Who am I? — part 4
Our character
last revision: March, 2017

Dispositions and competencies

In our increasingly mobile and shifting society, our relationships, role-behaviours, group-memberships and possessions are becoming less and less fixed. As a result, the focus regarding our identity comes to rest more and more on individual differences, on issues of competence and capacity, on traits, dispositions, and temperament, all that we might call in short, our character, or perhaps our "attitude". It is in these that our individual differences come most to the fore, and one could easily come to the conclusion that with this we have finally arrived at something that we could rightfully call our identity. As students often formulate it "I am the manner in which I think." Assuming that thoughts are embedded in, caused by, or emerging from our brain, the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett would say "We are our neurons", or somewhat more sophisticated: we are the way our neurons are interconnected. [GET REFs for both]. But what about change? In what way are we the same person as we were when we were one year old? In what way not? Are we like a river: owners of a certain identity but never of the same water?

The Indian tradition holds that all most people know of themselves is temporary and can change without effecting who we really are in our innermost essence. In Vedanta as well as in Samkhya, it is commonly held that in our innermost essence we are simply one with the Divine and "pure" in the exclusive sense of having no distinct permanent spiritual individuality. Sri Aurobindo does not accept this position. He agrees that we are in our essence one with the Supreme, but he also accepts that we have a permanent spiritual individuality with a unique svabhava and svadharma, spiritual nature and law of right action.1 Still, even for Sri Aurobindo, there is not necessarily a close link between our outer nature and what we are in our essence. In most of us, our essential nature is hidden so deep inside that though it may have some influence on our outer nature, there may be no easily recognisable correspondence between our outer nature and our inner essence.

We will come back to our quest for our real Self later, but in this section we will first have a closer look at our outer nature from the perspective of Integral Indian psychology. For it is here that the first clear differences become visible between mainstream American and Indian psychological thought. These differences show up in four closely related areas: the funadamental nature of reality psychology deals with; different parts we can distinguish in human nature; the way individual differences are classified; and finally the kind of things and processes that have made us the way we are.

The fundamantal nature of reality psychology deals with

It seems safe to say that mainstream American psychology is built around the distinction between body and mind. This duality is, in fact, so pervasive and so much taken for granted that even those who don't subscribe to it still tend to speak of the "body-mind complex" to indicate the whole of human existence. The mind-body split, or at least its central place in European thought, is often credited to Descartes (1596-1650) who in his Meditations of First Philosophy made the distinction between res cogitans (thinking things) and res extensa (things that extend in space and as such are measurable). The split has often been criticised, but from an Indian standpoint, the main problem is not with the split but with the borders Descartes drew around the whole.

Interestingly he placed his own identity firmly on the side of the former. He wrote: “But what then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels” (Descartes, 1641/1996).

Given the defining influence Descartes has had on the development of scientific thought in Europe, it is worth reading at least some of his writings in the original. What strikes one immediately is the simplicity and strength of his language, but what is equally striking, at least from an Indian viewpoint, are the limits to his thought, both at the top and at the bottom. Descartes build the whole difice of his thought, at least in his own eyes, on a fundamental doubt [CHECK exact wording]. But his doubt is nowhere as radical as the doubt of comparable Indian thinkers. Descartes doubts scripture, and that is probably one of his crucial contributions, but he desn't doubt the existence of the physical world, his own thought, or the existence of a personal God. He does doubt his senses, but only in detail, not in essence, and the reason he gives for this, strikes anyone familiar with Indian thought as amazingly naive: "God who is benevolent could not have provided us with false witnesses as senses" [Get exact text]. In short he never doubted the physical reality in anywhere as radical a manner as many Indian thinkers did (think of Nagaruna) free and independent exploration of other types of consciousness than the ordinary mind.

Descartes formulated the basic relation between mathematics, theory-formation and experimentation on which the entire scientific enterprise has been built. And science has been so stunningly effective that it has become a central element of the global civilisation.

appears to have had a defining influence on the development of scientific thought in Europe.

His uncritical acceptance of himself as a “thing” and of his thinking and feeling as an inalienable part of himself had rather wide ranging consequences. It not only closed the door to the systematic exploration of states of consciousness that are independent of mental processes, but it kept psychology for almost 300 years in the sphere of the Church, where it missed out on the free exploration of reality that became the hallmark of the sciences that dealt with the other half of reality, the measurable "res extensa". Possibly worse than that, when the behaviourists finally pushed psychology over the border, out of the realm of religion and philosophy and into the realm of experimental science, humans ended up as res extensa and were treated as measurable objects [FN to Watson]. Descartes was not a dry rationalist, and he included, though almost as an afterthought, imaginations and feelings, but what missed completely was the possibility of ways of consciousness other than the ordinary waking state: He took it simply for granted that we identify with our thoughts and feelings. This is rather remarkable as he asserted that knowledge comes essentially from within, and attributed some of his most important ideas to visions which he took as gifts from God. He conceded that mental conclusions need confirmation by the senses, just as the findings of the senses need to be vetted by the reason. In other words, h

The different parts of our surface nature

Our body

- this came from previous file and needs to be adjusted
- ref needs to be made to body consciousness

It may appear that with our body we have finally arrived at "ourselves". One could argue that all the other things we have mentioned so far have, in fact, been no more than a distraction: They say something about us, but they are not what we really are. But is the body really what we are?

In the 1940s and 50s William Herbert Sheldon popularised a taxonomy of three bodytypes (endomorphs, mesomorphs and ectomorphs) and a "constitutional psychology" which claimed that these easily observable bodytypes corresponded to equally clearly different types of temperament. Over time his theories were however completely discredited and few will now claim that there is much of a relation between basic body type and psychological traits and capacities. So if there is more to us what is our relation to our body?

Interestingly different people have very different relations to their body: some identify more with it, some less; some look after it much more carefully than others; some like their body more, some like it less; some people are much more "self-conscious" about what others think about their body, some much less. St. Francis is supposed to have said that one should look well after "brother donkey" because, in the end, it is he who carries us around. But the body is more than just a good-willing (and somewhat dated) mode of transport. Almost everybody identifies to some extent with their body, and so there is a close relationship between our basic feel and attitude towards life and what our body posture and movements express.

Our body-consciousness changes from moment to moment. It is different when feeling fully awake, healthy, doing heavy work, being sleepy, ill, afraid. One interesting aspect of our body-postures is that they not only express how we feel, but that it also works the other way around. Our body-posture effects the way we feel. If you feel depressed, for example, you tend to look down and it feels a bit awkward to keep your eyes fixed a little above the horizon. But if you persist with "looking up", in its most literal, physical sense, it may actually help you to smile about your negative feelings!

One moment when we are most starkly confronted with what we think about our body is at the moment of death. At the end of life, do we "die" or do we "leave our body"? Is Mr. X cremated or only the body of Mr. X? Different people and different cultures have very different ideas about this, and these ideas affect many other aspects of life, especially the way we deal with good and bad fortune. The issue is so important that we'll devote a separate chapter to it [INTERNAL REF]. Here we will deal only with the much simpler question how we relate to our body right now. Is it the centre of our identity? Is it part or all of what we really are? Or is it only a dress, a vehicle, a tool?

Still, however important our body is to us, it does not seem to be all of what we are. Had the world been a purely physical affair, with thoughts, feelings, sensations existing only as side-effects of our purely physical brains, then we could have argued that in the end our "skin-encapsulated ego" would have been all there is to our existence. But as we have seen, our subjective reality is much more complex than that. Subjectively we identify on the one hand with many things that occur outside our skin, and on the other we can dis-identify with at least some aspects of what happens within our own body and mind. Most people feel, moreover, that there is something more to life than only our physical existence, and the Indian tradition is completely categorical about it: Though there are a few exceptions, almost all scriptures insist that the materialist view is a beginners' error, a sign of ignorance, or worse, something only Asuras (egocentric devils) could take seriously… So what might the extra be?

How to classify individual differences,
and why we should think twice before doing it...

What has made us how we are?

[EXERCISE: List what you consider your positive/ negative qualities]
[EXERCISE: imagine a shop where you could buy and sell qualities. If you had a voucher for just one quality to buy and one to lose? What would you buy? What would you want to leave behind?]

    • Origin of the differences:
      • Genetics
      • Upbringing

but also:

      • Karma
      • Soul's intentions for this specific life
    • Personality types:
      • Western systems
        • Jung
        • P16
        • Big five (+1)
      • Indian systems
        • Gunas
        • Varnas
        • Ayruvedic
        • Astrological
        • Dramatic/ Bhartihari
      • Methods for measuring/ assessing them
    • Developmental stages
      • Within one life
      • Through many lives
    • Are these qualities permanent or changeable?

[EXERCISE: what do you have in common with you when your were 1 year old?]
[EXERCISE: Make a mind-map of your most salient qualities; how you think you developed them; in which direction you would want to take them. Which of your qualities you consider to be really yourself?

    • IF/To the extent that we can change our qualities, how do we do it? (A pointer only.)

Are these characteristics and qualities what we are? Are they still part of what we have? Could they be instruments for expressing ourselves, and as such no more our selves than the situation in which we find ourselves and with which we have to deal?


1. These other schools of Vedanta would say that even our svabhava and svadharmabelong in the end to the world of maya and dissolve once we recover from our ignorance. A more detailed discussion of how Sri Aurobindo's position differs from others in the Vedantic tradition, can be found here. One of several places where Sri Aurobindo describes beautifully and subtly how he sees the possibility of dynamic individual participation in the manifestation even after a full realisation of one's oneness with the Divine is in the chapter of The Synthesis of Yoga, titled "The Divine Will" (pp. 208-220).


Descartes, R. (1641/1996) Meditations On First Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (The text is the 1911 edition of The Philosophical Works of Descartes (Cambridge University Press), translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane.)

Descartes, René (1931). The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, New York, NY: Dover Publications. Original publication 1641.


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