It is difficult to talk about self because, unlike words, it is not divided up into neat separate relative parcels. All we can do is make maps, and bear in the mind that the map is not the terrain. As with all tools, it is not the map itself that instructs us, but the use we make of it. If we are thirsty the map need only be good enough to get us to the water.
There are many maps of self, from ancient philosophical to modern psychological attempts to describe the elements of self and systematise them. For now let us use a simple system that fits with as many of them as possible. Let’s say that there are four basic elements to self - body (matter), mind (thought), viscera (vibe or emotion) and energy (activity) - but not worry too much about how accurate this scheme is.
The first thing to note about self is that it is finite. If there is something infinite in our experience, its not the self, which is limited by matter and energy.
And because there is only so much matter and energy to go round, an increase of one part of self means a decrease of another; more matter means less sensitivity, increased perception in one sense means a decrease in the acuity of the others, and so on. There is always a trade off; which leads to different selves having different specialities and weaknesses.
One self may be, for example, more energetic or vivacious than average, a better host, or a more confident actor, its eyes might be particularly sharp and sensitive and its tongue and nose less so - and so on.
So although all selves are fundamentally the same, just as all trees are fundamentally the same, each one, having a different arrangement and swelling of elements, is also unique, with its own particular sensitivities and strengths.
The interrelated elements of self work together in order to carry out some kind of task; which is to say self is a kind of machine. But if it is a machine; who or what is operating it?
The modern answer to this question is that the self is operating itself. If this is the case its prime directive will be grow, survive and not die. This is the only message a machine can give itself. Total sacrifice, or pure altruism, is impossible. The only sacrifice that makes rational or instinctive sense for self-in-charge is for itself or for some aspect of itself; for its emotions, its genes or its beliefs.
Self-in-charge then is committed to not die. What this means in normal life is that self-in-charge is committed to experiencing itself - what it likes, what it wants, what it thinks and how it feels - and to avoiding the experience of unself - what it does not like, does not want or does not feel.
This seems obvious perhaps - but the consequences are catastrophic.
For self is not static. It grows; and how it grows is determined by where attention flows. Whether its the muscles of the little finger or the part of the brain receptive to colour or the visual-spatial acuity, self grows where attention flows.
So if self is deciding where attention flows, its going to flow away from any state or experience that jeopardises its prime directive to survive as it is. Self will avoid what ‘I don’t like’, what ‘I am not good at’, what ‘I don’t feel like’ and so forth - and it will crave the opposite - my particular talents, tastes and strengths.
Naturally there is nothing wrong with having tastes and aversions, which arise or pass with the moment; but when self decides what to do and not do, tastes and aversions, being ’who I am’ are clung to, and necessarily become fixed and rigid. Fleeting whims and reactions become permanent fears and addictions - a background feeling of insecurity and restlessness which can never be quenched, only satisfied,
The result, then, of self informing itself is fear and addiction, and the result of fear and addiction is that the self is further warped by self-directed attention patterns. Its capacity to perceive, act, feel or imagine becomes increasingly restricted until it is only able to feel a few limited emotions, perform a few specialised tasks and communicate with very similar selves.
The warped self doesn’t realise that its experience is so limited, because it cannot conceive of unself, but sooner or later non-self makes its appearance.
Unself is anything which cannot be imagined, cannot be done, cannot be felt, isn’t liked, isn’t believed or isn’t perceived; nature, for example, love, silence, space, death, darkness, spectacular generosity, genius and the wide-present moment. Self thinks and feels it understands these things; but as soon as they actually appear self gets uncomfortable; first of all bored, dismissive, confused or superficially intellectually interested, then agitated, angry, depressed or openly scornful, before, finally, all hell breaks loose.
Self will do whatever it can to keep unself out of its life, and it will do it unconsciously; it cannot be conscious of its defence against unself because consciousness is unself.
Repeat: That which is conscious of self, which aware that it is aware that it is reading these words, is unself.
Meaning: I am not my self.
With self directing self attention flows only towards self - towards what I think and feel and do - and away from unself, from states of empty blended empathy and identity. The truth, that all selves are first of all the same, and then second of all unique, is turned on its head. The unspeakable intelligence of unself then becomes merely other people (or ‘cruel nature’) - to be resisted; and selves become ever more the same by clinging to their own uniqueness.
But with unself directing attention, attention flows only to where it needs to go. Self then grows appropriately, selflessly feeding itself and the greater self, alternating with necessary. It is naturally, attracted to its own unique sensitivities and strengths, but not conditioned by them; past crises have not markered off inner territory into prohibited and permitted zones; and I am free to go where I am not, which allows the tree of me to grow naturally, forming a balanced structure that can communicate with unlike others, and respond to unusual situations.
But the self exists in time and so cannot be fully expressed by a 2D map or static theory such as this. The most accurate and enjoyable map of self also changes through time.
This is called a story.