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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The Ignorance of the Modern Man

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The Machine: A Sign of the Times A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

The Machine : A Sign of the Times – A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life An audio rendition of my poem, The Machine: A Sign of the Times

O’ Modern Man, Modern Man, how you stand up tall with your undeserved pride.

You hold infinite knowledge in the palm of your hand,

Control nature, much more than it can withstand.

Is there anything you can not know?

No place where you can not go?

Why are you so serious modern man?

Don’t you see life is a great mystery.

Is there still wonder in your eyes?

Is there any passion still in your soul?

Look towards nature, and you will find reprieve.

Bathe in the forest, admire the beauty of the trees.

Stand in the stillness under the stary sky,

Look inward for solitude, for purpose and your why.

Life is just a game we all must play.

Just let go for a while, and you will see,

How effortless it is to be free.

Life is a great mystery, a great mystery.


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The Modern Alienated Individual: A Closer Look at Fight Club

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We achieved everything we ever wanted and more. We’ve built technologies which elevate humanity to the status of gods. We’ve tamed and controlled nature to align with our needs, and built industrial playgrounds for the flourishing of economic progress and industry.

Yet underneath the bright screens, fancy clothes and luxury cars lies an individual who is deeply disconnected with the world. They pride themselves in their status but are unable to authentically connect with others. They feel like strangers in their own society, feeling the pull to conform with the latest trends in consumer products.

I do not wish to seem naïve or ignorant. I of course value the comforts and opportunities that living in the 21st century has afforded me. However, despite all this exponential progress, I think we have to remember what we have lost in modernity. With our laser focus economic growth and individualism we have abandoned our need for genuine connection, community and wisdom.  

One of the movies which explores the issues that we still wrestle with today is Fight Club. Originally adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club tells the story of a depressed middle-aged man who desperately seeks to escape the chains of a monotonous consumer-based culture. The narrator and his imaginary alter-ego (known as Tyler Durden) starts a fight club as an attempt to liberate themselves from nihilism and existential dread.

Let’s look at some of the key quotes and themes of the movie to see how it applies in our modern-day society.

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Consumerism  

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, and the things you own, end up owning you.

The endless flow of advertisements that we are flooded with in our day to day lives try to subvert the distinction between want and need.

We too easily fall into the trap of the hedonic treadmill.  The luxury items we purchase soon loose their glamour, status and prestige. We feel like we have to keep up with the latest trends to gain acceptance and approval from our peers.

In an attempt to gain status or recognition from society, we needlessly spend a fortune on luxury brands when much cheaper goods can fulfill the same exact function. A Rolex and a plastic watch purchased from a convenience store, while widely differ in price, both perform the same purpose of telling time.

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It is like we are running after a moving target.  

However, few realize that no purchase can ever fully quench our desires – the void remains unfilled.  

Alienation and the Loss of Community

This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. If I didn’t say anything, people in a group assumed the worst. They cried harder. I cried harder. Look up into the stars and you’re gone. Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.

To deal with his insomnia the narrator frequently attends various different support groups. Devoid of any social life or genuine friendships, these groups provide him with a sense of connection , community and companionship.

Despite the low cost of connectivity in our society, the issues of loneliness and isolation in our society have been well documented. A trend which is  most prevalent with middle-aged men.

The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about a decline in what he calls ‘social capital’. That is, the social bonds, connections and networks which he argues is responsible for a loss of trust in political and societal institutions.

Putnam notes that the social fabric, that ties us together as individuals in a society, has been eroding in the later half of the twentieth century. In his book Bowling Alone, his research points to several trends which he claims are responsible for this decline including: the proliferation of electronic entertainment, suburban sprawl and changes to family structure.

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The consequences of this for our individual and collective wellbeing are dire.  Perhaps this has been most evident in recent years, as we have become more polarized and divisive, unable to compromise and empathize with others.      

Yes, we have gained more individual freedoms and liberties, but we have become more isolated and egotistical. We have pursued individualism and self-interest at the cost of meaning and belonging that comes with being in a community.

Nihilism: The Loss of Meaning

We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.                    

The irony of the film is that the men who joined Fight Club as a means to escape the chains of consumerism, end up being drawn into another ideological group, Project Mayhem.

We must ask the question why are our minds so easily manipulated? Why do we so easily move from one dogma to another?

When individuals lose purpose or meaning in their lives, they can be more suspectable to be seduced by extremism and reactionary political ideologies. The most frightening examples of this of course can be seen in the rise of the totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.

As mentioned in several of my other articles, John Vervaeke as well as many other thinkers, attributes this crisis in meaning to the loss of wisdom and spiritual practices that were provided to us mainly through religions. With the erosion of many of our spiritual and cultural traditions through the secularization of modern society , many of us come face to face with what Victor Frankl called the ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl says these feelings of existential angst are manifested through boredom and distress. While our modern culture tells us we ought to fill this void through the pursuit of short-term hedonistic pleasures, Frankl reminds us that the solution rather is to pursue what is truly meaningful for us.

Conclusion

Admittingly, this article presents a pretty gloomy depiction of modern life. However, I do see the emergence of philosophies, spiritual practices and communities that aim to help us deal the existential issues we are dealing with in the modern era.

From the re-emergence of interest in Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga, to the revival of ancient Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and to the research being done in the possibilities of psychedelics to address the mental health crisis, I see a thirst for wisdom and meaning on the horizon.   

The present may be grim, but I remain an optimist.  

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