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Passing from Self-Other to Us
Jul 1, 2001

Therapists deal with emptiness, meaninglessness, and loneliness.(1) Patients say that emptiness is a painful and discomforting subjective experience. Lonely people often speak of feeling empty. One in four Americans are “chronically lonely.“ One in four French people are frequently lonely, and 54 percent have experienced loneliness.(2)

“The subjective experience of emptiness represents a temporary or permanent loss of normal relations of the self with object-representations, that is, with the world of inner objects that fixates intrapsychically the significant experiences with others and constitutes a basic ego identity and, therefore, a stable integrated self and a stable integrated world of internal objects.”(3) Existential psychotherapists call this “existential isolation,”(4) an unbridgeable gulf between self and other, a separation from the world. Yalom asserts that even fully satisfying relationships with other people, complete self-knowledge, and a sense of wholeness cannot overcome this feeling.

Fromm agrees that existential isolation is inevitable: “The awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate disunited existence an unbearable prison … The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is indeed the source of all anxiety. To be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world-things and people-actively; it means that the world can invade me without my ability to react.”(5)

Yalom writes: “A defamiliarization occurs when meanings are wrenched from objects, symbols disintegrate, and one is torn from one's moorings of ‘at homeness.'”(6) This is true, for the two concepts most closely related to emptiness and existential isolation are meaninglessness and alienation.

We have self-knowledge only when other things have meaning, and relations with them when their meaning is understood. Reinhardt describes the alienation caused by the loss of meaning as: “Something utterly mysterious intervenes between him and the familiar objects of his world, between him and his fellowmen, between him and all his ‘values.' Everything which he had called his own pales and sinks away, so that there is nothing left to which he might cling. What threatens is ‘nothing,' and he finds himself lost in the void.”(7)

Even if this is inevitable, Yalom still asks: “How does one shield oneself from the dread of ultimate isolation?” In his view: “One may take a portion of the

isolation into oneself and bear it courageously or resolutely.“ His second solution is relationship, for it alleviates-but does not dispel-the sense of loneliness and basic isolation. Psychology stops here. Said Nursi, author of the Risale-i Nur and one familiar with emptiness and alienation, goes further.(8)But how was this feeling of emptiness initially caused? Kernberg provides the most useful clue: 

What does he mean?

Internalization of Self and Universe

No person begins life with a tabula rasa.(10) “The infant is equipped with basic feelings, as well as the basic ability to communicate them through expressive-motor mechanisms that are mainly concentrated in the face system.”(11)

A baby's existing senses must be developed. According to Said Nursi, animals are born already perfected, whereas we need years to acquire the same skills and knowledge.(12) He concludes that a person's innate duty is “to be perfected through learning and to proclaim his worship of God and servitude to Him through supplication.”

For the first 6 months, infants live in an “undifferentiated” world, an “us” system formed with the mother, and are unaware of any “self” and “other.”(13) But they are not passive, for they perceive and respond to stimulants as a “we.” This engenders a strong sense of security, like being a drop in the ocean (ocean feeling). “Self” and “other” are seen as not completely distinct, but as closely joined-mainly biologically-within one system.(14)

When they are around 2 years old, infants become more aware of themselves and thus of duality. The first thing encountered is the “self.” Through this developing “I,” they gradually acquire an awareness of “self” and “other,” and divide the world accordingly.

Internalization and self- and object-representation formation now begin. Children experience countless interactions, mainly with the mother, and begin

representing their self and objects, as well as the self-image and the object-image.(15) When they are around 2.5 years old, they enter the “identification” stage and begin internalizing their own and the other's image and function.(16) “Just as the world settles in the child's inner world, so the child's inner world starts to become established in the world.”(17) This stage ends with the onset of puberty.

People, being alive and conscious, have relations with all things. Living but unconscious beings, such as birds and trees, also have relations but are unaware of them-only consciousness “illuminates” life and makes the being aware of its own existence.(18)

The sentence “a human being is able to move through the rooms of his house through his consciousness and mind, which are the light of life,”(19) means that we can internalize ourselves. We become aware of our existence through consciousness and mind, and come to know our spirit, consciousness, body, intellect, senses, and feelings. Conceptualizing and reaching conclusions about ourselves and values, we gain a “self” whose image is reflected and represented in our spirit's mirror.

But we do not stop here, for “that conscious and animate being may go in spirit as though as a guest to those worlds [and].… those worlds too come as guests to his mirror-like spirit by being reflected and depicted there.”(20) Our consciousness and intellect convey the things with which we have relations to the spirit's mirror, where they are reflected and their representations are formed. Thus each person becomes “a universal within particularity, and a world within ... insignificance,”(21) a being who internalizes everything to understand His Names and experience His bounty. Each person first was given life, then consciousness, and so gained the comprehensive nature needed to “understand and take pleasure in the Divine Names.”(22) Such comprehensiveness enables us to have relations with the universe, for it makes each person “like a tiny index and miniature specimen of the universe, and so displays the embroideries of all the Names.”(23)

These representations make us reflect the manifestation of Divine Oneness and function as the Creator's vicegerent on Earth. This manifestation is the simultaneous manifestation in one thing of the Creator's Names, which are manifested in everything. It also includes the duties of beings, which constitute representations by forming images in our spirit's mirror.(24) Since we are conscious, the universe can be “established” in us. Our representation of all beings' glorifications and worship, realized primarily as an inner duty, means that we must know, be aware of, and internalize them.

Duality and Loneliness

The more self-aware we become, the more we are differentiated from the “other,” for “consciousness is an aspect of existence according to which beings are distinct from one another.”(25) The “ocean feeling” disappears, and each child becomes “aware of being alone, of being an entity separate from all others. This separation from a world, which in comparison with one's own individual existence is overwhelmingly strong and powerful, and often threatening and dangerous, creates a feeling of powerlessness and anxiety.”(26)

Unconscious beings cannot expe-rience separation, for they are unaware of duality. Consciousness engenders individuality, yet recaptures and joins what has been separated. Consciousness and intellect want to establish relations with everything. Since “the realms of beings in the universe are so interwoven they have made the universe into a totality,”27 we seek reunification within a framework of meaningful ties between self and other in order to live as part of the universe's system.

We search for that lost “ocean feeling,” hoping to establish relations with our self and all things. We do not want this biologically, but within the framework of meaningful ties.

Kernberg and others conclude by saying that a person's inner world is filled with self- and object-representations. Said Nursi, however, presses onward.

Said Nursi's Analysis

Said Nursi mentions three sorts of representation or reflection.(29)

First Representation: The reflection of dense, physical objects, such as a tree (“other”) reflected in a mirror, water, or a shining surface. Said Nursi says such reflections are “other than the thing reflected …without life. Their only quality is their apparent identity” [emphasis added]. This is how such people see and then represent the tree in their spirit.

In this case, we deny creation by claiming to be self-created, self-owning, powerful, and able to realize our own existence. We give ourselves and others whatever meaning we wish.(30) Our “I” functions in its own name, seeks to satisfy its physical desires, and wants no connection with its true Creator. Thus the self's internal representation has no connection with its real, created self. The reflected image and the self's representation are dead. We see a tree as owning itself, and therefore meaningless and limited to providing fruit.(31)

Our consciousness and intellect convey the self and the other to the spirit's mirror, where their reflections form representations and images. As the tree's reflection and representation are separate from its reality, its form is dead and meaningless, and there is no communication. The spirit remains unnourished, for mere similarity in appearance cannot nourish it.

This results in alienation, for both remain unknown to each other, as well as anxiety and fear, for fear of the unknown is intense and keeps us alert to danger. Thus alienated, the “I” sees itself as meaningless, the internalized and reflected self becomes dead and meaningless, and we feel pain. The absence of relations causes pain, and the object-representations continue to disappear.

This view fills our world with loneliness and emptiness. The lack of relations between the self and the object-representations engender feelings of nothingness (existential emptiness) and distress, of non-relation to the external world, for both are dead and thus unable to communicate. So, we cannot connect with reality.

Second Representation: “The reflection of physical luminous objects,”(32) such as the sun's reflection in shining objects. The sun and its reflection are neither identical nor completely different. They do not resemble each other in essence, but the reflection has most of the sun's characteristics and may be considered as living and having some of its attributes (e.g., light and its seven colors, and heat radiations).

In this case, our “I” accepts that it is a work of the Creator's art,(33) tasked with recognizing and knowing Him, and serving as a mirror for His Names' manifestation. Its representation in the spirit's mirror is like the sun's representation in a mirror, meaning fairly close to reality.

This “I” sees the tree as meaningful and created, and so forms a relation with its Creator to “read” it. This relationship gives the tree meaning, enabling it to be read as a mirror reflecting His Names and to be related to all beings. As the reading is close to its reality, the tree becomes something living and charged with duties. Our intellect and consciousness convey it to the spirit's mirror, where its representation and reflection are like the sun's reflection, for the reflection is neither the tree nor different from it. The tree's representation, now a living missive, tells us of His Attributes and makes Him known. As they can communicate with the Creator, the tree becomes luminous like the sun, its representation gains luminosity, and it nourishes the spirit.

Through the Creator, all representations are related to each other. Here, the representation is formed of the tree's meaning within itself-its function (role representations). The spirit feels no pain when the tree dies, for its representation remains alive. As the tree is not independent or existant in its own name, but only through and in its Creator's name, its role/function representation persists in the spirit. The object-representations are never lost, for if the Creator exists, everything exists, has meaning, and exists as representations and role representations.

Our personal universe is full of living representations, neither identical with nor different from the actual things, that nourish the spirit. Thus we feel no existential emptiness, for the actual things form relations with the living representations. We cannot be nourished by a fruit's reflected image, but just as the sun's reflection may warm and illuminate us, living and meaningful object-representations may nourish our spirit and heart.

Not seeing ourselves as self-created or divine, we experience a warm feeling of belonging. We see ourselves as living in a friendly, stable,and interconnected world in which the “other” conveys His messages to us.

But something is missing. Our “belief consciousness” enables us to read the Creator's art, but the unconscious “other” cannot read us.

Third representation: The reflection of luminous spirit beings belonging to unseen worlds. These reflections are identical to-and thus are-the beings themselves.(34) Said Nursi places angels, other spirit beings, and Prophet Muhammad in this group. He also emphasizes that the reflections in such representations are living. However, since the representation appears according to the mirror's capacity, he sees a difference between the spirit being and the representation: The reflection and the thing are not the same in essence.

In this case, the third person is the second person's articulation. This solves the following two problems: First, if people are unaware of the Creator's Names, if their consciousness cannot understand them, or if they are aware of but cannot read them properly, the manifestation seems to be unnecessary, for all beings' decorations, beauty, and inscriptions “require the gazes of thoughtful admirers and wondering, appreciative lovers; it demands their existence.”(35) Second, there is no real relationship, for the unconscious other is unaware of the conscious person.

If a tree's attributes (e.g., art, beauty, order, perfection, knowledge, power, intention, and care) are unperceived or denied, they become meaningless. If they are not recognized by consciousness and read properly, they serve no purpose: “[C]reatures exist for, find their perfection and rejoice through, and are saved from futility through conscious beings.”(36)

However, angels understand the unconscious beings' duties of worship and glorification, utter and represent them in the inner worlds, and offer them to the Divine Court. Like people, angels are “spectators of the palace of the universe, observers of the Book of Creation, and heralds of the sovereignty of dominicality.”(37) Their activities save unconscious beings from meaningless. Since angels present the duties of beings “knowingly at the Divine Court,”(38) all beings perform their functions consciously.

Angels and spirit beings, inhabitants of the unseen worlds and who necessarily exist, change our concept of the “other.” They “are not restricted to this manifest world, and existence is not limited to it,”(39) and remind us that we cannot perceive all levels of existence. Angels are created beings-not creators-who convey the Divine Names to our world.

This expanded definition causes visible beings to gain consciousness. An angel makes its tree meaningful and conscious, and its duties known and recognizable. Thus the first problem is solved, for angels and spirit beings have consciousness in the inner world. Each being's angel observes and gazes upon the Divine Names manifested on that being, and represents its duties in the name of beings that formerly appeared to be unconscious.

This transforms all formerly meaningful missives into conscious envoys who visit our spirit and speak to us. No longer are they go-betweens waiting to carry our reply. The tree is the angel's words in this world, for “the All-Wise Maker causes all the realms of beings in the universe to speak.”(40) The second problem is solved, for “the universe is seen to be full of angels, spirit beings, and intelligent beings.”(41)

Since we can internalize, be aware of, and experience relations with the other, we want the other to know and internalize us and so form a stable two-way relationship. As angels also want this, the relationship moves into further dimensions. Angels love us, pray to their Compassionate Sustainer for us, seek our forgiveness, and call blessings upon us.(42) There is a real relationship, for both sides are aware of, and can communicate with and “read,” the other.

Since an angel's or spirit being's representation is identical with its actual being, a tree is represented in the spirit as it actually is. Belief in the Creator gives life to a representation; belief in angels gives it consciousness. The tree's reflection serves as a mirror to its Sustainer's Names, glorifies Him, and is conscious; its angel offers its manifested Names and glorifications to the Divine Court. As both the actual thing and its reflection are conscious, our spirit is filled with reflections of conscious beings. Finally able to establish conscious relations with all beings, we represent their duties while their angels represent their reflections.

This is a basic existential need, for each person searches for the “ocean feeling” of infancy.(43) In order to say “us creatures,” all beings must be able to say “we.” The tree proclaims its createdness through the tongue of disposition only. However its angel, who is conscious and aware of and proclaims that the tree is created, enables it to say “us.”

The resulting relationship, mutual recognition, and knowledge of each other's duties gives a sense of “us” without removing any individuality. We become friends with everything, for now they are conscious beings. Knowledge of God and belief in angels have removed all dualism. The universe remains the scene of all beings' constant renewal, transformation, disappearance, and replacement, and yet our spirit suffers no pain. As its angel's representation never dies, it continues to represent the tree's glorification, even after the real tree's death, and be light and sustenance for our spirit.

Our companionship with angels continues after death, for Azra'il, the angel of death who represents the glorifications offered at the moment of death, becomes our companion on our journey after death.(44)


1 I. Yalom, Love's Executor and Other Tales of Psychotherapies (New York: 2000), 3.

2 T. Zeldin, Insanligin Mahrem Tarihi [Turk. trans.] (Istanbul: 1998) 67, 68.

3 O. Kernberg, Sinir Durumlar ve Patolojik Narsisizm [Turk. trans.] (Istanbul: 1999), 192.

4 I. Yalom, Existential Psychotheraphy (New York: 1980), 355.

5 E. Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: 1956), 7.

6 Yalom, Psychotheraphy, 358.

7 K. Reinhardt, The Existential Revolt (New York: 1957), 235.

8 Said Nursi, Letters 1928-1932. 2d ed. [Eng. trans.] (Istanbul: 1997), 42 ff.

9 Kernberg, Sinir, 192.

10 V. F. Guidano, The Self in Process (New York: 1991), 17.

11 Ibid., 18.

12 Said Nursi, The Words. new ed. [Eng. trans.] (Istanbul: 1998), 324.

13 N. G. Hamilton, Self and Others: Object Relations Theory in Practice (London: 1988), 36.

14 Ibid., 38.

15 O. Kernberg, Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis, (London: 1995) 29.

16 Ibid., 38.

17 D. M. Orange, G. E. Atwood, R. D. Stolorow. Quoted by C. Ardali and Y. Erten, Psikoanalizden Dinamik Psikoterapilere (Alfa, 1999), 88.

18 Nursi, Words, 523.

19 Ibid., 524.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 338.

22 Said Nursi, The Flashes Collection. new ed.

[Eng. trans.] (Istanbul: 2000), 456.

23 Ibid., 458.

24 Nursi, Words, 523-24.

25 J. Kovel, Tarih ve Tin: A–zgurlesme Felsefesi Aœzerine Bir Inceleme (Istanbul: 1991), 95.

26 E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: 1941), 29.

27 Nursi, Flashes, 415.

28 Guidano, Self, 15.

29 Nursi, Words, 210; Said NursA, Mesnevi-i NA riye [Turk. trans. Abdulmecid NursA] (Istanbul: 1977).

30 Nursi, Words, 560.

31 Ibid., 560.

32 Ibid., 210.

33 Ibid., 320.

34 Ibid., 210.

35 Ibid., 522.

36 Ibid., 98.

37 Ibid., 191.

38 Ibid., 531.

39 Ibid., 528.

40 Nursi, Letters, 339-40.

41 Ibid., 342.

42 Qur'an: 33:56; 40:7-9.

43 Yalom, Psychotheraphy, 362.

44 Said Nursi, The Rays Collection [Eng. trans.] (Istanbul: 1998), 277.