In the first part of this post I discussed conditional ways of using humility as a renunciatory practice, giving up tightly held aspects of the self which turn out to be unhelpful and inessential. I’m going to come back to the quote that started the post: ‘Humility is having nothing invested in the self-image’. This points to a different, unconditional way of discussing humility and identity, and implies that it isn’t even necessary, which I will now ponder on in the form of a blog post…
Lots of different psychospiritual practices talk about the false self and the True Self, hidden self and self-concept, or inauthentic self and genuine self. These are not all the same, pointing to different social, narrative, religious, performative, psychological and spiritual ways of looking at self, which can be explored elsewhere than this article. My point is that there is a lasting dichotomy in many investigations and readings of self between a superficial, displayed self, and an unknown self that needs to be sought out. But there seem to be very few (in my experience) contemplative forms that talk about abandoning the search for self as something unchanging, essential and perfect. What if abandoning that search for an irreducible self is the abandoning of another exercise in grasping? I’m not going to get philosophical or religious in the slightest here: I’m simply going to look at my own experience.
Once I’d done a fair bit of mindfulness practice I began, as I’ve said in previous blog posts, to become aware of more and more of my experienced life as objectified and not under my control: things like thoughts and emotions first became clearly fleeting and arising in the sensorium, but then later things like intention. Now there is a bizarre arising of a clump of sensations whenever I ‘decide to be mindful’ that seems to be the creation of a viewpoint. How this can be when I am viewing the viewpoint is not worth investigating, I’ve long learned; it’s just recursive. It seems to be something about self-consciousness, the attempt to ‘zoom out’ and notice the whole process of mindfulness, rather than mindfulness of a specific object: the attempt to ‘get behind’ it all and, to be honest, own and control it. On the other hand, there is also an awareness that any mindfulness of an object is absorption, mentally, into it: it is the only thing that exists as my reality in that moment. ‘I’ weirdly don’t exist. And my self really doesn’t seem to like it: the hindrances of sloth and torpor, anger, doubt and so on immediately come up and tell me that I must be doing something wrong. To be quite honest, if there’s resistance, I’m probably onto something. So we have a narrow and a wide focus of attention, but in each case, a sense of unease, of getting out of my comfort zone, with impermanence, disatisfactoriness and non-inherence being displayed in ways that feel perceptually bizarre.
Now, to go back to a more social construction of self: in being mindful of my own thoughts, feelings, behaviours, perceptions and so on, there has understandably been the urge to be a better person, and what’s more, to know that I am becoming a better person. But there is a certain amount of self-absorption and inevitable alienation in this. My favourite metaphor is that of the bodybuilder: they look at themselves in the mirror, appraising whether their bodybuilding has been successful or not, to appraise whether they approve of their body. But the experience of living in that body, of being the bodybuilder, is very different to seeing the image of the bodybuilder in the mirror. As soon as you look in the mirror, there is objectification going on. I’m not saying bodybuilding is narcissistic or wrong; I’m saying that there seems to be a gap between being something and seeing that you are something, and you can’t hold both in your mind at the same time. Which is to say that you literally can’t appreciate who you are.
My other favoured example is from one of my favourite films, Kung Fu Panda 2, which I might go on about lots in this blog. Po, the audience stand-in and underdog turned kung fu hero, charges into battle in slow motion with his kung fu master friends, whom he never thought he would be able to emulate. He looks left and right, saying ‘I love you guys!’ as he both lives out his fantasy and sees himself living out his fantasy. It’s appealing because everyone would love to be able to bear out that contradiction, when in fact usually our most amazing feats are in, guess what: a flow state, in which the self seems to disappear. If the Olympic runner thinks about it too much as they do the hundred metres, they will fail. You can’t both wear your clothes and look at how pretty they are. The difference between active and passive pleasures is very interesting, and why many people may want to be an amazing guitarist but in fact find that the practice involved in learning the guitar to a high level is in fact probably quite boring and repetitive for much of the time, requiring unpleasant effort.
It it’s been more ‘authentic’, to discuss concepts of self for a moment, for me to think about what I really enjoy that is beneficial to the world and to do that, without any self consciousness, and to accept a different kind of satisfaction in doing things that are difficult but worth doing. Add that to the fact that you will never be understood entirely by anyone, never receive universal praise for even the most well intended actions, never get complimented for the hidden ethical things you did that no one saw (unless you go around and tell everyone): this self-building is starting to feel very different to me to the experience of living in a way I enjoy and think is ethical. But, and there is a big but, the conditional crawls in again, which is to say: I’m not such a robust, equanimous, positive personality yet that I can abandon all of this self-review without fearing I’ll be unethical; that I can stop wanting to be appreciated for the good things that I do; that I can stop worrying about whether I’m coming across the way I’d like to or not. And I still like to wear fancy clothes.
And so, for me, there is the practice of simply stopping some kinds of self-reflection that are, for me, indulgent, and instead responding intelligently to the feedback that I get from my own body and mind. It is in the moment that I know whether my intentions are pure or not, as there is an awareness separate to the action or intention that has a ‘still small voice’ of conscience its own. This doesn’t need an enormous amount of thought, a specific wardrobe, or inserting into a meticulous philosophical framework on the spot. It doesn’t require me to be proud of getting something right or to beat myself up for days for getting it wrong; it simply requires me to choose the next action rather than go on autopilot. Whether this is the Voice of God, your True Self, the Guidance of the Universe, Buddha Nature or whatever is unimportant to the argument; it’s the willingness to listen to that and live in that mode more often. This is lessening my investment in the self-image: rather than acting to protect my interests, I try to act in the moment in the way I know I need to, which can often be inexplicable, mysterious, daunting. Once again: welcome to the Unconditioned! I’m not very good at it!