The Self: A Living Ambiguity

I am a verb, not a noun.  The Self is not something––an entity––and, most certainly, it is not the brain. It is not located in the brain, in the chest, or anywhere else in space.  The Self is the verb to feel, or knowing that is feeling.  You may remember that earlier I quoted F.H.Bradley, the English philosopher as saying, “The total state[the Self] is an immediate feeling a knowing and being in one. Feeling here does not mean mere pleasure and pain…Feeling is immediate experience without distinction or relation in itself.  It is unity, complex but without relations …..Feeling is not one differentiated aspect but holds all aspects in one.” Originally the Self is the feeling of love.  The expression, “God is love,” has great relevance here.  Let me emphasize, I am not saying that the Self feels love because, apart from feeling, there is no Self.

‘I am’ the direct emissary of dynamic unity, and so I am dynamic, active, restless, curious, and never satisfied.  But I am not only dynamic; I am One.  Each of us feels that we are individuals.  ‘I am’ means ‘I am one,’ distinct form all others.  As Jean Jacques Rousseau would have it, “I am not made like any of those I have seen. I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.” Our very struggle to survive, the struggle for autonomy––the will to resist being controlled by circumstances or by others­­––our striving to be unique, come from the will to unity that I am.  It is worth noting that it was with the birth of Humanism in the seventeenth century that this will to unity took on political significance, and became a major factor in the French Revolution. Before then, the will to individuality had religious significance, and was expressed in notions such as “Each of us is precious in the eyes of God,” as well as the belief in personal salvation.

As well as being the will to unity, the self is also the will to perceive. To live is to perceive. “Seeing. We might say that the whole of life lies in that verb,” is the way the great scientist and theologian, Teillard de Chardin, expressed it in the opening paragraph of his Phenomenon of Man.

To perceive is to perceive from somewhere: the viewpoint; but it is also ‘to perceive something.’ The ‘somewhere’ is the viewpoint; but the ‘something,’ as I was at pains to show in the last posting, is also, ultimately, the viewpoint.

Thus the self is One; but it is also two: seeing and the seen: Zen master Bassui put it this way, “ The universe and you are of the same root, you and every single thing are a unity. The gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master. The green of pine, the white of snow, these are the colors of the master, the very one who lifts the hands, moves the legs, sees, hears.  The One who grasps this directly without recourse to reason or intellection can be said to have some degree of inner realization.” In this Bassui is saying that you are “the green of the pine and the white of the snow.” But you are also “the very one who sees” the green of the pine and the white of the snow.

The Self is a living ambiguity, an endless knot as the Tibetans would call it; the Gordian knot according to the Greeks. A dictionary of symbols says that the Gordian knot… “is a long standing symbol of the labyrinth arising out of the chaotic and inextricable tangle of the cords with which it was tied.  To undo the knot was equivalent to finding the ‘Center,’ which forms such an important part of all mystic thought.”

The Self is two that is one. As one, the self is ‘awareness as,’ or, more poetically, lantern mind: a light that lights up all without distinction; in Zen it is sometimes called a light that casts no shadow.  Zen master Nansen said, “It is like vast space.”  The Self is also a viewpoint, a dimensionless point, a dynamic center.  It focuses dynamic unity in a way similar to a magnifying glass focusing the light of the sun. It is by focusing dynamic unity that the dynamic center derives its power as the source of all value and meaning.

But these two––vast, boundless space, and a dimensionless point­­––are contradictory.  It is like the wave and particle of Quantum Physics.  The Self cannot be both, and yet it is both.  Even so the Self, although a living ambiguity, is an emissary of unity and is not ambiguous. One that is two; two that are one. A unoambus as the Sufis would say.  Out of this unoambus arises the tension in life that is so familiar to all.  The tension is always with us, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground.  Often it is a feeling of dissatisfaction, dis-ease, or diffuse anxiety and anguish. Cyril Connolly, a writer and literary critic, said, “I wake up in anxiety: like a fog it overlays all I do, and my days are muffled with anguish.  Somewhere in the mind are crossed the wires of fear and lust and all day long nature’s burglar alarm shrills out in confusion.”

Passing through the unoambus, Love becomes yearning, the longing to return to the lost paradise of unity.  Yearning is the basic religion feeling, and is expressed in all religions.

Where are you hiding
Where have you gone
Oh Lord of my being
You left me alone.
Shepherds, you who wander
There by sheepfolds to the mountain height,
If you should chance to see,
the one I most desire,
Tell him I am sick, I suffer and I die.[i]
St John of the Cross

My feet were muddy
And burning where thorns had scratched them
But I had the hope of seeing you, none of it mattered.
And now my terror seems far away…
When the sound of your flute reaches my ears
It compels me to leave my home, my friends,
It draws me into the dark towards you.
A Bengali poet

“The Spirit, always present and pleading in us, prays with groanings that cannot be uttered.”
Theophan, Desert father.

“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Christ.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Psalm 22

The source of my suffering and loneliness is deep in my heart.
This is a disease no doctor can cure.
Only Union with the Friend can cure it.
Sufi Poet

An on-line etymological dictionary says, “According to the best efforts of linguists and researchers, the root of the present word God  is the Sanskrit word hu which means to call upon, invoke, implore.” The word Allah, interestingly enough, also means sadness, its etymology being in a word connoting sad, to be overwhelmed with sadness, to sigh toward, to flee fearfully toward, all of which is the emotional counterpart to yearning. Henri Corbin, from whom I have just been quoting, goes on to say, “For Ismalian Gnosis, the supreme godhead cannot be known or even named as ‘God;’ Al-Lah is a name which indeed is given to the created being, the Most-Near and sacrosanct archangel. This name then expresses sadness, nostalgia eternally to know the Principle which eternally initiates it: the nostalgia of the revealed God (i.e. revealed for man) yearning to be once more beyond His revealed being.” This is stated succinctly in ‘I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known. Then I created creatures in order to be known by them,’ or ‘in order to become in them the object of my knowledge.’ ”

Plato also helps to explain the origin of yearning in the following myth.  He used the myth to explain the origin of romantic love, which, as we shall see in a later posting, has much in common with the love of God.  According to the myth, the earth was once populated by a race of hermaphroditic beings that possessed both male and female characteristics. They had both male and female sexual organs, they had two heads, four arms and four legs. They were so stable that the gods came to fear them, and decided to cut them in two. This gave rise to beings of one sex or the other, male or female. Each retained in his or her memory the earlier state of unity. Plato says that we long ‘to form one single nature from two distinct beings. …It is really the burning longing for unity which bears the name of love.” The longing for unity is the longing is to be free from the underlying schism, the original sin of separation induced by ambiguity.

In spotlight mind the yearning becomes desire: the need to find a form in which to invest the yearning, and so find rest and peace from the conflict, the unoambus, that initiates yearning and which is intrinsic to yearning.  Originally, desire, and the form in which it is invested, had religious overtones, the most potent form being the Messiah, the Second Coming. In this the yearning for Unity, wholeness, the holy finds its perfect investment.  That the Second Coming is in the future is significant because desire is a promise, a promise that is never fulfilled, but a promise, even so, of perfection, of some absolute satisfaction.  The Promised Land, the Holy Grail, Moby Dick, humankind has forever pursued a dream of heaven, the perfect form.  We have turned to the form of God, of Jesus, and of the Virgin Mary, of Buddha, Kannon, of Krishna and Allah, in our insatiable desire for a form that will offer indefinable but assured completeness.   That this desire increases as our life becomes more anxious, uncertain, or threatened, shows clearly that the origin of desire lies in suffering.  Desire, as the Buddhist second Noble Truth would say, causes suffering, but only because suffering causes desire. No final rest from desire is ever possible, and the wheel of Samsara turns forever.

Language makes it possible for us to invest yearning in a form.  Contrary to the scholars, who would say that the first words were, “Kill it!”, the first word was most likely “Om.”   We must make a clear distinction between communication and language.  All sentient beings, even plants and trees, communicate.  (See article: Plants communicate with each other by using clicking sounds)  However, only humans have language.  Language, among other attributes, enables knowledge, which becomes increasingly complex, to be accumulated and passed on to subsequent generations.  It may well be that hunting enabled communication to be to be developed to a high degree, but the leap to language would have come through our yearning to rediscover lost unity, and so the leap would have been a religious event. The first word would have been humankind’s first God; the one who spoke it would have been God incarnate. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” is the way that St John expressed it.  I have emphasized ‘the word was God’ because it is very important.

 St John wrote in Greek, and he would have used ‘Logos’ instead of ‘word,’ and logos is one of those words that is extremely difficult to translate into another language. A philosopher who lived at the same time as John, whose name was Philo, once wrote, “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.”

This is the function of language: it fixes experience. We, in our twittering and tweeting age, have no idea of how important language is.  We have completely lost sight of the magical power of language, and of how, because of it, we are able to create a whole world. Without language we are nowhere for no reason; everything dissolves and merges with everything else in a dreamlike phantasm.  We have no past and no future, we can neither remember nor foretell. Things do not exist, there is just action, fleeting and momentary.

Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf, tells in her autobiography of her first encounter with language. “Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over my hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, and then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten…and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free.” (My emphasis)

The first word meant equally God, the world and me.  It was probably danced and almost certainly sung.  When I say that the first word meant God, the world and me, this is another way of saying the word incarnated God, the world and me. The incarnation of God (dynamic unity) is the investment of the dynamic center.  For the Christian this investment is in Jesus Christ, God incarnate. The ‘incarnation’ of the world means the world becomes material.  Materialism is the result of identifying the word with its meaning. The incarnation of me makes me something: a soul, a self, a person. The first word would have appeared instantaneously, in a flash; its incarnation is ongoing.  The function of what we have come to know as religion, that is spotlight religion, has always been to protect and nurture the dynamic center through the medium of the word.  This helps us to understand why the Bible is of such importance.


[i] Brenan, Gerald  (with a translation of the poetry by Linda Nicholson (1973) St. John of the Cross: his life and poetry (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) p. 149.

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19 Responses to The Self: A Living Ambiguity

  1. Annie Manseau says:

    Merci pour le texte, il m’amène vers de nouveaux sentiers ce matin.

  2. Bud Fritz says:

    Could you say more about the relationship between Logos and Dabhar, especially since some claim that the gospels were first written in Aramaic, and the latter would have been what John used in that case. The fact that in some ways they are contradictory words is fascinating.

  3. Helmut Mohelsky says:

    For me to have no language or thoughts is a mystery by itself because, like most of us, we take language for granted. How could one imagine what it may have felt to be without the protective armor of language, without being able to utter a word? Perhaps one way to get a taste of this is to break up the defined meaning of a word or concept like Mr.Low does when he says that there is no ‘self’.Then the gates are open for new meanings, for new possibilities, and for that that can not be expressed, facing confusion or the abyss of reason. In that sense, perhaps I can somehow understand Helen Keller’s sense of liberation/revelation through the discovery of language.

    In some respect this seems to be the reverse process of meditation, going form certainty to that that defies any definition or description.

  4. Narcel DesRosiers says:

    ‘’ Originally the Self is the feeling of love. … the Self cannot feels love because, apart from feeling , there is no Self.’’ Here is how I see this apparent contradiction. To feel, to see, being seen, to perceive and love are not attributes to the Self , does not belong to who I am as being the Self with my only one selfish centre. This is a fundamental living ambiguity given to all beings, and it is what gives the enormous amount of the energy necessary to reunite the two in one, or the one in two, reunite in feelings, perceptions or consciousness of the marvellous of all of it, of what a great miracle the life is, how wonderful it is. Suffering created by this ambiguity is part of the path, but it should never be converted into happiness. Pain is pain, the way out is passing through, feel it, than forget it if possible. To fall in love with pain must be avoided, it is an useless contradiction – the pleasure of suffering – some may think he has to live with.

  5. Monique D says:

    In the teisho you gave last December sesshin, you also spoke about “feeling”. Listening to it again, I have been able to appreciate more what you mean by this word when you say: “ The Self is the verb to feel, or knowing that is feeling.” So I take the liberty to quote here some of the things you said in that teisho hoping that it will be helpful for others as it has been for me.

    “The mind of understanding is a mind of feeling. Not the mind of thinking. You feel your way into meanings.”

    “By feeling, I don’t mean any kind of emotions like joy, peace, misery or whatever, it is not an emotion. Feeling is the basis of emotion. Emotion is feeling in conflict. In the Hindu tradition, there is chit-sat-ananda. Ananda is very often translated as bliss or sometimes joy. But it is not. It is feeling. Ananda underlies anguish, suffering, laughter, it underlies it all. Feeling is the subjective aspect of knowing.”

  6. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    February 08, 2013 at 0:00 pm

    – – ‘I am’ the direct emissary of dynamic unity, … – – I am a verb, not a noun. – –
    What does it means to feel or be an individual? That dynamic unity occurred in each one of us when two first cells united in one in our mother, and 6 to 9 months before when our father and mother made that possible to happen. Apart their biological nouns, no names were given to those two cells becoming one, the very first one of our life. A name was given an chosen by our parents to identify our new borne self. That was our early moment of ambiguity: man – and – woman with our two first cells, united in one, man – or – woman with our body. That dynamic ambiguity is in action during all our life and gives a meaningful sense of what life is. That is so for me.

    • Albert Low says:

      Dynamic unity does not ‘occur in us.’ Dynamic unity is us.

      • Marcel DesRosiers says:

        Vous clarifiez bien ma pensée, l’unité dynamique ne survient pas à un moment donné, est y a toujours été en chacun de nous, Merci

    • JPL says:

      Marcel,
      Je crois que ce qu’Albert nous dit n’est pas que Unite dynamique est (a toujours ete / sera … whatever) “en” chacun de nous mais bien que Unite dynamique EST chacun de nous — etre “d’une facon” (sic) qui ne peut etre plus fundamentale bien qu’ambigue. De facon un peu malhabile, je dirai que rien n’est exterieur a Unite dynamique aussi bien que rien ne l’epuisse (exhaust it).

      It is like when Hakuin once apparently said: “Don’t believe that for a minute! What kind of “self-nature” is it that can be “sucked under”? Is it like one of those yams or chestnuts you bury under the cooking coals? Any “vital spirit” that can be “grabed and chocked off” is equally dubious. Is it like when a rabbit or fox get caught in a snare? (The essential Teachings of Zen master Hakuin p.24)

  7. helmutm says:

    When words are broken off they hint at something that goes far beyond what they can say: ‘What’ can be seen is broken off from ‘seeing’. ‘What’ can be felt is broken off from ‘feeling’, and ‘what can be thought is broken off from ‘thinking’.
    When words are broken off they leave behind a much larger reality than we can grasp. Going from a world of things to something incomprehensible or unknowable is a mysterious process of transformation that involves renunciation. It un-things.
    The reverse process occurs when ‘seeing’ becomes ‘what’ is seen (a thing), or when ‘thinking’ becomes ‘what’ is thought (a thought). This is also a mysterious and powerful transformation that involves separation. In the former this power makes things disappear and in the latter it brings things into existence. Both, I find, are equally miraculous.
    Perhaps that’s what Helen Keller went through when the word ‘water’ was spelled into her hand.

  8. Randy H. says:

    Self: “Self confidence” is such a loaded expression. One is involved in a serious automobile accident. Perhaps through some inadvertence we have even caused it. We are badly shaken, but no sooner has the glass been swept away, than someone is saying, “Oh, you must get behind the wheel again, rebuild your self confidence!” We aren’t so sure. For a time at least what they are asking seems quite impossible, like trying to believe again in Santa Clause or in God: just words, thoughts, ideas…

  9. helmutm says:

    There is nothing we can grasp but words.

  10. Eric Best says:

    Hi all. Thank you for another gorgeous post, Albert. Given the truth of all this, how might we approach the notion of responsibility and yet avoid a dualism of a ‘self’ that is responsible for one’s ‘self’?
    For example, an important “rule of thumb” lesson of early adulthood is to take responsibility for, or ownership of, one’s actions and to recognise that one cannot take responsibility for the actions of others (i.e. do not blame others for one’s own decisions and do not wear the blame for others’ decisions). This does not mean we are omnipotent over our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, just that it is our responsibility to tend them and accept their consequences.
    How might whatever truth is in this be affirmed without falling into a trap? Personally, I’m thinking an answer might lie somewhere in the direction of love.

    • Albert Low says:

      I am not quite sure about what you are asking. Could you please clarify?

      • I find it interesting how I can have blind spots which complicate things that are, in fact straight forward; and I expect that this may be one of those. I suppose my question is about ego boundaries and their reification. In the past, I used to think of myself as a pilot, or driver, directing, as best I could, their thoughts, communications and bodily actions in order to negotiate an external world. You have, for me, successfully critiqued this view. “I” do not act; rather, I am the actions. There is only the actions (and awareness of awareness as these actions).
        A nagging question for me (perhaps, my private koan) is, “where does this sense of responsibility I carry fit with this?” I’m not talking about something neurotic, but responsibility as opposed to irresponsibility, or being caring rather than careless, or a healthy owning of a situation as opposed to neurotic self condemnation. How might responsibility be understood when one’s self and one’s actions are, in the end, not two? How can I start to address such issues without subtly reinstating a sense of myself as a pilot?
        So Albert, I hope that if my question is not now clearer, my confusion is!
        Kindly,
        Eric.

      • Albert Low says:

        I wonder whether we should start with a simpler question like, “Who walks.” We have not the slightest idea what muscles or nerves are involved in walking, yet we say with confidence, “I walk.” We do not even know the words we are going to use before we speak, but we say with confidence , “I speak.”

  11. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    L’ambigüité est partout, jusque dans les mots, les paroles et les sons. ”Hue” quand c’est crié fait avancer le cheval du cocher. ”Hu” en Sanscrit signifie ‘’call upon, invoke, implore’’, selon un dictionnaire d’étymologie. Il est la racine du mot God. ”Hu” et mains sont deux mots qui réunis en un seul devient ”Humains”, ces êtres que nous sommes.

    Durant les périodes de méditation zazen des Sesshins, les mains reposent l’une sur l’autre, paumes vers le haut et les pouces rapprochés. La gauche et la droite sont deux mains, mais aussi une main autonome et animée d’une même énergie, l’Unité dynamique. Voir et entendre sur place un musicien ou musicienne jouer son instrument, ou de pouvoir en jouer, permet de ressentir ce mystère, de s’en émerveiller. Dans ces états de totale présence entre awared-as et awared-to, leur ambigüité de départ n’est plus ambigüe. C’est l’Un agissant pleinement dans son dynamisme créateur.

    Nos mains nous parlent d’elles même d’ambigüité, nous la fait vivre sans même y porter attention. Elles sont l’Unité dynamique. Les amputés ressentent toujours leur main manquante. Les sourds et muets perçoivent la vie et ce qu’ils sont à leur manière. Leurs perceptions sont directes et ne peuvent être déformées avec des mots dont ils ignorent l’existence, des mots nécessaires pour structurer, exprimer et communiquer la pensée.

  12. Yes, yes: who walks, who talks, who feels responsible? Don’t know! Perhaps, “Mu!” How the toy ship longs for its bottle, the hermit crab a shell!
    Eric.

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