Students of all ages are consumed by the burning question, “Who am I?” Conventional teaching methods are not well suited to address this existential concern. Unique Self is a non-dogmatic, humanistic, values-based tool with the potential to shape education for generations to come.

Q & A

The following is a transcript of an excerpt from a dialogue between Joe Perez and Marc Gafni in July 2012 (audio file available for download at the bottom of the page).

Marc: Education, which is such a critical topic, is more important than any other single dimension of society. Education is the linchpin upon which everything else depends. How we educate ourselves and how we educate the next generation changes the game all the time.

Let’s look at four dimensions of education. First let’s look at high school education. One of the key issues up is “Who am I?”

I just had the occasion to do some teaching to the humanities and religion faculty at what perhaps is the leading private high school in America. It’s about a thousand kids. It’s considered the Harvard of private schools. These kids are considered the best and brightest. The best is an inaccurate word because the best are everyplace. They’re certainly the brightest, and they’re good kids. The faculty was utterly at a loss because the kids are saying, “Who am I?”

Am I a combination of a particular combination of a particular configuration of genes that I inherited and I’m affected by the different structures of society, by all the different contexts that I live in?

If that’s true, if I’m predetermined by the contexts – historical contexts, psychological contexts, etc.–then there’s no self that ever chooses? There’s no self that I’m responsible for. I’m a side effect in my own life. It’s a shocking realization.

The teachers themselves, educated in a kind of postmodern liberalism, had no response to “Who are you?” Some tried the Buddhist approach – you’re not a self, you’re a no self, you’re part of the All. That doesn’t hold for the students because they have this intuitive sense of self. The Buddhist no-self teaching runs in the face of the profound Western sense of individuality, so the teachers were unable to locate and transmit to the students a sense of self within their own beings, because the teachers weren’t able to locate and transmit that sense of Self within their own beings. That’s where Unique Self enters the conversation.

I introduced the idea of Unique Self. Actually one of the lead teachers at that school taught Unique Self for three semesters in the classroom so we were able to talk about how Unique Self functioned in the classroom. It was wildly transformative and effective in a powerful way. It allowed, on the one hand, kids to say (1) I’m unique, (2) my uniqueness is not a function of psychological, social, cultural, or physical conditioning. It’s not genes or contexts. Uniqueness is an irreducible property of essence which I’m actually able to discern through the Eye of the Heart, the Eye of the spirit.

We talked about different faculties of knowing. That the Eye of the Spirit is an important faculty of perception just like the Eye of the Mind and the Eye of the Senses which discern empirical structures in the world. The Eye of the Spirit discerns the nature of essences, and one of the things it discerns is the unique quality of essence.

So we’re able to say, Wow. I’m not just genes, but an irreducibly unique configuration of genes, molecules, and cells, and the 50 trillion cells that live cooperatively in my body is an irreducibly unique expression of all that is. And all that exists on the physical level, an emotional level, and a spirit level, and suddenly we are able to access uniqueness not as a property of ego, but a property of essence and (2) uniqueness became not a source of alienation – not separate from – but uniqueness as the currency of connection.

Uniqueness is the puzzle piece dharma of enlightenment. Uniqueness means I’m a puzzle piece, and the contours connect me to the larger puzzle.

Now the school is working on implementing Unique Self in the curriculum with a number of teachers and hosting a national conference on bringing Unique Self into the educational system.

Here’s the simple metaphor we used. You take a puzzle piece. If you think a puzzle piece is not a puzzle piece, it just lives by itself. You say, This is not a puzzle piece, it’s a strange configuration of jagged edges that lives by itself. That’s what it means to have a consciousness of separate self. I’m a strange jagged configuration of influences. I don’t fit into anything larger. It’s a puzzle piece that doesn’t know it’s a puzzle. That’s the consciousness of separate self. One.

Two. The consciousness of True Self – which is what classical Enlightenment talks about – means I don’t know there’s a puzzle. I don’t realize there are all these different pieces. I think it’s all one. I don’t realize it’s a puzzle, I think it’s all one. That it’s not made up of different pieces, that’s consciousness of True Self.

Unique Self is actually the consciousness of being a puzzle piece that’s part of a puzzle. I have unique contours to who I am. My uniqueness is my identity. That’s the self-identity that the classroom needs to be able to access. And that puzzle piece nature of who I am is part of the currency of connection. It is precisely what lets me fit, precisely what makes me fit naturally and be held by all the puzzle pieces around me.
That’s Unique Self.

That structure, that vision, is essential to education. I’ve used my time to talk about high school, but you can also deploy this at elementary school, the higher education / college level, as well as continuing education. Adult development – many studies say, and our colleague Ken Wilber cities some of these studies — adult development stops at age 26. That’s shocking. Education just stops. Unique Self training is to be constantly defining the contours of my puzzle piece within the larger context of awareness that I’m part of a puzzle and that my uniqueness is the currency of connection. Bringing Unique Self into the classroom at all levels of education and viewing education as accentuating and sharpening the deepening the awareness of our puzzle piece nature changes the game in education.

Joe: We live in a liberal Western democracy in which there is a secularization, a separation of government and religion or education and spirituality. I wonder if you could briefly address how Unique Self is able to overcome that potential barrier.

Gafni: Unique Self is not a religious idea. There is a separation of church and state. Church, synagogue, mosque, Buddhist dogma – a particular religion’s dogma shouldn’t be superimposed on the classroom. That’s absolutely true. At the same time, what’s very clear is that all the different faculties of perception can play in the classroom.

For example, more and more, we’re understanding, as Fichte and Schelling did in the great universities of Germany, that actually we can access within liberal education not only the Eye of the Mind – the logical, inductive, mathematical structural perceptions; not only the Eye of the Senses – the empirical understandings; but the Eye of the Heart or Spirit – faculties of perception which are trans-religious, post-traditional, post-denominational, have a real place in the classroom. They are not based on a particular religion or dogma, but are based on the human being engaging and grappling with what Christian theologian Paul Tillich calls “ultimate issues.”

Education can’t be a place where we don’t engage ultimate issues which include values, meaning, all those things that matter most to us. It would be preposterous to reduce education to a kind of vocational training and the liberal arts. That would be a mistake, and it was never intended to be vocational. Liberal education needs to be trans-lineage, trans-dogmatic, but not devoid of engagement with ultimate issues, values, and meaning.

File: unique-self-dialogue-gafni-perez-on-education.mp3 (20.4 MB)

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