A Self Beyond the Head

Close your eyes. Trace the direction of your attention when you think "self" to yourself. Note where your awareness resides when you think "me" or "I". Perhaps somewhere around the head? William James once considered, when he turned his focus inward, that he perceived his self to be something related to the "motions" between his head and neck. A contemporary version of the same idea might be the notion that all of our psychological life can be reducible to the life of neurons, the activity of the brain.

Wittgenstein had a radical thought: that where the self resides is not a fact to be found in the head, or anywhere for that matter, because "self" is an expression, a linguistic construct. Where I sense my self to be has little to do with where it objectively resides and everything to do with where I place my attention, where my awareness goes, when i say self to myself. And where the attention goes is a matter of culturally ingrained habit, of socialization. It is a normalized way of filtering our awareness in a particular way, a way that can be changed through practice.

Meditate on all the ways in which the fiction of an enclosed, static, consistent self residing in the head/brain has perhaps limited your ability to be open and spontaneous; how it has produced a fear of change and an aversion to things that don't fit this picture of yourself.

Alan Watts once voiced a theory that the Ego, the "I" was formed partly through a process of habitual muscular contractions - particularly around the eyes - that developed culturally over time. In this sense, we might expand on this to say every expression has a certain resonance in the body, a physical reverberation that manipulates the direction of our attention.

So with that in mind, go back to considering your self. Notice the physical response to this process. Now let go of it. Consider that the self is a label that can be dropped through consistent practice for a wider, more expansive attention - an attention that does not stop at the head, or even the whole body, but which instead extends outward to encompass greater space. So eventually the process of looking to the self becomes a process of looking outward and seeing the climate, your neighbors, other species, the cosmos as a reflection and a literal extension of a self that was once so small but which is now infinite.


Jacob Kyle is a writer and yoga teacher living in New York City. He is the co-founder of Five Tattvas and Editor of the Embodied Philosophy Blog, which he created in an effort to share the transformative teachings of the yoga wisdom tradition. jacobkyleyoga.com

Jacob Kyle is a writer and yoga teacher living in New York City. He is the co-founder of Five Tattvas and Editor of the Embodied Philosophy Blog, which he created in an effort to share the transformative teachings of the yoga wisdom tradition. jacobkyleyoga.com

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