Two Selves, Together and Apart: Practical Consequences

The “I” and the “Me”

William James long ago distinguished two selves, the “I,” the active, experiencing agent of the present moment, and the “me” or narrative self, the storied agent with a past and future.[1] It has been thought that they are naturally linked in experience and are most distinguished in terms of their temporal aspect.  

This is all quite simple on its face, but it becomes more complex when we consider the dynamics of adaptive development and change. Insofar as the narrative self (me) brings to each new moment a point of view, beliefs, and assumptions it preconditions how the “I” will experience and interpret the now. 

Some psychologists[2] refer to this conditioned way of seeing the world as being “embedded” in one’s own presuppositions and habits of thinking, feeling, and relating. That is, we’re embedded or centered in the subjective stream of experience, the living "I", which is constitutes the “me.” It's our common way of being, usually no problem. 

But what if our familiar ways of seeing and responding to the world include self-limiting beliefs about self, others, situations, and relationships? In that case, we may benefit from “dis-embedding” in order to see the situation with fresh eyes, more objectively, without the filters of legacy beliefs. 

Mindfulness as Dis-embedding

This brings us to the power of mindfulness meditation as a means of “de-centering” or “dis-embedding” ourselves. Neuroscience research and psychological science[3] has been learning more about how the “I” and “me” modes of self are activated in the brain as the physiological correlate of how we attend to things in our mental experience. 

From research by Farb et al (2007)

From research by Farb et al (2007)

So, although the “I” and “me” areas of the brain usually and by default function in a closely linked manner, the brains of those trained in mindfulness meditation work a bit differently: They exhibit a capacity to see the here-and-now with little or no influence from the “me.” They suspend the judgments usually provided by the "me."

Thus, for those who have tendencies to ruminate on negative or self-limiting thoughts and beliefs, and to generate negative or troubled moods (anxious or depressive) as a result, greater emotional freedom is purchased by the “mindfulness effect.”[4] Beyond mood issues, research also shows that mindfulness is able to enhance problem solving.  

In either case, this additional cognitive flexibility and emotional freedom enhances our potential to adaptive learn, problem solve, and cope with peak moments of challenge more resourcefully. And this explains why mindfulness training is finding its way into professional and personal development practices. 

Notes:

[1] In traditional grammar, we would call “I” the first person “subjective case” (the subject in a sentence) and “me” the first person “objective case” (the object in a sentence).

[2] See Attachment in Psychotherapy by David Wallin, Guilford Press: 2007. Also, Attachment-Based Psychotherapy by Peter Costello, APA: 2013.

[3] See Farb et al, 2007, Attending to the present: mindfulness mediation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference, in SCAN, (2) 313-322.

[4] See Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy by Segal, Williams & Teasdale, Guildford Press: 2013. Also, see Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bantam Books: 2013.