Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Self, Others and the Inbetween

In 2005 Scientific American ran an article called "The Neurobiology of the Self" by Karl Zimmer which investigated how we create a sense of self at the level of the brain itself. Here are two interesting quotes from that article:

1. Several brain regions have been found to respond differently to information relating to the self than they do to information relating to others, even to very familiar others. For instance, such regions may be more active when people think about their own attributes than when they think about the characteristics of other individuals. These regions could be part of a self-network.


2. The sight of someone being touched made her feel as if someone were touching her in the same place on her own body. She thought everyone had that experience.

That last one is a real kicker - apparently our brain has to learn how to differentiate what is "self" and what is "other", and some people get it wrong!

Of course, as a Buddhist, I am convinced that the stronger the sense of self becomes - with its selfish demands and ruthless actions to ensure them - the unhappier I become. The more I am able to consider others in the same way I consider my self, the happier I become. What is "self" anyway? It is essentially something we posit in relation to "other". I mean - I am "other" to you right? But I am "self" to me. So who is right about that? So dissolving these two is a key element in generating some kindness and compassion towards each other.

About this I often ponder an Alexander type question: How can you dissolve the sense of self by using a strong sense of self to do it? If we do it like this, aren't we are using the habit to change the habit? I don't think it can work this way. To paraphrase Alexander: Can you perceive a thing by an instrument that is already delusional?

So sometimes I work on thinking of the "inbetween" - something AT teacher Marie-Fran├žoise says she got from Buzz Gummere years ago. This "inbetween" reality I posit for myself is neither "self" or "other" - it is a world in between these two. Just as "self" and "other" are relative concepts, not consistent the way blue is consistent, then why not begin by inventing another one which takes the hardness and edge away from the original two?

The "inbetween" is what happens between us. It helps me to dissolve the sense of "your idea" and "my idea" with the notion that almost everything in my life is happening as a result of reactions to other things that are happening. With just my "self" nothing can really happen - it takes "others" to make it happen. So what I call my "self" experience is entirely dependant on the "other" things and people I am reacting to - to see it like that, not to see it as just "mine."

In my AT work this becomes very helpful (which I why I use it) in that if I begin to feel a negative emotion towards a student or myself, I understand it as a "mix" between my self and the other person right in that moment. So then it is useful to ask - hmm, what's this emotion about? How come I am feeling this now? What is going on with other person? How could I change so they could change so I could change? So the priority is focussing on them as a means of knowing my self.

Maybe it sounds a little weird written like this, but what the heck. I find it helps sometimes and I mention it only as I see that finding creative ways of slowly dissolving this strong sense of self and other is the beginning of being able to develop kindness and compassion towards each other.

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