Image by Gerd Altmann
We’d like to share a story that will give you an idea of the value of understanding your own selves (yes, plural) and the advantages of improved inner harmony.
Our book, Your Symphony of Selves, presents many stories about individuals and their situations as well as some fairly deep dives into language, culture, philosophy, religion, psychology (of course), neuroscience, postmodernism, and more. Tying together all of this is a widespread understanding—visible nearly everywhere, really—that each of us is or can be a healthy multiplicity of selves, working together more or less well.
Moving Into "Right Mind, Right Time"
One of the concepts that has proved most useful to readers—and, in all honesty, to ourselves personally as we developed the book—is learning how to enhance the capacity to move into the right part of ourselves for any given situation. To achieve and remain in good mental health, we need to learn how to be “in the right mind at the right time.”
When you have this understanding, you will find that it immediately improves your understanding of yourself and others. It may even save your life, which is why we will shortly turn to a remarkable moment in the life of a remarkable man and how his well-developed ability to shift into the right self made all the difference.
Parenthetically, describing someone as having multiple selves was accepted in early psychology and, indeed, was somewhat central to the early understanding both of normal consciousness and of psychopathology. The father of American psychology, William James, clearly depicted all human beings as having different “social selves.”
William James is also well known for his statement that “the mind seems to embrace a confederation of psychic entities.” Your Symphony of Selves not only reviews what James had to say, but also considers the work of dozens of other psychologists, scientists, writers, artists, philosophers, and more on the subject of healthy multiplicity.
How this entire well-established and fairly well-understood point of view was then pushed aside—and in some cases strongly denied—is another story that has been left out of almost every history of psychology we could find, including a well-regarded textbook written by one of us. (“It’s embarrassing for me [James Fadiman] to say, but even after seven revisions for seven editions, the cover-up was so well established that I missed it almost entirely.”)
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Embracing Your Multiple Selves
You may be surprised to find that a wide range of people—from some of the best-known rock stars, to the most studied philosophers, to the most important neuroscientists—all agree that an understanding and appreciation of your selves is to your obvious advantage. Nearly everyone we feature in the book—of whom there are many—agrees that people really do have different selves and really do “embrace a confederation of psychic entities.”
The reason that we have the ability to change from one self to another is that it improves our survival in general; it improves our relationships; and it has serious positive effects on our health. Most parents, for example, can recall a moment in the raising of their children when there was an immediate and even potentially life-threatening danger. If you’ve experienced such a moment, you found that you needed to be in a self that was, on the one hand, able to calm a frightened child and, on the other hand, able to snatch them from a dangerous situation—sometimes with a speed and strength you did not know you had.
Switching Selves... in the Nick of Time
Could just such a switch actually save your own life? There is a remarkable example quoted in a wonderful recent book by John Kaag, where he describes a moment in the life of the famous naturalist John Muir:
“After gaining a point about half-way to the top,” Muir recalled, “I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down.” This was the crux, according to Muir.
“My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below. When this final danger flashed up on me, I became nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot in the mountains, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke.”
As my (JF) daughter once wrote me while living in a tiny village in a mountainous area of a South American rainforest, “Remember, because I’m writing you this letter, you will know that I lived.” So too, we have the above description from John Muir because he survived. The very precariousness of his situation brought about a shift in his selves. Here is how he described what next occurred:
“This terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when . . . I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self—instinct, or Guardian Angel, call it what you will—came forward and assumed control.”
The self that only a few minutes ago had frozen his body in fear seemed to have vanished, and in its place was what he called “the other self.” Notice in his description that there is no actual magical external influence—no external Guardian Angel except metaphorically—but, for sure, he found himself in the right mind at the right time.
Then he says:
“My trembling muscles became firm again, and every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope. My limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seem to have nothing at all to do. Had I been born aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete.”
Fortunately for Muir—and the American National Parks system which is his legacy—that part of him knew when and how to come out and take over.
If Muir had “nothing at all to do” with moving himself forward in a positive confident way that prevented a fall, then who was it that was doing it? If the “I” who he was had become “nerve shaken,” then who, exactly, was the “I” that took over and knew exactly what to do?
Perhaps an even more important question is this: Just how did he do it? And why didn’t he know that he could do it from the start?
Unfortunately, this is not a question that can be answered in a few sentences. It took us the better part of a chapter in our book to fully flesh it out. Let us just say here that we find in the most successful people a heightened ability to switch selves when doing so is called for. We discuss and illustrate, with a number of somewhat less terrifying examples, what that looks like in more ordinary situations and how awareness and practice can make it second nature for any of us.
Working with Multiple Selves (Yours and Theirs)
Until you know you have different selves—that they are real, have innate value, and often demonstrate their own agendas and capacities—you can’t really work well with them. Until you know you’re a symphony, you can’t orchestrate the players. Until you know you’re a team, you can’t play to win.
And until you can recognize and allow for the fact that the other people in your life might not—and, in fact, won’t—always have their best and most appropriate self present when they’re with you, the more likely you are to be reactive when one of their problematic or dysfunctional selves rubs you the wrong way.
However, if you know that this is how all human beings are built and how they function—pretty much all the time—then you’re much more likely to be able to proactively shift into the part of you best-suited for working with this other person at the time.
The Real "Magic" is Awareness
There’s no real magic here, other than awareness. Most of us have been told for so long that everyone must have a single self—and that if you don’t, you’re in deep trouble—that we have forgotten (or never learned) there is another (and far more obvious and effective) option. That option is to simply question the Single Self Assumption, as we call it.
See for yourself what happens if you start playing with the idea that you can consciously learn to shift into your best self on any occasion.You can make plans for how to do this. You can practice doing this ahead of time in your mind. And you can simply imagine—in real time or as close to it as you can manage—that you are the kind of person who just knows how to do this. And then, in the nick of time, you’ll do it.
What we have learned—and why we wrote our book—is that when you know that you and everyone else has selves, life tends to make more sense and work better. All you need to start experiencing this—whatever level you’re already at—is to start with the idea that there’s more to you (and each of us) than we have been told, and that there might be a simpler, more logical, and more effective way of seeing and dealing with each other.
©2020. All Rights Reserved. Excerpted with permission.
Publisher: Park Street Press, an imprint of
Inner Traditions Intl. www.innertraditions.com
Your Symphony of Selves: Discover and Understand More of Who We Are
by James Fadiman Ph.D. and Jordan Gruber, J.D.
Offering groundbreaking insight into the dynamic nature of personality, James Fadiman and Jordan Gruber show that each of us is comprised of distinct, autonomous, and inherently valuable “selves.” They also show that honoring each of these selves is a key to improved ways of living, loving, and working.
For more info, or to order this book, click here. (Also available as an Audiobook and as a Kindle edition.)
About the Authors
James Fadiman, Ph.D., with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, was the president of two companies, taught at four universities, is an international seminar leader, and has written textbooks, trade books, and novels. Consulting clients have included IBM, Hewlett-Packard, a Federal Reserve bank, and Foster's Freeze. He is one of the foremost researchers in microdosing studies and is a co-founder of Sophia University. He has been researching healthy multiplicity for over 20 years. Books by James Fadiman, Ph.D.
Jordan Gruber, J.D., writer, collaborative writer, ghost writer, and editor, has forged and sculpted authoritative volumes in forensic law, financial services, and self-development. A graduate of Binghamton University and the University of Virginia School of Law, he founded the Enlightenment.com website and is now a leading advocate of rebound exercise through the SuperBound Project. Books by Jordan Gruber, J.D.