Overview of influences on our personality:
What makes us how we are?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: August, 2017
In this chapter we'll have a look at what influences our character and our life. We'll not go into the fine detail of the specific influences that are active in each one of us individually — some of that will come in the chapters on self-development, education and therapy — but we will have a look at the main categories under which these influences can be categorised , because they belong to a few essentially different types. We'll look at these categories from the outside inwards, with the help of four diagrams:
- the first diagram shows only what can, at least to some extent, be known in the ordinary waking consciousness;
- the second includes besides, what can be known once we begin to explore the "inner worlds";
- the third shows how reality looks once one has some definite spiritual experience or realisation: one knows, at least in some way, the Transcendent, the Divine, the Self, a state of moksha, kaivalya, nirvana. At this stage there is, however, still a gap between the awareness of the Asbolute and the awareness of world: the Absolute is experienced in a state of samadhi.
- the fourth diagram shows how gradually that gap can be bridged when we become aware how the true, inmost reality influences our outer life.
1. Influences in the social and physical domains
In Europe, the 18th century saw a lively public debate on two related questions. The first was whether man was basically, innately good and could only be spoiled by later influences, or innately evil and in need of the civilizing influence of society to become at least partially good. Rousseau supported the former view and formulated it rather elegantly by saying, "men are wicked, yes, but man is good". The various Christian religious authorities of the time strongly supported the latter; Calvin and his followers going furthest in the direction of "original sin", the idea that man is essentially full of sin. The second question was whether the qualities of a man are there from birth, or inscribed later as on a blank slate or tabula rasa. Both questions are of obvious public interest as the answers lead to very different ideas on upbringing, education and various other social and political issues. To name just a few: when people are intrinsically sinful, a strict regime of coaching and moral education is crucial; if they are basically good, education should allow children maximum freedom to develop under their own inner guidance. If differences in intelligence are socially determined, this would support arguments in favour of fostering intelligence to the maximum possible for all students. If there are large innate differences it would support efforts at designing different approaches to education for these different innate levels of intelligence.
The discussion was initially known as nature vs. nurture, but over time the nature pole got identified with the narrower concept of genetics. In the first half of the 20th century, a stress on genetics came to be equated with racism, and the two most influential behaviourist psychologists of the time, Skinner in the USA and Pavlov in the USSR were convinced that any child could be conditioned into any kind of citizen. Though this seriously overstated what "conditioning" could achieve, there are numerous studies supporting the power of influences from the surrounding. We'll refer to these in the section on education. On the other side, there are studies with identical twins (and other siblings) who show stunning similarities in spite of having been brought up in entirely different families, which seems to support the opposite view that an amazingly wide variety of human traits and propensities are genetically determined. Over time more subtle in-between positions won ground and it is now commonly accepted that it is not a matter of either-or: genetics can set a baseline, or determine a certain range of possibilities, but it is nurture that determines which of those potentials will become manifest.
Fig. 1.3.1. Influences on individual development
— according to mainstream American psychology —
The genetic and environmental physical and social influences are all that mainstream modern science knows about. Mainstream modern science is also limited to what is accessible, or at least potentially accessible, in what is called the "ordinary waking consciousness", and so that is all what this first diagram shows. The only exception is that we have included the "subconscious". As we have seen in the chapter entitled "The Self and the structure of the personality", the subconscious does not belong to the outer being but to the inner being. We have included it here as Freud discovered one dark corner of it, which he called the "unconscious", and at least in some universities Freud's theories are still considered part of mainstream psychology. (In most, they are now relegated to the humanities, and especially to the study of art and literature. [REFs]) Though this is not really the focus of this book, there is some more info on the subconscious and how it relates to Freud's unconscious in part 4 of Appendix 1.2.1.
2. Influences in the subtle realm of the inner being
In terms of territory, there are quite a few changes from the previous diagram. Most noteworthy perhaps is that the area where the subconscient is lodged has now got a name and has been more extensively populated. It is now called the "subliminal" to indicate that it is below the threshold of our normal waking awareness, and it contains besides the subconscient, an inner mental, vital and physical, which can be taken as translations of the Sanskrit manas, prana and annam. There are several things of interest about these three. The first is that though this division in three is already mentioned in the Rig Veda [REF] and perhaps best known from the way the Taittiriya Upanishad distinguishes the different koshas or "sheets" in the human personality, it is ignored by authors like Patanjali, probably because they simply don't need it for their highly focused pursuit of purity, kaivalya: After all, if all one wants to do with one's nature is to quieten it, then one doesn't need to know much about it. A generalised rejection of all forms of desire and fear, combined with an extreme degree of mental discipline is then sufficient to make the intellect (buddhi) so sattvic and so similar in character to the absolute equanimity of "pure consciousness", that one can move as-if frictionless from a sattvic buddhi to a pure purusha (Self). It is only if one's interest goes beyond liberation towards an integral transformation of the whole of human nature, that this simplification will no longer do and a more comprehensive understanding of human nature becomes necessary. As I've tried to explain in the chapters on Sri Aurobindo's concept of an ongoing "Evolution of Consciousness" and the "Structure of the Personality", the essential difference between the mental and the vital forms of conscious existence then suddenly becomes of the greatest interest.
Fig. 1.3.2. Influences in the subtle realm of the inner being
— according to various Indian traditions —
The division in three is very obvious and stark in the subliminal realm. It is an amazing experience when one for the first time experiences basic emotions like love, anger, desire, awe before they are mentalised and dressed up into words. The division in three is much less clear in our surface nature. On the surface the three tend to be mixed: our thoughts influence our feelings and body; our feelings colour our bodily sensations and our thoughts; and our physical state has an unmistakable effect on our thoughts and feelings. Still, I've extended the division in three to the surface nature because doing so makes it crystal clear what is going on in certain complex human interactions that would have been quite confusing otherwise. An example from the academic world is given in a short section called, "Where One Places the Centre of One's Consciousness".
An important second point to keep in mind is that in Indian Psychology, the inner mental, vital and physical are not considered to be only parts of our individual nature: they are seen as part of independent, "objectively" existing worlds in which we are perhaps even more closely connected with others than we are in the physical outer world. In fact, Sri Aurobindo holds [REF] that the reason most people have so little telepathic capacity and empathy is not due to any chasm between people, but due to the wall we build inside ourselves between our individual surface awareness and our own inner nature. In our inner nature the psychological presence of others tends to be active whether we are aware of it in our surface nature or not.
A final point is that for clarity's sake I've depicted these three realms as simple circles, but each one of them is actually an extremely complex world with many internal divisions and complex interactions, both within themselves and with each other. On all this, there is some more detail in the chapters "Who amI?" and "The Self and Structure of the Personality".
In terms of influences, there are two additions. The first is karma, the second "samskaras and other subliminal influences".
The concept of karma plays a central role in Hindu and Buddhist thought. The basic idea is simple enough: the fate that befalls us is not due to chance or a for us mortals not always understandable act from the Supreme but to our own actions in the past. This much all theories of karma have in common, but there are some quite different ways of understanding how exactly actions effect the fate that folllows. By far the most commonly held view is that it is a simple matter of morality-based accounting: the more good things we do, the better our future fate; the more bad things we do the worse our circumstances will be. As Sri Aurobindo points out [REFs], there are several serious problems with this theory. The most obvious is perhaps that it doesn't correspond to experience: In real life one sees good people faced by serious hardships and wicked people flourish. To explain this, reincarnation and a delay in the accounting system are brought up: the fellow who is now good, in spite of his admirable conversion, still suffers from his previous misdeeds. The wicked man, in spite of his sudden turn towards evil, still enjoys the fruits of a virtuous life lived long ago. Additional doubts may include that the actual mechanism is still not clear. The system seems to require an accountant-like personal godhead who doles out rewards and punishments according to a carefully maintained ledger. Another serious problem is that good and bad are too socially and culturally determined to support a serious cosmic law; and finally good and bad cannot be equated with pleasant and unpleasant. Good done in order to reap pleasant rewards is not as noble as it looks and lives lived for the sake of comfort and rewards may hardly be worth living. In short, this explanation of karma looks like a projection onto the cosmos of a rather unenlightened way of bringing up unruly children.
There are other views however. Sri Aurobindo supports the basic idea of karma, but is inclined to cut the morality part out as being too socially and pragmatically determined to influence such a profound cosmic principle. He suggests that karma works rather in a morally neutral way, like the forces in physics: actions simply produce reactions of the same type, with this rider that because we humans are active, conscious beings, the intention (seen as a force of consciousness) may have more impact than the outward act. Related to this, actions "stick" to specific individuals to the extent that these individuals are emotionally involved with the action. The introduction of consciousness as force allows us, moreover, to transcend the exclusive antagonism of fate and free will: It becomes possible to think that at the level of our deepest conscious identity we actually choose our fate to ensure our quickest and most complete spiritual growth. All these are complex issues with repercussions at the deepest level of the meaning and purpose of our individual lives, and we will come back to them when we discuss pain, love and detachment in the context of both, personal development and therapy [INTERNAL REFS].
To conclude this perhaps overly short introduction to the concept of karma, it may be useful to give some thought to the effect, the secondary gains and losses brought about by a belief in karma. Though I'm not aware of any conclusive research in this area, my subjective impression is that over time the way people look at karma has changed in sync with other aspects of the time spirit. 40 years ago, India gave the impression of a country where the vast majority of people had little faith in the possility of having any direct active influence on how their own lives would evolve, and the concept of karma was commonly used as justification for a lethargic attitude. There was a widespread conviction that making effort made no sense as one's karma had in any case already pre-determined how things would go. The modern interpretation of karma is quite different: it holds that karma does no more than determining the present, while the future is determined by what we do now. This new version of karma is clearly more empowering and goes with the modern belief in personal achivement and success (well-rendered in a poster, put up throughout Delhi around 2010: "Our Time Is Now!")
There is another aspect to believing that our fate is due to our own past actions, and that is that it maked it easier to bear with misfortune [REFs]. Whether one believes that it is a personal God or an impersonal Nature that determines our fate, it is diffcult to accept that people are born in such different cirumstances. Believing that ill fortune is due to our own actions restores a certain fairness and order to the world, and what is more, given that we are finite even in our capacity to do ill, we can expect our difficulties also to be finite: in a karma-driven universe, it is not possible to be doomed for all eternity, and once we have borne out the ill effects of our bad karma, we can expect to be free to enjoy a happy life again.
Unfortunately belief in karma can also make less caring. Somewhat in the same way as Darwin's "survival of the fittest", karma can be used as an excuse for the socially advantaged to abdicate their responsibility for and empathy with the less advantaged.
To these aspects of karma we will also come back in the sections on self-development and reincarnation. [INTERNAL REFS]
Samkaras and other subliminal influences
The English word that comes closest to samskara is "imprint". In Ayurveda it is used with positive connotations for a series of rituals that accompany the development of an individual from conception to adulthood. More commonly it is used, however, for influences from other lives that effect our present life. In between lives, they are supposed to be stored in subtle, inner worlds, from where the soul picks them up when it is born again. They can be collective and individual, positive and negative. Negative samskaras are sometimes seen as functioning in a similar manner as the traumata of Psychoanalytic lore, except that they can have their origin in other lives as well as in the present one. The word vasana, which literally means desire, is sometimes used in a somewhat similar manner as samskara for influences from the past except that it does not indicate a definite formation (or deformation), but a more gentle colouring, a smell left by past experience.
When do the inner influences have their effect?
Both from a practical standpoint and from the perspective of possibilities for research, an important question is when the "occult" inner influences like karma and samskaras play their role. The impression one gets is that as India becomes more and more "modern" and materialistic, there is an increasing tendency amongst the Western educated middle class to adopt a kind of hybrid understanding of reality. The world is then seen primarily as a closed, purely physical system, in which things like karma and samskaras, to the extent that they are still believed in, are relegated to the metaphysical and religious domains. It is then held that if they exert an influence, it must be pre-birth, say by determining one's parents and circumstances. It may be noted that if this were the case, they would remain intrinsically outside the scope of scientfic research (unless they would play a measurable role in the recombination of DNA strands at conception, but that is rather far beyond our present capacities of investigation). If the more tradtional view holds and they exert their influence thoughout life, then there is much more chance that we could discern and study their influence. We'll have a closer look at this possiblity in the chapters on research, self-development and education [INTERNAL REFs].
3. The Self as presence and refuge
The third diagram adds again a whole new section. It depicts the situation as seen by people with an experience or realisation of the Self, the Divine, the Absolute, Nirvana, or whatever word or name we may give to the highest spiritual reality people can become aware of. The names and relationships depicted in this diagram are those of Vedanta and texts like the Taittiriya Upanishad. They have been explained in the chapter on the Structure of the Personality [INTERNAL REF] but for our present purpose, these details actually don't matter. The relevant point is simply that some people, whether frequently, occasionally, or even just once in a lifetime, seem to visit another kind of reality that gives them the impression of being not only infinite and absolute, but also of being infinitely good, beautiful, perfect, and blissful. The descriptions vary regarding the kind of absolute; they range from emptiness to fullness, from impersonality to Personhood, from universal Nature to pure Self, almost anything is possible. But there is a common thread, especially in the after effect: the visits tend to leave behind a sense of goodness, relaxation, diminished worry and concern over the endless ups-and-downs of ordinary life, a smile, a permanent quiet inner joy, and perhaps with all this, some more empathy, love and care for others. People who have had this experience tend to "light up", almost physically, like a bulb, when they're reminded of it. The visit to the "other reality" can be so short and fleeting that it can only be whistfully remembered as a vague and tempting possibility for the future, but it can also leave a considerable, permanent effect behind, signifying a definite turning point in life: something has changed once and for all in one's basic sense of who one is and how one is related to God and the world. It is then that it is called a "realisation" rather than an "experience".
In Indian philosophy the realm on the left is often described as the realm of the purusha, the Self as carrier of our consciousness, while the right is the realm of manifest reality, prakriti. Though the left is thus "The Self" while the right is "the world", calling it like that might create confusion as the little, lowercase "self" that most people most of the time identify with is firmly on the right. What is on the left is not our ego-based "I", but the very core, the essence of our consciousness, the ultimate reality which is described in the contradictory terms we just mentioned: it is the empty nirvana of the Buddhists, the infinitely-full paramatman of Vedanta, and, indeed, the pure, transcendent purusha of Samkhya. There is more on these terms in the chapter on the Self and the structure of the personality [INTERNAL REFs].
Fig. 1.3.3. The Self as presence and refuge
— according to most Indian traditions —
There is however, still a problem at this stage. The attentive reader may have noticed that there is in this third diagram a gap between the innermost purusha section on the left, and the inner and outer prakriti sections on the right: the different elements on the left are interconnected, and so are the elements on the right, but there are no cross-connections between the left and the right. Both philosophies and religions could be scaled on the degree to which they stress the oneness, or the difference between man and God. Dualist philosophies like Samkhya tend to stress the presence of this gap; monist philosophies like Advaita Vedanta more typically deny it. Taken as a whole, Islam tends to stress the difference between man and God, while Hinduism stresses the oneness (though both contain opposite streams). The underlying cause for these oppositie positions, seems to be that in terms of experienced psychological reality, the gap is kind of half real: on the surface it seems to be definitely and undeniably there, but many of us have a sense that deep down, spiritually, it is not there, or a least, it should not be there.
This ambivalence pursues us everywhere. The word yoga as such is unambiguous: it means union, both as process and as endstate. But the union pursued by the largest and most influential schools of spiritual endeavour that have their origin in India, Vedanta, Yoga-Samkhya and Buddhism is not all-inclusive. One could argue that in their actual practice all three major schools in one way or another achieve oneness by removing the inconvenient half of the equation: they first harden the split and then deny either the reality or the relevance of the part which they take as the realm of ignorance and suffering. The mayavadin traditions deny the reality of the world; the Buddhist deny the reality of the self; dualist traditions like Samkhya and Yoga acknowledge the reality of both halves, but by their exclusive focus on the pure purusha, they deny the relevance of the painful movements of prakriti.
As such, all this is understandable enough: it is extremely hard to find the Divine (and not one's egoïc or culturally defined and sanitised image of the Divine) in the world we see around us: to our mind reality looks too full of imperfections and error and for our heart there is too much that appears to us as painful if not positively evil. It is even more hard to find a true Divine Presence with whom we can align ourselves dynamically, in action. The Gita is one of the very few scriptures that encourages us to experience the Divine right here in the midst of life at its worst: in the midst of war. But as a path, the integral, embattled, life-embracing yoga of the Gita is not easy to follow. The more exclusive, meditation-driven paths of Buddhism, Vedanta and Patanjali, are simpler and easier. They offer a pragmatic and well-tested shortcut out of the human predicament. The advantages and disadvantages of this approach can well be illustrated with the concept of samadhi which plays such a central role in Patanjali's Yogasutras.
The psychological necessity of cultivating a gap between Self and World is perhaps most strikingly visible in the centrality of samadhi as a means, step or even aim in many schools of yoga. The original meaning of samadhi is yogic trance, that is: a state of absorption in the Absolute, in which one loses one's sense-based awareness of the world. In some systems the meaning of samadhi has subsequently stretched to include a much wider range of spiritual end-states, including some that cannot really be described as trance, but we are here concerned with the original meaning. The reason that samadhi in this sense of trance plays such a big role in yoga, is that our consciousness has a strong tendency to identify with the nervous system-based activities of our mind, and with that with the life of one fragile little creature in the midst of a big and dangerous world. Different schools of yoga have different explanations for why our consciousness has this tendency but that we have it, everybody agrees. As a result, we end up involved in the messy project of building and defending our particular node of the web, a project that is not only hard and demanding but intrinsically vain as the node is an integral part of the whole but not stable as an independent, separate unit. Not only our existence and feelings are limited and under threat but even our understanding is intrinsically one-sided, our perspective inescapably narrow and distorted. If we want to enjoy an absolute, unthreatened existence, untainted happiness and truly perfect understanding, it appears imperative to leave the identification with that one node behind. This is near impossible as long as one remains aware of what our senses tell about the world because every sense-impression and even more strongly every impulse towards action is centralised in our body/mind and as such a force pulling our consciousness back again into a limited, egoic activity. The simplest and quickest method to avoid this habit of self-emprisonment is a total, exclusive concentration on the Absolute, however we may conceive it, and here comes the crux: Whatever method we use, wether we approach the infinite through the body, heart or the mind, the effectivity of the method seems to rest in its exclusivity. [FOOTNOTE WITH INTERNAL REFs to the different places where we discuss these different conceptions of and approaches to the Divine (eg in the chapter on Relationships)]. And so, the most "effort-effective" method to have an experience or realisation of the Divine, is to remove everything that is even potentially small and egoic from our consciousness.
Perhaps somewhat amazinglythis can actually be done. If the centre of our consciousness is located at the level of the heart, it involves replacing all other feelings and willings with a single-pointed love for one's Divine beloved. When this is, say, Krishna or Christ, it means that one must be in a state where only His presence is left, and one loves, knows, and finally is only Him. If one is concentrated in the mind, one must throw out all other forms of being mentally conscious: feelings go out, sensations go out, and finally even thoughts are sent packing. As said, both can actually be done, and what is perhaps even more remarkable, one's sense of "being conscious", and the intensity of delight that comes with it increases in proprotion to the degree that one manages to free one's consciousness of content. It is as if our being is originally infinite both in consciousness and in delight but becomes artifically and erroneously limited by all the stuff that normally keeps us busy: as soon as one removes this content from one's awareness, the infinite returns. Or, to say it differently: it is as if consciousness (our Self, the atman, brahman) is originally and in essence One, and only seemingly, temporariliy, "for the play" separated out into mulitple centres that retain the capacity to merge back into that original Oneness. It is not hard to see that this very basic, experience-derived psychological insight stands at the root of virtually all major philosophical systems of India.
Moving out of one's egoïc smallness is of course not easy. Perhaps because the nature of "the Divine" is so radically different from all other contents of consciousness, the absoluteness of the exclusivity required in this type of yogic concentration goes very far beyond what is needed in more mundane forms of concentration. In "ordinary" concentration, all kind of unrelated subcurrents can be tolerated, as long as they are kept below the surface. In the yogic variety, the required purity and exclusivity go much deeper. We'll come back to this issue in more detail in the chapters on self-development [INTERNAL REFs].
From a cross-cultural perspective, it is remarkable that in the Indian subcontinent this experience not only seems to have been more common than elsewhere, but also that it has had such a dominant influence on the culture as a whole. As mentioned above, in India it is so widely accepted as a human possibility that some form of it can be found at the heart of virtually every indigenous religion and school of philosophy. It appears that the strength and consistency of this experience has led all Indian traditions to conclude that an infinity of consciousness and delight are inherent elements of the very essence of reality and what is more, that, if we fulfil the right conditions, we ordinary humans can participate in it. It is of course not that the experience itself did not occur in Europe and the Middle East — it has been central to the lives of great saints and mystics everywhere — but it seems to have been more rare, and never got the same level of widespread official sanction and support, and sometimes rather the contrary.
Closely related to the issue of yogic trance is the conceptualisation of consciousness exclusively as pure awareness. We have discussed elsewhere what void and loss of meaning is created by a too exclusive focus on "pure awareness" as the aim of life, and why, in spite of that, it has still been so tempting to do so [INTERNAL REFS]. In the next section we'll try to show how a restoration of the idea of consciousness as power not only allows us to re-claim a large part of reality but also offers a new hope for the future.
4. The Self as influence
Our last diagram depicts the Self as influence, and with this we have reached the most important part of the story. If the first, or even the first two diagrams would have given a complete picture of all there was to our psychological reality, life would have been essentially mechanical and meaningless — if not plain monstrous given the suffering that is such an inalienable part of life in this world. Even if we had admitted the third scheme with its possibillity for individual redemption, this would not have fully solved the problem, for there would have been no meaningful explanation for the existence of the world, and the basic solidarity that binds each one of us to all others would still have tainted our individual escape with an air of irreality.
Fortunately, the Vedic rishis had a different and more profound view of reality. In their view,
- Reality is rooted in Consciousness;
- Consciousness is ultimately One;
- Consciousness manifests the world out of itself;
- Consciousness is not only one, but also the very essence of the many.
As we have described in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness, the One universal Consciousness must have produced the differentiated many which we see in the world through what Sri Aurobindo describes as a two-step process:
- The original One makes many instances of itself;
- And then, in each of these instances, it limits itself to a small subset of the infinifinity of qualities the Divine has as a whole.[INTERNAL REFS]
The interesting point of this theory is that it implies that potentially and in essence, each of these centers of consciousness is still the Divine in its fulness. One can see this perhaps most clearly in the inanimate world: even if an electron in its appearance and in its apparent action is no more than an electron, it still acts according to some implicit omniscience and in perfect harmony with every law and every other thing in the universe. And this intrinsic harmony stretches into the life world. One sees it not only in rocks and rivers, but also in tree and forests.
It is only with the arrival of man (or perhaps a little before that) that things become problematic. We, highly mentalised human beings, have individualised so much that we have the freedom to see ourselves as separate from the whole and then, in that illusion of egoistic independence, we can go against the harmony that's intrinsic in the inanimate world and in pre-mental life.
Fig. 1.3.4. The Self as influence
— according to integral Indian psychology —
But, and this is the good part, we can also use our freedom to go back into our deeper Self, reconnect with the original Oneness that supports and upholds the universe as a whole, and allow That Oneness to influence our being and action in the world. In religious terms this is what people call prayer. In a more abstract language, the Grace that answers the prayer is the universal Power of Harmony as it infiltrates and rectifies the little corner of the universe in which we as individual creatures are involved.
But there is more. When the intuitions of Oneness and of Consciousness as power, on which this last section is based are accepted, a genuine and permanent solution to the enigma of life might become possible. We have disussed this possibility in the chapter on the Ongoing Evolution of Consciousness. [INTERNAL REF]
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