Philosophy  •  June 22, 2005

Pulling Our Own Hair: A Road to Self-awareness

When my daughter was about two month old, she would cry from pulling her own hair. Apparently this is quite common. My parents told me that my sister did the same when she was a baby. A baby at that age is not aware of her own body. Her existence is strictly limited to the physical world, and there is nothing outside of her body that can see it objectively. Once we develop mental awareness of our own bodies, crying from pulling her own hair appears comical. We have transcended the physical world by developing intelligence that understands the causal relationship between pulling hair and feeling the pain.

Most of us assume that our transcendence stops there, that it is not possible to transcend our egos or thoughts, but it does not make sense to assume that. There must be a state where we are aware of our own thoughts. That awareness cannot be a thought. We become so aware of our own bodies that we even feel that our bodies are not part of ourselves. We say, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” Our bodies are often seen as mere containers or vessels. By the same token, there must be a state where we feel our own thoughts are something foreign; not part of ourselves. If we can get there, most of our emotional and psychological pains would be just as comical as my daughter pulling her own hair.

Western psychology encourages development of a healthy ego. What constitutes “healthy” is rather ambiguous and subjective, but it lies somewhere between what is socially acceptable and what we really are. In order for us to navigate ourselves to the realm of “healthy,” there must be an entity capable of navigating our egos. That entity must lie outside of our own egos. That is, it must transcend our thoughts. Otherwise, we would have to forever rely on psychologists to get us there.

Once you transcend your own ego, it would appear just as foreign as the egos of others. The only difference would be that you could control your own ego to a degree, just as you can control your own body to a degree. Even though you could control your own thoughts, you would not identify yourself with them, any more than you would identify yourself with your own body. Admittedly this is hypothetical, since I haven’t transcended my own ego, but it might feel like there is a computer within you that thinks. It regulates, controls, and problem-solves but it’s just a machine that you happen to have. It’s not who you are.

We all have these thinking-machines inside ourselves. Each thinking-machine contains images of all the other thinking-machines that it is aware of. That is, the images it has of other thinking-machines are part of itself. However, it is not capable of thinking about itself objectively, for that would require transcendence. It is like a computer connected to the Internet. It is aware of other computers. It is able to use websites that are hosted on other computers. Part of its identity is that it is capable of doing so. In fact, these days, a computer without a connection to the Internet is useless. We the users of computers are the transcendent entities capable of thinking about computers objectively, and we do not identify ourselves with our computers. If we transcended our own thoughts, that is how we would feel about our own thoughts.

Between multiple computers, we often experience problems, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. They don’t always work flawlessly, even though logically they should. In the same way, between multiple egos, we often experience conflicts. If all of them were logically consistent, they should work well in theory, but they rarely do. If we cannot transcend our own egos, every conflict is a source of pain because it is necessarily personal.

Just as my daughter learned something about her own body by pulling her own hair, it appears that pain is a process of transcendence; as we commonly say, “No pain, no gain.” If this is true, we might be able to transcend our own egos by welcoming pains caused by our own egos. The difficulty, however, is that we cannot think about how our egos are causing pains, because thoughts are necessarily part of our own egos. All that we can do is to observe them. What brings out our egos better than anything else is a fearful situation. When we are scared, we see the true colors of our egos. Taking risks emotionally would then be a good practice. Pursuit of comfort would stunt our transcendence.

Would it be far-fetched to say that the meaning of life is transcendence? I don’t think so. As Ken Wilber points out, we all evolved from amebas, and we have awareness unlike any other species on earth. It appears that life is determined to be as aware of itself as possible. I am not sure what the point of this self-awareness is, but as far as the meaning of life is concerned, it is to pursue self-awareness. It is self-evident. Life, not just my life or yours but life in general, is a long pursuit of being self-aware, whether we like it or not.