(Psychological Literacy)
  Adam Blatner, M.D.

(This is the last lecture of this 6-lecture module on self-awareness that is part of a longer series on Psychological Literacy, offered to the Senior University Georgetownlifelong learning program, for its Fall 2009 program. Eventually, more of the series will be posted on this website. This sixth and last lecture will be given on November 2, 2009 (re-posted November 1, 2009---and will probably edit it further.)
This series of lectures will include: 1. An orientation to the process of self-awareness.  2. Motivations and Ideals   3. Wiser and More Foolish Coping Maneuvers  
  4. Body Cues and Individuality       5. Social Connectedness and Preferences         6. (this lecture: ) Meaning, Spirituality & Inspiration (and Conclusion)

Let's look at some other sources for self awareness: So far we’ve talked about expanding or intensifying self-awareness, of your inner motives, of your various healthy and foolish ways of coping with different motives and emotions, with your individuality—and last session went beyond your skin to situate your sense of self as part of your social network. While in part we are who we are within our skin, it could be argued that the sense of self also partakes significantly of our social being-ness, as described on other papers on my website.

Now this talk simply expands that category, and notes that beyond our ordinary circles of social being-ness, there are also subtle relations to wider circles of culture, language, nation, species and beyond that, nature itself.  Beyond nature, also, are a number of mysteries—of life, death, where did we come from, where do we go, both personally and collectively, both at the edges of a single lifetime and as a cosmos. Somehow, this is mixed with the meaning of things—mere knowledge of cosmology doesn’t satisfy.

Science seeks answers, even if it then uses those answers to then seek other answers beyond. There’s another search that science cannot satisfy: Meaning. Because science cannot offer a model for the cosmos other than somewhat mechanistic principles, that does not mean that the quest for meaning is, well, meaningless. There is another dimension so complex that science has at best only nibbled at, and that’s the realm of mind, consciousness, and judgments of purpose and beauty.

Now this differs for each person, and may partake of some or all of the following to various extents—nature, God as each individual imagines that being, wholeness, the depths of personal and collective consciousness, the unfolding of history or the evolution of consciousness, and various ideals causes, a more loving world, and so forth.

What I mean by spirituality is the activity of developing a greater intensity of relationship or depth of connectedness with the Greater Wholeness of Being. This does not require any formal belief in any personal or impersonal higher image of a supernatural being, but it often does so. Nor am I requiring any support for any particular religion. It’s more about how each individual constructs his or her meaning system, pursues the what’s it all about question.

Beyond the Class

I need to confess that in thinking about this lecture I began to write it numerous times—and more, if you include my ruminations and reveries. It became apparent that the general theme transcends our talk today. Partly this is because the subject of identity, who we think we are, reflects among other things the fact that we’re in the midst of a number of basic shifts in world-view, in ways to think about belief, truth, fact, and so forth. In many books thinkers beyond theologians dispute the nature of what people call God—by no means does this word mean the same thing to different people. (For example, in the past people who doubted orthodox religion were called atheists, in spite of the people so labeled—I’m thinking of the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century and the revolutionary writer and thinker Thomas Paine in the late 18th century—who claimed that they very much did believe in God, but just not the God whose doctrines were claimed to be espoused by the mainstream religions.)

Anyway, the field is vast, and I can assure you I have no claims to authority. However, I think I can offer you some tools for thinking about and working with your own preferred process of constructing or revising or reaffirming your own spiritual map. So here are a number of concepts I’ve found relevant to the general task of becoming more acutely spiritually self-aware.

About Spirituality—A Disclaimer

In our own culture, in a time of culture change, there is some freedom to disconnect with a sense of obligation to consider as deeply true a whole range of mythological images that may or may not collide with reason. I find most people pick and choose among these doctrines anyway. Some people change denominations or whole religions. The emerging sentiment seems to include those who find comfort in community and with little actual pressure to conform to doctrinal belief. Some even find other avenues of community-feeling and consider themselves un-observant or not-officially religious.

Of course there are those who don’t believe and don’t relate to any of this—are neither spiritual or religious. And there are those who are merely observant, but don’t take it anywhere, don’t feel a need to, or think it’s possible to imagine ways of feeling more active in developing that relationship—or discount such ambitions as mere mysticism, as if that were not a good thing. So the sociology is mixed.

I’m not pushing any particular path, but rather simply acknowledging that this whole spiritual endeavor can be an important part of self-ing and self-awareness in life.

For those who think beyond religion, then making spiritual refer to nature, or the meaning of life, with no taint of religion—the key is the themes of thinking, feeling out what works for you, but not just going along unthinkingly.


I want to suggest that it begins by imagining that you do have more to you than your ordinary everyday lives, and even more than your individual make-up. The first category to notice is your source of excitement, vitality, what sparks you up. That your energy can be enhanced, you can feel uplifted, excited, inspired to give more of yourself in a positive way, this energy shift, needs to be woven into our theories of human experience. Certainly you can make yourself behave morally and dutifully, but for some there’s a point where this behavior becomes joyous—and that inflow of psychic energy is not generally appreciated by many psychologists as well. So I’m giving it a term: I call it “the axis of inspiration.”

Certain activities and events open us, help us to feel part of the flow, or of something bigger. What is that about? I am hoping to arouse your curiosity about that—this is the axis of inspiration. There are some systems of esoteric psychology that unpack this axis, such as the system of chakras of kundalini yoga, but I don’t know if those systems are necessarily true: Rather, I consider them to be hypothetical ways of trying to appreciate the workings of our emotional and spiritual lives and how they cross over and inform each other.


Here’s another way to think about it. Human beings, along with many animals, inherit the bonding instinct. For parents it’s the instinct to nurture one’s young. This is a great mystery, involving thousands of subtle cues, communications signals, the way a mother and child recognize each others’ sounds, smells, and the like. We’re very gradually appreciating some of the elements, which is by no means the same as fully understanding them. Rather, we’re just beginning to be able to tease this apart.

So babies bond with parents fairly strongly, and this leaves strong impressions throughout life. Less strongly but still significantly, this same bonding expands to include other early caretakers, grandparents, siblings, others who live closely or whose presence becomes quite relevant to a child. The circle rapidly expands into the neigborhood.

My early years occurred during World War 2, and I got a good dose of propaganda, movies, talk, parades, flags, and it left me with a strong sense of national virtue and purpose. I mention this because in the last several decades I don’t see this sense of unity and purpose operating as strongly in our country. In some ways, lively political conflict is good for democracy, but at the same time, my point here is that a sense of destiny, purpose, not just nationally or politically, but in life itself, is a good thing.

I was also lucky to have fallen into a vocational ambition that was socially validated, and again that is something I’ve learned not to take for granted. But the point here is that as we grow we bond also to wider and wider circles.

Some of you may have bonded early in life to nature, depending on your environment or the behavior of relatives or peers. Nature in turn can be great and mysterious enough to elicit awe and reverence, and these qualities tend to associate with the something-bigger that perhaps redounds to the person’s identity.

So I’m suggesting that spirituality is a bonding with the all-ness, with the sense of being part of something bigger. It doesn’t require a special brain structure or gene, as hinted at by some recent books. Spirituality is the activity of feeling connected, and is highly shaped by the cultural matrix that one grows up in.

Subtle Senses

The five senses are not the only ones—there are several types of touch and feeling, for instance. But there are also more subtle ones, like the sense of presence of a loved one, the body-feelins of affection and cuddling, intuitions and hunches that come, gut sense about what feels right or wrong, and so forth. We might expand these to include insight, excitement, curiosity, affection, and recognize that some of the basic affects are also sensations.

Another sub-type is what I call “aggregate experience,” which are general senses that are the product of several, perhaps scores of subtle component senses. The sense of being a separate self and/or a valued self are thus constructed; the sense of reality, or being dream-like; the sense of presence of God or spiritual forces; or of a situation making sense, or being particularly relevant—two kinds of what it means to be meaningful. About the latter, there is a word called “numinous,” which refers to the sense of something not just relevant but oddly compelling. That may cross over to feeling called, or a strong impulse to follow a more complex goal (rather than simply to scratch an itch).

Widening Circles of Identification

This lecture has been the most difficult for me to prepare, because the ideas here lead to so many other considerations, contemplations, of related themes and issues.

The take-away is that self-awareness participates not only in the self as imagined as the individual alone, the lone wolf, apart from the social network—this hero who has been idealized if not idolized in the modern period—and re-integrates also the self that includes the trans-personal, the social, and even broader fields that give the sense of self meaning.

The sense of self is a sense, an aggregate. There is no way of isolating or determining the boundaries of the self as clean and definite.

To illustrate, how much of your self sense is caught up in some of the following dimensions of existence?
– nature
– any social or political cause
– your allegiance to city, state, nation
– allegiance to family, ethnic background, religion (as a social organization), vocation, etc.
– identification with any minority group or group (even majority) seeking more right (e.g., feminism)
– historical trend that you agree with; or historical trend that you want to fight or redirect
– social value of some sort
– God as you imagine or define that word
– creative channel, art, form of expression
– whatever you feel “called” to do
– what have I left out?
– your deeper subconscious, soul, depths of being, authenticity

These are in many ways “bigger” than you—and that’s the point of this talk. It is better to begin to open your explicit conscious mind to these influences. That doesn’t mean that you should try to completely know these domains—that’s really quite impossible. They’re much bigger than you. But you can begin to give them more thought, especially as to how they fit for your life.

Some of these elements you may come to re-think. Perhaps you don’t agree with what you thought you believed or believed in. Or have some questions about it. I’m just suggesting that at this phase of life, some wrestling with issues is a good thing to do, a good example to give your kids, a good thing to know you have done as you approach death.

Some of these elements you might want to re-prioritize. This or that may be validly part of you, or on the edge, or ready to drop away, or be re-defined. Re-inventing yourself—I love that phrase. Hey, if Madonna and some other movie stars can be said to be reinventing themselves, I don’t know, but it seems like an option we can all consider for ourselves if we want to. Or not, re-affirming our lives is fine, too. (For me, I’m pretty happy with my life, but there is a little creative dissatisfaction that keeps me fizzing around the edge, wrestling with some stuff, and I like maintaining a bit of that edge. Maybe I’ll settle down in a few years, but right now that works for me. But the point is that we can come to these positions more consciously and adapt them to fit whatever is up for us as individuals in our culture.)


Another aspect of spiritual awareness is the quasi-hypnotic suggestion that if you are more, if your unconscious is a source of creativity, if there are muses or angels helping, part of the idea of surrender is to open to inspiration. This is one of my missions—to encourage people to trust their inner subtle impulses about singing, dancing, writing poetry, however non-talented one may be. You aren’t doing it for others. You’re even a bit shy. And there are those who are a little less shy. The point is to open to getting excited, in bubbling up with energy or vitality. There aren’t really theories in ordinary psychology for this kind of enthusiasm—that word really refers to the spirit of a small-g-god coming through you, theos in enthusiasm—i.e., the muse.

In some spiritual traditions, chants and all are key—it has to do with the breath, the voice—the content of the words are less relevant or even irrelevant. It’s taking the emotions and expressing them fully—there isn’t that much of this. Some Black Gospel songs have that energy, which also come out in singing the blues. A few hymns, for some people, maybe. Moving, shaking, beating drums, there is a breadth of ways to channel the energies of pain or joy, fear or safety at last.

Teilhard’s Suggestion

Okay, now for something different: Just an imagination exercise. Teilhard de Chardin was a mystic living in the early 20th century, a Jesuit who on assignment as a paleontologist in a flash of insight saw that evolution—which was then considered by fundamentalists to be anti-religion—and Christianity could be reconciled: What if evolution was the way God got things done? His writings are interesting, but one of his lines is especially so: What if we are not physical beings who have spiritual experiences on occasion, but rather what if our lives are really that we are spiritual beings who happen to be having a physical experience?

This reversal of perception is the key, whether or not you agree with this idea. Whether or not you use religion as a framework, the question is whether you can recognize that your sense of self either does partake of something greater, or perhaps it could, or you might or might not want it to. But lots of people do attend to this and you might want to investigate your inclination to do so or not.

Teilhard’s suggestion is that there is more to you than your ordinary sense of what you are aware of, and interestingly, without knowing it, there are many correlations with various teachers from South India and other countries who believe that the mind is only the top level—the executive in some regards, to be sure— but only the top or outer-most level of consciousness.

The Uncanny

Another category that overlaps with what I brought up last week about the way people tend to discount the “three only things”— dreams, intuitions, and seeming coincidences— and that is the category of uncanny experiences. So without feeling obliged to share, you might review such events in your life. That would include experiencing something like a sense that someone who had died has re-appeared in more than memory; an out-of-the-body or near-death experience, more than an ordinary dream; a mystical experience, even mildly; a story of being saved from an accident in an unbelievable way; and so forth?

Then there are even more common but inexplicable things—dreams or strong hunches or visions that are telepathic or pre-cognitive. And before you raise your hands, please suggest some other phenomena I haven’t covered—even if you’ve only read about them, or been told by a friend.

Finally, who has had an experience that has deepened your faith, or confirmed something like spirituality even if it wasn’t withing the general sense of what is considered valid by your religion?
       Okay, with all those big ol’ question marks, how many?


Here’s another interesting principle in the development of self-awareness about spiritual things or meaning in life. Acceptance, surrender, letting go and letting be—it’s something you’ve been learning as you raise kids, stay married, live longer. There’s even a skill, in my thinking, even if it is a rather subtle one, just in refraining from trying, from doing. Not-doing. Letting the flow happen. Refusing to give in to the temptation to grab on, clutch, cling to, hold on, etc. 

It seems to me that the older we grow, the more we need to discover the balance of trying or effort and letting go and acceptance. More effort and conscious attention and will in some activities, more the other way in others.

Our culture has a bit too much try harder and never give up kind of talk, as if that’s a good thing, a wise thing. I think it’s good to have both categories available, not be fixed in either one, and able to reflect on the situation and see what’s needed.


For the Buddhists, there is something spiritual about giving up the effort to know completely, to be able to define, pin down, or come to a conclusion, and especially, giving up the illusion of having, not only property, but also status and the illusions of achievement. I think there is a good deal of wisdom in just this idea—I use the term “greedy-grasping,” as in trying to hold a butterfly in your hand so tightly that you crush it. This is related to letting go and surrending of course.


I may well revise this further in time, and with people’s feedback. There are related topics that can be explored—such as relating the axis of inspiration to the different chakras—and this is hinted at on the website lecture 6 on “deep maturity.”

I welcome feedback and suggestions.