Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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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Beneath the Iceberg: A Look at Mental Models

Each of us views the world through our own unique pair of glasses. Our experience is shaped by what we pay attention to during our moment-to-moment existence. It is informed by our social conditioning, beliefs, values and the type of information that we actively seek out.

We don’t have access to the world ‘in and of itself.’ Rather, we view reality from our own subjective filters or mental models which help us interpret the vast amount of data available to us.

As Robert M. Pirsig explains in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Language, psychology, statistics and economics are all examples of mental models we have developed to help us simplify and understand the world around us. While there is a strong relationship between the models we develop and the outside world, these mental maps are always imperfect to some extent.  Consequently, we are thrown off-guard or are surprised, when events don’t neatly fit into our abstractions of how we think things ought to be. Due to the dynamic nature of the world, we are required to constantly draw new maps and update old assumptions to align with the latest findings and discoveries.

Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see

Peter Senge

In this article, I want to explore the importance of going beneath the surface or beyond what is directly observable to understand what drives behavior on an individual and societal level.

Events don’t occur in a vacuum but are the byproduct of the values, beliefs and mental models which underpin a particular individual or system.   

Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

Iceberg Model

The iceberg model is a good analogy to encourage us to look at situations more broadly, and assess system foundations. Namely, what we see on the surface is often limited and illusive. Most of the iceberg’s structure is hidden underwater. Similarly, while we are inundated with surface level issues and daily affairs in the news or media, we are less often exposed to the patterns of behavior or patterns of thought influencing these trends.

While the model has different variations depending on the source, for our purposes we will look at four layers of analysis.

  1. Events:  Events are what is visible to us (i.e. elections, stock market fluctuations, natural disasters). Exclusively focusing on this level of analysis can often leave us surprised and scratching our heads. Although they are the most noticeable, they often lack and predictive or explanatory power.
  2.  Patterns of Behavior: Commonalities and trends between a series of events.  Patterns of behavior look at long-term trends that occur within a system over time.
  3.  System Structures: At a deeper level of analysis, we get to system structures which influence the long-term trends identified. System structures can include rules, norms, or institutions  which are comprised of cause-and-effect relationships and feedback loops. Systems structures can help us better understand how the different parts of the system are connected through casual relationships (i.e. how adjusting system inputs will affect outputs).
  4. Mental Models: Mental models serve as the foundation of the iceberg. They are the values and belief systems which influence our thoughts and actions.

The Addiction Archetype

The iceberg model is a good tool which enables us to step back from our immediate circumstances, think critically and identify the root causes of our problems.

A potent example which characterizes many of our systemic issues we face in modern society is our addiction to short-term thinking and solutions. These may buy us time or give us immediate pleasure but ultimately lead us in traps making it more and more difficult to escape. Driven by instant gratification and short-termism, addiction takes many forms on both an individual and societal level.

Let us look at some more concrete examples:

  • A financial system built on cheap credit and speculation is increasingly volatile, less resilient and more susceptible to boom and bust cycles (events\patterns of behavior). Beneath the surface, we see institutions (system structures) which prioritize short-term profits over sustainability and human wellbeing (mental models). 
  • An individual develops an addiction to drugs (events\patterns of behavior) as a way to escape and avoid deeply rooted emotional issues and insecurities (mental models). Rather than address their deep-seated trauma, they turn to short term pleasure to alleviate the pain (system structures). 
  • A wishful consumer is knee deep in debt (event\patterns of behavior) as they play status games to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ through unaffordable luxury purchases (system structures). At a deeper level, this desire to spend is driven by the façade that consumer goods or status can bring us respect, meaning and genuine friendship (mental models).

Beneath the Surface

In every situation there is always something beyond what we can visibly see on the surface. Short-term shallow level solutions are like running in quick sand. They fail to address the root causes and keep us hooked in feedback loops which make it increasingly difficult to alter our course of action. Pulling out the roots and going deeper to the level of system structures and mental models provides more leverage for meaningful systemic change.

Lastly, in a complex, messy and often unpredictable world having the ability and foresight to constantly update your mental models will make you more adaptable and resilient. Honest, open and genuine conversations with others allows us to identify and attend to any potential blind spots in our thinking. Two minds are often better than one. Donella H. Meadows reminds to always seek feedback and constantly put our mental models out in the open for exposure and constructive criticism,

Everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own ………. Mental flexibility–the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure — is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

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The Polarization Series: The Power of Listening

Amidst the rise in digital technologies and new avenues for communication, the general quality of our public discourse has declined. As I have explored in this series, modern society has become increasingly fragmented and polarized. We are no longer able to search for areas of compromise or entertain opposing viewpoints.

The cause of the issue stems from our inability to truly listen to one another. In a culture that promotes individualism and self-righteousness, we are conditioned to enter into conversations with our own agenda, set of prejudices and biases. Rather than engage in the mutual pursuit of truth, we are more interested in pushing our opinion and influence onto others.

This mindset inhibits us from truly listening to and appreciating what others are saying. It blocks us off from other perspectives limiting the possibility of entering into a conversation openly, with the chance of changing our minds.

The physicist David Bohm makes an important distinction between dialogue and discussion, highlighting the key differences in these two modes of communication.

Dialogue vs. Discussion

Dialogue is centered around the shared flow of meaning and understanding between all those who are involved. The point is not to try to ‘win’ or ensure that your argument prevails, but rather to mutually search for collective wisdom and truth. This requires one to be adaptable and flexible, accepting that your original views may be wrong or ill-informed.

Good dialogue is sort of like jazz. It revolves around improvisation and spontaneity. Throughout their solos, each musician integrates the melody and phrases of the other band mates. It is a dynamic and collective process. The success of the band is determined by how well the musicians are in synch with one another. This demands that everyone listen closely to the tempo of the drums, the key of the band and the melodies of the other soloists.

Like jazz, the point of dialogue is to build off of the ideas of others, to be open-minded and fully listen to what is being said. When done correctly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a win-win process for all participants involved – everyone gains.

On the other hand, Bohm characterizes discussions as communication which is aimed at preserving one’s point of view. Those engaging in a discussion are motivated towards persuading others to change their minds. As a result, it is framed more as a debate embodying win-lose dynamics, as the purpose is to have your viewpoint adopted by the group.

There is a time and place for each of these conversational styles. However, social cohesion is undermined and conflicts arise when our discourse becomes increasingly centered around debate, conflict and argumentation.

A consequence of this type of thinking is that we aren’t fully attentive to what others are saying. Further, we don’t validate or clarify that we have a mutual understanding of another’s point of view, leaving room for error and misinterpretation.

As noted by the renowned physicist David Bohm in his book On Dialogue,

Surprisingly, most people have never discovered how to listen, and instead spend most of the time whilst another is speaking working out what to say the moment he or she stops

Listening

To listen attentively or mindfully, is to be completely immersed in the conversation. It is to be aware of our automatic judgements, refrain from interjection and practice empathy. Just as in the practice of meditation where we mindfully and impartially watch our thoughts pass by, a genuine dialogue requires us to do the same when conversing with someone else.

The objective is to be aware and in control of your thoughts, feelings and emotions refraining from being reactive to the situation. It is to engage with openness and be receptive to what the other person is saying.  

When disagreements do arise, research indicates that changing someone’s mind is both rare and difficult. However, techniques do exist to help you navigate through conflict and arguments.

There is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattle-snakes and earthquakes.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication focuses on how we can navigate through disagreements through empathy and mutual understanding.

Underneath adversarial language and conflict, lies someone with unmeet human needs. Regardless of who we are, we all have a set of foundational human needs such as health, love, respect, trust etc. The issue is that rather than explicitly communicating these unmet needs, we direct our attention towards criticizing others or defending our views on a topic.

 A good metaphor to think of here is an iceberg. What’s visible to us is the immediate disagreement, while what’s uncovered is a broader set of phycological factors affecting and issues one’s mood and behavior.

Encouraging honesty and transparency, Rosenberg identifies four communication techniques to help us when dealing with difficult circumstances:

  1. Observation: Observe what you notice about the situation objectively and nonjudgmentally.
  2.  Feelings: Express our emotions and feelings clearly and in a thoughtful way.
  3.  Needs: Make a connection between the identified feelings and your unmet human needs. You may feel upset or angry at someone because their actions violated your needs of honesty and connection.
  4. Requests:  Make a specific request in a compassionate manner to rectify the situation based on the feelings and needs you have communicated. Of note, requests are never demanded. Rather, they are asked from a place of mutual understanding and respect for the other person.

All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being. When we receive messages with this awareness, we never feel dehumanized by what others have to say to us

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Conclusion

Genuine dialogue and discourse demands a shift from egotistical thinking to a focus on the collective wellbeing, emotions and needs of others. It changes the focus from the content of the conversation to the underlying feelings that are driving one’s behavior and attitude. Only through bringing awareness to the factors and emotions influencing our behavior can we begin to notice and change them.

As we chisel away at our own egos and silence the need to be right all the time, we can start to become more open and empathetic to the needs of others.

After all, we are all humans trying to live collectively on one planet. So rather than being prisoners to our automatic thoughts and emotions, we can all temporarily pause, take a deep breath and try to show some more compassion.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Throughout the past year I’ve been introduced to different communication modalities from platforms like The Stoa and Rebel Wisdom, some of these include:

  1. The Circling Method
  2. Empathy Circles
  3. John Vervaeke’s work on Dialogos

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