This is one of those words you think you understand, but really never give it much thought. Self can mean many different things depending on the context. When you refer to your ‘self’, you tend to mean something along the lines of the dictionary definition of the word:
a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.
The self is considered to be the source of your actions and thoughts, and to provide you with a specific personality or individuality. But none of that quite holds up to scrutiny. Just try to find your ‘self’ as an “object of introspection” and you’ll understand the problem.
In spiritual practice, the general idea is that you’re aiming to transcend the self. Some traditions even talk about ego death and killing the self. This can make it sound like you need to get rid of your individual identity, but this is a misunderstanding, and one that can cause a lot of problems on the path.
Generally, we can say there are two selves: the self, and the Self.
The self with a small ‘s’ tends to be equated with the ego, while the Self, big ‘S’, is equated with the Higher Self, True Self, or Witness. But to be more accurate, we should also distinguish between the self and the ego, and acknowledge that the Self isn’t strictly a Self at all.
Ego and self
In psychology the ego and the self are seen as different entities with different functions. The self arises first, the ego coming along later in our development. The self is the basic sense you have of being located in a body in a particular place with sensations and feelings. It’s always embodied, or rooted in your awareness of your physical being.
The ego develops gradually through childhood and is a mental structure, created in relation to your sense of self. So the ego is what you think about your self.
It’s the ego that comes up with the stories you tell yourself about who you think you are: I am a man, or woman; I am a writer; I am happy; I am your friend, and so on. So the ego becomes what we think of as the ‘I’.
This can cause problems if you become too identified with the ego at the expense of the self. If the ego develops in a way that denies too much of the reality of the self, the body and its feelings, you lose touch with your deeper self. This creates a condition called narcissism, where there’s a strong ego but a weak sense of self.
Ideally, a healthy ego is grounded and connected with a strong sense of self. You have a good grasp on who you are and a balanced view of reality. Who you think you are matches who you feel yourself to be, and others perceive you this way too.
Another way to look at this is to see the ego as being exclusively identified with the personal self. It’s this attachment to the small or personal self that can cause problems on the spiritual path if you refuse to let go.
It’s not that you have to get rid of your self. There’s nothing wrong with it, after all. The self performs a useful function in the psyche and it evolves as you grow up, gradually incorporating more of who you are into itself. You can read more on that process here: Evolution of Consciousness series
This evolutionary process occurs within the Self, and if all goes well, you’ll eventually evolve to a point where you can incorporate more of your Self into your being.
The Self has a multitude of names which may mean different things within each belief or thought system. But generally speaking, the Self is the root of your awareness. It is pure consciousness or emptiness. In reality, it has no content, no form. It’s what enables you to be aware of yourself, of everything around and in you. It’s totally impersonal, which is why I feel it isn’t strictly accurate to call it a Self.
Other terms for the Self include: the Higher Self, the Transpersonal Self, the Pure Self, the True Self, and the Witness. Also: Buddha Nature, Buddha Mind, Big Mind (Zen), Atman, the Transcendental Self, the Anterior self, and I-I.
I-I is Sri Ramana Maharshi’s term for the Witness, demonstrating how consciousness witnesses or reflects the small self, or ego. The anterior self comes from Integral Theory and is their term for the Pure Self which shines through the proximate self (the subjective self experienced as ‘I’; as opposed to the distal self which is the objective sense of me and mine).
From the perspective of the personal self, the True Self is experienced as impersonal, but it only seems that way. The Self is your Soul and is the true source of your individuality. The personal self is a limited reflection of the full scope of your unique being found in the Soul. It’s the Soul that drives this whole process of evolution in order that it may be expressed and lived as fully as possible.
“In the archaeology of the Self, deep within the personal lies the transpersonal, which takes you far beyond the personal: always within and beyond. Experienced previously only in peak experiences, or as a background intuition of immortality, wonder, and grace, the soul begins now to emerge more permanently in consciousness. Not yet infinite and all-embracing, no longer merely personal and mortal, the soul is the great intermediate conveyor between pure Spirit and individual self.” – Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology