The place before “I” – Undercutting your Deictic Relations

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA

bSci21Media, LLC

I cooked dinner tonight… or did I?

As Dr. Scott Herbst said before on this site, “I” is just a bit of language.  It only exists as a word.

And we attach lots of things to the “I.”  Relational Frame Theory calls these attachments “deictic relations” or verbally constructed statements relating “I” or “me” to “you” and the rest of the world.  This is how we understand the “sense of self” behaviorally.

But what if you were to go to the place before “I” arises?  Before “I” there is just… the indescribable.  It’s not even “nothing” because the latter is itself a language concept.  It is just…

One thing it is is an experiential exercise for behavioral scientists and everyone else to see your language as B.F Skinner saw it – as an act in context devoid of inherent “truth” or meaning. “I” is simply behavior.

It is one thing to intellectualize about it and quite another to experience it for yourself.  That is why many in the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy world emphasize experiential exercises over didactic instruction for much of their work.

Experience = direct acting contingencies, which tend to be more powerful than mere words.

One way to get there is through mindfulness practice – just noticing your thoughts as they pass by without attaching to them.  But you eventually have to go beyond mindfulness to remove the dualistic notion of “observer” and “observed.”  There is nothing to observe and no one to observe it.  There is just language, and then the place beyond language, which isn’t a place at all.

With a bit of focused practice, something like cooking dinner can be an experiential exercise in disconnecting your deictics, which may act as a sort of “pressure valve” to enhance your psychological wellbeing, and to ultimately track those direct-acting contingencies most meaningful to you.  Even if “you” don’t really exist, you can still make “you” functional and meaningful as the language construct that it is, but perhaps with a little less verbally constructed baggage than before.

For additional background, check out my recent article titled Zen Meditation: Experience of a Behavioral Scientist.


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Interesting read Todd.

    I like mindfulness as the behavior of self-thought observation and something that can be changed.

    Not sure of the abstract nature of the discussion – is this based on a particular religion or thought process?

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