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Conquering the I-function

Angel Desai's picture

In “Re-imagining the Sacred Self,” any distinction between self and the I-function is dismissed as an illusion, based on scientific research and ancient Hindu scriptures. What was not discussed, however, was the possibility that this unified perception of an innate self may in fact be “conquered” through self-discipline. This belief stems from the teachings first elucidated in the Bhagavad Gita which tells the devotee that the individual who can master the self will reach a higher plane of understanding and contentment.[1] Of particular interest here is both the conceptualization of overcoming the self in a manner cognizant with practices outlined by spiritual authorities, and a general discussion of what, in the Vedic mind, constitutes the I-function. These topics will be treated in an attempt to gain a set of observations which may aid in the development of discourse surrounding the function of the self in neurobiological terms. Through this discussion, it is the ultimate hope that the purpose of striving towards the desired outcome as highlighted by Hindu belief systems will also become a point from which to understand the I-function and its place in the larger context of human behavior.

The Sixth Teaching of the Bhagavad Gita expresses the main content of discipline and the self around which contemporary Vedic traditions and direction stem from. In this dialogue, the narrator Lord Krishna states the reason behind this endeavor; “The self is the friend of a man/who masters himself through the self/ but for a man without self-mastery, the self is like an enemy at war.”[2] In essence, the text promotes the idea that tranquility of the mind will be achieved through a mastery of those elements which are part of daily human behavior. More specifically, it is an admonishment of practical activity which is habitually regulated by central pattern generators. A central tenet of Hindu philosophy that is underscored in the Gita harkens back to conquering the self through indifference towards worldly attachment. In neurobiological terms, this relates particularly to the application of the five senses and activity which an individual equates with their own identity. What is interesting here however, is the idea that what Lord Krishna denotes as “…diets and diversions, his physical actions, his sleeping and waking,” are really the products of various central pattern generators and not, as assumption would suggest, the I-function. In combination with Hindu belief, this idea implies that to master the self one must actually conquer physical processes in the brain that are governed by arrangements of neurons wired to produce certain reactions in a variety of circumstances. Using this new definition, the question of what this means in terms of self-mastery is introduced. A resolution to this dilemma might simply be an issue of semantics. If in fact, it is the interactions of neurons which must be tempered in order to reach a higher plane of existence, than perhaps that in itself is sufficient to alter what is nominally referred to as the I-function.

While such a clarification is helpful in attempting to achieve a better understanding of overcoming the self, it is also beneficial to examine contemporary Hindu practices involving mind-related discipline. For example, according to another text known as the Advaita Vedantin, the path to freedom from the bonds created by the self first requires an intimate familiarity with the individual’s ego.[3] More specifically, this line of reasoning posits the concept of a type of control over physical activity and sensory output that is habitual for most individuals. This theory is particularly interesting in the framework of this discussion, because it suggests that in order to overcome the self, power over broad central pattern generation must be attained. “The qualified karma yogi,” the Vedantin proceeds, “who is pure in heart, who has controlled his mind and his senses overcome his egoistic thinking and limited vision, [he]…remains free even though engaged in action.”[4] This model can be extended to neurobiological thought concerning a system which inhibits central pattern generation. More specifically, it is the motor cortex that provides a level of control by inhibiting the processes attached to the activity of central pattern generators.

The practices emphasized by Hindu tradition can now be viewed as an attempt to access the control that the motor cortex professes to have over pattern architecture, suggesting both a distinct connection between CPG’s and the motor cortex and more importantly, the possibility that discipline in the Vedic sense is in fact, a self-awareness of basic movement and more complex activities such as the desire for material gain. This line of thought is similar to some of the effects “talk therapy” is purported to have on its adherents. Just as Hindu practice advocates “[t]he process of accepting one's life [to] lessen one's desire for things to be different than they are,” so too does therapy aim to adjust expectations ingrained within an individual’s nervous system.[5] Ultimately, the Hindu practitioner must learn to access the mechanisms which somehow trigger the inhibition function of the motor cortex either through acceptance of things which are beyond an individual’s control, or through strict self-discipline. The question then might be how the motor cortex is able to inhibit those sensations which, in the Vedic frame of mind, are detrimental to discovering the true nature of the I-function. A further point of inquiry might also touch upon the method with which the motor cortex is able to filter out those central pattern generators that are barriers to self-exploration, and keep those that are necessary for survival. The Bhagavad Gita provides somewhat of an esoteric solution for this as well.


“Arjuna said ‘O Krishna, in this science of uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness by equality of vision…I do not perceive a permanent situation due to the minds flickering nature.’

Lord Krishna said ‘O mighty armed one, undoubtedly the mind is fickle [and] difficult to master; but it can be controlled by diligent practice, O Arjuna, and detachment from sense enjoyment.’”[6]

The mechanism of inhibition is described in the Gita as a general detachment from reality while simultaneously focusing solely on essential, ascetic values such as breathing, meditation, and restraint over the body. In scientific terms, this involves slowing the physical processes of the body down while concentrating exclusively on the workings of the mind. Perhaps this mode of existence acts as an overarching signal to the motor cortex to inhibit all but the most fundamental patterns of activity; similar to a potential evolutionary medium of survival in unfavorable conditions. It is clear then, that using Vedic beliefs to determine a path to overcoming the self offers some interesting possibilities for further discussion. While it has been established that central pattern generators and the motor cortex are the true sources for self-mastery, the question of the role of the I-function still remains. In “Re-imagining the Sacred Self,” the I-function was thought to be the Vedic equivalent of Atman, or the immortal Self. (Recall here that the Self in Hindu terms is equivalent to the Western idea of soul albeit on a scale which unifies universal consciousness with individual selves). With the information that has been compiled thus far in Biology 202, a new distinction must be considered. More specifically, it appears that the I-function may not be the Self but rather, a way to accept the Self. If the motor cortex inhibits central pattern generators that control superfluous action, then the I-function can be viewed as the endpoint or result of that effort. In more temporal terms, this somewhat divergent belief suggests that the I-function is not a fixed entity, but is something which must be developed with practice and time. This is not to say that the I-function does not exist for those who are not yet “self- aware,” however Vedic texts suggest that in order to access the I-function consciously, it is vital that certain central pattern generators be inhibited, and the self be mastered. The I-function in this sense represents ultimate self-understanding, and in Hindu ideology, an apparatus with which the eternal Self can be accessed.

This new definition offers a different perspective for imagining neural processes. However, it also raises more questions about the exact nature of the I-function in relation to other mechanisms in the brain. For example, the Neurobiology and Behavior class is now aware of the I-function by virtue of discussing and pondering the concept, however each individual in that course has a different belief as to what actually constitutes the I-function. If such a line of reasoning is valid, then the I-function and therefore self-understanding is different for everyone, a thought that appears to conflict with the Hindu definition of Self. This problem may be resolved by considering the I-function as a method to reach the immortal Self, something which the Gita in particular advocates may be different for each individual. This type of interpretation is now able to clearly point to the purpose of this discussion. Through detachment and discipline, central pattern generators which control certain activities can be overcome, but the rationale behind why this would be desired lies deeper. Being able to inhibit patterns of behavior in a Vedic sense is only useful insofar as it can lead to the I-function. Through self-enfoldment, the ultimate goal of Self or Atman realization can be achieved. While this is a uniquely Hindu (and in some ways Buddhist) desire, the prospect of being fully self-aware offers motivating opportunities for interested parties. However, this goal does come into question for some individuals. In a post responding to “Re-imagining,” Laura C states

“The prospect of reaching such a state is somewhat frightening to me, actually. It would seem that if one is so aware of these distinctions then it would be harder/impossible to create that cohesive/complete sense of self. And I can't help but feel that I'd never want to reach that state for fear of finding out that "that's all there is"...”[7]


This post contends that perhaps overcoming the self is not a desirable task, as it might detract from a complete sense of identity. While this issue belongs to each individual’s personal choice and belief, Verse 38 of the Gita does attempt to address this concern by stating that working towards self-mastery might actually provide unification between the self and the Self in lieu of individual consciousness ultimately being “…ruined like a fragmented cloud.”[8]



















[1] The Bhagavad Gita.

[2] The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), p.64

[3] “Shedding Light on the Atman,”, accessed 1 April 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “How Hinduism can help you cope with pain,”, accessed 1 April 2008.

[6] “The Science of Self-Realization,”, accessed 7 April 2008.

[7] Serendip. Serendip, accessed 7 April 2008.

[8] “The Science of Self Realization,”, accessed 7 April 2008.


Angel Desai's picture

A different perspective

As a practitioner, I often find myself in the same dilemma of reaching some point and finding that "that's all there is." But just because that is a fearful endpoint, does not mean
that it's necessarily untrue...Hindu scripture seems to indicate thatbreaching the final state, or complete unification with Self is thebdesired goal but doesn't really provide any information about the beyond. All that is clear is that suffering is a part of life, and to escape that endless cycle of suffering and rebirth, one would want to achieve an
"enlightened" state. I personally however, like your idea of reconciliation between the
self and the Self without actually sacrificing the self.
Paul Grobstein's picture

more on "conquering" the I-function

Still thinking about this ....

Yes, I think it makes sense to think of the I-function as continually changing and, even more importantly, as not "the Self but rather a way to accept the Self."

That though leaves still to be dealt with the issue of "eternal" or "immortal" Self, or "ulimate" self-understanding." If one were to reach those, one might indeed be disappointed to discover "that's all there is". So let me suggest a way to think about all this that does away with "eternal", "immortal", "ultimate" (which might not be what the Hindu is actually best translated as?). Suppose "self" is the characterization/story of who one is told by the I-function, what we think of ourselves as consciously, and "Self" is the totality of who one is at any given time (ie the story plus the unconscious plus the body plus ....). Then one might aspire to eliminate any conflicts between self and Self, ie to finding a story of oneself that incorporates all one is. And since "all that one is" changes over time for reasons that may have nothing to do with one's story of onself, one might in fact reach self-mastery at particular points in time and still have something to look forward to?

Among the things one learns to accept about "Self" is its continuing somewhat unpredictable change?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Hindu thought, the I-function, the self, and the Self

"the I-function may not be the Self but rather, a way to accept the Self" is a very interesting thought. Yep, "a new distinction needs to be considered". Interesting too is the issue of whether one would ever want to reach a state of complete unification of the self and the Self. Is it actually achievable? What would it require?