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Can We Choose Which Self We Want?

On His Deathbed

Scientist James Clerk Maxwell said about his other self.

James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell


“What is done by what is called myself is, I feel,

done by something greater than myself in me.”


Wouldn’t it be fascinating to discover what Maxwell’s other self was “greater than myself?”

It appears to have given Maxwell his great scientific intuition.  But that is only facile words.

I mean, shouldn’t we want to know things like how intuition differs from fantasies, especially our dark ones?

After all, admit it, not all our hunches are tidy and worthy.

Consider the Apostle’s observation:

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but rather I do that which I do not want to do.

Still, there are those good intuitions we get that, in hindsight, seem miraculous to come to mind just when they did.

Intuition does seem to come when we need to make serious decisions.

There is that canard, that if you want to make the wisest decision you’ll list on one side of a sheet of paper all the reasons for doing it and on the opposite side all the reasons for not doing it.

I’ve made such lists with a dozen or so reasons to do something and couldn’t think of a single reason not to. But, I’ve often gone with my gut, which urged me so strongly against acting that I couldn’t do the logical thing.  And the gut was almost always right.


Differences of Maxwell’s two selves, his “I” and “Me”

In his book, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, leading Norwegian science writer, Tor Norretranders, discussed the distinction between Maxwell’s me and his “something greater than myself in me. Norretranders referred to them as Maxwell’s “I” and “Me.” He said,

This distinction between I and Me is considerably less “innocent” than it sounds.


It summarizes the radical changes in perception of what it means to be human . . . [for]


Man is not primarily conscious.  Man is primarily non-conscious.  The idea of a conscious I as housekeeper of everything that comes in and goes out of one is an illusion; perhaps a useful one, but still an illusion.


Norretranders points out that, if we can grasp this, we are capable of far more than we realize. He concludes that our ordinary belief that our “I” is in charge, severely limits our thinking capacity and creativity.  But there is hope that if we broaden our reach, we can realize our true potentiality.


We have to face the fact that we are far more than we believe ourselves to be; that we have far more resources than we perceive; that we leave our mark on more of the world than we notice.


If we exceed our limitations of our ordinary thinking we are capable of much, much more.

But, to reach our greatest potential we need to rid the subconscious of a lot of garbage in our old dark thinking that we’ve routinely kept hidden from ourself.

Our Hidden Agendas

We know of course, in our heart, that our everyday conscious thinking is limited to what we observe; and we process these ideas by reason.

Then, something like ninety percent of what we say and do arises from old habits that govern mundane activities like taking our shower, brushing our teeth, dressing for the day, drinking our coffee.

Still, that “greater than myself in me” is there as well, however at a deeper level.

This is our major strength, though it is difficult to realize.

It lies deep beneath an accretion of a long-forgotten self-serving attitudes.  This includes our more obvious low-self esteem issues that must be seen and transcended.

In addition and far more hindering, are a host of irritations and resentments we keep in check so to get along in the company of others and to keep us out of jail.  There are lots of permutations of these and more.  They come to mind only when we are ready to face them.


The Need for a Mental House-Cleaning

Freud brought psychology around to seeing the more abnormal hidden agendas.  But we normals have our share too.  There is nothing wrong with keeping our antagonistic attitudes to ourself.  But they do hinder the working of our inner quest.

Subliminal thoughts are the golden stopper in the bottle of accessing that deep inner goodness within us, that Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus assured us was in each one of us.

We often are surprised by something that comes out in our speech or behavior that we didn’t mean.  We wonder where such a thing could come from.  These faux pas are “just not like me,”

To explore our inner life is not easy and we really need a safe way to do it.  If we don’t have a safe way to make this exploration we are likely to unleash some ill-advised and even dangerous behavior, for a lot of what the mildest-mannered person has suppressed within are deeply-held anger and hatreds.

It’s why we have therapists, confession, and other safe means of coming to terms with our “hang-ups” of our other self.


A School that Helped Me See

I had the advantage of coming in touch with The School of Practical Philosophy in New York City about thirty years ago.  It enabled me to confront many difficult ideas I held deep in the dungeon of my subconscious.  Most of them were just attitudes I’d have been embarrassed for others to know about, perspectives that I didn’t even know I held.

Let me give an example, which now that I am long retired I am past any concern about it.  I was early in the school and on a service work evening.

When students reach a certain level of study the School gave us the opportunity to “do service” which meant we could work on some specified project doing a spiritual practice while doing the work.

On this particular evening we were a “service team” for the classes being held in the building that evening.  This meant preparing food and beverages for the classes’ refreshment break.

Of course this required preparing the foods, serving the students, and cleaning the premises afterward.  All tasks to be done with full attention to each motion and every idea that came to mind while doing our work.

Well, on this particular evening I was given the assignment to sweep and wash the kitchen floor. Our team was to take direction from a young miss who obviously had never ever been in charge of other human beings’ activities — no children, no employees, nobody.

And here she was, trying to figure out how to give me orders, a brash hard-headed businessman whose whole life had been driven by taking authority over other people.

You may have guessed it.  I had great difficulty A) submitting to direction from another person, never mind a young miss, B) having to give up my urge to correct the way she was going about it and C) checking the irritability that arose over needing to surrender these ideas that came to mind.

And never mind D) “I don’t do floors!”

In addition to these self-revelations, it also occurred to me during that evening that this young lady obviously had her own share of hidden attitudes to deal with in much the same way as I had mine.

I could empathize how she was probably having self doubts and thoughts like, “What will they think of me?” “What should I say to him?” “Can I say something to him about where to put the bucket when he is done?”  All sorts of self-revelations about herself.

Now that episode was a minor affair. We confronted numerous “minor affairs” in our school work over the years.

I learned to love the freedom that I gained from seeing these attitudes of mine and releasing their grip upon me.  Of course, there was the unpleasantness of doing things I didn’t really want to do.  And the humility of confronting my own inner hang-ups. But afterwards the freedom was heavenly.

And there also were many issues of a more difficult nature that came up for me as well.  Some needed more than school work to deal with them.  So I had to seek help elsewhere, in other venues.

The point though, is that this is the sticky wicket that causes most people to seek a softer, easier way of life than school.  It means mainly not confronting this area of their ‘other mind’ that lies below the threshold of consciousness.


Our Basic Freedom

What we see in a lot of pop culture is an acting out of hidden inner hostilities justified as art, film, song and dance of people who have not done their house-cleaning and cling to the notion that their expressing themselves in this is worthwhile.

I don’t believe that this is who they truly are — not down deep.  At the deepest level I am sure they are far more redeeming.  We all are.  And it is such a blessing to get more and more glimpses of it in myself.


Nature Is My Guru

I have been blessed with the love of the outdoors.  And loving it by myself.

Nature gives me an opportunity, actually compels me, to leave all ideas at home.  The wonder of this is that it sharpens my curiosity of who I am and what I am, at any one time.  While it doesn’t give me much depth of insight, it always does open me up a little bit more.

When I’ve had a difficult time with someone, for example, a long hike will sometimes shove aside my issue and allow me to see the other person’s perspective.

I don’t have to think about it for this to happen.  In fact, thinking about it usually confuses.

An answer often just comes — out of the blue. When it does come it just “clicks” in mind.

At this time, I then have a choice.

I can do something about it. That isn’t always obvious at first. And sometimes it isn’t taking any sort of action at all.  In fact it may be to just let bygones be bygones and not do or say anything foolish.  But the answer almost always does come — IF I don’t try to force it.

I think this is why it has been said so often, that nature heals.  I believe it does.  Nature not only heals bodily wounds, but inner ones as well.  She is my most loyal companion.


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