From Deconstruction to Reconstruction: Marc Gafni and the ‘Unique Self’

by Kathy Brownback, Instructor in Religion and Philosophy, Phillips Exeter Academy January, 2014

Introduction

As practices promoting mindfulness become more prevalent in contemporary society, a question naturally emerges:

What role should “mind-body” or contemplative practices play in education and academic life?

What do they have to do with the study of science, or the humanities and the arts?

What place do they have in the curriculum?

For much of the modern era, the answer to that question was none whatsoever. Any mind-body practice was understood to lie outside the objective goals of the academy, because such practice involved subjective internal states often linked to particular religious traditions. In fact, a good part of modern Western intellectual history has been a rebellion against, or at least a differentiation from, the dogmas of religion and coercive (yet unprovable) metaphysical claims. Every subject from science to art has had to disentangle itself from such claims, including the study of religion itself.

But the last 40 years or so have brought a new understanding of contemplative practice as a kind of embodied self-awareness. Such practices involve the movement of the mind and body in ways that are not primarily cognitive, and incorporate the use of the breath and the stilling of the “monkey mind.” Their primary goal is to draw the practitioner into direct awareness and experience of the present. They include meditation, yoga, chant, contemplation of nature, contemplative prayer, poetry, dance, or even methods for listening, playing an instrument, or shooting an arrow.

These are separate from dogma, even from the entire religious matrix itself. There is a growing body of practitioners who choose this direction not as an expression of loyalty to a particular tradition or to fulfill an external obligation. Rather, they practice to gain knowledge. They ask, “How can I live differently?” and “How can I know more deeply and fully?” They may think of themselves as religious or secular, or “spiritual but not religious,” or they may disavow labels altogether, but this is the direction of their quest.

These are also the very questions that many students ask. If you are a student, you know there is nothing abstract about these issues. These are questions of the heart—questions about human nature and direction. They are intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—and always personal. Most likely you’ve asked yourself some of the same questions I’ve been asked by other students:

  • “People keep telling me to be myself, but I don’t really know who that is. I feel pulled in so many directions.”
  • Do we have free will, at all? Or are we totally determined by our genes, and conditioned by our environment?”
  • “Why, in the midst of all they have, are so many people angry and dissatisfied? Can I hope to avoid this? Why is there so much addiction? Why depression, among people who have so much to offer?”
  • “I haven’t found any kind of God I can believe in, yet I somehow feel there is something more to life. Your thoughts?”
  • “Are science and religion looking at the same world? They seem so contradictory. Your husband is a physicist. Do you argue about this?”
  • “Is there such a thing as truth? Is there anything I can be certain of?”
  • “Do you think life has some kind of point, or meaning? Or is it, as Shakespeare said, ‘a tale told by an idiot’? It really feels that way. Then all of sudden, even though I have no real answers, the feeling goes away.”

These are more than a series of isolated questions. When you pose them, you are asking if there is some kind of map you can trust, one that might give you a reliable sense of direction.

The old maps that your parents and grandparents grew up with are not enough, and there don’t seem to be others around that really describe the territory. Your liberal arts education has taught you critical analysis and fluency in different ways of thinking, but hasn’t equipped you with a reliable “inner GPS” that can navigate contradictions and find its way. You might sense that such a thing is possible, but you observe that many in the world around you seem to lack both compass and map—and you do not want to be among them.

How can contemplative practice help you discern such a map?

First, there is the practical level. Contemplative practice can encourage the ability to focus and enter into a subject with minimal distraction and interruption. It can help a great deal with stress reduction. Moving more deeply, it can foster the capacity to hold apparent contradictions in tension with each other without immediate dismissal of one side. It can encourage you to listen to and help develop the ideas of others from a less egoic perspective—and to see connections between disciplines that infuse their understanding of each other. It helps provide the space for deeper creativity and inspiration. At its most profound level, contemplative practice has the potential to help you reconnect with a deeper sense of purpose, meaning, and value in your life.

This goal is at the heart of the work of philosopher Marc Gafni, director of the Center for Integral Wisdom, a think tank dedicated to evolving and articulating a shared global framework of meaning and responsibility. Gafni, who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford, is classically trained in the study of the Kabbalah, as well as in modern and postmodern schools of epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how we know what we know).

His work brings significant developmental insights of modern psychology and science together with spiritual practice and the study of world religions. Along with philosopher Ken Wilber and other scholars, Gafni is working on the articulation of an Integral world spirituality.

Its first principle is what Gafni has termed “Unique Self”—a theory of self and contemplative practice that he has likened to a puzzle piece. The unique self has all the idiosyncrasies—the many-formed edges—of an individual life, and yet it is also profoundly committed to the larger whole.

This article is an introduction to Gafni’s theory of the unique self, and to the making of maps and the solving of puzzles.

We’ll begin by exploring three meta-questions that underlie Gafni’s theory:

What do we know?

How do we know it?

And what does it mean to be a self?

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