In his classic book ‘The Concept of Mind’ philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues against the concept of the ‘Ghost in the Machine’: the idea that our mental and physical worlds are two distinct realities which we vainly try to reconcile in illogical ways.
Ryle argues that there is no such thing as a ‘ghost in the machine’, some invisible ‘homunculus’, or an ‘I’ behind our behaviours, thoughts and dreams. We are our behaviour and our thoughts, and these are expressed through our bodies and physical reality.
This is a core concept often advocated in Eastern philosophies, but not very easy to grasp in our day to day lives, as it flies in the face of our common sense and perceived wisdom. Surely, there must be an unchangeable ‘I’ behind our ever shifting attitudes, values, motivation and behaviours?
However, if we are to be really honest to ourselves, would we be prepared to believe that there is a core self in us that never changes, an eternal pilot who skilfully and deliberately steers the whole machinery, but somehow acts in a completely detached way from it? And even if that elusive core was accessible to us, how does it help us to separate our daily thoughts and actions from some obscure entity which somehow moves the strings like a great puppet master?
I believe that this misguided obsession with finding our ‘true’ self behind our daily behaviours is a trap in which therapists often fall in their quest to help people remove the obstacles that are holding them back from realising their potential. Much time is wasted searching for the true cause of our current issues, instead of focusing on practical ways to resolve them.
There is something to be said that sometimes there is indeed a ‘root cause’ which once discovered, can help us understand and resolve our problems. But unless that cause is something tangible that can be identified, isolated and dealt with, returning to the great puppet master for the solution will not yield the desirable results.
The best solutions arise from the compound effect of us consistently focusing on the actions which align our behaviours to our values, attitudes and goals. Being able to describe our problem with clarity and honesty will do much more towards resolving it, rather than desperately searching for the wisdom of the ‘true self’ which mysteriously resides behind the phenomena.