The Birth of Self

The Birth of Self

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die – S’ren Kierkegaard.

There is little doubt that this is the central existential question. That my life should be lived in service of a purpose seems intuitively true and to require very little further consideration. Kierkegaard described this as the birth of a Self. As he put it a Self is a very subtle thing, not everyone has it and many that do loose it on the path.

What does this mean?

Simply that a Self in this sense is a consciously constructed self, it is not given, it is not our birthright, it emerges through education, culture, and conscious choice. As long as any one of us lives a purely natural instinctive life we cannot be said to possess a Self in this sense. Living instinctively is bliss it is akin in many ways to living in the original Garden of Eden ‘ or at least that was my experience, of course I sampled much of the fruit which was memorably sweet to taste, fragrant to smell and firm to touch.

This instinctive world though is generally the province of the young, stupid and those rare individuals touched by the Grace of God, the pure bliss of unconscious instinctive existence. However for those cast out of paradise into the fullness of adulthood we have two choices:

To cling to the instinctive imperatives which will be there as long as we are alive, although diminishing with time; or

To consciously choose who we are, and what purpose our existence is to have.

It is in the second of these two choices that the Self, in the sense that Kierkegaard intended it, is born. I make a choice about not so much who I am– although this is not unimportant psychologically, but rather about who I am to be. Once I make this choice a Self is born, and as long as I hold to that choice the Self remains alive.

This is not to say different choices can’t be made along the way, they can, but if they are too frequently changed than one might suspect expedience rather than a conscious ethic as the determining factor.

3 considerations in becoming a Self

Ego consciousness: it is in this sense that we speak of the essential nature of the ego in the Western Mystery Tradition. When we talk here of a conscious Self it is built on and relies on a highly differentiated ego, this is not about universal consciousness it is about personal consciousness.

Ethics vs. morality: the distinction here is about making a personal moral choice which we then call a personal ethic, as opposed to the unconscious adoption of a collective system of morality, such as you were taught by your parents, peers, and various institutions who make it there business to relieve you of the burden of becoming a Self. This does not mean you need to be an anarchist (although the world could probably do with more of those), but that you need to interrogate what you have been taught and decide if it is valid for you.

Conscious choice: the devil is always in the details isn’t it ? It is very easy to bandy about the term consciousness, or conscious choice, but what does a conscious choice look like? Does making a conscious choice involve:

  • Asking your aunty?
  • Asking your wife? (This is what I usually do, keeps the peace at home I’ll tell you that much )
  • Consulting the local gypsy?
  • Asking the fairies?
  • Waiting for a sign?
  • Consulting the Cosmopolitan magazine?
  • Hoping for an inspiration?
  • Doing nothing?
  • Waiting for a dream? (We Jungians love this one)

Probably not….

but what about prayer?

Now you don’t need to religious in the traditional sense to pray; it doesn’t matter what you call it, meditation, consulting your higher self, praying, consulting the unconscious etc. what matters is the idea of consulting something, be it God, your higher self, the cosmos, or providence, that is higher/ outside/ above/ greater than/ or simply beyond you.

Well to be 100% honest with you I don’t know the answer to this last question, does prayer mean you are acting consciously or not? In the quote Kierkegaard seems to suggest it is, he speaks of the will of God. Either case can be argued. However after much prayer, meditation, contemplation and so on, you get the idea, I am starting to suspect not. I am more inclined than ever before to suspect this is a way of shifting the responsibility, which let’s face it is bloody well understandable, God knows the choices we face in today’s world are not simple.

But I think true conscious choice takes an additional step where by the choice made is made in full consciousness ‘and without resort to either passivity, providence, or a higher power.

Meister Eckhart, the catholic mystic, said God is happiest when he lives in your soul, now interpret that as you chose, but my suspicion is that it means you choose, your bear the consequences, and you don’t shift the responsibility.

Either way, however you arrive at the ethical stance, once you have made that step: conscious choice means ensuring that every other choice you make post this initial choice serves it- the conscious ethic you have chosen, and that is what it means to possess a Self.

Until we meet again,


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Comments (3)

  • Esther Reply

    The gnostic view that you lose paradise to get wisdom, comes to mind.

    April 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm
    • Willem Els Reply

      Contrary to the article it seems that I believe that self exists as a seed before we ask who we are, what we must do, etc. Denying this seed is where paradise is lost. In primary school I often questioned who I was and what I was doing. I preferred to be a high achiever, at least to be as academically skilled as the girls in my class ! High School was a different story, probably because it was an all boys school. By that time my academic performance had improved sufficiently for me to be an equal among peers, I thought. When asked what I would be doing next year during my last year, I panicked, recalled the last career I had discussed and blurted out that I would be studying Architecture ! I enjoyed drawing and was top of class in Geometrical drawing.

      As it turned out my mother was not happy about me going to University because I was doing drugs. I went to the Army which was great, because all decisions were taken for me, until I needed to decide for myself where I was going in life. After my compulsory minimum year in the army I flip flopped from job to job. My parents concern for me had me visiting a psychologist who suggested that I should take time and be honest with myself about what I wanted to do. I was a surfer who had been exposed to adults building boats and sailing them during my primary years. On consideration of whether I wanted to surf I realised that the activity was largely dependant on a cultural approach by the participants and produced some loneliness. I was attracted to the boats on the marina and decided that I could cover surfing from living on a boat. I decided that I would have to work first to afford a boat of my own.

      36 years later I am living in a boat, having succumbed to marriage, children and the challenges of a demanding career, but I’m living in a boat. My struggle is now to overcome destitution, something I am happy to live with, as long as I am living on a boat, which I have been doing, on and off, for the passed 16 years.

      Battle scarred and weary I have a tenacious hold on paradise. The wisdom I have gained is best ignored, for now !

      July 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm
  • lyn peel Reply

    Nice … in a great sense of the word! Love the philosophers who after all contributed so very much to who we are today. Go Kierkegaard.

    April 21, 2015 at 9:27 am

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