Overlooked amid all the contemporary talk about how we can change the structures of our brains by consciously making new, healthier habits is the potential for a decisive reorientation of what we think of as the self. When we look seriously at what this talk implies, and think it through to the end, we must concede that the “we” or “I” that can change brain structure seems to stand to some degree outside or apart from the natural, lawful processes of the brain – how else could a “we” or “I” change a brain that by itself would be happy to stay just as it is? In other words, from this perspective, the self doesn’t appear to be entirely subject to the brain or, for that matter, the body. We must either conclude this or invent some “intelligent” brain neurons or other such mechanisms that act in ways we don’t normally attribute to neurons or mechanisms.
The reorientation, however, is of an even more radical sort, in that we can experience it more directly, which is to say, on a more intimate and subjective level, on the level of our own consciousness. Just as the self seems to stand to some degree aloof from the operations of the brain, so the self can stand aloof from all that unfolds in the life of the soul, aloof from such things as impulses and instincts at one extreme, and thoughts and inspirations at another. Of course, in the same way that changing one’s brain structure is not a given – it takes effort, distinguishing one’s self, or I, from all that comes to meet it takes effort; it demands that one strengthen the I. But let it be clear that in this age when we all but worship the physical brain and its functioning, it is not in the brain that we should look for the best leverage point. If we did, we might end up believing the cellist is played by the cello, so to speak. Actually, isn’t that exactly what many of us do believe when we think of the brain?
What we in fact discover as we begin to strengthen our I is that most elements of what we used to think of as the self – desires, motives, fits of anger, feelings of joy, and the like – are more like characters at a cocktail party that we are each hosting. Some stand so near to us that we can’t at first tell their boozy breath from our own. Others come to us from farther away. Some seem to be only at our party while still others seem to have invitations to many parties and simultaneously attend each. We also discover that our guests often invite themselves and aren’t well behaved. The newly strengthened I soon longs to schedule other events – without the cocktails – during which it can invite the guests it wants to entertain. Which is to say, this I longs to begin a schooling of consciousness or spiritual capacity development project.
Why bother, you ask? Why make the effort to strengthen the I in the first place? In his essay “What One Sees Without Eyes,” Jacques Lusseyran, a blind philosopher and leader in the French Resistance during WWII, describes how when he is angry, anxious, sad, or impatient, he loses his inner sight and “suddenly sees almost nothing” and bumps into what he would normally sense and avoid. When, however, he is calm, joyful, and confident, he can see. In his experience, “joy clarifies everything.” He goes on in the essay to write how he discovered that his inner world was not just his own fantasy, but an objective interior complement to what we call the outer world, and that this inner world was also malleable. In Lusseyran’s essay we can experience his strong and active I, one that knows how feelings both affect the self and muddle or elucidate the world. He says that “joy clarifies everything,” but in fact it’s his I that does that. To answer the question that opened this paragraph, we first of all bother to strengthen the I to begin to clarify everything.