There's a lot of talk about self-realization in religious circles, mostly of the Eastern variety. The India-based spiritual group that I was a member of for many years promoted the idea, "self-realization before God-realization."
In the West, self-realization has much more of a secular connotation. Regardless, many people have a simplistic notion of the "self" that supposedly is to be known via meditation, mystic practice, prayer, psychotherapy, or some other means.
Modern neuroscience has demolished the fantasy that the essence of a human being is something open to view under the right circumstances, like a jewel wrapped in layers of cloth that only requires an unveiling to perceive.
Yesterday I came across a fascinating article by Louis Cozolino, Ph.D., a psychology professor and author of "The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy." Title: It's a Jungle in There: Our Brains are Not As Evolved as We Might Think.
Well, since I possess (or am) a male brain, I've known from direct experience that "highly evolved" isn't an apt description of much of my neuroanatomy, as shown below.
But Cozolino's piece contains some fascinating information about how much of the brain in both men and women is a lot more animalistic, and functionally inaccessible to our conscious awareness, than most people realize.
The article is about nine pages long when printed out. It's well worth taking the time to read, though. For those who want a synopsis of the main points, here's some quotes that I found particularly interesting.
The more recently emergent aspects of our brains—which give us astonishing powers of thought, logic, imagination, empathy, and morality—must share skull space with the ancient brain equipment that we've inherited from our mammalian and reptilian forebears over the past several million years. So even today, one of the most basic human challenges is integrating and coordinating the complex and highly specialized systems that comprise our brains.
...That so much neural processing occurs outside of conscious awareness and that executive decisions at multiple levels can oppose one another lay the groundwork for considerable inner conflict.
...In an image suggested by the British cultural philosopher and management consultant Charles Hampden-Turner, the human brain is an anachronistic menagerie, which confronts the psychotherapist with the challenge of treating a human, a horse, and a crocodile attempting to inhabit the same body.
...Our cortex allows us far greater response flexibility than our more primitive cousins have: we can think things through, rather than respond instinctively. But thinking through options takes time, and a speedy, unthinking reflex is sometimes more adaptive, more likely to save us from danger, than the ability to consider all the options. In the interest of survival, we've retained many primitive responses and automatic subcortical processes.
...The brain somehow creates the illusion that we're living in the present moment and are acting with free will based on conscious deliberation, but extensive evidence shows that this isn't the case. So, when we think we're directly experiencing what's going on around us, our conscious awareness is primarily the result of what's already occurred within our brains—fully 90 percent of the input to the cerebral cortex comes from internal neural processing.
...Once our brains have been shaped by fear to perceive, think, and act in specific ways, we tend to remain in cognitive and emotional ruts that are reinforced by what we perceive as our continuing survival needs. In other words, an agoraphobic person functions as if the following were true: "I haven't set foot outside my house in 10 years because of my agoraphobia. I'm still alive, which must be because I haven't set foot outside my house in 10 years." The mind's internal logic is self-perpetuating, making it difficult for us to find answers that differ from the ones we already know. Our chance of changing in positive ways rests on getting input from others, because our brains are shaped by others from birth and continue to be so, but our fear causes us to mistrust people and their differing perceptions.
...We carry within our skulls the entire history of the brain's evolution, from its primitive origins in the fishes, up through the early and later mammals, to the unimaginably complex organ of today's Homo sapiens.
...Perhaps for the first time in history, we can begin to get some sense of the vast, interconnected web that joins every human brain on earth to every other. This is a cause for awe and skepticism—awe at the power and potential of our collective cerebral tapestry, skepticism about what we imagine we know. After all, we're still only animals.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."
Well, that's highly doubtful.
Yet even if it were true, every human being who has any sort of experience is accomplishing this via a physical brain that, as noted in a quote above, processes most of what we come to be aware of outside of conscious awareness.
And what's much more likely is that we indeed are "only animals" who have evolved an ability to think of ourselves as having passed beyond our animal nature. This is belied, however, by the neuroscientific understanding of the brain's primitive parts.
Admittedly, the triune brain theory (reptilian, ancient mammalian, modern human) has been superseded by more accurate and sophisticated models. But the fact remains that whatever our "self" may be, it isn't something simple, obvious, supernatural, or transparently evident to awareness.
So this makes traditional religious/spiritual notions of self-realization laughably out of touch with reality. Whatever we are, it isn't what we intuitively consider ourselves to be -- often with ridiculously excessive confidence.
If somebody claims to be self-realized, or says he knows how this can be achieved, ask him to show you a "self." He won't be able to do it, just as no supposedly God-realized person ever has been able to demonstrate the existence of a "God."