I am fascinated by the philosophical debate of personal identity. This is the introspective process that is largely unexamined that explores the fundamental features that make up the Self. The problem of personal identity is a tricky one, and it makes its way into many introductory philosophy classes for a compelling reason. What am I? And what aspect of Me is the same as my younger life and will be Me in the future.
It is not physical, as the proteins, cells, and other molecular structures that comprise the body are constantly turned over the years. It is not the unique genetic code because identical twins are separate Selves even though they share identical DNA blueprints. It is not memory as even though this houses a type of continuity over time, it is a flawed and fragile system that does not hold all the answers.
While one can answer, the soul or spirit, it does not satisfy my curiosity by referring to a supernatural immeasurable power as it prevents scrutiny and observation, which can simply fall on faith rather than knowledge.
Personal identity refers to the question, “What am I?” Personal identification, a different psychological drama, refers to the question, “Who am I?” Personal identification refers to the narrative one gives to their life that comprises the character traits, and a historical place of the Self in the world and culture. Yet, what constitutes and describes the underlying structure of the Self or explains the emergence of Self is explored by the personal identity problem.
To take a quick tangent, the existential crisis addresses the competing questions of, “Why am I?” and, “How am I?” If you struggle with the question of, “Where am I?” I suggest you use your phone’s GPS, or I suspect that you are under the influence of a psychedelic at this very moment, and you should take a break from reading this post, and the answer will come soon.
While I am not a philosopher and do not pretend to enter the ring and weigh in on this perennial debate, I do hold a psychological perspective on this matter that I feel contributes to a sense of healthy-mindedness. The Self, I contend, is a construct. It requires context and is formed in a gestalt, or bigger picture manner. Personal identity involves both a general understanding of the physical nature of the body and the ephemeral awareness of a stream of consciousness.
Over time as your body, beliefs, vitality, and emotional states change, the sense of “What am I” takes on different perspectives.
Self is a mind-made construct. It is linked to awareness but not fully defined by this narrow window of the brain that peers out into the world. In our normal language and rational-based mindset, the perspective of the Self is oriented to an embodied personal identity. The concept of Self links the mind, brain, and body as a unique and functional entity.
Conceptualizing the embodied self is useful for survival and social maneuvering. Nevertheless, it is a construct and Self can be oriented in other directions.
Individuals can feel outside of themselves or dissociated in a fugue state, or take on multiple personalities, both rare but captivating psychological conditions. Through consciousness exercises, the Self can be constructed, and an expanded awareness achieved that extends beyond the body.
In this experience, whether it is through meditation, breath work, mastery during a flow state activity, or when exposed to psychedelics, an individual can experience Self as disembodied.
The disembodied self is an awareness that is expansive, free-form, and therapeutic.
Many of my patients report after ketamine experiences that they felt liberated from their body, that they were able to feel themselves floating and looking down separate from their body. There is a common report of connection to their surroundings in a way where the physical boundaries are recognized as illusions.
The experiences that construct the disembodied self may or may not reflect the actual hidden order behind things and reveal the truth of nature. It may or may not provide evidence for a mystical, metaphysical, or spiritual dimension that animates life. I am not trying to make a statement that leans one way or the other.
Instead, I advocate that consciousness medicine should aim to create experiences with a disembodied self-awareness not because I feel it is the most accurate orientation of our identity, but because it provides a powerful psychological tool that is both uplifting, healing and optimizes a sense of well-being.
Our normal, logical, and language-driven state of embodied consciousness serves an important purpose, except when it doesn’t. When embodiment focuses and reinforces the various attributes, and that can be narrowed that the big picture is missed.
During altered states of consciousness, a more expanded awareness of life can take place that can be used as a tool to break out of repeating patterns of self-destructive behaviors, automatic negative thoughts, or the vicious cycle of pain.
When disembodied self-imagery is used during consciousness medicine techniques, one can maximize the benefits of these therapies and become unstuck in a stale mental framework.
Personal identity is a construct. Let’s use our freedom and personal agency to forge a different construct, even if it’s brief, to a Self that optimizes the highest levels of healthy-mindedness.