Tag Archives: self knowledge

Who we are

The world inside a person’s head may have very little to do with reality from anyone else’s perspective. We are all lead protagonist in the movie of our life, and for some people, the distance between imaginary self and actual self is so wide as to be dangerous. How do we know who we are?

It is really easy to be persuaded by all the things we think we are. We may have decided that we are nice people. Kind, good, generous, etc. Anything we do can be interpreted in that light, and so we cast ourselves as such martyrs, such heroes for making the slightest effort or putting up with the terrible demands of the people around us. The result from the outside, can be that we make our nearest and dearest feel useless and miserable.

Some of us spend a lot of time imagining what we’d do. This is often an issue in Pagan circles, where the lines between the make-believe life and the spiritual life are blurred at the best of times. I’ve met a lot of people who have told me they think they could write a book, and who have a big emotional investment in that statement. There is a long way between imagining yourself as a hugely successful published author, and having written a book. In our heads, maybe we’re doing book tours across America and fending off fans, but if we’ve not written a book, much less got one published, reality and sense of self can become sorely disconnected.

It is easy to let who we think we are and what we think we do replace the actualities. That can be just as easily a negative process. If, for example I think I’m a lot less attractive than I am, my scope to mess up interactions with people is vast, because I will misunderstand signs, and misread intentions. I may have done this along the way, I am unsure.

While an entirely self-referential sense of self is easily held, getting any sense of who we are in the world is incredibly difficult. Seeing through my own beliefs and assumptions to even be able to experience a different view is hard for me. I have recognised that I am far too quick to embrace negative feedback and far too slow to recognise the positive. This is just as harmful to my relationships as imagining myself some kind of irresistible goddess would be. There is no virtue in under-estimating your influence, or in undervaluing your strengths. Modesty and being humble may have been touted as Christian virtues, but they aren’t Pagan ones, and they are a real barrier to honest and open interaction. The virtuous path lies somewhere balanced and in the centre.

Taking time to try and see what we do, and trying to hear how others respond to that is an uneasy process. It can be challenging. Whether the feedback is good or demoralising, if it is a long way from where you think you are, it’s equally disorientating. However, good relationship depends on good flows of communication.

Alongside this, it is also important to try and share honestly with people how they affect us. If someone inspires or uplifts you, if someone enchants you, or gives you hope, taking that moment to tell them is worth a lot. Having been on the receiving end of this is a huge morale boost, it gives reason and meaning to what I was doing, and a sense of where I fit in the world, and I assume the same will be true for everyone else. The more we share and connect, the better. The more we lock ourselves into little, private reality bubbles where our imagined selves dominate, the less visible to us our actual lives will be, and the less control we therefore have over them.

Only in our actions can we know ourselves. Who we think we are, is guesswork. What we actually do is the real measure.

Meditating on the past

For me, paganism is a dedication to consciousness. There is no aspect of my life in which that’s not a possible consideration. I have felt for a long time that I never want to find myself in a position where I’ve done, or said something, and I have no idea why. At college, way back when, I minored in psychology. All that reading up on Freud’s views of the unconscious, our repressed desires and animal drives. I decided that I was going to do my level best not to have my actions directed by inner forces beyond my conscious awareness. On the whole I do ok with this, but it means I think about everything, a lot. I pick over my actions and intentions, question my own motives, watch for dishonourable inclinations and try to maintain full control over myself all the time. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s impossibly hard, and I slip up. I speak sharply, I have a diplomacy fail, I fail to read what other people are signalling. Life is complicated.

One of the hardest areas for me has been dealing with my past. I suspect this could be true for other people too. Things we learn as adults, we know we have learned, and are fully conscious of. However, many of our assumptions about what is normal, are established in our minds in those first years. The years most of us can’t remember properly. Our model for relationship, our sense of self… it all begins in infancy as we absorb unquestioningly everything we are exposed to. It’s one of the reasons that abused children go on to be abusers – it is all they know how to do. Our expectations of how others will treat us, our assumptions about what matters, our values, and priorities can all belong to this hazy infancy time as well.

Deep meditation is a way of poking about into what memory remains, searching for moments when it all began, for realisations, for the key turns of phrase that shaped expectation or defined self. Sometimes it can dredge up unsavoury things. Other times the results make a lot of sense. On occasion, it can be downright dangerous.

Meditation is imaginative work. We can imagine ourselves back into the children we were, trying to see with adult eyes the influences that shaped us. However, the mind plays strange tricks. It can become hard to differentiate between a thing imagined and a thing remembered, leading to false memory syndrome. If we go looking for specific answers to our identities, we may easily find them –not because they are real, but because our unconscious has blithely invented them for us, or speculatively filled in the gaps. No matter how hard you try to pin down your unconscious, some bit of it will be off like a gleeful two year old, smearing something messy over the walls of your psyche.

There is one technique I have found that helps me hold clarity around this issue, distinguishing raw memory from contemplative work. I think in third person when I am meditating on some aspect of my own life. I remember in first person. Thus if I remember something that has a third person voice on it, I know that was something I played with that might, or might not have any other reality to it. I’ve been doing this since my teens, which is probably as well given the breadth and depth of both my inner fantasy life, and my deliberate meditating. It also means that when poking about in old wounds, I can hold a little bit of distance. She did this, and she did that, and she heard this and felt a certain way about it. I am not there now, it belongs to who I was in another time. That deliberate separation also protects me from becoming too enmeshed in older emotions which is also an advantage.

Sometimes it takes years of poking to pin a thing down. I’ve carried for a long time the feeling that being thin equates to being loveable. We’re not talking slender here, we’re talking thin to the point of dangerous fragility. I was a buxom teen, despite my best efforts in the other direction, and have never achieved the kind of thinness I think is called for. Other, more adult, rational and conscious bits of my mind know that being so very thin would not be good for me, and would not make me attractive. But this thin is not about sexual attraction, it’s about being loved. That’s one thing that makes me think wherever I got it, was early on. Poking around over years, I couldn’t pin it down to a single word. I was a slightly rounded child, not fat, but painfully self conscious about it. Why, even when very young, did I want to be the kind of thin that would suggest risk of death?

I got my answer yesterday. It had everything to do with how my child mind interpreted things that probably had nothing to do with me. Sometimes, the things we learn from our environments are not the things anyone meant us to learn. I saw that thinness and fragility in others brought out protective urges in adults. To be that valued, that cared for I would therefore have to be that thin. Probably thinner. I’ve always looked solid and robust, people have tended to assume a coarseness of emotion, a lack of subtle sensitivity alongside that. My body is big, there is no point treating me as in any way fragile. So I recognise the child in me, who wanted to be a delicate little flower, and wasn’t able to be that, and felt like a failure as a consequence. I don’t know if I’ll ever be at ease with my own skin, but this piece of the puzzle takes me a little bit closer to it, I think.

Conscious, unconscious

How aware are you of your own motives? What drives you? Do you find you’ve done or said things and not known why? What does your unconscious mean to you?

For a long time, years in fact, I’ve worked hard to be as fully conscious as I could be. To know what I was doing and why. To know myself. I considered that essential for self growth. I’ve got to the point of having to acknowledge that so far, I’ve not been doing a great job. There were too many things I refused to accept and acknowledge about what was then around me. In so doing, I distorted my sense of self. But it remains an aspiration to be as self aware as I can manage.

What is the unconscious? Is it the place of denial and letting yourself off the hook? Are we talking about Freud’s id, animalistic and selfish, pushing us to do things for less than honourable reasons? That’s not the sort of unconscious I want.

What about dreams? The rich and magical flows of inspiration and creativity we have aren’t tidy, controlled and known things. Inspiration flourishes in the unconscious. Somewhere, between the questing after self awareness, and the denying of some aspects of my reality, I lost track of that. I should have noticed, because for years I barely dreamed, and when I did it usually involved the same dull handful of anxiety nightmares.

I’ve been trying for a different understanding of my own unconscious, seeing it not in ‘id’ terms as something to tackle, but as a dark river that flows underneath what I do. A place of magic, strangeness and potential. Something to be open to, not something to fight. One of the interesting consequences is, having deliberately and consciously shifted my understanding, my unconscious has also changed. I’m dreaming again. Rich, vibrant, startling, inspiring, unsettling dreams full of colour, emotion, and experience. I wake up in the mornings with my head full of all kinds of strange things, and my heart lifted. When I dream in wild and vivid ways, I feel better. It doesn’t have to be obviously meaningful, so long as it is intense.

There is something in me that exists in ways I am not fully aware of. To be entirely conscious would kill it. I have learned that it does not thrive in environments where I am not honest with myself. Too much misplaced blame and having my intuition messed with did not help. Being open to the unknown within me is a whole new journey. There is so much of who I could be, I realise I do not know at all. Potential, awen, the insanity of poetic vision, the delirium of dreaming. I do not need to know all of that so thoroughly that I control it into not existing. I can have self awareness without sacrificing the magic of unconsciousness. I can dream and still be a realist. I can imagine, and recognise truth.

During the period of my life when I was trying hard to suppress and reject all the things that come from magical unreason and dreaming, I was at my least true. Rationality and reason are not the only things in a human mind that matter, and they need balancing. I lost that balance. In trying to be too sane, I became unsane. (not insane, just ill). I mention this because I fear it’s all too easily done, and if I can discourage others from going too far into wanting self control, then all well and good.

We are, I have come to realise, not supposed to know, or understand everything. The trick is knowing what to unravel, and what to keep mysterious. I’m working on that.