Synopsis: The Illusion of a Self — if your self is not real, what is?
OK, so of course you have a self. You look in the mirror, and there you are. But really, what exactly are you?
I spotted a cartoon on Facebook today, (who knew Dennis the Menace was still being drawn?) that captures a bit of what I’m on about:
Source: January 15, 2016
I had an “Of course!” moment, and saw the Zen of it. But the closer we get to “now,” the more we forget the reality of this. I mean, when we take a photo, we look at it, and say, “This is me, now!” We’re sure of it.
Yet, when I say, “But how is this different from Dennis’ point?” you might think I’m splitting hairs.
So, here’s a photo from my 65th birthday party, a week ago. Is this me, is this me now, is this me now only if I’m wearing that shirt?
Again, splitting hairs?
We tend to attach permanence to things, which is why we get all bent when things change.
This begins right after we are born, and people start telling us about ourselves:
“You are Wayne, you are male, you are a Protestant, you are smart, cute, you are able to do stuff, etc.”
“You are Sally, and you are female, Catholic, not so smart, homely, you can’t do much, but if you agree to what people want, you’ll get by.”
Because the people telling us stuff are big, and we think they know something, we just absorb their story. As we get older, we start adding our own stuff. You can see this by thinking about your memories.
Most of us can’t remember back to our infancy; indeed, most of us start having concrete memories only after we are 2 or 3 or so. Let me be clear here. If you have a picture of a party you attended at 2, and mommy and daddy told you about the party later, that’s not a real memory.
Anyway, we tack on stuff, and create a story that we call “me.”
Except it’s not really real.
It takes great effort, but you can push yourself to remember stuff that you don’t normally remember, and if you add it, your story changes.
I remember a client telling me she’d never received a compliment or praise growing up, and still wasn’t. But therapy was helping her to listen better and to shift her thinking. One day, she heard a compliment. She watched herself attempting to disregard it, and didn’t.
By the next week she was hearing lots of compliments, and remembering ones from her past.
So, which was the true story?
And here’s where it gets interesting. We see ourselves through the filters of the stories and beliefs we have about ourselves. Even when we make a profound shift of self-understanding, all that’s really happened is that we’ve applied another set of filters. “This one is really me!”
The odd, scary, interesting, truth (according to my version, or filter) is that you are always and only how you are right now. There is no fixed entity I can point to, no “Wayne.” I am sort of like a scrapbook.
I really am a scrapbook, and so are you. My mom and dad started it, filling it what they liked about me. Or better, filled it with what they valued. I was “lucky,” because they filled it with “good” stuff, but still, the early pages are theirs.
Then, I started adding stuff. Initially, I followed their patterns. As I got older, I “rebelled” and added stuff that they wouldn’t approve of. Then, “adult” stuff, relationship stuff, etc.
I sit here at 65 with a big scrapbook, with Wayne on the cover. See? Me!!!
And all around me, in piles so high that they cannot be fathomed, is all the stuff that has happened that I’ve ignored, or intentionally missed, or rejected. All the alternate versions of “reality.” I’m all of that too, even though I may not want to add it to the book.
There is even a pile, a huge one, of stuff I am unaware of, like what happened as I engaged, in the past, with friends
I remember Facebooking a guy I knew in College, and thanking him for teaching me to appreciate Jazz and the Blues. He thanked me for all I’d done for him, and specifically for teaching him to process film and to appreciate art.
I’d completely forgotten both of those things, which were of profound importance to him. They were (until he reminded me) not a part of my scrapbook–although they are now.
The reason getting this is so important is that we are not a fixed entity, but are more like water. We are flowing along, clear on some stuff, oblivious to other stuff.
Our goal is to acknowledge this, and to begin to pay attention. If we say stuff (“That’s how I am.”) and then limit ourselves from acting, well, that’s kind of silly. If we become fluid, we might just choose to grab on with both hands to something, or someone!, different.
This week, see if you can hold your self-story loosely, and experiment with being a process, as opposed to a scrapbook.
You just might surprise yourself.