© Dr. Chris Schriner 2006
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 12, 2006

Last Sunday we somehow managed to eavesdrop on a lecture presented on another planet. Amazing, wasn't it? The spaceman who gave that lecture was actually willing to come here today and speak to us for free, but unfortunately he wanted 44-1/2 cents a mile for travel. Too bad, because he left his antennae. [Minister shows antennae he wore last week.]

This space creature was an intergalactic anthropologist who had recently visited planet Earth to study human beings. He ended up being quite puzzled by the human concept of "self," for three different reasons.

First, he said that Earth people seemed to think each person is separate from the world around them - as if their skin were a wall, with the "self" on the inside and everything else on the outside.

Second, humans imagine that they continue through the passage of time, as if there were some soul or personal essence that stays the same from the moment of conception onward.

And third, Earthlings believe that each body contains a single personality, even though our inconsistent and even contradictory actions show that there are many, many minds inside every human head.

So do I agree with the spaceman? No - and yes. I do think the standard human idea of "self" is useful, but sometimes this idea misleads us and gets us into trouble.

It's easy to assume that the concepts we use must be either right or wrong. If an idea is right, keep it. If it's wrong, throw it out. But concepts are only tools for helping us deal with our lives. Our ideas do not perfectly "match" the real world, because reality can be described in many ways. Instead of asking whether we do or do not "have" a self, we should ask in what ways this idea is useful and in what ways it is not.

Sometimes we should actually accept two contradictory beliefs, because each one helps us understand what's so. Think of the way physicists talk about light. In some ways light is like a wave; in some ways it's like a particle. Saying it's a wave and saying it's a particle are both helpful, and neither is exactly right. Saying my own personality is separate from yours, endures through time, and is internally consistent is also helpful, but not exactly right. Do not worship concepts. Worship the truth. Most religions are all mixed up because they tell people to bow down to ideas as if they were God. The truth is what's sacred. Ideas should point us in the general direction of the truth, and then get out of the way.

I wonder if any of you watched your own thoughts and feelings this week to notice ways that you are interpenetrated by the world around you, ways that you change from moment to moment, and evidence that you contain many different little sub-selves inside of your mind. I'd welcome some comments about that. (Discussion.)

Here's another sharing, from an email I received from Zena Anderson: "One of the things I love about our chalice ... is that the flame can represent an inner flame.... A flame never remains the same, ... yet [it] is often mistaken for a single object rather than the process it is. A human soul is like that; never the same from instant to instant, yet is considered the one constant that is supposed to make a person who they are." She goes on to say that "Really, a 'soul' is a lot like a process; a constant stream of responses to stimuli and thought."

This morning I will elaborate on what the space alien said about selfhood. He talked quite a bit about the way our supposedly separate selves are interpenetrated by the world around us, so I won't comment further about that. But I do want to expand upon his idea that instead of continuing through time, we are actually being born again each moment. We can visualize this paradox of change and continuity through Zena's metaphor of the flame. Or we could think of ourselves as being like a river. A river's flowing waters never hold still, yet the river is always there. Whether the Mississippi is changing or staying the same depends on your point of view. If you're sitting on the bank enjoying the scenery, you'll see Old Man River as one single waterway that just keeps rollin' along. But if you're in a boat working your way upstream, you'll be focusing on the flux and flow of the currents, so that the river's changes are in the foreground, and its continuities fade into the background. Just like a river, people both are and are not the same, from moment to moment. We needn't argue about which side of the paradox is "correct."

The changes we undergo eventually add up so that we are surprised as we look back at the way we were. There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which Calvin is looking through a photo album, and says to Hobbes, "This is a photograph of me when I was two. It's strange. I know that's me, but I don't feel any connection to this image.... Isn't it weird that one's own past can seem unreal? This is like looking at a picture of somebody else."

Hobbes replies: "A slobbering nudist with legs like link sausages."

And Calvin adds: "You know, now I can't stand to wad a soggy blanket in my mouth." (From a cartoon by Ben Watterson)

When I was a psychotherapist I noticed that people typically underestimate their own progress. As a result they may give up trying. I think of one seventeen-year-old who had been seeing a psychologist because of depression. She told him, "Last week I got so discouraged, thinking, 'Here I've been going to therapy for five months, and I'm not getting better at all.'"

"So you feel like you're stuck," her counselor replied. "But you used to describe yourself as a hermit, and nowadays you socialize with friends at least once a week. You've even taken a leadership position in your church's youth group."

"I guess I am coming out of my shell," she admitted. "But I have this attitude that says, 'You'll never change, no matter how hard you try.'"

If you think you may underestimate your own progress, keep a diary and re-read it once a month. That will help.

We've been talking about long-term changes, but we also change from moment to moment, and that brings me to the third way in which we can challenge the common-sense idea of self. Inside each person's head there is not just one mind, but many. It's as if each of us contains an enormous theater company, performing a drama in which only one character can be on stage at any moment. The various actors keep stepping in and out of the spotlight. And these little selves are such nimble characters that they can hop on and off stage in just seconds.

Those of us who suffer from mental illness may have trouble dealing with the different forces jostling around inside us. Those of us who are categorized as "normal" have at least learned to put on a good act, as if we were consistent. But all of us are full of contradictions. Listen to this reading by a spiritual teacher named P. D. Ouspensky, talking about our concept of "I." (And please pardon the gender-exclusive language.)

"Man has no ... single, big I. Man is divided into a multiplicity of small I's.

"And each separate small I is able to call itself by the name of the Whole, to act in the name of the Whole, ... to make decisions, with which another I ... will have to deal. This explains why people so often make decisions and so seldom carry them out. A man decides to get up early beginning from the following day. One I, or a group of I's, decide this. But getting up is the business of another I who entirely disagrees with the decision and may even know absolutely nothing about it. Of course the man will again go on sleeping in the morning and in the evening he will again decide to get up is the tragedy of the human being that any small I has the right to sign checks and promissory notes.... People's whole lives often consist in paying off the promissory notes of small accidental I's." (P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, cited in Elizabeth O'Connor, Our Many Selves: A Handbook for Self-Discovery, pp. 36-37.)

We've all noticed personality shifts in other people. The very same individual may be a doormat at the office, a tyrant at the dinner table, and a whimpering child in the dentist's chair. And sometimes if you just change the topic of conversation you'll see a new person appear. For example, you may have heard the story of the young man who nervously approached his girlfriend's father one evening and said, "Sir, I have something important to ask you. I was wondering, er..." "Son," the father interrupted, "I've seen you and my daughter growing closer. You come from a good family, and if she loves you, I would happily bless your marriage." "Er... that's not it, sir. You see, I missed a car payment last week, and they're threatening to repossess my car. So I was hoping..." "Goodness, young man, I'm surprised you would ask such a thing. Why, I hardly know you!" Different topic - different personality!

So we are like flames, and like rivers, and I also like to imagine myself as a series of beads on a string. If you think of this day as a long string of moments, the various states of mind that you experience today are like beads threaded onto your string, one at a time. Right now you may be feeling curious, and the next minute confused, then interested, then friendly, then irritated, then amused, and each of these states of mind uses different parts of your brain, as different beads slide into place on the long strand of time. To a great extent, each of us draws upon the same collection of beads, but in different quantities and in a different order. If you make a different pattern of beads, you have a different necklace. Because each of us has a different pattern of small, transitory minds, each of us is unique.

It is very helpful to notice each mind-bead as it passes down the string of time. Some beads may be rough to the touch, or even razor-edged, such as the voices in our heads that are sharply self-critical. Some beads may be dull and uninteresting. Others may be lovely, but very small. We may want to look at them closely when they appear, polishing them, adding new layers so they become more prominent.

I don't have time today to explore the theological implications of this multi-dimensional view of self, except to say that people often have trouble embracing their own philosophical and religious inconsistencies. Since we contain many little minds, our philosophies of life are bound to contain contradictions. Every believer has doubts, and skeptics may have sub-personalities that pray. But many spiritual traditions say that it's sinful to have more than one religious viewpoint. The first commandment says, "You shall have no other Gods before me." It does not say, "You shall have only one theory about reality." Couples in a mixed-faith marriage can remember that there are lots of good ways of looking at reality, and become more accepting of each other's beliefs.

So spiritual growth means changing the beads we put on our string. When some beads appear less frequently and others appear more often, the pattern has changed and therefore we have changed. A few weeks ago I spoke of what the late Lester Levinson called "hootlessness," the state of mind in which we don't give a hoot, where we can accept just about anything. We still try to make good things happen, but we are not emotionally hung up on whether or not we succeed. This is an extremely healing and liberating state of mind, a beautiful bead that I want to place on my string more often.

Human personality is full of paradoxes. In some ways I am separate from the rest of the cosmos, but in other ways I am part of all that exists. In some respects I persist through time, but I can also imagine myself being born again each moment. Sometimes it helps to think of myself as one organism, but other times it's better to see myself as an entire congress with many political parties.

Self-acceptance is selves-acceptance. And if we learn to notice and welcome our many minds, guess what happens? Another sub-personality begins to appear more and more frequently, a special sub-personality that sees and accepts all of the other little minds. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass calls this inner observer the witness. The witness knows that change and multiplicity is our natural condition. And as this fair witness watches and understands, it speaks an unending benediction to every bead that passes along the string of self, in every moment of our lives: "Blessed be, blessed be, blessed be."

To the first sermon in this series

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