Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

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This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

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Wonder

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If there is anything that I feel that I need to preserve as I grow old, it is wonder

The ability to find awe in the mundane, the seemingly bleak trenches of everyday existence

How is it that a child is to able to see the sublime in the routine? 
 
To look at the ordinary and see what is extraordinary  

To paint the world with their vivid imagination 

To have boundless curiosity radiate through their being

During a walk on a cool summer morning, my attention is suspended by the rising sun piercing through the hazy clouds 

Wonder emerges as I see the birds gliding through the sky, singing ecstatically

Soaring effortlessly into the horizon, they find reprieve in the towering trees

Riches, wealth and power all pale in comparison to the awe and bliss found in Nature

As I shed the veil of adulthood, I see the world once again as a child

A world of wonder 

A world of infinite possibility

An audio rendition of my poem The Artist

2020 Wrap Up: Timeless Wisdom from Poetry and Literature

As with many, the pandemic has forced me to spend more time alone in solitude. It has demanded from all of us that we slow down, and perhaps even question the sanity of our 24\7 always on the go lifestyles.

No more rushed morning commutes to get to work on time or packed weekend festivities filled with gatherings of families and friends.

Depending on one’s character, this forced solitude has either been a blessing or a curse – a blissful awakening or a dark and lonesome period we desperately try to forget.

While I of course miss the face-to-face social interactions with colleagues at my workplace or with extended family and friends, 2020 has afforded me the opportunity to spend more time reading some of the great works of literature and poetry.

 As I was shutoff from the external world, these authors invited me in to dive in to the emotional depths and tender intimacy of their brilliant prose. They invited me to come join them in exploring the inner realms of their vivid imaginations.

Literature offers us portals into different realities providing us with fresh perspectives, ideas and opportunities. It allows us to view our life, and the world around us from a different lens. These authors, who may well be dead and gone, come alive as we become immersed in the text finding solace and comfort through their timeliness wisdom.

They remind us that we are not alone in navigating the difficulties and complexities in life. Our struggles are indeed the struggles faced by many.

In this post I want to look at some of my favourite passages from texts that I read this year. After going through the endless sticky notes and scribbles in my books, here are the quotes and pieces that stood out the most for me.

  1. Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilyich

It sounds cliché, but life is something we often take for granted.

If anything, perhaps 2020 has made us more acutely aware of our own mortality. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy looks at a character who succumbs to the demands and pressures of societal expectations only to realize the emptiness of such pursuits on his death bed. Although Ivan Ilyich achieves status and fortune, he sacrifices authenticity and self-fulfillment along the way.

Tolstoy’s sobering novella forces us to ask, was this bargain worth it?

While material possessions may give us temporary pleasure and status, it is spiritual needs and genuine human connection which ultimately give life meaning and purpose.

In public opinion I was going uphill, and exactly to that extent life was slipping away from under me…And now that’s it

“Maybe I did not live as I should have?” would suddenly come into his head. “But how not, if I did everything one ought to do?”

The most tormenting thing for Ivan Ilyich was that no one pitied him as he wanted to be pitied: there were moments after prolonged suffering when Ivan Ilyich wanted most of all, however embarrassed he would have been to admit it, to be pitied by someone like a sick child……. He knew that he was an important judge, that he had a graying beard, and therefore it was impossible; but he wanted it all the same.

2. John Steinbeck- East of Eden

Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a multi-generational epic tale, which is modeled on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. It is about the struggle between two forces which are at the core of the human spirit – good and evil. While our circumstances may shape the opportunities that present themselves to us, Steinbeck argues that we always have a choice in the path forward. To reject temptation, overcome evil and start anew.

Humans are caught–in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too–in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence …. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well–or ill

Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win

3. Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet

A short but profound collection of letters between the poet Rilke and an aspiring young writer Franz Kappus. In his letters, Rilke invites us to rejuvenate in solitude and to accept everything life brings us – the beauty as well as the terrors.  

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them

Always the wish that you may find patience enough in yourself to endure, and simplicity enough to believe; that you may acquire more and more confidence in that which is difficult, and in your solitude among others. And for the rest, let life happen to you

4. Mary Oliver – Upstream

In her eloquent prose, the poet Mary Oliver has the unique gift of allowing us to uncover the sublime in the ordinary. In a series of essays in her book Upstream, she contemplates the ecstatic beauty of the world, exploring how her time in nature has inspired and transformed her creative life.

Upstream offers us a temporary respite from technology, and the perpetual busyness and constant stimulation of the contemporary world. Oliver reminds us that don’t have to travel to exotic destinations to experience the sacred, it is often present in the mundane, right in front of our very eyes – if we have the patience to wait for it to emerge.

Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity

For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water. Most of the adult world spoke of such things as opportunities, and materials. To the young these materials are still celestial.

Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight


Book cover images sourced from Amazon.com

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