Self in contemporary life: Challenges and possibilities

Sunil D. Gaur

I, Myself, and Psychology

Three decades ago as a student of psychology, I had hoped that I would be learning skills and gaining knowledge that would enable me to understand others, and myself, in a better way. I was disappointed. Contrary to my expectations (to understand myself and others), I was told that psychology is a science and we must examine objectively accessible material called behavior of others that can be studied in the laboratory. Behaviorist thinking informed the minds of our mentors, many of them still firmly believe in the power and potential of the machine metaphor for understanding human action and various mental states. We were being conditioned systematically to generate pool of knowledge dubbed as scientific psychology. Entry to it was (and is) possible only through scientific criteria in which reductionism, evolutionism, coupled with quantification and measurement at any cost figured prominent. After all, physics and chemistry had made remarkable progress by studying isolated, simple effects in well-controlled laboratory experiments; and it would seem at first glance, that the same approach should and must work for psychology. Physics envy was the guiding spirit. Whether we understand or fail to understand any human phenomenon or psychological process does not matter. Anything is tolerable if it falls in line with the scientific dictums. Psychologists were happy that they are doing science. The mimicry was nourished and reinforced leading to a false self-image of a scientist. The pursuit of scientific psychology did not help much in creating the scientific stream of theories and data.

In physical sciences, one often comes across principles stating replicable relations among certain objects that appear constant, irrespective of time and place. Coming to human behavior, the level of certainty and predictability becomes very weak. The answers to questions depended more on the theory adopted, because the data remained intimately linked with theory (theory free data are yet to arrive!). Let us check with some questions: Will all humans react in the same way to a stimulus, S (e.g., an abuse)?Will their feelings(emotions) be same? Will the memory of an episode over a period of time remain of same strength for every one? Will they learn something same and in equal amount from the episode? All such queries led me to think --if psychology is science and laboratory experiment is the sine qua non of knowledge making, then there must be clear answers by the end of a century long journey of the psychology of memory. This did not happen. Ebbinghaus, Broadbent, Baddely, Tulving, Craik, Lockhart, Loftus, Niesser, to name a few have shared with us glimpses of truth from manywheres,providing half truths. I do not find any cumulative progress. There is no movement from tamas tojyoti. The movement is from one state of tamas to another state of tamas. The same is happening in other areas. This kind of psychology is dehumanizing and ignites the image of knowledge that is not sound or good for the well being of the people. We need some other kind of psychologies, to deal with human beings who treat humans as humans and not mere chemical or mechanical objects, to be scrutinized by outsiders for their own gains.

Psychology: A science, for science, through science

My problems increased when I found that the analysis or dissection of psychological processes into parts is quite misleading. The key psychological processes of perceiving, thinking, learning, cognizing, remembering, forgetting, communicating, decision making etc. do involve an actor who perceives, thinks, learns, cognizes, remembers, forgets, communicates, and takes decisions. While such a question, in the textbooks of psychology, is treated as foolish, a curious mind confronts it. Who is that? In most of the treatments of these topics, psychologists seem to assume a secular, reductionistic and mechanistic stance in which a central processor – a mechanical structure (a black box!) is depicted to function. These processes are the functions of that structure. The black box type structure is not known. The progress in neurosciences has only complicated it, and we are still far from any kind of picture of that central processor and the psychological models are poor replica of that. The mind stuff remains unexplained. Psychologists, however, treat, at best, metaphorical processes as absolutely true. They use such a language. These processes were reified and converted into things that can be measured, and then can be put to any kind of analysis (these can be stored in the black box and retrieved as and when required). Some psychologists use the term organism but nowhere do we find any reference to that poor human being who is a social, cultural, being with the capacity to think, feel, act at physical, behavioral, symbolic and spiritual levels. He or she or both (who knows!) ran away from the scene! Doing all the activities and reflecting about them that doer, actor, experiencer, observer, witness, remains conscious and aware of the activities. The consciousness is the field (canvas) for all the psychological processes. What is typically left out, from the mainstream psychological accounts, is the presence of the living being engaging in various processes. What remains is a façade or adhyas or superimposition that has been put by the knowledge brokers.

I sincerely think that, in the entire analysis, the self is deeply involved and because of technical and practical reasons, we psychologists have sidelined it. It is forgotten. The same has happened with the role of knower or researcher/investigator. Instruments, tests and data replaced the knower. Therefore, it is not uncommon to listen to students taking recourse to data or test as the knowledge giver, and their role in the knowledge making is minimized to data manager. In this way, the role of experiencer and knower was dislodged from psychologists' thought space. The role erosion and related forgetting was a very symmetrical process, taking place in both the knower as well as the known. This psychological amnesia has been of perfect order. It was maintained very sincerely and considered a pious duty by hard-core psychologists interested in the safe and secure future of the American discipline. This strategy has certainly helped maintaining the comfort zone. It has also helped to keep the promise to remain scientific at any cost. They have been doing science without bothering about what is that that they are trying to study or understand. Their subject matter is still a contested matter. The ontology is least clear. They are sincerely doing science for science through science.

Today we are no closer to understanding the fundamental problems of psychology than we were when psychology proclaimed to be a science hundred years ago. This realization is nowhere depicted in such a strong manner as it is found in the domain of self. A moment's reflection makes it evident that each one of us is aware of being a unique “self”, different from other people and the world around us (not self). The notion of this “self”, or self-experience/selfhood which should be central to the entire field of psychology, has lost its roots in the core of contemporary psychological inquiry. It has survived in other marginalized areas like therapy, psychoanalysis and more recently in the field of social psychology, cross-cultural psychology and cultural psychology. In mainstream psychology, the cognitive representation of self has given some space. We are adrift, without the anchor, in a sea of facts - and practically drowning in them.

Behaviorist shadow on psychology

Behaviorism within the discipline of psychology in U.S.A has dominated to provide a meta theory for doing psychology. A crude empiricist–positivist position, informed its prototype. It emphasized the objective study of the relationships between environmental manipulations (antecedents) and behavioral changes (consequences), usually in laboratory or relatively controlled institutional settings through the behavioral data of subjects devoid of all human qualities except the one desired by the researcher. It led to the demise of mind and consciousness as legitimate concerns of psychology. The observable behavior became the reality and everything else was made irrelevant. This kind of tunnel vision paved the ground for the study of observables, objectives, and measurables. In this process psychologists learned to ignore a great deal of psychologically significant parts of existence that is uniquely human and matter a lot in life. Alternatively it had to conform to the rigmarole of scientific regimen.

The shadow, overshadowed any ‘knowledge’ that was ever born in Indian continent. “Unlike the west, (main stream) psychology in India did not grow as an integral part of evolutionary process. Training by British or American psychologists, coupled with the colonial influence, produced a strong tendency in the academy to engage in a practice of Culture-blind psychology….The current Western thinking of science of psychology in its prototypical form, despite being local and indigenous, assumes a global relevance…” (Misra et al.... 1996). It is crucial here to trace the thoughts and concepts relevant to ‘self’ and ‘identity’ across the cultures.

Revival of self

Across all the shades and colors of academicians and scholars, everyone will agree with one basic need of humans, they avoid pain and seek pleasure. Not mentioning about “happiness pill”, scientific and technological advancement has not provided even the direction that makes any mark towards these two basic needs (or goals) of the human race. In the zeal and obsession of becoming scientific, objective, and empirical, we have criminally avoided the very basic demand of man, to be happy. We are so much pathologically inclined to consider the individual as organism, as if he consists merely of organic loops and wires to be activated and made functional through some kind of electro-magnetic currents (stimulus) only. Am I a bundle of flesh, bone, blood, and neurons only? No! Immediately my experience, in the form of mental images, tells me that I can see all these things (as objects) but I am the one who ‘sees’ the scene. I can imagine my dead body as an outsider to (so called) my body. I am different than my body. Then, “who am I?”

I think if psychology as a pursuit of knowledge has to evolve it can not escape addressing the ‘the subjectivity’ which is of immediate concern to the experiencer - the human being. Among the psychologists who disagree most strongly with a radical behaviorist approach are those who emphasize the importance of ‘self’. Self-psychologists consider it to be necessary for elucidating what is distinctly human. As an individual experiences and responds to his or her own personal reality (and culture), it is pointless to define stimuli from an objective viewpoint. It is the meaning (and perception) based on the individual’s subjective experience, which is crucial. “Both psychologists and anthropologists, if it is granted that individual human entity is part of the Whole, are in the same business, that is culture” (Misra, G. 2003).

Self psychologists argue that procedures and methods should be devised for studying human behavior that do not simply mimic the physical science paradigm. From phenomenological viewpoint, one can develop meaningful ‘psychology’ if they base their science on the individual’s subjective experience. Psychological theories addressing ‘self’ hold the view that self structure is though socio-culturally conditioned, becomes a psychological force to regulate one’s behavior and action. Once held to be a concept of interest to philosophers and thinkers, ‘self’ has now become an active area of research with a spate of work on myriad concepts like self concept, self efficacy, self monitoring, self esteem, self regulation, self reference, self enhancement, self worth, self handicapping, self disclosure, self determination, self destructionetc. Obviously, self has become an object and many properties are attached to it. These upadhi once again take away our attention from the self as knower or subject.

In this paper, I make a humble attempt to address some core issues that are emerging in conceptualizing self. Using insights gained from the Indian system of thought, I intend to try to argue for an integral notion of self as process of ‘witnessing’. Self as witness always seems to be ‘there’ at all the different levels of existence.

Becoming of self: The birth of identity

Who was an American before the birth of America? At the time of the birth of America, men and women were persuaded that they were “American” as opposed to German, Italian, Australian, or British. America was a nation of immigrants who had left their nations of origin. In the late 1930s, the concept of ‘identity’ (in a limited sense) emerged as a technical term in America (the concept of identity had existed in Indian civilization for centuries known by Sanskrit word upadhi). The term upadhi refers to any identity that a person or the society levels to refer to him or her. Erikson, as an immigrant himself, experienced at first hand the process of acculturation into new society (changes the ‘upadhi’ or acquires a new upadhi). He studied how children (e.g. the children in Vienna, arrogant Nazi youths, American Indians) who were in-between were struggling with the unresolved ego crisis.

Erikson distinguished ‘personal identity’, the normal way we are seen and interpreted by others, from ‘technical identity’. He gave ego identity a psychological and functional definition. Ego-identity is the awareness of the fact that there is self-sameness and continuity to the ego’s synthesizing method (Erikson, 1968). Building on Erikson, Rutenbeck (1984) saw identity as an integrative idea for making sense out of the modern life, both analytically and existentially. Thus during the first half of the 20th century the term identity was being used in the cultural context for the time.

The institutional order of society reproduces itself, as it were, through the attitudes and actions of its members. A human self is an organism that has the capacity for simultaneously being subject and object in a single act. The self is characterized by-concomitant awareness both of acting and simultaneously knowing that it is the self that is acting (Mead, 1934). Individuals become human as 'social selves' by internalizing the institutionalized structures of meaning, e.g. of language, interpretative procedures, action, and feeling rules, social class perspectives and so on (Weigert, et. al.... 1986). During the process of socialization, individual experience is transformed into 'objectified' meanings.

Objectification refers to the thing-like quality of self as an object among the world of objects. The process involves conditioning (as an integral part of socialization) of the mind and growth of identification at a latent level (with ' I ' as body; and 'my' and 'mine'). For example, it is an empirical fact that if a very young child is pricked with a pin, she cries but does not remove the hand (despite being physiologically capable), as she does not identify or perhaps know that the body is in her control, and it is her body. The child does not differentiate body from the bed or the cot where she rests. It is only gradually that the human infant learns to experience her ‘self’ in her own typical way. To begin with, she identifies herself with body, as separate from ‘other’ bodies. This process of identification (and objectification) is extended to ‘her’ mamma, papa, table, chair, religion, friends, ‘own group’ etc.

Self-objectifications are experienced as under the control of self and of others. The self, as a made object, is experienced as subjective or objective, as defined and realized by the self through ‘subjectification’, or defined and realized by others through ‘objectification’. The ‘other’ may be another individual, group, or a generalized social-cultural organization of meanings (Mead, 1934; Klapp, 1969). If a child is asked, ‘Who are you?’, she is likely to tell her name, as at that point of time and space that is what she thinks her identity is. As we grow, the answer may have greater variety—e.g., I am a boy, I am a Hindu, I am an Indian, I am a doctor, or I am myself plus my circumstances. It is obvious from these examples that objectification of self occurs at different levels of social reality.

As I understand, the modern man is addicted to such social and personal identities. He has spun a bigger web of identities around him – his ‘self’. Whereas the real self remains only the witness*, he is so deeply caught up in the web of his (socially) created identities that he never experiences the True, uncontaminated self – sat, chit, and anand (i.e. the ultimate truth, conscious, and bliss) – the ‘Brham Swaroop’.  

Objectification of self occurs at different levels. The question that may be raised here is “Do we have social reality or a social construction?” “Is the self an object of study or the subject of study?” “Does the self study the self, or it is some other self that studies the self?” A carefully drawn path to address questions like these may further generate more questions and controversies, which psychologists have to face eventually. Let us see how modern social scientists and psychologists have confronted the question of self.

Development of self concept

We may begin with Cooley (1902) who defined self as everything that an individual designates as his own and to which the individual refers with the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my self’. Accordingly, whatever is regarded as belonging to the self has the potential for evoking strong emotional response. In this connection he presented the position of a looking glass self. The social reference takes the form of somewhat definite imagination of how one’s self appears in a particular mind, and the kind of self-feeling one has is determined by the attitudes toward attributed to that other mind. A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self. The concept of self of this sort has three basic elements:

  • The imagination of our appearances to the other person.
  • The imagination of his judgment of that appearances, and
  • Some kind of self-feeling such as pride or mortification.

The views of Mead (1934), in many ways, are similar to those of Cooley. He too believed that selves exist only in relation to others. Thus we have as many selves as we have views of the roles of different groups of people.

In general, psychologists agree on the concept of self as an object of knowledge. They, however, do not agree on account of values of the concept of an executive self,(or the actor, the focus of most Western concepts), or the self as a knower (or the witness, the focus of Indian Psychology). In contrast to most of the philosophical western thought, William James (1907) argued that boundaries of the self are not defined by our physical bodies, but include an “extended self”.

The extended self refers to all that we call is ours – such as our family, friends, caste, creed or nationality or the possessions that we think (or feel) are ours. James uses this concept of extended self to explain human emotions. We feel sad, if someone near to us is ill or dies. We feel happy, if our dears feel happy and so on.

James considered the self to be both differentiated and integrated. According to him there are three facets (dimensions) of self: material me, the social me, and spiritual me. Mainstream psychologists seem to have consciously or unconsciously accepted the material, and the social me as the self. They look with suspicion toward spiritual me with some exceptions. Scholars like Roland (1988) are in minority, who has expanded the scope of psychoanalysis to incorporate spiritual self. The ‘spiritual self’ refers to the individual’s inner self that includes his feelings, fantasies, thoughts, and impulses. Individuals have a sense of inner identity that is different from their physical selves. For example, one feels he exists even if his hands or a finger is lost. It is this essence of a stable “me” – the nonmaterial me of self that people consider as the inner core of their belongings.

In the backdrop of phenomenology, it is proposed that self is an extended self, which includes everything that the individual refers to with the words ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’. A defense of the phenomenal self is the most immediate need of the individual. Rogers, (1969, 1972) acknowledges this and elaborates the phenomenological self-theory for psychotherapy, education, relationships, and fulfillment of human existence.

The key concept of Rogers (1951) is ‘self’. In his view, it (the self) is “an organized, fluid but consistent conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or the ‘me’ together with values attached to these concepts”(p. 498). Rogers assumes that, each individual exists in a continually changing world of experience, of which he is the center. An individual’s phenomenological field defines his reality. It consists of the total realm of individual’s conscious and unconscious experience, at a moment of time. No one can know an individual’s phenomenal field as well as the individual can. If one wishes to understand another person, he or she must attempt to reconstruct that person’s phenomenal field and to be careful, in doing so, not to confuse it with his own. In brief two ideas emerge from phenomenal perspective. First, the self is an organized conceptual system for assimilating the data of the experience. Second, the behavior can only be understood from the viewpoint of the person engaged in behavior.

It is this background of (self as an object or objective reality) developments in psychology that self-psychologists oppose strongly. Not that experimentation is to be rejected totally but it does not take us deeper into understanding of man and his behavior for this approach is too mechanistic. Human beings are much more than a simple sum of psychological constructs, whereas the world may also be something more than a social construct and the ‘self’ could be intermediary between the two. The self has been totally ignored by most of the mainstream psychologists. Most of the psychologists have preferred to live in the self-created comfort zone with a shell around them, more like a ‘frog in the well’ (koopa-madoopa), and further demarcated their areas of specialization (e.g., perception, cognition, emotion) within the discipline, emulating physical sciences. There is, however, growing realization in some psychologists that self cannot be ignored if we want to understand human existence and its concerns.

Self in cognitive perspective

In this approach, self is viewed as an organized conceptual system without assuming that behavior can only be understood from the viewpoint of person doing behaving. Cognitive theories attempt to link both, an objective world and the need for a concept of self, as mediator of experience. Hilgard (1949) for example, notes that most psychological knowledge of motivation is based on research and theorizing on animal behavior. Taking up the position inclined towards self-psychology, he argued that, while it may be good to understand motives associated with biological drives, it is however, inadequate for understanding complex motives that widely prevail in human motivation. Human beings need to defend their egos in response to any threat to it. It provides the evidence that there is some very important non-physical aspect of their being that must be protected. This hypothetical non-physical aspect is referred to as ‘inferred self’. At functional level the inferred self provides a feeling of continuity and sense of identity in human beings. Eventually, the theory suggests, the healthy self is more integrative than integrated. It implies that the healthy self is flexible and capable of adapting to new situations, while the unhealthy self tends to be rigid and inadaptable.

Sarbin (1952) traces the development of the self-system from childhood through adulthood. His view of the self is organized around the following postulates:

  • The human animal regards itself as an object.
  • Behavior is organized around cognitive structures. The self is one such cognitive structure that can be referred to as empirical self.
  • The self is empirically derived, not transcendental. It is the resultant of interaction with body parts, things, persons etc.
  • The empirical self has substructures. The total inter-behavioral field, of which substructures are the part, determines these substructures.
  • The self is subject to continual and progressive change, from simple perceptions to complex cognitions.
  • Organic maturation and reinforcement contribute to changes in empirical self and concurrently, to changes in the total self-structure.

According to Sarbin, development of the self takes place in overlapping stages. At the beginning (infancy), the core of the self-structure is ‘somatic self’. With developing self-structure the ‘social self’ becomes ascendant. While the early self-concept is organized primarily around biological needs and rudimentary cognitions, the following stages become increasingly differentiated. The adult self-concept is organized primarily around roles and other influences.

It has also been argued that while talking about self we sample from a large population of information (Triandis, 1989). The sample may yield private, collective, or public self. In another analysis, Neisser (1988) has proposed categories of ecological self, private self, interpersonal self, extended self, and conceptual self.

Cognitive psychologists have also attended to the analysis of what is called cognitive-self and experiential self (Epstein, 1994). The experiential self is similar to psychodynamic idea of unconscious. Most of the time, the individual lives in his cognitive self, which includes things like motivation, learning, perception etc. Under stress, however, an individual reverts to his experiential schemas, which define how to behave based on early affective experiences. The experiential schemas are very resistant to change through earlier learning (education) and require new powerful affective experiences to change them.

Cross-cultural psychology’s contributions

Self is a theme that has increasingly received considerable attention from researchers interested in the role of cultural processes in psychological functions. It has been documented that self is construed in several ways across cultures. Thus while some cultures endorse a notion of bounded, separate, autonomous self, others have a preference for a relational, extended and interdependent self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). In the case of India, researchers often propose that there is predominance of interdependence, connectivity, and collectivity (Misra, 2001). Most of the studies, however, use measures that invite people to mention the perceived qualities of self (upadhis).

Self in Indian perspective: The conscious self

The ancient Vedic tradition views awareness in terms of reflection that the hardware of the brain provides to an underlying illuminating or awareness principal called Self (Kak, S. 1993). According to the Vedantic view, the person is conscious self, who is taken to be a reservoir of infinite potential. But Kak observes that the actual capability of the animal is determined by the neural hardware of the brain. The hardware of the human brain represents the clearest surface to focus the self, which is why humans are able to perform in ways that other animal cannot. In the framework of such a theory, humans and other animals are persons and their apparent behavioral distinctions arise from the increased cloudiness of the neural hardware of the lower animals. On the other hand, machines that are based on networking of elements governed by finite principles will never be conscious.

In this context it is important to ask, how can the links between our understanding of the physical world and the cognitive categories of the mind be illuminated? One of the ways to answer this question is to investigate the neural structure of the brain and relate it to a hypothesized nature of the mind. If brain structure is neuronal, then cognitive capabilities should be found in networks of neurons. But, the neuropsychological view is limited for it does not take into account the notion of self (Sacks, 1980).

Self is one and its theories are many. Behaviorists view it with suspicion. They regard self as vague and of no more scientific value than the concept of a soul. However, something is evident in all the psychological discourses – a man (the human) is something more than what the mainstream psychologist is looking at. It is the human who learns, thinks, and becomes emotional, and he also experiences these processes. He also ‘knows’ that the change is taking place. His experiences of ‘being’ ‘him’, the ‘I’ remains same. So there is continuity despite living in ever-changing world. There is a constancy in the stream of ‘being conscious’ of the ‘being’. Despite gaining and changing through learning (during the developmental stages – child through adult through old) he is ‘aware’ and experiences that, at a given point of time and space, he is same as he was before. So there is a continuity of his conscious(ness) being.

Consciousness and awareness are the two most crucial aspects of the human that have been extensively studied and elaborated in eastern schools of thought and Vedantic paradigm of psychology. There are many theories as to what is consciousness. Is it the brain? Is it the mind? If brain is the part of physical body, what is mind? The separation of mind and body is thought by some to actually be the separation of body and non-body combination, be it self & body; mind and body; spirit and body or conscious and body. While modern science appears to understand most fundamental aspects of nature, it does not yet grasp the nature of consciousness.

A question of profound significance is what is consciousness, or how it might be explained. It eludes us. It is difficult to define consciousness. There seems to be some agreement amongst the psychologists (and philosophers) that consciousness usually includes our awareness of the world and ourselves; the mental processes that we can perceive; our thoughts and feelings. The attributes usually ascribed to consciousness include self-awareness, a sense of past and future, free will, and most outward signs of intelligent behavior. Consciousness is a standing apart, a consideration that happens in a different place/environment than the thing or situation being considered. That place (where it is) is the virtual or imaginary space of human mind or the collective space of a group of human minds. Within the virtual human space, symbolic entities (e.g. language, drawing, math) can be used to produce overview or a blue print to work with a number of possibilities. Such a matrix of ‘consciousness’ makes it possible for the human beings to direct, shape, mold, or even avoid the virtual realm of reality. Thus consciousness gives humans their incredible power.

Consciousness is like a canvas on which the human mind and intellect can operate through its instruments and create, destroy and reconstruct the virtual realities, the view that this world (that we think) is real is a 'social-construction'- we create it, is possible only when the consciousness-canvas (metaphor) exists. Without consciousness, nothing exists, neither real or unreal, nor the truth or untruth. Some psychologists, however, differ somewhat to what consciousness is. They view it as a product or bi-product of information processing (Baars, 1988). Some  (Libet..& Yurry..) discuss consciousness as a function of brain activity. Classical dualists and reductionists disagree about what consciousness is, but generally agree about where it is (somewhere in the brain), in so far it can be located at all. According to Velmans (1990), consciousness means awareness.

Ideas, images, memories, and their experience can be combined within our awareness, or consciousness, to produce ‘thinking’. This different, inward looking, way of being aware causes the apparent mind/body dichotomy. It gives us a sense of ‘something’ within, other than our physical being, which has this awareness. This something becomes the ‘me’. This appears to us to be an entity of it and one of that is separate from everything else it is aware of. From this initial split, fragmentation occurs the 'me' appears to be the ‘thinker’ separate from the thought, the 'observer’ separate from the observed. In actuality, however, human awareness arises from the physical body, which in turn arises from the world. Consciousness is the world looking back at itself.

At the psychological level, when mind is thinking about material things, it is confided within the framework of time and space. But the mind does not have to maintain itself within the framework of time and space, and therefore can reach beyond time and space. The “existential self”- the real self according to Indian psychology (especially Vedanta thought), is beyond the dimensions of time and space. The world (social-construction of mind) is perceived as an apparent objective reality when the mind is externalized, thereby forsaking its identity with the self. When the world is thus perceived, the true nature of the self is not revealed. Conversely, when the self is realized (experienced), the world ceases to appear as an objective reality.

Just as the spider draws out the thread of the cobweb from within itself and withdraws it again into itself, even so out of itself the mind projects the world and absorbs it back into itself. The web around the self starts appearing during the socialization process of the child - at individual level, the process of conditioning of mind begins as early as during infancy. The individual psychological experiences are transformed into objectified meanings. Objectification refers to thing like quality of self as an object among the world of objects (symbols and images too).

At psychological (cognitive) level, self-objectifications are perceived and experienced under control of self and others. In reality, however, there is no world apart from, and independent of thoughts. In deep sleep, for example, there are no thoughts; nor is the world. In the wakeful and dream states, thoughts are present and so is the world. Thus there is a one to one relationship between the thoughts and the objective world. Conversely, if the thoughts disappear, the objective world vanishes.

The immediate problems, e.g., anxiety, tension, fear, aggression, neurosis etc., of the modern man have their genesis in the objective world and its conditions. If a school of thought provides some applicable paradigm or procedure to solve such problems, it needs to be looked into and researched by psychologists. Not much attention has been given to the ‘existential self’ concept by mainstream psychology. Rather, such a concept has been marginalized, with the assumption that it is philosophical issue or a spiritual discourse. It is rather unfortunate for the modern psychologists to ignore such a powerful concept that has the potential to unfold the mystery of human behavior and perhaps guide us to go in certain meaningful direction. The concept of self as witness, proposed by Indian psychology, in my considered view, has a promising future to penetrate into the nature of man and his behavior, scanning through his essence of being conscious and aware, unlike the other living world.

As far as validity or evidence is concerned, this concept of self also provides a scientific paradigm that may be further refined by the working psychologists. The outcome of such paradigm would be experiential and self-evident (swatah pramanya).

In contemporary psychological practice, the problem with ‘transpersonal’ is that we use this word to mean going beyond personal level. This is what most therapists and the majority of clients will do: they will extend the limits of their usual personal consciousness, but this is all. They will not go beyond the personal, psychological level of the perceived self. This psychotherapeutic process does solve some problems for some temporary period, not solve many of them for longer duration. The existential-self paradigm guides the therapist and the client by enlarging and enriching their phenomenal field. At intellectual level, however, the client ought to be reasonably capable of (rational) thinking inward along with the therapist. At the emotional level, the therapist must ensure to stabilize the acute emotions of the client that might interfere with his thinking process. The process of ‘self-enquiry’ is scientific in so far it is traditional and worked upon vigorously by the non-professionals.

In conclusion, Western model of man in mainstream psychology provides an outward-looking view, towards problems faced by man and their solutions. Indian psychology views such problems as related to deeper philosophical aspects of the human being and suggests an inward-looking approach to solve them. Quest for self and identity has been central to the journey of mankind in Indian psychology. The nature of human self as ‘witness’ provides a solid platform for further psychological enquiry and research at different levels of existence (reality), from biosocial to spiritual. Its implications for quality of life and well being, at individual and social levels, may prove to be of tremendous and great value to humanity.


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