Self-Knowledge through Disidentification by Tomás Agosin

I used to think of spiritual transformation as a mysterious process that happened to someone who was very special, learned and spiritually developed. I also had the idea that it was a process full of exalted feelings and supernatural experiences. These images made spiritual transformation a distant, if not impossible, goal for me. But I have discovered that spiritual transformation is a much simpler reality than the mental concepts and associations we have about it. Now I think of spiritual transformation as the process of change from my present way of being (acting, thinking, feeling) to one that is more consistent with my spiritual ideals.

To make our lives more consistent with our spiritual aspirations, we have to start by knowing who we really are and not what we think we are, not what we wish to be, not what we feel we should be. Then we will know what needs to be changed, what needs to be dropped, what needs more emphasis in our lives so that we reflect more closely what we want to be, the way we want to live.

Disidentification, the capacity to observe myself, is a wonderful tool and practice that can give self-knowledge in an objective way. When I am totally identified with my thoughts, feelings or actions, that is all I am; I then become the transient circumstances of my life. But when I observe my thoughts, feelings, reactions and ways of doing things, I learn to see clearly who I am, and can take some distance from my experiences.

We can practice disidentification by changing our sense of self from being to having; that is, to change from “I am” to “I have.” When “I am” something, it is forever and it is the totality of me; when “I have” something, it is temporal and limited.

It is important to practice this exercise without judging. To see myself objectively without judging or being critical is to just observe, as if watching a movie, taking some distance from my experiences and suspending all comments. Later on there may be time for critical analysis, but not while observing myself. To just see myself as others see me (in terms of my actions) or as others would see me if they could read my mind and heart is particularly difficult in our culture, but it is essential if this exercise is to be fruitful. This practice of disidentification helps me acquire self-knowledge in an objective way.

We can practice disidentification at every moment of the day. There are some ways to facilitate this habit. The first is to remember to observe ourselves: What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What opinion am I giving? How am I reacting?

We can practice disidentification by changing our sense of self from being to having; that is, to change from “I am” to “I have.” When “I am” something, it is forever and it is the totality of me; when “I have” something, it is temporal and limited. “I have” also has a “not me” quality to it which helps me see that my deepest sense of self transcends the particulars of the moment. For example: “I am depressed” versus “I have a depression,” “I think…” versus “I have a thought…” Thoughts, feelings, reactions, judgments are all transient experiences of our being. Disidentification helps us see them as passing and relative so they don’t acquire the profound importance that they have when we are totally immersed in them. We learn that they are not “Me,” but only a small part of “Me.” We learn that all experiences pass, no matter how painful or how wonderful. We learn that momentary feelings, opinions, thoughts, reactions are for this moment and no more. In this way we learn to see how we think, what we feel, and how we react. With time we discover that everything is transient, that everything passes.

We can practice disidentification by remembering that we are not just the thought or feeling that we are experiencing at the moment. Thus, I can repeat to myself: “I am not my thoughts,” “I am not my feelings,” Ï am not my opinions,” “I am not my memories,” “I am not my reactions,” and so forth, depending on what is gripping my consciousness at the moment. Again, the tactic here is to create some distance in order to acquire more objectivity and to center myself in what transcends the experience of the moment.

In this way, disidentification leads to an expansion of consciousness because, by separating myself from what is transient—thoughts, feelings, reactions—I can be centered in what is not bound by time and space. There is an aspect of my consciousness that does not change—it only “Is.” That “Isness,” that pure consciousness, is my capacity to observe myself. If I can remain centered in the transcendent, I open myself to life with a new awareness. I can then integrate the transcendent and the contingent at each moment, because both dimensions exist always.

Thus, disidentification helps us to know ourselves as we truly are, and to remain connected to the transcendent dimension of consciousness, expanding our sense of self.

This article was originally published in Seeds of Unfolding, No. 3, 1985. It is one of a number of papers written by Dr. Tomás Agosin, a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a founding member of Cafh in New York.
Dr. Agosin died in 1991.