern, instead of being dragged along unwillingly. . . . certain people's lives illustrate and demonstrate the myth of the "hero" or the "leader," others that of the "savior," others again that of the "mother"; in others we can observe the story of Ulysses, or of Isis and Osiris . . . . patterns can be seen recurring in the lives of certain people, who remain totally unconscious of what they are living. But if the individual becomes conscious in relation to the archetypal trend that underlies his life—his fate—he can begin to adapt himself to it consciously. The outer fate is then transmuted into the inner experience, and the true individuality . . . begins to emerge.

The comments by Blavatsky, Kegan, and Harding reveal the pattern of the "becoming self." One self is a process that HPB depicted as "a long series of daily experiences strung together by the thread of memory" and producing in us "the feeling of Egoity"or I-ness. It is the self of karma, so it is a process that tends to be repetitive. It is an illusory entity, built by those aggregates or attributes which, though ever changing, characterize the personality and which the Buddhist tradition calls the "skandhas." These skandhas are the agents of karma that constitute the identity we assume so often to be ourselves.

But another self, which HPB called the element within us "to which the feeling of 'I'am 'I' is due," may be called the self of dharma, the archetypal pattern to which Jung referred, which carries us beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of the personal, karmic self, to the realization of true individuality. It is the dharmic self, the "becoming" or beautifully appropriate self, which reveals both our individual uniqueness and our unique universality. Such a self is singular but not single, both one only and only one, knowing no divide between ourselves, our own humanity, and everything else. As Christopher Bache put it in Dark Night, Early Dawn, it is "not an atom independent of other life forms but . . . a node in a web of relationships that reaches out into and includes everything."

Since we live to such a large extent in and through our karmic selves, or what might be called the "unbecoming" self, we should be well acquainted with it. In terms of process, it is the reactive self, composed as HPB says in The Key to Theosophy (130) of the "material Skandhas . . . which generate the most marked Karmic effects," a self which is, as she states, "as evanescent as a flash of lightning." Commenting on these attributes of material form, sensation, and tendencies of mind, including memory, she says: "Of these we are formed; by them we are conscious of existence; and through them communicate with the world about us" (129n).

We often identify ourselves with our passing desires, our transient thoughts, even with the ever-changing form in which we appear as separate persons in the world. Consider the emotion of anger, as an example. When we are angry, we are completely, totally anger; we reflect only later, "I was angry," but at the moment our whole being is simply anger. It is the same with love or any other emotion or desire. We are identified with that feeling. When we perceive the karmic self as a distinct and independent entity and identify ourselves with its reactions, hopes, fears, ambitions, and disappointments, we forget its evanescent and illusory nature. Yet its innate tendency is to be the very process that awakens us to an ever wider, deeper, more comprehensive self, a growing self, a becoming self, a dharmic self.

The concept of dharma may be less well known to us and certainly is less often discussed than karma.Although the word has many meanings, dharma as a principle or ideal may be called the law of our being,our truenature or best being. Reginald Ray, the author of Indestructible Truth, an excellent compendium describing the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, has proposed that dharma "includes and integrates several levels of experience, from our first moment on the path to the achievement of full realization." Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, one of the great Indian philosophers of the twentieth century, has stated that, next to the category of reality, dharma is the most important concept in Indian thought, since it is a necessary consequence of the basic postulate of one Ultimate Reality, which is both immanent and transcendent. While central in both Hindu and Buddhist thought, it is also a Christian concept. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: "Stand fast in the liberty where with Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage," a statement which, from an esoteric point of view, may be interpreted to mean that we are to become one—"stand fast"—with our dharma or the "Christ principle" within us, no longer "entangled" in the karmic, reactive, bondage-creating illusory self.

"Dharma" has been translated as duty, righteousness, religion in its truest sense, or the moral law of our being. From the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning "to hold together, nourish, support or sustain," dharma may be described as the rightness that is inherent in all things, what N. Sri Ram called both the "instinct of beauty" and the "instinct of rightness," which are at the base of our being. It is the imperative necessity of the mundane order to reflect the cosmic order while at the same time representing the potential for growth and transformation in all beings since the cosmos itself is a dynamic process. Dharma is both the universal "rightness" of all that is and also the rightness of our ordinary existence. It is both the eternal lawfulness that sustains and nourishes the essential rightness of the cosmos and the lawfulness that sustains and nourishes our essential being. The eternal dharma may break through and transform every moment of our lives.

To fulfill the rightness of the moment, to act naturally and spontaneously with whatever the occasion may require—whether it be with a word, a gesture, a smile, a thought, or a touch—this is to be one's own dharma, one's becoming self, wholly present in the here and now. In such a state, there is purposive action without self-centeredness, individuality without egoism, an awareness of oneness with all without loss of uniqueness.

Embedded in the everyday, quite ordinary, experiencing, reactive karmic self is the dharmic or"becoming" self. Our task in the journey of life is to rediscover that becoming self; this is the greatadventure, the process that is the self. As HPB stated succinctly in The Voice of the Silence, "The way to final freedom is within thy SELF. That way begins and ends outside of Self." Within the here and now of existence, yet outside or beyond the karmic self, lies our true identity, the "becoming" self, the dharmic self. For as the Voice also tells us, "Thou art THYSELF the object of thy search." Who then am I? Who is the self that asks the question? "And now thy Self is lost in SELF, thyself unto THYSELF, merged in that SELF from which thou first didst radiate." Enjoy the search. . . . And become your most becoming Self!


Joy Mills is an international lecturer, frequent director of the School of the Wisdom at Adyar, past National President in both America and Australia, and past international Vice President of the Theosophical Society.


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