(With thanks and acknowledgement to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio for the term, Autobiographical Self)
The Autobiographical Self (AS) is what you think you are and, for the most part, what you experience reality to be. It is an ongoing story that you are almost always telling yourself in your mind. Almost all of your thinking is an internal dialogue, an on-going commentary oriented around “you,” your Autobiographical Self, and its imagined life. It requires constant embellishment and propping up as it believes itself to be a noun, an actual entity, when in fact it is a verb, a flow of interpretive thought. You, as your Autobiographical Self, take place within time. It is something you do. It is not what you are.
Your AS did not begin with the birth of your physical body, but appeared within your awareness when you were around the age of two years old. It is very much a social creation, an expression of the zeitgeist, or spirit of your time. Each zeitgeist has particular perceptions, values, goals, beliefs, ideas, and assumptions, and has a language to express them. The AS is birthed by the language and assumptions of the zeitgeist. It is the trance from which the AS lives.
The AS is created within time. Past and future define it. Self-reflective memory is its foundation.
The past is a story the AS tells itself so it knows who it is, who others are, and what its world is about. The story of the past is an embellishment that enhances the AS’s sense of its place in the world, the world within its mind. The more sane a person is, the more the AS is based on actual verifiable events and facts instead of memory, interpretation, projection, and fantasy.
The story of the future is also very important to an AS, as the future defines what the AS wants to be. The AS myth is that in the future, its goals, whatever they may be, will be realized and the AS will then be completely secure, whole, satisfied, loved, and happy. Typical AS stories are, “When ‘I’ get enlightened, married, rich, famous, have a baby, retire, get a PhD, move, then I’ll be secure and happy and not be miserable ‘me’ anymore. And I am on my way there now.” Here and now exist only as a stepping stone on the way to a better future.
Trying to keep the myths of our AS together is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, exhausting task ultimately doomed to failure. Our language creates the belief in nouns, in things that are solid and do not change. The AS likes to believe it is a noun, an actual thing. But actually it is an ever-changing flow of energy, thought, experience, and emotion. Every “thing” is always changing, moving, shifting, appearing, and disappearing. In actuality, there are no nouns, only verbs. Sooner or later an AS notices that it, and everything else, has no solid or permanent reality. The AS is a very unstable verb in need of constant propping up so it can pretend it is a noun. The AS lives with anxiety because it recognizes its extremely fragile state.
Human culture is full of ways for the AS to distract itself from the awareness of its fragility. One of the more successful distractions for the AS is the spiritual path. The creation of spirituality is the crowning achievement for the AS, as it seems to offer the ultimate fulfillment of its search for meaning, purpose, and security! There are so many spiritual traditions with so many aspects that only a few of its remedies will be mentioned here.
The AS knows its physical body/brain will get sick, grow old, and die. But with spirituality, the AS discovers it has a transcendental self called atman, soul, spirit, buddha nature, what-have-you. The nature of this transcendental self is that it has eternal life. Instead of dying, it may go to a heavenly realm or be reborn as a more evolved being such as a bodhisattva.What a relief for the AS! Its story continues beyond the apparent death of its physical body. Volume 2!
The AS also discovers it can attain higher states of consciousness and become a wiser, more loving, better or even perfect AS. And there are practices and ways of thinking and believing that will empower the AS to create whatever it wants in its life, whether it is health, wealth, love, or enlightenment. It continually embellishes itself.
It is interesting to note that many spiritual teachers have a well-embellished AS to share with their students. The purpose for this is that the teacher’s story reassures the other ASs that spirituality is truly about the AS, about creating a better, happier and more wonderful story with a positive outcome. After all, the teacher has had one and now is telling you how to attain one!
The truth is that there is no positive outcome for the AS. There is no remedy. It is an ongoing made-up story.
When this truth is heard by the AS, it is called negative, nihilistic, empty, meaningless, defeatist. The AS doesn’t want to see or accept any of this. It wants its story to continue with success, spiritual illumination, or at least the possibility of rebirth in a heavenly realm as an angel of light or reincarnation as a more evolved life form, perhaps as an avatar. It defends itself from this truth through whatever means it has available. It has many.
Any attempt to escape from the AS is just one aspect of the AS struggling with another. Trying to get out of the trap is the trap. Yet the most amazing thing is that when the existential dilemma of the AS is truly seen, understood, and accepted by an innate intelligence existing prior to the AS, the internal author may suddenly stop writing and let go of its pen. Suddenly, half way through the story, without any effort at all, the AS, with all of its problems and struggles, just ends with a tremendous sigh of relief.
And now there is simply the presence of this mystery of life being lived in wonder, delight and astonishment. With nothing to grasp.
Addendum: May 19, 2021
Words are never adequate. But honesty is. I am very careful anytime I write anything as people love to argue, expound and be right rather than consider the veracity of what is being pointed out. ‘Being Right’ is a defense mechanism of the Autobiographical Self.
9 thoughts on “Awakening from the Autobiographical Self”
HI Tom, I left a message for you on Facebook. I love this essay and would like to use part of it and your term the Autobiographical Self in a new comprehensive book I am writing called “When Spirit Leaps: Exploring the Varieties of Spiritual Experience.” It is a great way to talk about what is falling away in a spiritual awakening, and the great blessing of releasing it. I’m happy to credit the quote however you wish with referrals to your blog or website.
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I love this Tom.
All the best.
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Fantastic article. Thanks.
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Thank you Karl!
Lol one question though, Robert Saltzman’s book (thankfully!) completely destroyed all my metaphysical thinking (which caused a bit of grief because my AS was heavily invested), but what do you do when your AS (now completely not identified with magical thinking) wants to end itself?
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The AS does not actually exist so it doesn’t have to end itself. It is like a spinning top. All the seeking, metaphysical thinking, philosophy, self image psychology, etc. are ways to keep it spinning as quickly as possible. When insight comes, over time the top stops getting wound up, slows down, wobbles some (this sounds like where you are) and then suddenly stops. What is then recognized is seen to have always been true. So, if you are able, relax, as you are already home.
Thanks for your reply. Makes sense.
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I have this blog saved in my notes and have read it again after one year, still a very good article. Unfortunately I have descended into nihilism, but I’m keeping the plates spinning because I have to, I just focus on inhalation/exhalation, the mind just runs all by itself without any effort, I’m just in a state of entropy, knowing that decay, misery and death are the only certitudes of existence.
Karl, it is useful to realize that nihilism is a philosophical position of the mind and once there, the mind sees everything as confirming its position(confirmation bias,) which is real easy to do these days. But this is the Ghost’s Cave and still inside the circle. By staying focused on what needs to be done and inhalation/exhalation, breath being always right here right now, something that may be called “grace” may tap you. Suddenly you are outside the circle and free! Often with great joy and peace. “When awakening happens, the mind’s need to understand disappears into the unconditional love and acceptance of the Heart.” May it happen soon.
With great love and respect, Tom