While thinking about death and dying the other day I said something interesting:
“The problem with the idea of dying is that I do not have the idea of mortality in my identity.”
After I said this, I began to reflect on what it means. I got onto some interesting things:
I should first point out that, by “mortality”, I not only mean the fact that I will stop breathing one day but the fact that we could lose our health, become maimed, diseased, etc. In short, “mortality” means the fact that we are not invincible and that we are actually very fragile. This fact, of course, can cause an apprehension or fear. But I felt that this fear or apprehension of “mortality” is not really about the “idea” of mortality, death, or fragility at all but, rather, about the fact that I do not feel this fact as a part of me, of who and what I am . . . that is, I do not feel “mortality” as something “in” me, as a basic part of what I am. In this way, it is not a part of my identity of how I view my self and who I am. I may, though, be able to “understand” it, as a concept and idea, but this understanding is just understanding . . . its still not a part of me and my identity. In some sense, this is the real fear, that I see the awareness of our fragility or “mortality” as removed from me and not a part of who I am even though I am aware or “understand” what it means. Because of this, “mortality” is perceived as something “other than me”, as something alien and foreign. This creates a number of senses pertaining to it such as:
- It threatens me.
- It is something that “stalks” me and hunts me down.
- It is something that I must fight against.
- It is something that I forget or deny.
These give the sense of “mortality” as something against me, an enemy, a threat.
In reality, though, our “mortality” is very much a part of who we are. It is a reality of the human condition. In ones youth a person does not see themselves as “mortal”. In fact, one has no real comprehension at all. In youth, one is only beginning to seek comprehension. Without the sense of “mortality” we tend to think we are “invincible” or “without problems” in our youth. This is a defining trait of youth but, ironically, it is in error. In other words, the basic “joy” of youth is based in a falsity, one so false that the pattern of life will slowly wear it down. In this sense, one could say that “youth is a lie”. I would venture to even say that a big part of adulthood, and becoming an adult, is the discovery of “youth’s lie”. In this way, adulthood is trying to put a grasp on the fact of our “mortality” or, rather, realizing its reality.
Gaining a grasp on “mortality” is not as easy as it sounds. There seems a natural tendency to resist it. There are a number of reasons, I think, why this tends to happen:
- It is based in something “indefinite”. After all, what is “mortality” or “death” or “fragility” exactly, particularly if we have never seen it firsthand? We can only “imagine” what it is. How can I accept an identity of something I can’t define?
- The awareness of “mortality” is often something “forced” upon us. The awareness of our “mortality” usually does not just appear gradually. It often comes with some event, such as old age or sickness or an accident. We generally “find ourselves” confronted with it, usually unwillingly. In this way, we are generally unprepared for it and do not know how to react to it.
- The idea of “mortality” and “death” has a grim and frightening aspect to it. Often, just the thought of our fragility, mortality, or death instills fear into us.
- Any change in our identity, to allow something to become a part of us, requires a change in “me”, which is frightening. This is because a change in identity entails a form of “death of the self”. I must destroy my invincible view of my self and replaced it with a fragile view of my self. This change is not an easy one. Because of this, “mortality” is often viewed in a “distant” abstract sort of a way, such as intellectually. Its treated as an idea, not a reality or as a part of who we are.
Because of things, such as these, there is a natural resistance to the idea of “death”, or ones “mortality”, as part of ones identity. We may understand what “mortality” or “death” means but we must remember that understanding is not a part of identity . . . its an intellectual process. As a result, understanding tends to fail in integrating this awareness into our identity. Regardless of how well a person may intellectualize it or understand it, it still does not become a part of their identity. It remains, only, an idea. This fact shows a basic failure of intellectualism, ideas, and other mental fabrications . . . they only go so far. The person, the self, and identity, needs more than understanding. Because of this, identity uses a different process, as well as different mechanisms, to achieve an integration of things into ones identity and self. As a result, there is a need to go through a process to “incorporate” that awareness into ones identity and self. This process seems to be forgotten or neglected in this society, no doubt because of its strong intellectual orientation. In actuality, though, this process has been a part of human life, in one form or another, for centuries. This process tends to follow this pattern:
- Understanding. This is the intellectual process, the idea, or the mental image. It means that you can intellectually understand, or imagine, what mortality and death is. But it remains in the intellectual sphere. Its an idea, a concept, a principle, an image only.
- Realization. This is the process to achieve comprehension. It generally takes a long time and experience. Sometimes, even, it takes conflict and pain for this process to work.
- Comprehension. This is when it is “incorporated” into ones identity and self . . . it becomes part of who one is.
In some respects this is nothing but a ‘process of growth’ (I have discussed this process in a previous article called “Thoughts on the process of comprehension“). Basically, things become a “part of us” through comprehension. It becomes not only a matter of who we are but influences our world view and how we interpret things. In this way, it creates an all-around self/world perception. One effect of this is that, through comprehension, the self and world become as if united thereby “implanting” a person in the world. This makes the world and self very “real” and “meaningful”. In addition, the process of comprehension also tends to create a “deep” sense. This is because it hits ones identity and, therefore, hits ones self to the core. Understanding, being more intellectually-oriented, does not achieve this, having a more superficial effect . . . things remain in the realm of “ideas”. Perhaps, in some respects, comprehension creates what can be called “maturity”. With comprehension a person becomes a part of something, it becomes who they are. As a result, things become as if a part of them.
For those who discover the comprehension process its not uncommon that life becomes a never-ending seeking for comprehension. In other words, comprehension becomes life-absorbing, ones life revolves around it. This is no doubt why things like culture, belief, and religion become a “way of life”, as they are reflecting a continual seeking of comprehension. This is not surprising. The process of comprehension is a naturally appearing process used by culture, belief, and religion. In many ways, the power of things such as culture, a way of life, belief, and religion is in the fact that they create a process of realization, which leads to comprehension, and which allows the integration of things into our self and identity. Its no surprise, then, that an idea of mortality is often so prevalent in these things.
The struggle, then, is trying to “instill” the idea of “mortality”, as a comprehension, into ones identity, not as something ‘understood’. The idea of “mortality” is something that one cannot really comprehend, in fact. That is to say, a person is always in the process of realization “mortality”, death, as well as non-existence, . . . its never really fully comprehended. This means, of course, that it is never accepted as a part of who we are, of our identity. This causes an ongoing wonderment about it and a continued sense of incompletion about it. In other words, there is always a “comprehension incompletion” with “mortality”. Its never fully answered. This absence of comprehension creates what can be described as a “mortality schism”. This schism primarily describes a condition where we are as if stuck between understanding and identity: we cannot fully understand it, nor is it fully in our identity. We are then hanging in the middle, caught between two worlds. This makes “mortality” something mysterious, ungraspable, and unknowable. As a result, there becomes “techniques” to try to deal with this schism, to as if answer this dilemma. In fact, one could say that there is a spectrum of “techniques” to deal with this schism:
- An emphasis on understanding – philosophy and logic
- Symbolism – mythology
- Belief and faith – religion
- Mysticism – spirituality
If a person chooses none of these then we could describe them as ‘indecisive’, with no definite stance.
The accepting of which path one takes depends on you, in actuality. A persons culture, also, makes a big impact as ones culture is a big part of what makes us up. Oftentimes, ones culture predisposes, and even determines, what direction a person will take.
The question of the schism becomes, really, a question of what one accepts, not what is actually shown to be true. In other words, once a “technique” is accepted it is usually accepted as true, often without any real proof, and becomes a part of ones view of how the world works. This is particularly true with some cultures who take the stance that the “technique” they accept is a fact of the world, without doubt, and that there is no other way. In other cultures, though, it may not be so definite . . . there can persist a continual sense that it is not answered or that there is some doubt.
The fact that there are many “techniques” in the world shows that there is no ‘complete answer’ to the schism. That is to say, there is no single answer, the schism persists as a reality in humanity and is never fully answered . . . its just a question of which “technique” works for you. This means that the “mortality schism” is a part of the human condition . . . it exists and that is all with no solution or answer. I don’t think that there is really any proof that one “technique” is better than another, nor can anyone really prove that their “technique” is the only answer. The choice of which “technique” one takes does nothing but give a “light at the end of the tunnel” quality to it for a specific person (its like saying, “comprehension is around the corner”) but its never fully answered for all of humanity.
The “mortality schism” often creates a number of reactions:
- A sense of uneasiness.
- A fear or apprehension.
- An avoidance of the problem.
- A sense of mystery.
- A need to explain.
This all describes a reaction to an “identity gap”. That is to say, even though we are aware of it, and may even be able to describe and even give it an explanation, there is still a sense that “its beyond us” which is like saying “its there but still not a part of who I am”. This “identity gap”, naturally, tends to create a desire to close this gap. This need originates from the need to maintain a sense of self. Identity is a part of our self. Because of this, a gap in our identity creates something like an imbalance in the self which, of course, creates a desire to close the gap so that we can complete our self. In other words, the “identity gap” creates a “drive to complete the self”.
This drive naturally looks to the self for an answer (in other words, the self seeks the self). It tends to first look into the superficial self first, which is the path of least resistance. When that fails we tend to go deeper and deeper into the self. In this way, it follows a pathway much like this:
- Seeking mental fabrications. These tend to entail various fabrications of the self and mind such as philosophy, dogma, ideas, symbols, etc. This tends to create a philosophical orientation.
- Seeking aspects of the self. These tend to entail acts of the self, such as believing, states of mind, awareness, etc. This tends to create a spiritual orientation.
- Seeking the pre-self. This is the self before the self. This tends to create a mystical orientation.
So we see that, when the “identity gap” cannot be closed there is a tendency for one to seek further and further back into ones self, even to its very origins, even before the self has even appeared. I call this the ‘pre-self’(see my article “Thoughts on the pre-self, primal self, world self, post-self, and the greater self“). Our conception of the world, before the self has appeared, is that our self and the world are one and the same. This is because there is no self to make the distinction “me and the world”. As a result, we see our self as the world and the world as our self. This tends to create a mystical attitude about things. It also tends to create a sense of “god” for the self-as-the-world is perceived as “god” or a “presence”, which is really our self projected onto the world as the world.
One of the effects of the ‘pre-self’ is that it tends to make us view death, in particular, as a “becoming” of this “god” or “presence”. That is to say, we feel that we somehow merge with it (such as feeling that we merge with “god” or go to heaven). Remember that this sense of “god” or “presence” is our projected self onto the world as the world. In this way, this “becoming” a part of “god” or “presence” is, in actuality, something like a regression to our earliest self: our self seeks to unite with our earliest self where a self does not exist. This, really, is the deepest our self can go and, as a result, it can be described as the “end of the self” as the self can go no deeper.
But there is more.
The “world” consists of more than our projected self. That is to say, the world is not this inanimate thing that we project our selves onto. The “world” exists and has a “life” of its own, independent of our self. This, of course, is not fully realized until after our self appears where we find that the world does, in fact, live separate from us. This sense of the world as “alive” I call the ‘threshold self’. In this way, there are actually two forms of “life” that are perceived in the pre-self:
- The world as a projection of the “life” of the self: the ‘projected self’
- The world as having a “life” of its own: the ‘threshold self’
Each form creates a different view of “god”:
- The ‘projection self’ creates a tendency to “personalize”, so to speak, the sense of “god”. This is why each culture, and even individual person, has a different image of “god”. This is because this image of “god” is, in actuality, a manifestation of our own self. Its because of this that our image of “god” is so revealing about us as a person. In fact, I’ve found that many peoples viewpoint on life, and themselves, can be seen in their image of “god”. This makes the ‘projected self’ something like a Rorschach Test. Because it reflects our self it tends to use the more superficial aspects of the self, especially the philosophical orientation. As a result, this image of “god” has mythology, images, tales, names, principles, etc. that surround it. Not only that, there can be a confusion between ones self and “god” to the point where we think that “our will” is “god’s will”. We are all aware how people often claim that this or that is “God’s will” or “Allah’s will” and so forth. In this way, there is a tendency to confuse “god” with ones own self as a result of the ‘projected self’.
- The sense of “god”, in the ‘threshold self’, cannot be “personalized” because it is rooted in the world which has a “life” of its own. This means that it does not use the self as much. This makes it so that it relies more on the deeper aspect of the self, such as the pre-self. As a result, “god” is experienced more as a “sense”, an awareness. This makes “god” mystical and, because it is more rooted in the pre-self, it does not use the superficial aspects of elements of the self (thought, images, philosophy, etc.). This “god”, as a result, tends to be wordless, unspeakable, unknowable, ungraspable, etc. That is, it is something primarily “sensed”. In this way, the ‘threshold self’ becomes the deepest perception of “god” that one can attain. “God” becomes “more than us”, “beyond us”, a complete mysterious entity. This gives “god” a deep inner sense.
I should point out that both the ‘projected self’ and ‘threshold self’ are not known until after the self develops. In other words, they are perceived as a “sense of the pre-self” from the stance of a developed self or, to be more precise, what I call the ‘post self’. This is the self that develops after the conflict between the world and the self appear. To put it another way, it is the “self as opposed to the world” with a a clear definition of the self and the world as separate entities. This fact, naturally, puts pressure on ones self. This pressure can sometimes give the ‘push’, or drive, to seek the pre-self and its manifestations. Because of this, the self/world conflict, which creates the post self, often leads to a “god” sense and orientation which can appear as a religious sense, a deep quality, and such.
So we can see that the inability to accept “mortality” as part of our identity (that is comprehension), though we may be able to understand it with words, tends to cause a gap in our identity. This pushes us to find a way to close this gap. Since our identity is an aspect of our self we tend to push further into our self, going to its very source, even before a self, the pre-self. This tends to bring up a sense of “god” or “presence”. As a result, the inability to comprehend becomes replaced by a tendency to “become” or “unite” with the sense of “god” originating from the pre-self. In other words, the inability to comprehend, or accept something as part of who we are, tends to push us to our deeper self creating a tendency to emphasize a sense of “god” and to become a part of it or unite with it. In so doing, we replace our self identity with the “pre-self sense”, which is a sense of “god”, “heaven”, or similar thing. Because we have no self at this stage, the “pre-self sense” becomes the identity. In fact, the “pre-self sense” becomes the identity that closes the “identity gap”. Ironically, it is an identity without a self. This gives it a very mystical, religious, and spiritual quality and is why death, “mortality”, and such are associated with religion and spirituality.
This describes the “identity gap/pre-self tendency”. In other words, the “identity gap” tends to lead us to the pre-self and its various manifestations. As a result of this tendency, death is often perceived as a “returning” to this “pre-self sense”, of “god”, of “heaven”, which is really our earliest self (before we developed a self).
This “return” varies with ones level of mind. The more superficial aspect will see it as something definite with images, a “place” with a name, and often with a mythology. The deeper aspect will see it as more of a “something” without images. In other words, the “return” involves levels of the mind ranging from superficial to deep, similar to what is described above:
- Understanding – thought, philosophy, dogma, etc.
- Aspects of the mind – believing, faith, states of mind, etc.
- The pre-self: ‘projected self’ – seeing ones self as the world
- The pre-self: ‘threshold self’ – seeing the world as “living”
In the “identity gap/pre-self tendency” the tendency is to go from superficial to deep. One stops, though, where one is comfortable and according to ones inclinations (which may be greatly affected by ones culture). Many people, particularly nowadays, will stop at the most superficial level: understanding. Everything will revolve around “what makes sense”. Despite this, its not uncommon that a part of them will seem to “strive to go deeper” but their tendency to remain in the understanding level prevents this from happening. This can cause great tension in some people (as it did for me for a while). Its like a tug-of-war of the self: one part of the self wanting to go deeper, the other part remaining in the superficial level. This, to me, seems to be a common occurrence nowadays.
But, since the pre-self is not a part of our self it is felt as a “sense”. In other words, one does not “possess” it like an identity. One knows the pre-self by maintaining certain attitudes and ways that keep this “sense” alive. In this way, continually keeping the “pre-self sense” alive fills the “identity gap”. But, because one does not “possess” this sense one must continually work to keep the “pre-self sense” alive. In this way, the “pre-self sense” tends to create a way of life and living, of maintaining a specific way of being. This is seen in a lot of religions and cultural ways which continually seek to maintain that specific way of being. As a result, since one cannot absorb the idea of “mortality” into ones identity, “mortality” is comprehended by a way of life, rooted in the “pre-self sense”, and a sense of uniting with and becoming a part of “god” or something similar, like “heaven”. So we see the mortality” is really based in a “sense”, not in a knowing or even an identity.
A NOTE ON “IDENTITY CRISIS”
Just because there is an “identity gap” does not necessarily mean the “identity gap/pre-self tendency” just happens. There generally must be something that ‘pushes’ the tendency, to push us to the pre-self. Often, it may take an experience, or some event, to instigate it. For some people, who are closer to their pre-self, it may be a natural process and tendency. But many people may never feel this ‘push’. In some respects, an “identity gap”, without the ‘push’, becomes an “identity crisis”. When this happens a person struggles with their identity alone. In this way, it becomes a crisis of the self, dealing with aspects of the self:
- The self-as-self. The sense of ones self as an individual person: confidence, certainty, etc.
- The self-in-the-world. The sense of ones self in relation to other things and in the context of other things.
Because of the emphasis on the self, the ‘pre-self’ generally does not make an appearance in “identity crisis”. In fact, the “identity gap”, with the ‘push’ to the pre-self, actually moves one away from the self and there becomes a loss of self because, in the pre-self, there is no self. In this way, an “identity crisis” and an “identity gap” with the ‘push’, are opposites, one leading toward the self, the other away from it.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen