Self can mean many different things depending on the context or system of thought. When we refer to our self, we tend to mean something along the lines of the dictionary definition of the word: a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others. It is also considered to be the source of our actions and thoughts, and to provide us with a specific personality or individuality. Needless to say, none of that quite holds up to scrutiny.
Generally, we can say there are two selves: the self, and the Self. The self with a small ‘s’ tends to be equated with the ego, while the Self, big ‘S’, is equated with the Higher Self, True Self, or Witness. But to be more accurate, we should distinguish between the self and the ego, and acknowledge that the Self isn’t strictly a Self at all.
Ego v self
In psychology the ego and the self are seen as different entities with different functions. The self arises first, the ego coming along later in our development. The self is the basic sense you have of being located in a body in a particular place with sensations and feelings. It is always embodied, or rooted in your awareness of your physical being.
The ego develops gradually through childhood and is a mental structure, created in relation to your sense of self. The ego is what you think about your self. It is the ego that comes up with the stories you tell yourself about who you think you are: I am a man, or woman; I am a salesman; I am happy; I am your friend, and so on. So the ego becomes what we think of as the ‘I’.
This can cause problems if we become too identified with the ego at the expense of the self. If the ego develops in a way that denies too much of the reality of the self, the body and its feelings, we lose touch with our deeper selves. This creates a condition called narcissism, where there is a strong ego but a weak sense of self.
Ideally, a healthy ego is grounded and connected with a strong sense of self. We have a good grasp on who we are and a balanced view of reality. Who we think we are matches who we feel ourselves to be, and others perceive us this way too.
The Self has a multitude of names which may mean different things within each belief or thought system. But generally speaking, the Self is the root of your awareness. It is pure consciousness or emptiness. In reality, it has no content, no form. It is what enables you to be aware of yourself, of everything around and in you. It is totally impersonal, which is why I feel it isn’t strictly accurate to call it a Self.
Other terms for the Self include: the Higher Self, the Transpersonal Self, the Pure Self, the True Self, the Witness, Buddha Nature, Buddha Mind, Big Mind (Zen), Non-Self, Atman, the Transcendental Self, the Anterior self, and I-I.
I-I is Sri Ramana Maharshi’s term for the Witness, demonstrating how consciousness witnesses or reflects the small self, or ego. The anterior self comes from Integral Theory and is their term for the Pure Self which shines through the proximate self (the subjective self experienced as ‘I’; as opposed to the distal self which is the objective sense of me and mine).