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The pandemic of the separate self

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The pandemic of the separate self

DAN SIEGEL is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. Here he speaks to UDAY KUMAR about creating a kinder, more compassionate world, the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, and the other pandemics that are worthy of our attention right now during Covid times.



Q: Hi Dan. For the longest time I have wanted to reach out to you. Especially in the current times in which we are living, people are seeking so much help. If you could talk a little bit about your work, I think that would be a good place to get started.

DS: You know, the notion of bringing science into how we live our individual lives, how we live as families and communities, how we live as nations, and how we live as a human family on Earth, offers the opportunity to think deeply across many different disciplines of science, and then ask the questions: Why are we here at all on the planet? While we’re here, what can we do to try and create a kinder, more compassionate world?

I think everything I’ve been doing professionally has been to take my background as a scientist, who’s also trained as a physician, and then think deeply in my particular field of psychiatry – how the mind develops – so as to ask questions like, “How has the human mind been shaped by modern culture?” and “How might that be affecting our relationships with each other, and also our relationships with the broader world of living beings, which you can simply call nature?”

So, if I have to summarize all that scientific exploration, it resonates with ancient spiritual teachings, even though that’s not my background. It would be that the human mind constructs categories and concepts, and then uses words and symbols to say things like, “Who are you?” “Who am I?” “What’s the Self ?” Our modern culture has created an atmosphere of knowledge that’s probably very different from how we originally evolved to live in community. In many ways, it has us living in isolation from one another – not just because we’re in a viral pandemic, but because there is a pandemic of misunderstanding of what the Self is.



If you ask almost anyone, anywhere in the world (I had the chance to do this in the olden days when we could travel), “Where is your Self?”, they will point to their body. Sometimes they point to their heart, sometimes they point to their head, but they’re pointing to their body. What I always find fascinating about that is that the “Self ” is the center of gravity of your identity, of your experience, and it also shapes your experience of belonging. If you think that the Self is only in your body, then you’re going to be very vulnerable to feeling disconnected, like an entity that can be separated from everything else.

That view of the separate Self, the “solo Self,” is a teaching of modern times. Sometimes it is very subtle, and sometimes it’s more extreme, especially with social media. In either case, it’s very toxic. I think the lie of the separate Self is making us feel alone and lonely. It’s making individuals and families somehow feel like they’re isolated. Then, in the larger community, there is an incredible sense of anxiety, depression, despair, and even increasing suicidality, that’s made worse with the viral pandemic. When you’re trying to live a life as if the Self is only in your body, then everything is revolving around you, as if you are a noun rather than an unfolding verb-like set of processes.

Even if you think about Heartfulness and the feeling of love, if you view the Self as a noun-like separate thing, you will think, “Well, are you going to love me, and am I going to love you?” rather than thinking there is a universal life force of love that comes through the heart, through the body, and connects us with other people, the planet, and nature. When you live that way, it’s very different. It’s more like candlelight. If you see someone whose candle wick is not lit, you lean over and light it; it doesn’t take anything away from the light of your flame. Instead, people live more like they are coins: “If I give you my coin, then I’m not going to have it anymore, so I’m not going to give it to you.

”There’s a big difference between seeing yourself as a verb-like unfolding event, like the flame of a candle, and seeing yourself as an entity, like a coin, in which case you say, “Well, I’m going to hold on to mine.” So it isn’t just, “Well, who cares if you think the Self is in the body,” because that makes you think you’re a noun, and you treat love like a commodity to hold like a coin rather than release like a flame.

Q: From a scientific viewpoint, you have arrived at the wisdom of spirituality. It’s a fascinating explanation for me, because I come from the other end of the spectrum where I have been taught that my Self is part of a larger universal Self. There are all these individual Selves, but there is uniformity because we are all connected with the same Source. And that aids the feeling of pervasive brotherhood, pervasive love. From that standpoint, love is more like, “I don’t love, but I become love.” It’s my state of being that I radiate. In Heartfulness, the whole idea is that this essence of love is what you experience in meditation, as a result of Transmission. At the end of the day, the loneliness and lack of connection people are feeling arise because of the inability to feel connected with one another. And I read a lot about that in your work.

You mentioned the pandemic, so I am tempted to ask: Amongst all the negatives we’ve heard from the pandemic, have you seen any positives, any green shoots? What should we take away from this time?




Our modern culture has created an atmosphere
of knowledge that’s probably very different
from how we originally evolved to live in community.
In many ways, it has us living in isolation from one another
– not just because we’re in a viral pandemic,
but because there is a pandemic of misunderstanding of what the Self is.


DS: There’s a very powerful song by the songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen called Anthem. There’s a verse in that song that goes like this:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

What Cohen was offering us was the idea that there is no such thing as perfection; bringing the light, bringing the love in comes from the challenges we have. I think the pandemic has revealed many cracks. Now, how are we approaching this moment as a humanity, where a virus has gone around the world and shut down our human lives in many ways? There’s a concern over how we’re going to do it. The pandemic is ending lives and also ending livelihoods, and I’m sure we’ll have many surges to come.

I think the way we deal with the viral pandemic has to do with our cooperation. I was in the state of Texas at the moment when the governor said, “I’m going to remove all restrictions and regulations about mask-wearing, because you individual citizens should determine your own fate.” When I heard this, I thought it’s exactly speaking to what the United States of America has been accused of by anthropologists – the most individualistic place on the planet. That statement is such a violation of what a community needs to do in collaboration to realize that it isn’t just that your fate is in your own hands. No, it’s in our collective identity as a collective “we.” So, what you could call “linear thinking” rather than “systems thinking” from a scientific point of view is the vulnerability of the viral pandemic.



Those four pandemics – lack of cooperation
in dealing with a viral pandemic, social injustice
and racism, misinformation and polarization,
and environmental destruction – are all either caused or
made worse by the fifth pandemic,
which is the pandemic of the separate Self.


There are several other pandemics that are worth mentioning. One is the pandemic of racism and social injustice, where people are mistreated for prejudicial notions of who’s the in-group and who’s the out-group or not even human. And so we see lots of murders of people of color in the United States. Let’s just name racism and social injustice as a pandemic all around the world.

Then there’s the pandemic of misinformation, and the polarization that’s happening in little bubbles of knowledge. That also comes from people having the very limited view of a separate Self, the solo Self. It’s true of racism, too, because you can have a solo Self that’s plural – “Only people with skin color like mine, beliefs like mine, nationalities like mine.”




We have to chart a new path forward,
leaning on indigenous teachings and spiritual teachings,
so that when we weave them together
with science they teach us to be of service.

There’s a fourth pandemic of environmental destruction, where human identity has excessively differentiated itself from our place in nature. So, instead of the teachings you spoke about, of being a part of a larger whole, you think, “Oh, we’re humans, and we’re better than the rest of the species. Let’s treat Earth like a trash can. Who cares!”

So those four pandemics – lack of cooperation in dealing with a viral pandemic, social injustice and racism, misinformation and polarization, and environmental destruction – are all either caused or made worse by the fifth pandemic, which is the pandemic of the separate Self.



Of course, the viral pandemic is leading to so much suffering. It’s terrible. At the same time, it’s a crack in the system that we need to see not just as a crisis and an emergency, but also as an opportunity to reimagine our understanding of the mind, how the human mind has constructed a solo Self view of identity that restricts our belonging. We can use this as a moment to say, “We can’t continue with business as usual.” If we can shut down travel and all of the polluting so rapidly because of a viral pandemic, why not take that same approach to the other pandemics? Let’s name what the deep problem really is, which either makes it worse or makes it happen in the first place. It is the lie of the separate Self – the toxic, even lethal lie of the separate solo Self.

What is the good news? The human mind, which constructs identity, has created what Einstein called an optic delusion of consciousness and the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson calls an illusion. Whether it’s a psychotic belief or an erroneous belief, or a mistaken perception, either way it’s wrong. We need to listen to these scientists and say, “Okay, if it’s wrong, and we’ve been living a collective human life here on Earth with wrong beliefs and perceptions, why not take a deep breath during the pandemic and take this opportunity to realize the true nature of the Self, which is not just in the body. It’s actually an inner Self.”

But you also have a relational self that is connected to others, even people who don’t look like you, and other species. We’re a part of all of nature. So, as terrible as the pandemic is, it’s a moment of pause in which we can say, “We cannot go on with business as usual.” We have to chart a new path forward, leaning on indigenous teachings and spiritual teachings, so that when we weave them together with science they teach us to be of service.

We have spirituality, science, and service. And we can each contribute to that in many different ways. I think there needs to be a turning, which the great Joanna Macey (a beautiful teacher who is now 92) talks about as the Great Turning. What she means by that is a turning of the way we see how we’re conducting our lives so that it becomes regenerative of the world, and compassionate instead of just competitive. If you want to compete with something, let’s compete with the world’s challenges, so that when we beat the challenges everybody benefits.

Q: My teacher, Daaji, says that while survival of the fittest may apply in the overall scheme of survival, human beings evolve only through cooperation.

DS: Totally. We’ve forgotten that.

To be continued.


Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL




Daniel Siegel

Dr. Siegel is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, for the development of mindsight, insight, empathy, and integration in individuals, families, and communities. He is the author of five New York Times... Read more

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