Monday, September 1, 2014

The path to self discovery

Recently, I read Kenneth Ruge's book, Where Do I Go from Here? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998) Ruge is a psychoanalyst and a minister on the staff of Marble Collegiate Church, the New York City congregation that positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale led for many years.

Ruge presents four steps to help people discover their true self. These steps offer worthwhile fodder for contemplation; some will find value in actually taking these steps:

  • "First, connect with your true self—the deepest parts of yourself—and go on to create a deep sense of inner integrity.
  • "Second, let go of old baggage—old beliefs that limit and define you.
  • "Third, discern and navigate your spiritual path—know when you are on track through spiritual means.
  • "Fourth, gain the courage and clarity to put it all into action. Design a way of life that is honest, vibrant, and yours—a life that is truly yours." (p. 3)

A major effort in much philosophy written and taught during the last hundred years has been to debunk the alleged existence of a homunculus, a non-physical self who is the true person and purported to exist within each human.

First, a human is a whole. That simple statement decisively undercuts historic arguments for the existence of the homunculus. Although concepts of a person's physical, psychological, spiritual, or other aspects may have analytical utility, those concepts are incomplete abstractions that highlight a particular expression of a person's whole being. When the physical body dies, those other aspects cease to exist. Furthermore, a person who is not a well-integrated whole suffers from a lack of integrity at a minimum and severe mental illness at worst. Nor do we have any evidence the existence of an ethereal, non-physical, transcendent soul.

Second, efforts to identify the homunculus with the conscious self quickly run into severe difficulty. Neuropsychological research shows that the brain begins to implement a decision fractions of a second before the conscious mind makes the decision. This implies that the unconscious physical brain is the real locus of mental activity.

Consequently, leading modern and post-modern scholars from several disciplines reject the existence of a homunculus.

A decade ago, I agreed. However, in the last couple of years, I've begun revising my thinking. Human consciousness has persisted, even developed, across generations. We may not understand the evolutionary functions of human consciousness, but the healthy sense of self that is many persons equate with their consciousness clearly performs tasks beneficial to human existence.

The conscious self affords a person an opportunity to stand apart, to seem as if one is viewing oneself as a third person would. Scientists are unaware of any other species that can exercise this degree of self-transcendence. Self-transcendence permits a human to evaluate her/his behavior, options, feelings, ideas, and sensory input. Self-transcendence may enable humans to exercise some degree of limited autonomy and to be more creative than other species.

Cultivating a sense of self that rooted in wholeness that leafs into consciousness may be essential for persons who want to live as fully and abundantly as possible. Ruge's four steps are important because they guide us in that direction.

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