The Birth of Self-Consciousness

I remember the moment like no other. I was seven years old, in second grade. The teacher, Mrs. Sherman, wrote the letters e-n-v-e-l-o-p-e on the blackboard, and asked who knew what it spelled. I enthusiastically raised my hand, as I knew what word those letters made, and I was excited to share my realization with everyone. The teacher called on me, and as I was about to answer her question, my world changed forever. Though it happened almost half a century ago, I can still feel the residue of that experience in this moment, a reverberation in time of that event. At the moment that I was about to utter the word “envelope,” my consciousness split in two, and a part of me watched it happen. Instead of residing solely within my own self, at that moment I had the shocking experience of feeling that half of my consciousness existed outside of myself, looking at me. Objectifying myself, I remember my consciousness projecting itself outside of myself into the teacher and my classmates, and I was experiencing myself how I imagined they saw me, as compared to experiencing myself through my own eyes. For the first time in my life I was having the full realization that there were apparently “others” who were separate and seemed alien from whom I was experiencing myself to be, or so I imagined. Introduced to the apparently separate self without a moment’s notice, I had become self-conscious.

Why I remember this moment so vividly was what happened next. Because of my novel experience of my new “self” as apparently being an object separate from the subject of both others and another part of myself, I felt like the odd man out, out of sorts with myself. I no longer felt at one with myself, feeling inwardly divided, no longer at home inside my own mind. It felt like I had all of a sudden gotten introduced to an “other” within myself (please see my article Meeting the Other Within). Strangely, my reaction to my moment of acute self-consciousness was that I began struggling to do something that the moment before was effortless. I began “trying” to say the word “envelope” that prior to that moment would have easily rolled off of my tongue. Tongue-tied, the harder I strained to pronounce “envelope,” the more I couldn’t get the word out of my mouth. I felt a pressure to perform that hadn’t been there the moment before, as if I had been overcome with performance anxiety or stage fright. Frozen in fear, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights, only in my case there were about thirty pairs of headlights staring at me. Split in two, I felt inwardly seized up, contracted and fighting against myself. Tying myself up in a knot of my own making, the harder I tried to say the word “envelope,” the more I couldn’t say it. I was en-acting the existential double-bind of “trying” to let go, which was fundamentally a disguised form of holding on, thereby insuring that my efforts would have the opposite effect of my desired intention. As if something had come over me, instead of feeling in possession of myself, I felt possessed by something other than myself. It was as if I had fallen into an infinite regression, a self-created double-bind with seemingly no exit strategy. For the very first time in my young life, I began to stutter and was literally unable to talk.

Interestingly, at that point in my life 47 years ago, the main way I was creatively expressing myself was to draw, which I did hours every day. I have some of my drawings from this exact period in my life, and my drawings went from free, uninhibited, joyful, and spontaneous pictures, to images that were extremely self-conscious, tentative, and inhibited. It was as if I had been unexpectedly kicked out of the mythic Garden of Eden. I had been rudely awakened into the shock and trauma of self-consciousness. Developmental psychologists say that it is right around the age of seven that the typical child develops a self-conscious ego, and I certainly am in no position to argue. Come to think of it, Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden and becoming self-conscious was ultimately in the service of the birth, differentiation, and expansion of consciousness itself. Could the birth pangs of feeling “self-conscious” potentially be the mirrored reflection and forerunner of the emergence of the “conscious self,” or am I just imagining?

In that moment in that second grade classroom when I became unable to express myself, I felt helpless and out of control, both unable to influence my environment, as well as be in control of myself. I felt powerless to alter my situation, while at the same time being deeply altered by it. As if something had taken me over, I was making a spectacle of myself for all to see. In the grips of something other than myself, it was as if I was speaking in (alien) tongues. More than being beside myself in fear, I was in abject terror. Compounding the trauma, within a few seconds, all of my fellow second-graders burst into laughter, laughing at, not with, me. I remember the moment of feeling drenched in shame and embarrassment, as I became the object of my schoolmates’ entertainment. I remember feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed with humiliation, as a tidal wave of shame went right through me, imprinting and stamping itself on the exposed and vulnerable core of my being. I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide, to cover-up myself, as the shame felt like the very last thing in the world that I would ever want to experience and have others see.

Shame is not an emotion that we can fully experience by our lonesome, isolated selves, as it is fundamentally relational in nature, in that full-blown shame always involves being seen by the gaze of an “other.” This place of shame is where I feel most judgmental about myself, where I secretly fear that something is wrong with me. This is the part of me that I hide from others, as well as from myself. Hiding from myself so as to avoid experiencing my shame, I find myself in the absurd situation of trying to fool myself so as to try and make my illusion real. This shame is where I evidently lack the requisite love for myself, the place where I am the object of my own self-contempt. During that moment in that second grade classroom many years ago, the convergence of fear, shame, self-judgment and helplessness resulted in my feeling mortified beyond belief, as if a part of me had died. My report cards for the rest of second grade said I had now developed a stutter.

The stutter went away later that year, but occasionally that familiar sense of self-consciousness that was born in that moment many years ago will get re-activated and rear its head. As if a trip-wire has gone off, at these moments it is as if I am having a “flashback,” and am being transported back in time so as to re-experience the core of that very moment, at least in my imagination. It’s not the particular personal content of that moment in second grade that I’m re-experiencing, but rather, the more universal experience of feeling my consciousness “split” (which means both to leave and to divide in two), and then to feel terrified, not in charge of myself, just like I felt almost 50 years ago. When I step through the personal into this timeless, archetypal, experience in these moments, I am once again actively participating in the creation of the birth of my own self-consciousness. Though on one hand, the birth of my self-conscious self took place in 1963, on the other hand, the birth of my self-consciousness is an event that is taking place right now, in this moment.

The fact that this primal moment of trauma occasionally re-visits in the present moment in crystallized, condensed form makes me imagine that I am once again being given an opportunity to re-dream the dream and heal the trauma of my own self-consciousness. What if I recognize in the moment of my self-conscious contraction arising that, rather than being an obstacle to my expression of myself, it is an expression and revelation of something within myself? This involves stepping into an entirely new point of reference towards myself, where instead of identifying with any particular content, I experience myself to be the spacious context which precedes and in which all content, including the contraction, arises. This is to dis-identify from the contraction, to stop identifying myself as being the one who is contracting. This doesn’t involve doing anything, it involves stopping doing something. Instead of resisting the self-conscious contraction - which itself is the act which generates the very thing resisted in a self-generating feedback loop - what if, upon its very moment of arising I recognize and embrace this energy as my own, lean into it, breathe, and let it flow back into myself instead of fighting it? What then? When the moment of self-consciousness presents itself, encoded in the event is both the re-creation of its potentially traumatic aspect as well as, at the same time, its potential resolution and liberation. The arising of self-consciousness is the revelation in form of a truly quantum moment in time, in that how this moment manifests depends upon nothing other than how we dream it. Something is being shown to us in the process.

During these self-conscious moments of inwardly re-enacting the primordial moment of apparently being a problem to myself, I am at the same time being shown an unconscious part of myself. Seemingly caught in the ever-oscillating trauma of my own limited and limiting self-consciousness, I am at the same time being introduced to the part of my self that, symbolically speaking, is imprisoned in a hell-realm. Recognizing this part of myself, it is as if I have found a long-lost and rejected aspect of myself. I have then stepped into the archetypal role of a shaman who is journeying back in time so as to re-collect and recover a stuck and dis-associated part of myself. Alchemically speaking, when we step out of the personal dimension of our experience, the archetypal figure of the shaman is liberating not only the part of ourselves which is bound and captive in the underworld of the unconscious, but at the same time we are freeing the universal, living eternal spirit that is seemingly trapped in matter. The mythology of the shaman always symbolically re-presents that we are able to retrieve split-off parts of our lost soul and bring them back to the world of consciousness, where they can be integrated into and feed our intrinsic wholeness. This process of re-membering creates light that helps everyone see. We are our own shamans.

A deeper psycho-spiritual dynamic stammered its way through my awareness in that second grade classroom, as if the actual event in time was the medium through which a deeper, timeless process re-presented itself in embodied form and sound. The personal shell of the complex - my becoming overly self-conscious and stuttering - was the form in which the eternal, mythological motif, the emergence of the self-conscious, separate self, clothed itself as it incarnated. Whereas the personal shell of the complex can be, through cause and effect, reductively traced back to an actual, historical past trauma that occurred in 1963, the deeper, mythological, archetypal core of the complex is neither historical, causal, linear, nor existing in time. It is through fully entering into and going through the personal dimension of our experience, however, that we access the deeper mythological source. The archetypal, mythological core of the complex is the doorway to the healing waters of the psyche, in which the transformation of the complex itself is to be found.

This experience in second grade was a doorway through which I became introduced to a deeper, archetypal realm of human experience, as if this particular experience was a portal through which I fell into another world. This experience in second grade became the catapult which has thrust a part of me outside of time (which is both dis-associating, while connecting me with a deeper, atemporal part of myself at the same time). That particular experience in second grade has awakened an analogous inner experience that seems from another time and place. When I take off the personalistic garb of what happened in second grade, I drop down and step into a deeper, more universal process in which we are all taking part. When I access the archetypal dimension which underlies the merely personal, it feels like I am having a deeper memory and re-experiencing something that happened “once upon a time,” in the mythic dimension outside of time. This feeling-toned memory feels like it happened to a deep part of my being, but doesn’t feel like it happened in this lifetime. I don’t know if my feeling this way means that I am tapping into an experience that happened in another lifetime, and/or if I am accessing my imagination’s expression of a deeper, archetypal experience which exists in the timeless collective unconscious itself, or maybe I am just dreaming. In any case, that experience in second grade opens up to something that feels like it is not just from my personal inventory of experiences, but rather, seems to come from the repository of the archetypal experiences of our species. It feels like, at least in my imagination, that my unique experience in that classroom was a reflection of, and hence connected me with, the more universal experience of the trauma of the birth of the seemingly separate, self-conscious self being born in our species.

Since that point in time almost 50 years ago, the moments of self-consciousness in my life that have followed seem to be causally related to and an extension in time of that very moment. That very moment way back when has in-formed my life in a fundamental way. But what was the origin of that moment? Where did it come from? What caused it? The moment before I was in an open, innocent state. Where did that seemingly toxic shame come from? It suddenly and mysteriously arose, or more accurately, irrupted, with incredible intensity, out of seemingly nowhere but the core of my being, a spontaneous reflex of the shock of self-conscious awareness. As fate would have it, an outer circumstance simultaneously constellated in my life that corresponded to the shame’s inner logic so that it could fully manifest and actualize itself.

Over the years I began to notice something about those moments in time when the primal trauma becomes constellated within myself. I will be effortlessly talking, and then have the fearful thought “I hope I don’t stutter,” and after that thought would always emerge the very stutter I was hoping I wasn’t going to have. The anticipatory fear that I might stutter seemed in some way to help to create the very stutter that didn’t exist the moment before. Did my having the fear of stuttering evoke the stutter, and/or was my fear of stuttering a nonlocal, precognitive intuition of an event in the future that was about to happen? From the atemporal point of view (a perspective which views things from a vantage point “outside of time”), the event of the stutter had already happened in the archetypal realm of pure potentiality, but hadn’t yet undergone the formality of actually occurring as a third dimensional event. As if a future event is influencing the present moment by reverse, backward causality, this future event is attracting and materializing a third-dimensional scenario into itself through which it can manifest in form and time. Similar to how when an object approaches us, sometimes we’ll see the shadow of the object as the harbinger of its arrival before the actual object fully materializes, was my fearful thought the nonlocal “shadow” of the approaching stutter? Was my thought the nonlocal emanation and reflection of an event that had already happened in the “plenum” (the atemporal fullness and unmanifested field of infinite possibilities that comprises the collective unconscious), and besides being a “precognition” of the event, was an intrinsic aspect of the event’s unfolding?

The stutter doesn’t actually exist objectively; it seems to be the sort of phenomenon that if I think it exists, it exists, but if I don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist. Was this showing me something? The stutter fundamentally wasn’t a physical thing, it was an expression of something happening within my mind. Speech was just the channel through which this deeper perturbance in mind was making itself known in my life. This process manifests in a different form in everyone’s life. Other people, for example, might not be able to think, i.e., become mentally frozen, when they become self-conscious. At the genesis of my particular process seems to be my fear of stuttering, and hence, not wanting to experience the toxic shame associated with it, which somehow translates itself into stuttering, as I paradoxically create the very thing I don’t want to happen. This is the crazy place within myself where I dream up my worst nightmares.

The phenomenon of the stutter is the outer voice, in the form of sound, of the part of me that’s inwardly grasping. This grasping is a lack of ease, an effort-ing that is an expression of feeling that I am not enough, that I lack something. It is an ultimately futile attempt to fill up a void of seemingly infinite depth. At the core of this experience seems to be an insecure part of myself, a seemingly isolated fragment of the universal Self, which is grasping onto something that isn’t able to be held onto. My act of grasping is the very activity which endlessly generates and justifies itself, which is to say that my grasping creates the particular situation to which grasping is the seemingly only logical response. When I am grasping onto an (imagined) sense of self, I am relating to and defining myself as if I am an independent, encapsulated, egoic agent, separate from the whole. Suffering a case of mistaken identity, the me that I am imagining I am, which I protect at all costs, is a self-created fiction that doesn’t even exist in the way I am imagining. The stutter is a remnant, an outer sound-residue, of my inner clinging to an illusory image of myself as a discrete entity isolated from the world, an embodied and “enworlded” identity pattern bound in time. This fragment is an expression of the place deep within myself where I am creating separation and division where there was none the moment before, as I actively, and unwittingly, create my own problem. I then react by trying to solve the seeming problem I’ve created, not recognizing that I am unconsciously creating the very thing against which I am reacting. My effort to solve the apparent problem invests an undeserved, seemingly substantial reality to the problem, as I unknowingly create my own dilemma, whose ultimate source, and potential resolution, is within myself. It should not go unmentioned that this very process is at the root of the collective insanity that is playing itself out en masse in living flesh and blood on the global stage (please see my article, It’s All in the Psyche). What is going on deep inside of us as individuals is reflected, both literally and symbolically, in the macrocosm of the greater body politic of the world.

During those moments of the primal trauma being re-constellated, it is like I am having a “moment” in which time has bent, and I am re-experiencing, so as to potentially transform and liberate, an event that took place in the past - in the present. It is as if a past, incomplete moment that is locked back and encapsulated in time is trying to complete itself in the present moment. During these moments, it is as if time has collapsed into the singularity of the present moment, and I have fallen through a hole in time. At these moments I am “time-traveling,” as I am in multiple time zones (the past, the present, and feeling the influence of probable futures) at the same time, in a twilight zone between worlds. These “moments” are like ripples in time coming from the past, magnetically pulled by the gravity of the future, giving shape to and in-forming the shoreline of this present moment right now. These “moments” are like shockwaves felt in this moment of the eternal, timeless moment of the self becoming conscious of itself, in my particular case channeled through my lived-through memory of that traumatic moment of initiation into self/other-consciousness almost fifty years ago. In my particular situation, it is an archetypal moment of fear, of feeling not safe, of not trusting, both the world out there, as well as myself. If I identify with the fear, I then live and act out of the place of not feeling safe within myself, which “in no time whatsoever” calls forth an unsafe universe as convincing evidence to confirm my point of view in a self-validating feedback loop of which I am both the author, as well as my own victim.

When I tap into the core of this archetypal moment of becoming self-conscious, there is always fear of some “other.” A sense of separate self/others and fear simultaneously co-arise and reciprocally condition each other; one is never found without the other. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “As soon as there is an ‘other,’ fear arises.” When this self-conscious self emerges which experiences the world as separate from itself, it feels like I am individually participating in a timeless, archetypal moment – a moment of terror, which is the traumatic birth of the fear-based separate self. The self-contraction that pulsates through me during these moments simultaneously generates, while being an expression of, the part of me that is seemingly bound in linear time, frozen in trauma, and feeling absolute terror. This self-reinforcing dynamic of the self-conscious, separate self generating its worst nightmares, appears to be the origin, source, and genesis of the very experience of terror itself, as it is a literal and symbolic revelation of how we terrorize ourselves.

In addition to being the source of the archetypal experience of terror, encoded in this moment of the birth of the self-conscious, separate self is its own self-liberation. This moment is the revelation of itself, which is to say that simply by seeing the part of ourselves that is grasping, we are lessening our grasp. We can only see the part of us that is grasping in an objective way, outside of ourselves, if we step into the part of ourselves as subject that is not grasping. As if designed by an awakened software engineer of the mind, the moment of self-consciousness, though apparently an obscuration, is potentially a self-liberating revelation when recognized as such. Bound up in the energy that’s animating our self-conscious contraction is the creative spirit. When we stop contracting against our own inner, open-ended radiance, we can’t help but to express ourselves creatively. Paradoxically, is the moment of self-consciousness the very portal through which we can potentially step out of and let go of ourselves? Could the part of us that’s grasping, rather than obscuring our true nature, be an expression of it? Is it just as simple as a change in viewpoint? Instead of identifying with and being taken over by the terror, we can simply recognize within ourselves the part of us which feels terrified, an essential change in our stance towards ourselves which is in the service of the birth of compassion.

In essence, in my case this moment of self-consciousness is potentially the place where I have given away my intrinsic power and authority, divesting myself of being the author of my own experience. For at the moment of self-consciousness, I am seeing myself not through my own eyes, nor how others are actually seeing me, but rather, how I imagine others see me, as I imagine who they are. I then react to my own imagination of how others see me as if my projections are real and “objectively” exist in the minds of others outside of me, separate from myself. I have then created an imagination of who I am, at least in my own mind, relative to an imagined other, a process in which I am separating myself from simply being myself. Like a kitten endlessly reacting to her reflected image in a mirror, I then become apparently caught in a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop of my own making. When deeply contemplated, the whole experience of self-consciousness reveals itself to be a process that is fundamentally taking place in our own imagination. The phenomenon of self-consciousness, though on one hand the seeming problem if there ever was one, when sufficiently unfolded is itself ultimately pointing us to the primacy of the creative imagination in creating our experience of ourselves. Imagine that!