Featured Article: The Integral Self System Model and Sustainable Leadership

Feature Articles / January 2011

S. Suresh Kumar


Self system models have a great bearing on our personality, perceptions and personal leadership abilities and approaches. The usual models are contingent on subjective systems based on a localized self awareness and sense of the self as bodily consciousness with its limitations. This inevitably reflects on our leadership styles and self development and management profiles. Studies in cognitive sciences and psychology reveal that the localized self is a virtual entity formed as part of our learning and further that it is possible to perceive and develop a more objective view of the self based on an integral self perception and extended self consciousness. This helps one to overcome the limitations and predilections of a self-other or subject-object perspective that leads to discriminatory worldviews, based on a differentiating self concept with all its constraints, when it comes to leadership, governance systems and management philosophies.


Cognition literature and consciousness studies and research in psychology have thrown much light on self systems and models. Jamesian stream of consciousness approaches are well known in psychology. There are studies which point out that self consciousness is essentially bodily consciousness. Some of the recent literature in cognitive sciences based on the work of neuroscientists see mind as an epiphenomenon of brain biology and its neural circuitry. The earlier Cartesian theatre of dualism is being largely rejected in favor of an embodied self, based on reductionist and materialistic approaches. While Descartes held that the thinking self, and hence mind, differs from the physical self, the modern view tends to view mind as not a separate entity. At the same time purely cognitive and computational models have not been able to explain the phenomenology of experience or the quality of feelings that form an essential part of any consciousness. The many reports on altered consciousness states arising from Eastern meditation that have started appearing in mainstream journals like Science and Scientific American have also questioned the wisdom of purely embodied and physical or material views of consciousness and self models that come from materialistic and  physicalist reductionism based on brain biology and neurology.

Stream of Consciousness

It was William James who described self psychologically, based on his stream of consciousness approaches. He found that consciousness is characterized by self generated thoughts and self-referential images coupled to bodily consciousness and space time perspectivity. There is subjective awareness and this subjectivity is pervasive in that it affects our world views and perceptions. There is a nucleus and a buffer or fringe which regulates entry to the buffer. Fringe consciousness has been the subject of much study and discussions because of its importance and relevance in implicit learning and understanding and unconscious cognition, which are important in developing self consciousness and concepts. Some authors have tended to dispute that fringe consciousness has any role though they subscribe to the importance of implicit and unconscious processes in self systems and consciousness.

We tend to develop views about ourselves from what others say about us or what we think others are thinking, both explicitly and implicitly. We are also aware of embodied and disembodied aspects of consciousness despite theories that third person accounts of a material self can fully describe consciousness and self. Phenomenological models of consciousness are, however, asserting that the metaphysical or disembodied self with its first person accounts do play an important function by providing the substrate for the third person accounts of the physical and embodied self notions.

We know from experience that the qualitative aspects related to phenomenology are not like other functional aspects of consciousness like discrimination, learning, attention, executive actions, and cognitive decision making, etc. While the latter can be reduced to brain networks and biology, the phenomenological aspects are not so amenable to physicalist views. This has been referred to as the hard and soft problems—by authors like Charmers—which mean that some aspects of our self are truly like a soul or mind as we have known it from ancient times, with its disembodied, expansive, non-localized and metaphysical nature. What we call embodied self arises from bodily consciousness, since we refer all our experiences to our body due to our space time perspective and discrimination or differentiation as the subject. This serves a function as part of our executive, cognitive and meta cognitive functions related to attention, learning, memory and conscious or unconscious actions related to explicit and implicit tasks and acts.

The Conscious and the Unconscious

The unconscious mind has a great influence on the conscious mind. It was Freud who first spoke of the unconscious and postulated his theories based on the categories like ego, superego and the subconscious or the unconscious. Ego may correspond to our embodied self and the super ego to the metaphysical substratum together with the unconscious. The part Freud referred to as the Id is the subconscious, which in modern parlance may denote the ancient brain structures in the brain stem and associated hippocampal brain regions. These are the seat of memories, impulses, primary responses, automatic action and some implicit functions. Of course this has a great influence on both the unconscious self and the conscious self. But Freud’s views have become somewhat archaic in modern perspective and terminology, as well as from many recent study findings which favor categories like the conscious and the unconscious self. However the essence of Freud still carries over through the conceptual understanding about the primacy of the unconscious with respect to the two.

The conscious mind is often under the control and influence of the unconscious though implicitly while the conscious mind exerts its influence over the unconscious self explicitly. But studies have revealed that even apparently conscious decisions made after cognitive analysis and meta cognitive actions is still predetermined by the unconscious. This has emerged from neurological studies which have revealed what has come to be called as noetic feelings or feeling of knowing where we unconsciously `know ` the answers before we are consciously aware of it. This has been referred to as unconscious thinking or blinking by some like Gladwell. Though it may not be so emphatic still evidence points to the implicit influence of the unconscious in our conscious decision making process such that we are governed by predeterminism or absence of free will as we know it. Neuroscientist have called it as brain based determinism or destiny which revives references to ancient theories like the ones related to fate and destiny or the Indian Karma theory and its other antecedent, contemporary or later Eastern and western versions.

Determinism, Free Will and the Self Models

We know that brain stem circuitry determines the impulse based actions of animals. They have limited intelligence and learn actions in a mechanistic manner such that there is not much evidence for free will in them. But human beings are apparently capable of discriminative logic and wisdom based actions, which make them capable of evidencing free will. But this is only an apparition as neurological evidence suggests since we are also bound by brain based destiny despite possessing higher functions that reside in the prefrontal cortical regions that differentiate us from animals. Our meta cognitive abilities apart, we are still controlled by the unconscious over which we have limited conscious control. There is the hand of destiny that seems to guide us. This has profound implications for our self models since we tend to see ourselves as part of a larger scheme or action in universe, or yajna as it is referred to in Sanskrit. The whole of nature is involved in action. We are an essential part of it, however insignificant may be our apparent abilities and roles as we may perceive. Moreover we cannot blame us or others for many of the happenings, behaviors of people and events around us. This has a mellowing effect on our self-other differentiating and discriminating notions. We cannot put ourselves at the center of the universe as our embodied self notions would prompt us to, based on bodily consciousness or what could be called ego-consciousness.

Assumptions of an unbridled free will put great stress on a subject-object perception as part of the internalized self systems and models based on a differentiating self. That is a very functional model where we take the onus for performance and hence right or wrong actions, success and failure situations or good and bad behavior. We develop notions of being the perfect or correct human being and self model which in turn creates great tension and mental obligations because no one can be so perfect or correct in real life. But with a world view based on free will alone the self model is bound to put constraints that flow from stressfulness and mental conditions under duress.

But when we think that our self is part of a larger destiny and action in universe we cannot take all the responsibility on our shoulders for our outcomes, and we cannot expect that only good will come to us and everything can be controlled by us nor put ourselves at the center of action. We have less to complain about and more to rejoice since nature with all its powers and bounties is part of us in realizing the outcomes. We tend to abandon ourselves to a larger intelligence since predetermines and destiny implies that. Destiny is also not a bad word after all, since there is a Relationality in nature and interconnectedness which is apparent and proven. The well known Mach principle in physics and philosophy is based on interrelatedness which gives rise to phenomena like inertia. This principle had its influence on both relativity theories of Einstein and quantum theories of Schrödinger. The dead-alive cat paradox of the latter is famous and it speaks about probable or stochastic states with superpositions of probabilities and entanglement in the quantum state. We do not see this since the very act of observation or measurement causes the quantum entangled state to decohere and collapse to a single state. Hence, despite all our assumptions about free will we cannot observe or measure and know the true state of a system, particularly at a subtle or microcosmic level.

Uncertainty and Fuzzy World Views

This uncertainty or indeterminism characterizes all our experience and that is derived from predeterminism and its opportunities. It is not as if everything is fixed for life. Things are bound by probabilities and the outcomes depend on the system evolution based on Relationality, and how we see, observe or measure and perceive it. That is the power of the future on the present. If our self models are based on notions of time in terms of the usual present, past and future tenses, which are reflected in our languages and thinking patterns, then we are not aware of the power of indeterminism or uncertainty where the future outcome influences the present and is influenced by it. This self model is different from the one in which we see time in terms of past flowing into present and future, and using our free will we tend to project the past into future, and thus become victims of our own perceptions based on experience and its constraints.

We have images in mind that come from our experiences in life as part of the learning process and that reinforce our subjective self notions and self other world views. We tend to put world into water tight compartments of right and wrong, win-lose, good and bad. World is not black and white; it is fuzzy or grey in nature with shades of both polarities. The yin-yang philosophy has inspired fuzzy logic in science. This has led to more efficient washing machines and instruments through technology. So it is more practical and sensible to see the world in terms of both good and bad and right and wrong, since what is good is also bad as situations and perspectives or observational aspects and measurement yardsticks change. In a world of constant change that is inevitable. Failure is many times a stepping stone to success and problems contain within them the seeds of solutions. That is what positive thinking is about, as the writings of influential authors like Deepak Chopra and Robin Sharma reveal.

Process philosophers like Russell and Whitehead stress the importance of overcoming the self models and systems of thought based on subject-object dichotomy and its process limitations in the context of becoming where emptiness is not hollowness but the promise of space for action and evolution, in line with some Eastern Philosophies. We sometimes say that a cup half full is also half empty or vice versa, which is considered as a positive outlook. This comes from self models that are non-dualistic and neutral, overcoming the constraints of self-other divergences. In science De Broglie waves are famous and depict wave-particle duality, though in fact this tells more about non-dualistic nature where a particle is also a wave and guided by uncertainty. Uncertainty derives from the fact that theory determines measurement as Einstein had put it and which in terms of self models means we are what we think we are. This is not entirely in our control due to the indeterminism that Relationality brings in. That is the basis for the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg in physics. The lack of reductionism in nature has prompted Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics.

The Mystic Self

Hence, self cannot be reduced to its embodied aspect or body consciousness and related neural circuitry in brain. There are many parts that are delocalized and metaphysical in nature and characterized by uncertainty and Relationality. Space time itself is built into our intuition through our experience and sensory images and is not reality. The world that we view as objective is actually subjective, contingent on our observational status and sensory or measuring capabilities and conditions. Studies have revealed that there is a default network in the brain that causes subjectivity and self consciousness of a localized nature with its self centeredness and self generated imagery and thinking with self referential thoughts. That self is a virtual entity and a disparate system in the brain with the involvement of many parts and centers and mental imagery of a crude and approximate nature with all its subjective awareness.

The organism has two modes of the system—the ergotropic action mode and the tropotrophic receptor mode. In the former, the self system is localized and subjective in nature and more embodied with its perception-emotion continuum of experience. But in the receptor mode the organism is capable of a more balanced and objective perspective that comes from a non-localized self system and model. Studies with Eastern meditation reported in mainstream science and Strawson`s empirical accounts show that it is possible to attain oceanic and ecstatic states of consciousness in a mystic self realization where the organism is entangled with the cosmos and one with the world and nature. Such pure consciousness states in meditative mentation lead to a sense of an extended self. These are nonintentional states. As the existential philosophers like Heidegger put it intentionality is what causes phenomenology and action. Hence, in a receptor mode the self experiences its real nature, since it has been found from studies that subjectivity is inhibited in altered consciousness that Eastern meditation provides. These are accompanied by specialized breathing techniques as in sleep where the breath moves more up-down in the body than in-out as in wakeful states.

The interesting part is that though the brain centers linked to conscious states are silenced there is evidence of greater awareness in such meditation, which helps the organism in perceiving along a perception-meditation continuum rather than emotional one. This leads to greater self reflection and introspection and a larger perspective of the truth. The objective self is an extended one, while the subjective self is a more localized one, which is inhibited through sleep-breathing techniques of Eastern meditation. The brain centers that control breathing are also closely linked to the ones involved in emotions and its subjectivity.

Conclusion—Relation to Indian Metaphysics

All of this has great implications for self systems related to not only leadership, self development and management, but also to education, ecology, economics and humanities in general. This will definitely impact on governance in various fields, since ultimately it all boils down to the self and its perception. It was Hume who held that self cannot be known by introspection, since there is a lot of subjectivity in our perception of the self. This was against the Lockean view of sensing self from sensory inputs in its raw state based on the assumption that one can sense objective reality. The philosopher Kant also held that reason and intellect as well as the senses are incapable of a priori analytic knowledge, which meant that the objective reality or truth as such or the thing-in-itself in an abstract sense is not knowable.

Positivist philosophers like Wittgenstein, influenced by quantum mechanics, also hold similar views. According to him objective reality is not knowable since the minute you measure or observe a system or thing it is altered. But wisdom and practice from ancient times and techniques like yogic and sazen meditation with methods for breath and vital energy internalization processes tell us scientifically that it is possible to have glimpses of reality in meditative mentation and its altered consciousness states. Such perceptions of self and reality inform our self systems and models and world views significantly with importance and implications for sustainable leadership and management based on expanded perspectives and views of a larger nature from the top. Materialistic limitations and physicalism does not affect holistic views nor can put limitations through reductionism.

The metaphysical experience of a larger inner self is the true measure of success and potential in essence, since more macroscopic and richer external aspects spring from expanded self systems. The potentiality of the unmanifest self is known in pure consciousness states, and that is the field of all potentialities, like the quantum state. In fact there are scientific discussions on quantum consciousness and universal mind and spirit. The Indian concept of Brahman as the cosmic Being and Param Atma as the universal spirit have inspired self actualization concepts of management theorists like Maslow. In his famous paradigm of the need hierarchy, self actualization needs are the highest and deepest and subtlest. They come from the realization of the potentialities of an inner self and its oneness with the universal. These concepts are derived from Indian metaphysical notions evidently, particularly those related to the ideal of king-philosopher or yogi-commissar. These are attained by self realization and knowing the oneness of self and spirit. That leads to intrinsic need satisfaction and rewards.

One no longer longs for external praise, acclaim and extrinsic credits. Yogic wisdom and Sufism have profiled success as reaching up to your inner self and its field of silence and stillness, which is also the field of knowledge and power. One learns to operate through the action or yajna in nature, as a team player. One is happy or content in one’s karma and its illusory fields or Maya, since having the power to refine the karma through his/her breath and its internalization is the essence of free will concepts in Indian metaphysical traditions. In fact quantum mechanics or quantum consciousness is a scientific or modern day rendition of some of these ancient concepts—the ancient concepts of Mother Earth and its bonds with us. These are very relevant in ecology, climate change management, and leadership philosophies for sustainable development.

About the Author

Suresh Kumar is currently working as a scientist and technical adviser to the Director, National Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, a unit of CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), a premier public-funded institution for civilian research in India. He has graduated from the Management Department of the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty of the prestigious IIT Madras, in 1978, after his graduation in Engineering. His interests include management systems and models of leadership, cognitive sciences and self systems in governance, management philosophy and science policy.

He has many publications, paper presentations and lectures in these areas. He has also been instrumental in producing internal papers and reports based on science of science studies and policy research related to areas affecting S&T, and its strategic planning, management, and development, in a wide range of technical and governance areas. Presently his interests are focused on self systems, concepts of consciousness and mind models in the area of cognitive sciences. ssk54in@yahoo.co.in

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