One Reason We Oppress Ourselves

In some conversations, topics change so fast that the conversation itself is more than a wee bit like a time-lapse movie in which a whole 24 hour day rushes past you in just a few minutes.  Such conversations can be fun or exasperating, depending on your mood.  Yesterday evening, I was very much in the mood, and my friends Ami and Karina were obliging me with a rush of ideas.  Here’s a snippet of that conversation:

At some point near the middle of the conversation, Karina stated that, “Ben Franklin never said, ‘Some people are dead at 25, but not buried until 75’, even though that proverb is often attributed to him”.

Karina’s remark prompted Ami to say, “I think we often limit ourselves by saying something is uncharacteristic of us”.

And, naturally, that got me thinking about black raspberry ice cream.

Of course, on the surface, Karina’s statement, Ami’s remark, and my thought might appear to have nothing to do with each other.  Indeed, I must admit I can see how people other than Karina, Ami, and I might be put in danger of being driven insane trying to figure out the link between them.

But the three of us are in no danger — if only because we each are already so thoroughly maxed when it comes to insanity that we cannot be driven any further in the direction of it.   In fact, the link between Karina’s statement, Ami’s remark, and my thought is actually a tight one.  And the rest of this blog post will drive you just as bonkers as the three of us already are safely reveal to you how very tight that link is.

My small hometown didn’t have a proper ice cream store until I was about ten or eleven years old.  Until then, the only places you could find ice cream were in the two grocery stores, and they sold only the most popular flavors: Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.   This cruel and intolerable situation was relieved when an ice cream shop obviously devoted to saving my childhood opened up near the edge of town and began selling about a dozen flavors of frozen joy.

However, when I made my very first trip to the store, I was confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem: I had not expected such a multitude of choices; I was completely overwhelmed; and I could not make up my mind which flavor to buy.  In the end, my mother rescued me by suggesting the black raspberry.

Never before in my life was I so convinced my mother was a genius than the moment I laid tongue to the black raspberry.  The flavor seized me and I was instantly enthralled to it.   In fact, I liked it so much that I never risked trying any of the other flavors the shop sold due to my mere suspicion they couldn’t possibly be as pleasurable as the black raspberry.  My relationship with the ice cream ran even deeper than that, however.

Most of know how something can become, not just a thing we like, but a part of us.  It’s a curious trait of our species that we can self-identify with just about anything, whether that be some tangible object like a car, a favorite sweater, or a flavor of ice cream; or it be some intangible thing like a political ideology, an idea, a religion, or even the roles we play in life of someone’s son, daughter, friend, wife, husband, etc.  That is, we frequently — indeed, we routinely — define ourselves as in part this or that thing.  Sometimes we say, “Those shoes are so me!” — and mean it.  I did exactly that with black raspberry ice cream.  I not only liked it, but I came to think of it as a part of what made me — me.

In one the most poignant tragedies of my childhood, the ice cream shop went out of business in a couple of years, and black raspberry disappeared from my town and my life.  I became a bitter, disillusioned addict in withdrawal, wandering the asphalt streets, haunting the graveled alleys of my town, living only for the memories I somehow managed to survive the closing.  But the story doesn’t end there.

A few years later while at uni I came across black raspberry again.  At first I was delighted to find it being sold in a campus shop.   That delight passed quickly though.  I discovered that my tastes had changed.  The flavor no longer grabbed me.  Indeed, it seemed surpassed by chocolate or even vanilla now.

Yet — once I rediscovered it — I kept ordering it!  Then one day, while licking a scoop of it, I had a moment when it all became clear to me: Though I no longer much cared for the flavor, I had self identified with it, and giving it up was just a bit frightening to me — as if it would mean giving up part of myself!

For reasons I don’t know, that day’s insight has never dulled in my mind.  It’s as fresh to me today as it was when it first jumped into my head.  So, the other evening, when Ami said, “I think we often limit ourselves by saying something is uncharacteristic of us”, pretty much my first thought was how well her remark tied into my experience of for a while limiting myself to black raspberry at uni even though I had by then become bored with it.

Of course, Karina’s remark that, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”, also struck a chord with me.  The problem of unnecessarily limiting ourselves as a consequence of self-identification would be a very minor one if we only did it with a few things here and there, and those things were relatively unimportant to our quality of life.  But we do it routinely, and with myriads of things.  If we are not careful, we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way.

Yet, why does it happen?  Why do we oppress ourselves in that way?

I believe the best way to answer those questions is to make a study of the human self.  And by the “self”, I mean the psychological self, for each of us is not just a physical self, a body, but a psychological self, and it is our psychological self that identifies with things.  What, then, is the nature of this psychological self?

It seems to me that it is no mere accident that the psychological self identifies with things, but that it is its very nature to identify with things.  It can be thought of as always seeking to define itself in terms of its relationships to the things — both tangible and intangible — of this world.  It is important to recognize that it can perform that identification both positively and negatively.  That is, we can define ourselves positively — like I did — as being in some part and way my fondness for black raspberry ice cream.  But it is conceivable that I could have under other circumstances (say, I was repelled by the taste of it) defined myself negatively as being in some part and way a person who doesn’t like black raspberry ice cream.  For instance, a great many people identify themselves as not just “a progressive”, but also as “not a conservative” too.  So, I think the first thing to recognize about the psychological self is that it is always seeking to identify itself in terms of its relationships with things.

A second thing to recognize is that it is always trying to maintain and preserve those relationships.  That is, it can be thought of as wanting them to stay fixed pretty much just the way they are.  Typically change is threatening to the psychological self unless — and this is key — the change in question amounts merely to an aggrandizement of it.

To illustrate, suppose you took up studying Hinduism and quickly came to think of yourself as “someone who is studying to become a Hindu”.  It is doubtful in those circumstances that you would feel threatened by learning more and more about Hinduism.  After all, what you are learning does not contradict your image of yourself as “someone studying to become a Hindu”.  Instead, it expands on that image, it aggrandizes it.

But now suppose you pick up a book on Islam and you come across a passage in which the author asserts that Islam is the one true religion, and that all other religions are false, including Hinduism.  Now you might feel threatened because the author’s view contradicts your image of yourself.  The psychological self readily embraces new things and changes that aggrandize it, but just as readily rejects new things and changes that diminish it.

But if all this talk of the psychological self happens to be true — and that’s something for you to decide — then why does the self behave as it does?

I believe the psychological self is essentially a defense mechanism.  More precisely, it functions to identify or define that which we should defend in order to survive.  This might not be so easily seen if all you’re thinking of is the self identifying with a scoop of ice cream.  A scoop of ice cream is certainly not all that important to our survival.  Why would we need to identify with it?  But the self identifies with much else, and much that is key to our survival.

I am reminded here of the time Jiddu Krishnamurti met a tiger.  He and a few friends were traveling in a car through a forest in India when they came upon a tiger in the road.  The driver stopped the car, and the tiger began to prowl about it.  Krishnamurti’s window was open, and as the tiger passed beneath it, Krishnamurti — who at that moment happened to be in a meditative state in which he was selfless — spontaneously moved to reach out and pet the tiger.

Even Krishnamurti himself later admitted that it was fortunate one of his friends immediately leaped to pull back his arm and then roll up the window.  The incident illustrates the importance of the psychological self.   Without it, we would not defend ourselves against many — perhaps even the overwhelming majority of — the threats and dangers we face in life.  We might still have our defensive reflexes — such as reflexively ducking when an object is thrown at our head, or throwing our arms up when a tiger is actually charging us — but we would lack an ability to imagine threats to us: To see in the non-charging tiger who is at the moment merely passing peacefully beneath our window a potential threat to our selves.   In order to conceive of something as a threat to us, we must first and perhaps foremost have some notion of an “us”.  That is, some notion of a self.   By identifying and defining what is us, the psychological self functions as a key component of our self defense.

To be sure, its functioning is by no means perfect.  For one thing, it so quite often causes us to defend when no defense is actually needed.   I think nearly everyone knows at least one or two touchy people who have some nonessential image of themselves that they nevertheless defend as vigorously as if their lives depended on it.  I once knew a woman who so self identified with the brand of cigarettes she smoked that I one day inadvertently brought her nearly to tears by saying nothing more threatening to her than, “I have never been able to stand the taste of cigarettes, including your brand.”  From what she said to me next, it was as if I’d slapped her.

The psychological self, then, by functioning to define our self images creates the self that we will strive to preserve and maintain, while allowing that self to change only in ways that aggrandize it.  Although this is a vital, albeit imperfect, component of our defense against dangers to us,  it can turn on us oppressively if we are unskillful in coping with it. When that happens, we can become as inflexible in our views, attitudes, routines and behaviors as stone, rendering us ridged, insensitive, and uncreative when meeting the challenges of life, and unable to seize upon those challenges in order to develop ourselves in new, perhaps unforeseen ways.  In short, we become the tyrant of our own lives, our own oppressor.

Your thoughts?

Can Meditation Align Our Mind with Love?

The Purpose of Meditation?

Years ago, before I knew much about it, I thought the very purpose of meditation was to see deeply into yourself and the nature of the world.  Thus, I thought meditation competed with the sciences in so far as the sciences are about seeing into yourself and/or the nature of the world.  And that was a reason not to meditate.

That is, I used to dismiss mediation because I thought of it as a crude or primitive science. And why study a crude and primitive science for insights when you can read an up to date textbook for the same thing?

Today, I still don’t know much about meditation except — perhaps — that seeing deeply into yourself and the nature of the world is by far not its purpose.

In fact, meditation seems to lack any purpose.   In that respect, it is precisely like nature in that it does not actually come with a purpose.  Instead, the only purposes it has are the purposes we humans assign to it.  We can say its purpose is to produce insights into ourselves and the world, but that is our purpose and not its purpose.  We can say its purpose is to cleanse or refresh the mind, but — again — that is our purpose and not its purpose.  Indeed, we are free to give it any number of purposes — but none of those purposes belong to it anymore than the purposes we ascribe to nature are properties of nature.

One Kind of Meditation

Now, I am not an expert meditator.  Instead, I am a rank amateur with an opinion.  Which is enough to get me in some jurisdictions tax exempt status as a clergyman.   So, please take this description of my technique for what it’s worth — that is, as an opinion and not as an expert opinion.

To me, even if to no one else, meditation is ideally about seeing without someone who sees, observing without an observer.   In short, it’s radically different from normal perception — which always involves a division of the world into the one who sees and the thing that is seen.

However, that ideal can no more be brought about by mediation than a breeze can be brought about at will.  So I don’t try to accomplish or achieve that ideal anymore than I would try to accomplish or achieve bringing about a breeze.  Instead, I begin a meditation by watching what is happening.

I watch what is happening in my mind and the world.  Of course, there is a division between what I am watching and me, the watcher.   The presence of that division means I am not actually meditating — because in genuine meditation there is no distinction between the watcher and the watched.

And that is how I begin a meditation.  Simply by observing the perceptual division between the observer and the observed.  From there, things tend to take their own course.

What That Kind of Meditation is Not

So far as I am concerned, there is no genuine meditation so long as there is a division between me and what I observe.  That’s why I don’t try to force my mind to be still by concentration.  Concentration is an act of an observer upon a thing observed: It is a “me” imposing something upon a “mind”.  And so long as I am acting as an agent upon something, I am not one with the thing I am acting upon.

Nor is there genuine meditation so long as there is judgment or purpose.  Both judgment and purpose — which seem to arise out of each other — imply an agent who does the judging or sets the purpose.  And that agent is apart from what it acts upon.

What That Kind of Meditation Can Be

I have noticed some of the best meditations in my life seem to correspond with the times in my life when I am in love.  At those times, meditation often comes naturally.   But the kind of love I speak of here is not based on desire.  It seems based more on non-judgmental and purposeless acceptance.

I do not think my technique of meditation can bring about that love any more than willing can bring about a breeze.  At best, it merely opens the windows so that a breeze — if one arises — can come in.  That is, my technique seems to align the mind to the nature of that love — and thus open the windows to it.  But — paradoxically — to make aligning the mind the purpose of the meditation is to defeat it.

The Challenge of Uncertainty

I think to varying degrees, many of us have been taught the challenge is to arrive at a firm opinion or belief.  And, of course, it helps if that’s also a true belief.

At times, it seems as if we think the human mind somehow finds it difficult to harbor a conviction.  Yet, after seven or eight years of reading debates and discussions posted on popular internet forums,  I suspect most of us might be too certain of our beliefs and opinions.

That is, it does not seem we humans have as much of a problem being certain as we have a problem being uncertain.

At the root of this problem I think is the human desire for permanence.  That desire manifests itself in many ways, but one way seems to be how it manifests itself as a fetish for convictions.  I think the sense is, if our beliefs last, so do we.

It might be that the real challenge is — not to have a firm opinion or belief — but to be open to learning something new.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

Two Monks, Two Religions, and a Tale of White Lace Panties

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”.  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Mathew 5: 27-29, New International Version

It is all but certain that Mathew 5:27-29, with its strongly worded suggestion that hell awaits those of us who lust,  has both terrified and dismayed more than one newly post-pubic boy or girl.  At that age, one is scarcely in control of one’s lusty thoughts, let alone one’s lusty desires.

Even though I am now 54, I still have a distinct memory of a moment in middle school when I was absolutely seized by the entirely accidental, one-second-long, sight of a classmate’s white lace panties.  If at that instant a bolt of lightening had struck me, I would not have noticed the additional shock.

It seemed to me at the time that it took ten minutes before I could again think.  And my very first thought afterwards was embarrassingly geeky: I thought of Mathew and wondered how anyone — anyone! — could be expected to control their sexual feelings.

Although it was a trivial event, it played a large role in shaping what I thought of Christianity during middle school and high school.  I had until then fervently embraced Christian ideals — or, at least, what I understood at the time to be Christian ideals — even though I was most days an agnostic.

But I began to suspect the ideals might be hopelessly impractical, and I turned an increasingly skeptical eye towards them.  By the time I began reading Nietzsche at 15, I was pretty well prepared to accept the notion that Christian ideals were not the Alpha and the Omega of values.

Strange how so much seems in hindsight to have ridiculously depended upon the second-long sight of someone’s white lace panties.

Of course, there are varying interpretations of Mathew 5: 27-29.  A lot seems to depend on how you interpret the Greek,  epithumeo.  It is commonly translated along the lines of “to lust”, or “to lust after”, which seems to suggest to many of us that merely desiring to have sex with someone out of wedlock will land us in hellfire.  And those of us who think that way appear to be in good company.  John Calvin, for instance, wrote, “This teaches us also, that not only those who form a deliberate purpose of fornication, but those who admit any polluted thoughts, are reckoned adulterers before God.”

Other folks interpret the passage more kindly.  Some argue that epithumeo should be translated as “a strong desire”, “to desire greatly”, or “to long for”.   And a few go so far as to suggest that, taken in context, it means, “to covet”.  In both instances, the notion seems to be that only an unusally strong or covetous desire will land you in hell.

Yet, regardless of how the passage should be understood, it is a pretty safe bet the passage is quite often understood to condemn those of us who have any desire at all for sex with someone to whom we happen not to be married.  C. H. Spurgeon almost joyfully writes:

So that the unholy desire, the lascivious glance, everything that approximates towards licentiousness, is here condemned; and Christ is proved to be not the Abrogator of the law, but the Confirmer of it. See how he shows that the commandment is exceedingly broad, wide as the canopy of heaven, all-embracing. How sternly it condemns us all, and how well it becomes us to fall down at the feet of the God of infinite mercy, and seek his forgiveness.

On the surface, at least, Christianity seems to raise quite a racket over the notion that our thoughts are absolutely crucial to our moral standing.  Yet, the notion that thoughts — mere thoughts — can be of great consequence to us was not entirely new by the time of Jesus.

The author of Matthew might have been the first person to stir hell into the mix, but the Buddha is alleged to have said some similar things 500 years before him.  For instance:  “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” Again, “Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.”  And, last, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.  When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

To me, that last quote is the most significant of the three I’ve presented here because it tells us the benefit of guarding our minds against negative thoughts.  That is, a pure mind, free of negative thoughts, finds “joy”.  And, although I suspect that word “joy” is quite possibly a poor translation, the idea remains that some sort of happiness is to be had by cultivating a pure mind.

If we may now compare the Buddhist notion with the Christian one, we see certain similarities.  First, there is the idea that our thoughts are not merely idle, but have real consequences for us.  Both the Buddhists and the Christians seem to agree on that.

Yet, in the Christian case, as commonly understood, the consequences are potentially devastating: Eternal hell.  Naturally, I wish to say to Matthew, “Lighten up! Those were rather nice panties.  And besides, it was an even nicer person who was wearing them.  For that,  I’m going to hell?  Could you be any more absurd?”  Of course, the Christian emphasis on hellfire is distasteful, unless your aesthetic sense rivals that of a wolverine.

In the Buddhist case, the consequences are much less grim, if no less serious.  Instead of eternal hell, there is dukkhaDukkha is most often translated as “suffering”.   And, while it has that implication, I prefer to return to its original meanings.  There are three that I know of.

First, the word was once used to denote a lose fit between a chariot wheel and its axle, such that the wheel wobbled.  Second, the word was once used to denote a poor fit between a potter’s wheel and its stand, such that the wheel screeched when turned.  And, last, the term was used to denote a dislocated shoulder or hip.  The common meaning to all three cases is something like, “out-of-jointedness”.

Of course, there are many words to describe the consequences of that out-of-jointedness, “…including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.”  Or, perhaps, in other words, “hell on earth”.

If, when comparing the Buddhist and Christian notions of what negative thoughts lead to, you squint very long and very hard, the two notions can seem remarkably similar.  Especially, if you broaden the Christian concept out from its narrow reference to sexual desire, and instead think of the concept as encompassing any poorly managed desire, whether a poorly managed desire for sex, or money, or power, etc.   And after that,  you can take the Christian concept of hell and declare it is a mere metaphor for suffering on earth.   In the end, after all that intense squinting, the Buddhist and Christian notions might seem pretty much the same.

That’s a lot of squinting, though.

I have a little story that illustrates to me one of the most important differences between the Buddhist and Christian views of negative thinking.

Some long time ago, I came across an Evangelical Christian website that was busy conducting an informal survey on the subject of, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?”  The question brought to my mind a Zen tale of two monks:

[The monks] were travelling when they came to a swollen stream. Standing in the road beside the stream, wondering how she might cross, was a beautiful young woman. Without hesitation, the older monk picked up the woman and carried her across the stream. She thanked him and went on her separate way. The two monks then travelled on together for several hours, until the younger monk, deeply troubled, could no longer remain silent. “Brother, aren’t we forbidden to have any physical contact with women?”, he asked. Replied the older monk, “I put her down several hours ago, but you are still carrying her.”

Now, the word, dukkha, in addition to all the other many ways it can be translated, can also be translated as “clingingness”, or “emotional clingingness”.  And, when we hear the tale of the two monks in light of that fact, it might become apparent to us that the younger monk was clinging — emotionally clinging — to the young woman long after she was gone and out of his life.  While, of course, the older monk had both physically and emotionally let go of her several hours ago.

To my mind, that tale illustrates that, to the Buddhist, the real problem is not simple sexual desire, but rather, sexual desire that is clung to, that is nursed, that is dwelt on, that is cultivated, and thus sustained beyond its natural course.

Put differently, it is not, perhaps, the thought itself that makes it negative, but our all too human tendency to emotionally cling to the thought that makes it negative — a tendency that, unfortunately, can often lead to “… suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration“.

Last, it seems to me that the Christian concept of negative thoughts, understood in its broadest possible sense, all too often leads to the notion that others should take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings.  The Evangelical website phrased it as a question, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?”  But why should that even be a question?  From a Buddhist perspective, we — and we alone — are responsible for our emotional clingingness.

At any rate, it’s early in the morning, the birds are singing, and it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.

Being True to Yourself Despite Praise and Condemnation

Yesterday I wrote, “Most of us spend our lives trying to change ourselves through alternate praise and condemnation.  Indeed, we are trained to do so.  But praise and condemnation are not paths to lasting change and anyone who embarks upon them will backslide again and again.”  In response, The Cognitive Dissenter insightfully pointed out that bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from others was a very good way to alienate us from ourselves: “So tempting and easy to do but so betraying to our true selves”.

I would like to make two comments here on her insight.  First, and most simply, I think it is possible — perhaps even commonplace — for us to become alienated from ourselves not only through bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from others, but also from bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from ourselves.

Consciousness functions a bit like an editor or censor.  “She has green eyes…no, emerald.” “I am happy…well, somewhere between happy and really happy.”  It often second-guesses what we’re doing.  “Did I do that well enough?”  “Did I do it the right way?”  “Should I have called Sally?”  “Have I started too late on my taxes?”  It can be extraordinarily critical at times, and yet lavish with exaggerated praise at other times.  “Damn!  I can’t get the remote to work.  I am so worthless around electronics!” “I can’t believe I scored that goal.  I am completely more awesome than I ever thought I was.”  Anyone who has had the fortune of experiencing an awareness when consciousness was not present knows that all of that editing, censoring, second-guessing, blame and praise goes out the door with consciousness.

Now, consciousness is to varying extents a useful tool in dealing with the world.  How many of us could get along without it?  Yet if we take it too grimly — say, by paying undue attention to its praise or blame of us — it’s constant and often contradictory chatter will toss us one way and another until we become alienated from ourselves.

Of course, there is quite often a very close relationship between the praise and condemnation we receive from others, and the praise and condemnation that originates with us.  For one thing, we often amplify, put on an endless loop, or otherwise modify the praise or condemnation we receive from others.   But in practice, it’s not always that hard to differentiate between what began with others and what began with us.  Hence, we can sometimes find ourselves misled by our own praise and condemnation of ourselves.

Next, The Cognitive Dissenter’s insight raises to my mind the question of how we can be true to ourselves?  As it happens, Sey intelligently raised a closely related issue the other day on a different post: “I’m sort of scratching my head trying to understand this true to oneself thing. If we systematically peeled off the layers of socialization, would we find a core ‘self’ — or nothing?”

At first glance, it would seem we cannot talk of being true to oneself without first defining what is the self.  And as Sey points out, that is no easy task.  Yet, I believe we have a work-around here.  Instead of first defining what is the self, we might simply state in general terms what happens when one is true to themselves.  Thus, as I wrote yesterday: “I propose being true to oneself occurs when what you feel, what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony with each other.”  By “harmony”, I mean that what you feel, think, say, and do compliment each other, rather than conflict.

Now I believe that is a key test of whether you are being true to yourself.  That is, you will find it to be the case to the extent you are being true to yourself, but not the case to the extent you are not being true yourself.

Now, it’s my contention the harmonious relationship between what you feel, think, say, and do can be broken up depending, among other things, on how we respond to praise and condemnation.  Furthermore, when me handle praise and condemnation unskillfully, we seem very likely to lose that harmony, and thus become to one extent or another alienated from ourselves.

Ultimately, I suppose, we should ourselves take full responsibility for how we respond to such things as praise and condemnation.  I would argue for our taking responsibility on two grounds: First, not many people will take responsibility for us, so we should, for the sake of our well-being, take it for ourselves, and next, because we don’t actually need others to take responsibility for us given it is possible for we ourselves to deal skilfully with praise and condemnation.

Those, at least, are my views on this issue of the role praise and condemnation perhaps too often play in alienating us from ourselves.  To those of you who have patiently read all 881 words of this tedious blog post, my profound thanks.  To those of you who have cheated by skipping most of it and who are now only reading the second to last paragraph, my profound admiration.

At any rate, what do you make of the role, if indeed there is one, that praise and condemnation can play in alienating us from ourselves?