You’ve probably noticed that a recurring theme of some of my essays is the virtue of self-honesty. I guess that’s why I am attracted to existentialism – in fact, I think it’s fair to say I was attracted to it long before I knew what it was.
I am going to discuss 3 layers of being, based on my own experience and observations, and I am sure some will argue that there are more, while others may argue that they don’t exist at all, but, basically, this is possibly the most personal of my essays thus far on this blog, so it’s not very scientific.
What do I mean by layers of being? I’ve already said that it’s important in philosophy to define one’s premises and concepts. I think a good starting point is another one of my recurring themes: the inner and outer world. Some people, especially some philosophers, would prefer not to make any distinction, but I find it unavoidable. I’m a writer of fiction, and it was whilst writing fiction that I first appreciated the significance of the inner and outer world. Fiction, in a Paul Mealing defined nutshell, entails a character’s journey. Once you take that approach, it generates its own corollary: the character is changed and altered by the events in the plot that he or she encounters. To extend the metaphor, the plot becomes a vehicle for the character’s own inner journey. I was aware of this from my very first attempts to write fiction. Of course, it’s exactly the same in life, only we don’t use the terms, plot and character, in real life.
So I already have 2 layers: the inner and outer world. Before I introduce the third, I need to elaborate on these 2, as they are the most obvious and also, they are experienced by everyone, even if you would prefer to conflate them. The most obvious interface or interaction between these 2 layers is found in relationships. It is through relationships that we practice integrity or deception, generosity or rejection, engagement or apathy. There are other terms: love, jealousy, anger, hate, envy, revenge, charity, empathy, compassion. All these terms only acquire meaning within the context of relationships, but, of course, it’s unavoidable that they also reflect something deeper within the individual.
But there is one simple rule or criterion, which, I believe, puts all relationships into perspective, and that’s expectation. In any relationship: family, work, love, sport, even legal; there are expectations. It is when an individual’s expectation is in agreement with the group’s that there is harmony. When this expectation is either above or below the group’s, or the other’s, there will be conflict. By above or below, I mean we either expect more or less of our own role compared to what others might think. And one can see that honesty plays a key role here – if we deceive someone into an expectation that can’t be met, either by them or by us, then we have already started on a bad footing.
Paradoxically, this leads to the third layer of being, and the one I started off with: deception to oneself. Our relationships with others have a direct internal reflection and vice versa. To take an example, if we hate someone it corrodes our own soul, leaves us bitter in a way we can’t fathom. Likewise, jealousy alienates the person we love. These are contradictory causes and effects, yet we have all experienced them. Surely, you say, this is not dependent on a third layer, this is merely a further extrapolation of the inner and outer world.
What then is self-deception? I’m talking about neurosis where one has a distorted view of oneself. The dissociation that can occur between individuals and others can also occur within oneself. I know this because I have experienced it. When I read of people who have gone off the rails, I can sometimes see myself, as I know how easy it is to have a distorted view of oneself and feel like one has lost their core, or what we sometimes call our identity. Of course, this self distortion directly affects our relationships with others – it has an impact on the outer world – the two are not independent.
And this is why I place so much emphasis on self-honesty, because, without it, one can’t be honest in one’s relationships with others. But, I believe, it is also this third, deeper layer of being that provides the spiritual dimension that some people claim. In other words, it comes from a self-examination and a level of self-honesty that most of us fail to achieve. It doesn’t require a belief in God, but, ideally, it should lead to a sense of egolessness. What Buddhists most likely call the no-self, though I’m no expert in Buddhism.
One must also define what one means by ego. Again, I think Buddhism provides a key - to do with attachment, though I’m not opposed to attachments per se. There are healthy and unhealthy attachments, all to do with choices, but I’m getting off the track. Buddhism deals with attachment to life in general (samsara) and I would say that ego is an essential aspect, arguably, the very consequence of this. Again, ego can be healthy or unhealthy, so the egolessness I refer to is an ideal, whereby one becomes ‘unattached’ even to oneself, albeit sounds like a complete contradiction.
Have I personally reached this state? No. Maybe when I die. After all, one doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to believe that death is the final letting go of ego (I think a Jewish philosopher once said that, but I can’t remember who it was). Of course, I’m yet to prove it.