In my last post, I discussed an understanding of ‘self’ that draws of the work of Piero Ferrucci *. The same author offers a practice called self-identification. Whilst having similarities with practices from some eastern traditions and their derivatives, this western, Sophian, approach, has a loyalty to human personhood, avoiding the potentially dissociative doctrines of no-self or a purely transcendent ‘I AM’.
Ferrucci says: “the self is the part of us that can watch any content of the psyche without getting caught up in its atmosphere.” The idea is simply to dis-identify from the contents of consciousness and identify with consciousness itself.
- Become aware of your body
For some time just notice in a neutral way – and without trying to change them – all the physical sensations you can be conscious of: e.g. contact of your body with the chair you are sitting on, your feet with the ground, of your clothes with your skin. Be aware of your breathing.
When you have explored your physical sensations long enough, leave them and go on to the next step.
- Become aware of your feelings
What feeling are you experiencing right now? And what are the main feelings you experience recurrently in your life? Consider both the apparently positive and negative ones: love and irritation; jealousy and tenderness; depression and elation … Do not judge. Just view your usual feelings with the objective attitude of a scientific investigatory taking an inventory.
When you are satisfied, shift your attention from this area to the next step.
- Turn your attention to your desires
Adopting the same impartial attitude as before, review the main desires which take turns in motivating your life. Often you may well be identified with one or the other of these, but now you simply consider them, side by side.
Finally, leave your desires and continue with the next step.
- Observe the world of your thoughts
As soon as a thought emerges, watch it until another one takes its place, then another one, and so on. If you think that you are not having any thoughts, realize that this too is a thought. Watch your stream of consciousness as it flows by: memories, opinions, nonsense, arguments, images.
Do this for a couple of minutes, then dismiss this realm as well from observation.
- The observer – the one who has been watching your sensations, feelings, desires and thoughts – is not the same as the object it observes. Who is it that has been observing all these realms? It is your self. It is not an image or a thought; it is that essence which has been observing all these realms and yet is distinct from all of them. And you are that being. Say inwardly: ‘I am the self, a centre of pure consciousness’.
Seek to realize this for about two minutes.
In this definition, ‘the self’ is our underlying experience of “crystal clear, limpid consciousness”. Learning to elicit the experience in full may take a while, but we are that self all the time. Experiencing the self does not mean blotting out all the other contents of consciousness. Feelings and thoughts may still be coming and going, but now they are in the background of awareness. While the self is by definition pure inner silence, it does not necessarily take us away from our everyday moods and activities. On the contrary, “it can increasingly manifest an effective presence and self-reliance. in daily life”.
Further possibilities unfold as we increase our self-awareness in this sense. Ferrucci says that as pure consciousness gains in clarity and fullness, we “make a direct approach to the creative vitality at the very source of our being”. The ways in which people describe this vary with time and place, language and culture. In ancient China, philosophers spoke of the Tao, whilst warning against attempts to define it. In the Pagan Roman Empire, Plotinus described an experience that seemed “unbounded” and “totally immeasurable”. A millennium later in Christian England, Julian of Norwich wrote: “Our Lord opened my spiritual eye and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart, and I saw the soul was as wide as if it were an infinite world, as if it were a blessed kingdom.”
In my own experience, I have for quite a while had a sense of being ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. The ‘emptiness’ of pure consciousness becomes a ‘fullness’. I profoundly belong. I am energetically alive. I sense freedom and capacity. I feel distinctive within a larger field, yet with fluid and porous boundaries. I am opened to I-Thou relationship and the possibility of reciprocal recognition, personhood’s greatest gift.
As a contemplative exercise, I find self-identification – leading on to a ‘fullness’ or ‘just being’ phase’ – profoundly valuable. It takes me half an hour and it seeds clarity and fullness in my daily life.
*Piero Ferrucci What we may be: the vision and techniques of psychosynthesis Wellingborough: Crucible, 1989