Where does the "self" end? — Advaya

Story-Telling & Narrative

Where Does the “Self” End?

Article with Tammy Gan, Tim Ingold, Sophie Strand & 1 more on Tuesday 19th July 2022

The self, according to Joanna Macy, is “the metaphoric construct of identity and agency, the hypothetical piece of turf on which we construct our strategies for survival, the notion around which we focus our instincts for self-preservation, our needs for self-approval, and the boundaries of our self-interest.”


The self, according to Joanna Macy, is “the metaphoric construct of identity and agency, the hypothetical piece of turf on which we construct our strategies for survival, the notion around which we focus our instincts for self-preservation, our needs for self-approval, and the boundaries of our self-interest.”

The human “self” is not “real”. We have constructed it for a number of reasons, including theoretical convenience, Western imperialism, speciesism, amongst many others. Its construction has been justified by institutional science, ruled by a claimed “objective” reality (notably plauged by a replication crisis which undermines the credibility of the foundations of said “objectivity”) and dogmatic materialism: scientists say that matter is unconscious, that human minds are separate from the rest of the natural world as the only conscious ones.

Draining the realm of consciousness, experience and awareness out of the whole of nature, those of us who grew up within this Western civilisation, as Alan Watts points out, “feel “I” – ego, myself, my source of consciousness – to be a center of awareness and of a source of action that resides in the middle of a bag of skin and so we have what [Watts has] called the conception of ourselves as a skin-encapsulated ego.” Within this cultural context, the self is “a bounded, atomistic, and autonomous individual.” We see ourselves as inherently capable of making self-centred decisions, which is possible because we are not just separated from the “non-human” (in itself a speciesist method of categorisation), but also above them.

Tim Ingold rejects this hierarchical binary, proposing an ontology of dwelling (alongside a relational self and an ethics of place), through which he questions the possibility of this separation from the more-than-human world. It is an ontology that “[takes] the human condition to be that of being immersed from the start like other creatures, in an active practical and perceptual engagement with constituents of the dwelt-in world”. From the beginning, for Ingold, there is no way to conceptualise of ourselves, our behaviours, needs, desires, etc., as separate from what is around us. We have been and are constantly in engagement with the environments in which we live.

Enrique Salmón expresses this in terms of what he calls kincentric ecology, based on indigenous perceptions of the human-nature relationship. Salmón writes that the Rarámuri view themselves “as an integral part of the life and place within which they live”, and it is understood that the soul, or iwí, “sustains the body with the breath of life. Everything that breath[e]s has a soul. Plants, animals, humans, stones, the land, all share the same breath.” Within kincentric ecology we share breath with our relatives: both physically and metaphorically (philosophically, even), we are constantly in engagement with the environments in which we live. The kinship relation, the shared breath, the inherent and yet unspoken reciprocity, the “mutual survival” gives rise to the formation of a self-identity that is embedded in the environment, in the cultural understanding of the “interdependency of humans and nature”.

But what if within our “modern” Western conceptualisation of the self, we leaned into the interdependency and questioned the boundaries which we draw to define the self? As Joanna Macy points out we have chosen to limit our metaphorical self “to our skin, our person, our family, our organization, or our species”, but we can “select its boundaries in objective reality”. That is what has been happening in contemporary biology.

“We perceive only that part of nature that our technologies permit and, so too, our theories about nature are highly constrained by what our technologies enable us to observe. But theory and technology act on each other reciprocally: we construct those technologies that we think are important for examining a particular perspective of nature.”#

“A symbiotic view of life: we have never been individuals”, Gilbert et al., 2012

In contemporary biology new technologies have emerged to reveal a microbial world of “complex and intermingled relationships”, discoveries that have “profoundly” challenged the “generally accepted view” of “individuals”. As “Lewis Thomas (1974) and Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (2001) have asked: What constitutes the individual organism?” The atonomistic individual is increasingly becoming challenged, the term “holobiont” was introduced, “as the anatomical term that describes the integrated organism comprised of both host elements and persistent populations of symbionts”.

Inspired by this particular term, Sophie Strand reminds us that “we live in households, but we are also households”. She says: “We’re breathing in the microbiome of our area all the time. And we are, sometimes I say, we’re swarms in suits, skin-silhouetted towers of Babel.” Similarly Andreas Weber says that “we’re not individuals, we’re colonies.” He adds: “We’re ecosystems. This microbial ecosystem inside of you is in constant dialogue with the ecosystem(s) outside of you. Your gut biota are continuously replenished by the stuff you eat because it’s full of bacteria. Your skin microbiome deposits itself on everything you touch. If you touch somebody, you exchange microbiomes. You don’t have a border. To think so is another bourgeois Western illusion. In actuality, you’re constantly blurring with the animate world around you.”

What does it mean to truly embody such scientific breakthroughs, these ways of thinking that we might not be used to? What does it mean to see the world through this lens, the lens of the permeable self? For Weber this is entering into and embracing the paradox of being an individual in this enlivened world: we don’t get to choose whether or not we are individuals; we are always both, but have never been either, alone. Dissolving the borders, rejecting the boundaries, these mean giving up control over our conception of reality, and our conception of our selves. But perhaps we never had control to begin with. This shift away from obsessing over the “self” is a welcome shift. It is what it means to truly move away from the anthropocene, to make space for a multispecies stories (perhaps what Donna Haraway offers as the Chthulucene).

“Integration and differentiation go hand in hand. “As you let life live through you,” poet Roger Keyes says, you just become “more of who you really are.””#

Joanna Macy

“I think my mind is not just in my body. It is in my entire web. My entire web of relations – fungal, geological, microbial, vegetal, ancestral – that weave together my specific ecosystem. Sometimes, in the morning, when I call on each of these beings in a practice I loosely name “Gathering Counsel”, I imagine that I am like a mycelial network below ground, opening up the septa pores in my branching hyphae. I am opening myself up to a “supracellular state” whereby my mind can pass through my threads of relation into the minds of woodchucks, black bears, chanterelles, and juniper trees.”#

“Becoming Supracellular”, Sophie Strand

You’re invited to blur the boundaries of the self with us: Myth & Mycelium, our upcoming transformative online course with Sophie Strand starts today. What does it mean to be supracellular? What does it mean to think with our entire webs of kin? What does it mean to reroot our collective myths? Register for the course here.

Header image via @metaphysics69420 on Instagram.

Tammy Gan #

Tammy Gan is the Head of Content and Storytelling at Advaya.

Read Tammy Gan’s profile

Tim Ingold #

Tim is a British anthropologist & Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He received his BA in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge in 1970, and his PhD in 1976. For his doctoral research he carried out ethnographic fieldwork among the Skolt Saami of northeastern Finland, & the resulting monograph (‘The Skolt Lapps Today’, 1976) was a study of the ecological adaptation, social organisation & ethnic politics of this small minority community under conditions of post-war resettlement.

Read Tim Ingold’s profile

Sophie Strand #

Sophie is a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, & ecology. But it would probably be more authentic to call her a neo-troubadour animist with a propensity to spin yarns that inevitably turn into love stories. Her first book of essays The Flowering Wand: Lunar Kings, Lichenized Lovers, Transpecies Magicians, and Rhizomatic Harpists Heal the Masculine is forthcoming in 2022. She is currently researching a mythopoetic exploration of ecology and queerness in the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde.

Read Sophie Strand’s profile

Andreas Weber #

Andreas is a Berlin based author & independent scholar. He has degrees in Marine Biology & Cultural Studies, having collaborated with theoretical biologist Francisco Varela in Paris. Andreas’ work is focusing on a re-evaluation of our understanding of the living. He is proposing to understand organisms as subjects & hence the biosphere as a meaning-creating & poetic reality. Andreas is the author of Enlivenment. Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene, & Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity.

Read Andreas Weber’s profile