The borders of the self
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May, 2018

As we have seen in the chapters of Part One, the border of the self is perpetually shifting and in a person’s ordinary waking consciousness it can include not only the individual’s body, mind, and personality, but even possessions, roles, group-memberships and whatever else one identifies with at a given moment. Interestingly, both the average and the ideal location for the border of the self differ not only between individuals but also between (sub)cultures. In many Asian countries, for example, one’s sense of self is much more likely to includes one’s family and caste than is common in Europe and America.

Mainstream American psychology is based on a worldview that takes the physical world as the primary reality. Accordingly it looks at the individual primarily as a "skin-encapsulated" organism; it takes our character, personality, traits and dispositions as part of "ourselves"; and it looks at our relationships, group-memberships and possessions as part of the outside world. It has this in common with the folk-psychology of the normative middle classes of North-West Europe and America, in which people tend to see themselves as individuals in one huge and rather amorphous society of equal citizens with equal rights and opportunities. Reality may not always match the ideal of equality, but still this is the basic idea.

Folk-psychologies are, however, not the same everywhere. In India, and in many other traditional societies, the idea of equality is not that prominent and the focus is rather on hierarchies within one's ingroup and differences between other groups. People then tend to identify primarily with the subgroups they belong to, and only secondarily with the society as a whole.

In the Indian civilization the situation is complex. In the various folk-psychologies that rule ordinary, day-to-day family life, the individual is not seen as completely separate from the groups to which he belongs. The individual is seen primarily as a social organism, and the identity of the individual is to a very large extent defined by the various (sub‑)groups to which he belongs and by the position he occupies within those groups. The borderline between the self and the world is thus drawn on the outside of the groups to which he belongs and includes the posititions he occupies within them. But in the philosophical and spiritual traditions of India, the situation is looked at in a very different way. There the essential identity of the individual is seen as a centre of pure consciousness, and not as an egoic, social or physical organism at all. In other words, while socially there is a tendency to locate the border between self and nature further outwards, more inclusive of the groups to which the individual belongs, philosophically and spiritually, the border is laid much deeper within, and most of what modernity would consider one's individual character is seen as part of universal nature. To make things even more complicated, spiritual realizations tend to make the border between self and other less and less absolute. The result is that India's spiritual philosophies appear to bifurcate into those that either exclude or include everything. The exclusive group rejects both individuality and world to the extent that they are considered irrelevant if not entirely unreal; the inclusive, integral group adopts and "owns" everything, the individuality of self and others as well as the physical world.

To get a bit more precise, in the language of the Saṁkhya one would say that the Self (puruṣa) is a centre of pure consciousness right at the centre of our being, while one's character belongs to universal nature (prakṛti). The later Saṁkhya darśana (the Saṁkhya school of philosophy) took this separation between Self (puruṣa) and Nature (prakṛti) to its extreme and considered everything that changes, all qualities, all energy, as part of universal nature, leaving for the individual only an eternal, pure and featureless awareness. Other philosophies make the division less absolute. Tantra, for example, speaks of a seemingly similar duality of Shiva and Shakti, but here Shiva is dynamic and remains present in Shakti as her very essence, while Shakti is the fully conscious manifestation of Shiva: the two together are ultimately One in an inseparable union. The Gita makes extensive use of the basic terminology of the Saṃkhya, but overtops it with the concept of the Purushottama, and on the individual level also supports the idea that each individual has still his or her own svabhava (essential self-nature). In other words, the Gita holds that each individual has certain unique qualities that are part of the very core of his being. If we put it all together in one table, it could look something like Table a2-3.





soul body, character, feelings and mental activities relations and group-memberships rest of world
- - inside outside outside
folk psychology
- inside inside outside outside
folk psychology
- inside inside inside outside
inside inside outside outside outside
everything, even the physical world, owned as inside Self

Table a2-3. The border between Self and World

In this table:

  • Mainstream Psychology has a clear physicalist bias, and recognises neither pure consciousness nor soul. It assumes that all mental activities have a physical origin in our biochemistry and nervous system, and so all mental processes are taken as happening "inside". For the same reason, relations etc. are taken as belonging to the "outside". In short, its concept of the individual is strongly "skin-encapsulated".
  • Most folk psychologies don't have much of an idea about pure consciousness either, but they tend to take the existence of the soul for granted (even though they may have quite different ideas about its nature). Where folk psychologies in India and Asia differ from those in Europe and America is regarding one's immediate social "group". While Europeans and Americans tend to consider each individual as strongly separate from all other individuals, Indians and other Aseans tend to have a strong sense of the individual's embeddedness in his extended family and other small-group memberships, and so they tend to consider one's immediate social network as part of one's individual identity.
  • There are many spiritual traditions in India that place the ideal borders of the self radically further inside. For example, in Sāṁkhya, the philosophy supporting hatha and raja yoga, the true Self or puruṣa contains only pure consciousness, while the personality and all mental processes are considered to belong to universal Nature, prakṛti. Some, but not all schools make a distinction between the Soul, as a centre of pure consciousness incarnate in the body, and the Self as a cosmic or trancendent centre of pure consciousness.
  • Integral spirituality also takes only pure consciousness and the soul as belonging to one's Self, but it excludes nothing as completely external: It strives for a state in which everything is accepted as part of one's Self.
  • One could conceptualise the situation in this manner that as long as one identifies with a small and fragile biological creature in a big and theatening world one has to defend oneself, so one has to build solid walls around oneself. But if one identifies with one's eternal and immutable self, there is no longer anything that needs to be defended. In principle there are then two paths that can be followed. One can withdraw more and more into pure consciousness till there is no trace of individuality and Self left and one merges back into the Transcendent Divine. Or one can slowly open up again towards the world. In first instance doing this is likely to reintroduce all kinds of disturbances, as the consciousness will be inclined to re-attach itself to old egoic impulses. But if one persists, one can learn to stay in the light and the harmony of the innermost Self and yet encompass and transform more and more of one's old nature, gradually including even relationships, other people and the world at large. In the vivid imagery of Sri Ramakrishna, once one has reached the terrace, one can forget about the building and the stairs, or one can slowly return to reconnoiter the building below till one is capable of walking up and down the stairs without losing one's awareness of the sun and stars even for a second.

A short note on the meaning of "inner" and "outer""

As Figure a2-3 tries to show, what we consider inner and outer depends on our vantage point.

To simplify matters, the figure shows only two perspectives: the perspective of the ordinary waking consciousness, and the perspective of the puruṣa-based witness consciousness.

From the perspective of the ordinary waking consciousness, everything that is visible from the outside is called our outer nature, while everything else we know about ourselves is described as our inner nature. In this text, our reference point is much further inside. What people know of themselves in their ordinary waking consciousness is called outer, and only that part of human nature that most people in their waking consciousness are not aware of at all is called inner.

Figure a2-3. Inner and outer: A shift of perspective

  • From the position of the ordinary waking consciousness:
    • Our outer nature consists only of our behaviour1.
    • Whatever else is known in the ordinary waking consciousness (which is very little) is called inner.
  • From the position of the puruṣa-based witness consciousness:
    • Both are called outer. So, the outer nature contains all the feelings, thoughts, volitions and sensations that people are aware of in their ordinary waking consciousness.
    • The term inner nature is now used only for those feelings, thoughts, volitions and sensations that people are normally not aware of in their ordinary waking consciousness. This (much larger) part of our nature is also called the subliminal, and occasionally the subconscient, though this latter term applies more specifically to the lowest and darkest corner of the subliminal nature which Freud called the unconscient.
    • The Central or True being is our eternal (uppercase) Self or puruṣa, and it needs to be distinguished from the (lower case) self, which is a small part of the outer nature that the ego happens to identify with.

    All these terms are described in more detail in chapter 1-2 of Infinity in a Drop.


    1.   The manner in which the word "behaviour" is used in psychology, changed over time. In Classical Behaviourism, only what could be observed objectively was called "behaviour". Later, Cognitive Behaviourism began to describe thinking and feeling as "cognitive behaviour". This is somewhat disingenuous, as the decision of psychology to focus on behaviour was made because behaviour could be observed "objectively", from the outside, which thinking and feeling cannot. Behaviour has now lost its epistemological moorings completely and is now used simply for "anything we do". In the diagram below, the word "behaviour" still indicates only that part of us that is directly visible from the outside. In the Appendix there is a short chapter on classical behaviourism and another one about the epistemological differences between the main schools of psychology.

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