Ever notice that we seem to have more than one self at play? We catch ourselves acting like spoiled children, but know inside that it’s not who we truly are. Here’s my best stab at describing the mystery.
We have multiple selves. There are various ways and systems of thought to slice and dice this, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s make it manageable and take it down to two. E. Graham Howe called them the “I” and the “me”.
“Me” first. Which just about sums up the nature of this self. “Me” is our biological nervous system on steroids. Survival is the singular driver. Materialists are certain that this is our only self, in which case humanity has the mammoth task of creating decent humans out of this animal instinct for survival. I think they only got half the story. More on that later, when we get to “I”.
Survival instincts are good—when there is an actual threat. Without them we wouldn’t have got to where we are. It’s a good thing this instinct is wired into our brains and nervous system. It’s helpful when a herd of wild boars is attacking us. We can take flight, freeze or stand and fight – as long as our spear is sharpened. All of these instincts comes as standard equipment.
What we didn’t expect, evolutionarily speaking, is that those upon whom our survival depends, family, extended family, friends, etc. would be sources of threat. When we are emotionally neglected, sexually or physically abused, unsure of whether we are loved or not, our nervous
system treats it (intelligently) as a threat equal to an attack by wild boars. We go on high alert. We form beliefs about the nature of reality, and who we are, based on these failures to be protected and loved. These beliefs, along with the associated feelings, and resultant way of proceeding in life, can haunt us for a lifetime. And the problem is that this system wasn’t meant to be turned on all the time. But that’s what happens with trauma.
Your “me”—the self you think you are most of the time—is a response to trauma. At least, that’s true for 99% of us. I can imagine that there are a lucky remnant out there who didn’t have to contort themselves in the drama of conformance to survive. I’ve never meant one, but I can imagine they are out there.
We adapt to these failures of love and outright attacks the best we can, each in our own way. The adaptation, which involves trying hard to be the kind of person that is not going to be killed by those charged with our protection, contorts us. Our biologically protective system goes on high alert. This early warning system turns on and never turns off. And this is your “me”. You can get by for a lifetime, be successful, raise a family and operate from this “me”. But you will be exhausted from having had to keep a lid on all your unacknowledged sorrow, grief, rage, and hatred. This is the shadow part of you, and practically constitutes another “self”—but it’s usually unconscious so I just include it as part of “me”.
Your “me” lives in a state of contraction. Our nervous system has been trained to say “no” to reality as it is, because reality as it is is unbearable and we need to keep it out – or else. That “no” lingers in our unconscious and in our guts, brain, heart and skin. Its job is to keep the threat of being penetrated by Reality at bay. This is true even if Reality takes the form of love from our partner. Love is actually the ultimate threat to the false peace we engineered (effectively our personality). Too much love coming at us threatens to open our heart, and the first thing waiting for on the other side of the bulwark of our defence system is grief. We still believe that we cannot risk feeling it, because it’s a memory of when we actually couldn’t risk feeling it, because it was too much to bear. It’s not actually too much, now, but we don’t know it until we are resourced to feel it.
This survivor self is what I’m calling “me”.
The “I” is different. It is your essential nature. You can call it soul. It emerged out of the Great Mystery. It is the part of you that has a body, but is not defined by your body. Your “I” has never forgotten that you are a manifestation of the eternal Mystery, that continually creates universes. Some people personalize this and call it “God”, but it doesn’t matter what you call it. Just that you feel it. Eastern religions define the Great Mystery as emptiness, no-thingness, and pure awareness. Western religions tend to give it qualities such as Love and Joy. It is deeply personal, but not a “person”. So chances are it’s both emptiness and the fullness of Love. But the “I” remembers that this is who it is, a spark from the Fire of Love. Your “I” knows it is, therefore, eternal. When we are in the “I” of our being, there isn’t anything to fear, therefore. Death is felt to be a portal to more abundance, and life is a big shedding factory—shedding everything that is preventing “me” from living in relationship with, and being informed by “I”.
Your “I” is the source of intuition, which is knowing without the mediation of experience. Intuition is one of the primary ways of knowing that we’re connected to Source, and one of its manifestations. Intuition is often confused with instincts. But instincts serve “me”, not “I”, in the battle of survival.
You can call this “spiritual”, if you want, but it’s as natural as your biological self. Your “I” knows that what “you” fear most – your own absolute dissolution and extinction through death – is an illusion. It also knows that the threat that “me” is experiencing isn’t actually a threat, but when you are triggered, the “I” takes a back seat. It intuits an absolute realm, that is unconditional love. When you are living and functioning from within your “I”, you live without anxiety, fear, jealousy, envy, hatred, etc. Or, if these arise, you are conscious that your nervous system feels under threat. Your “I” knows and understands “me”, but typically, and certainly when you are triggered, your “me” doesn’t remember “I”.
To summarize: “I”, then, is relaxed and trusting. It knows that it is being lived by That and surrenders into it. “I” breathes deeply. “I” is curious about you and others. “I”sees the big picture. “I” loves. “I” is grateful, devotional and in reverence for life.
“Me” is tight and nervous. “Me worries – a lot”, strategizes-a lot. “Me” is paranoid, compulsive, self-protective. “Me” is a shallow breather. “Me” is curious about others only to determine if they are safe or a threat. “Me” must fight for her life. “Me” must work very, very hard. “Me’s” body is either very tight, having steeled itself against reality, or very loose, having collapsed under the pressure of being under constant siege.
Now you might think that I’m privileging “I” over “me”, and the Great Mystery over this incarnate realm. But you’d be mistaken. The survivor self has equal status in my metaphysics. It’s capacity to help us survive actual threats to our well-being is critical to accomplishing what we’re here to accomplish (however you define that). And when the “me” remembers “I” it gets on in the world effectively. That said, there’s work to be done with the survivor self. It must be retrained to distinguish between actual and perceived threat. The good news is that the work is simple. Not easy, but simple.
- Relax. More challenging than you might think, until you realize that the epidemic of addiction is associated with this desire to finally relax. You can do it with meditation, but most of us quit because “me’s” mind is so strong and unrelenting. It won’t let us relax. But, if you’re lucky, you get these great breakthroughs where you realize you aren’t thinking (when thinking isn’t necessary).
- Trust. In my practice when a client has got to the point when s/he can relax in my presence and trust that I’m not out to hurt her, therapy is pretty much over. The universe has our back, or the Great Mystery does, and we can let go…ahhh…
- Breathe. Many of the Eastern religions work with the breath because this is how the life force, the creativity of the Universe and Source moves through us. But you can’t make yourself breathe. (See step #1).
- Grieve. Chances are pretty good that if you start to relax, trust, and breathe, your survivor “me” is going to fight like hell to get you back to a state of high alert. Remember, the “me” has a memory of unbearable heart break and it was constructed to save you from this pain. So, it’s not going to stand down easily. But grief can break through the machinations and strategies of ego/”me/survivor. When it does an interesting thing happens.
- Self-compassion. Your grieving gives your “I” half a chance to come back on line with the unconditioned and absolute Love out of which we incarnated. As soon as you start feeling love for yourself, the healing can begin. The “I” starts to love “me”, even with all its fear and even with all the ways it’s hyper-protective nature you has caused suffering for yourself and others.
- Develop a lexicon of triggers. We all have ones that we are uniquely sensitive to, such as: any situation that makes us feel inadequate; unworthy, stupid, like we don’t belong, etc. Learn what it feels like when you are in a state of contraction, and tell yourself again and again.
- Use the mantra “This is a memory” when you are triggered. It’s the past hijacking you in the present. Talk yourself down off the metaphorical ledge. You are likely not being attacked and your life is likely not in danger. It once was, that’s true, but not now, not here in this situation. You’re okay.
So, your “I” and your “me” are now back in a relationship. This is your yoga, to build a bridge between these two selves that seem to be opposed to one another, but are not in truth. You can’t bully the “me” into relationship with “I”. It has to be shown that you are safe. And to do that you need to actively build a life, a partnership, a community that is safe—in other words is living in relationship with “I”. That would be #8.