Tag Archives: self

Shopping for a sense of self

Many adverts encourage us to feel that their product will help us ‘discover a new you’. Some do it explicitly, others by showing us the joyful, rewarding lives we could have if only we switched to their tampon brand, their skin cream, their shampoo. If you are feeling lost and dissatisfied, purchasing your identity can be persuasive. Buy this coffee to have a kitchen full of attractive friends. Buy this soft drink so your kid will have a social life.

This diet. This brand of clothing. This holiday destination. This credit card… Of course when we buy them, they do not magically transform us into beautiful, successful, satisfied human beings with shiny kitchens. Unsatisfied by ourselves, we remain open to the next suggestion about the trainers, deodorant, make of car that can save us from ourselves.

Alongside this, we are persuaded to buy things for the kind of person we want to be, or want other people to believe we are. We buy the yoga clothes and the pilates ball. The frozen smoothies, the exercise bike, the DIY stuff, the cookery books for fancy dinner parties we will never host. The massive table for the fantastic dinner parties we will never host… And the things we buy do not transform us into a domestic goddess, or a sleek athlete, or anything else.

We keep consuming. We keep buying things we do not need, and that do not make us happy. We keep buying the idea that we could become the people we wish to be through our purchasing. Alongside this, we buy into the idea that our brand choices are a good expression of identity. If we wear a designer label, it means something about who we are. If we pick tango over pepsi, it’s an identity statement. Adverts are loaded with messages about how your buying choices represent you, and give signals to other people about who you are. The most basic social needs we have for love and friendship will be answered by purchasing the products that draw the right people to us.

The more unhappy we are, the more vulnerable we are to these cynical manipulations. The more energy and resources we put into trying to buy a sense of self, the less we are investing in growing something on the inside that might answer all these needs. The more obsessed we are with purchased surfaces, the less able we are to look past them and see the human beings around us.


The disturbingly biochemical self

Emotions are chemistry. I know this as theory, but it’s only when my body chemistry has broken down – something I’ve experienced more than once – that the extent of it is visible to me. My emotional reactions are, to a large extent dependent on the chemical responses my body is capable of and inclined to do. I know at a brain level, that’s all messages passing electronically and chemically through the system, and habits of thought form pathways which we easily follow.

Burnout has stripped me of my capacity to create endorphins. I’ve had more than a week of being sorely limited in my scope to feel good. In the past I’ve lost my ability to create adrenaline when needed. I’ve lost other things that affect mood, passion, sense of self. My feeling self can be stripped away by chemical imbalance. My mental self could be stripped away by injury or illness, or corrupted by habit or circumstance.

‘Me’ may mean nothing more than a habitual set of chemical interactions.

And yet, even when my chemical self is compromised and I don’t recognise my own reactions, I still hold a sense of self that I cannot reduce to biochemical explanations, and that seems stronger than the mechanisms. In the depths of depression I may not have much of my usual passion, but I can still hold and believe in the idea of it, I can still identify with it. The ‘me’ in all of this can create deliberate changes to the biochemistry, with different foods, rest, exposure to sunlight, activity levels, choice of environment and so forth. I can craft the context that shapes my chemical self, and I can engineer myself round to being able to think and feel in the ways that are more in-line with my intentions.

I have spent years using meditation and CBT techniques to get my fear responses back where I want them. I’ve learned how to manage anxiety by managing my own thought processes. There is, for all of the chemistry of self, a big role for choice in all of this. How I choose to live shapes the chemistry I have which gives me my emotional life.

That in turn raises the question of who or what is doing the choosing. When I choose to become something other than my situation, something different from my current chemistry, when I set out to modify my reactions and change how I am in the world, some aspect of ‘me’ is taking the entirety of ‘me’ towards being someone I previously was not. It’s easier to think of higher self and soul as being in charge – easier because these words and concepts are at my disposal. I remain fascinated by the way in which consciousness is able to imagine itself into new shapes and able to deliberately create the situations that will get those new shapes.

The general wisdom is, that consciousness is a consequence of physical reality. However, there is a school of thought that the reverse is true, that consciousness creates reality. The more I look at my issues of identity and chemistry, the more convinced I am by the second approach.

A sense of self

Who am I? This physical presence in the world, more awkward than I would like. A soft animal body that blesses me with perception and the scope for action. A story of physical ugliness and unacceptability I’ve been told too many times. Uneasily feminine, mother of a child who stands on the brink of adulthood. A body that works, and weeps, and does what it can and wants to do more. A body that used to dance, and hasn’t in a long time. A voice that seldom finds reason to sing anymore. Even so, I’m probably less alienated from my body at the moment than I have ever been.

Who am I? An obsessive mind full of uncertainties. Questioning all things, trying to make sense of an increasingly incomprehensible world. An anxious, uneasy mind, desperate to be doing more, but limited by the realities of a body that cannot give indefinitely without rest. A mind fighting to stay sane in face of the madness of ecocide, the needless greed and cruelty shaping this age.

A feeling being, intense in those feelings but not defined by any of those feelings. Always either too much (too intense, too needy) or not enough (not compassionate, patient, generous enough). Feeling, but never seeming to feel the right things at the right times to fit neatly in with everyone else. Feeling, but hiding those feelings, inherently dishonest in matters of the heart in the hopes of not causing offence or inconvenience.

There was a time when I would have defined myself in terms of my aspirations. That was some decades ago. I no longer have much sense of direction, more a suspicion that I’m not really going anywhere, that there isn’t much else I am going to achieve.

There was a long time when I would have defined myself in terms of what I was doing – writer, folky, activist, parent. These days I do what I can and I do what seems necessary but feel little sense of identification with any of it. There were times when I defined myself by the communities I belonged to, and the people I felt most closely associated with. I’ve come to think of myself as someone who isn’t very good at community or at friendship.

I’m aware that for many spiritual people, the loss of the ‘little me’ and the ego is a spiritual goal. Get rid of the clutter of identification and ideas about self to be a more authentic spiritual being. Clearly what I’m experiencing isn’t some kind of enlightenment or improvement. It feels like disorientation, loss of purpose, and increasing despair in all aspects of my life.

But then, is the loss of ego for spiritual purposes really a loss of identity? Or does the person simply import spiritual values, spiritual community, a sense of being respected as a spiritual person and a sense of being good, worthy and enlightened, in replacement for all the things they were previously hanging their sense of identity from? I expect it feels great to have an identity that is so firmly rooted in a spiritual path.

It’s not easy to function when you don’t know who you are. How do you make choices when you don’t really know what you want? How do you find the motivation to do anything? It’s not, let me be clear, the peace of slipping into simplicity either, because the not knowing, is not simple. It’s confusion, and unsettling, and never knowing what call to make.

About the only bit of me I can be sure of, is this awkward flesh self, but I can only be sure about it in a feeling way. The stories I have are also uncertain. This body I understood to be funny looking, unattractive, unfeminine, badly proportioned, unloveable, and which a few people insist on seeing very differently.

Who am I?

Honestly, I’ve no idea.

Unpicking the double standards

Part of the work I’ve been doing in recent weeks has been to try and unpick the logic holding together my personal reality. Without understanding the mechanics, it is difficult to make conscious and deliberate changes (but not, it should be noted, impossible.) There is history here, and lots of it, and I could tell stories of how I got to be where I am – but they are long and dull, and the stories underpinning your reality will be very different anyway.

I don’t know if it’s a bottom line, but the issue of double standards is a large and serious part of why I see things as I do. Being trained to accept and uphold a double standard underpins a reality of twisted logic and inherent unfairness. Perhaps it is because of the double standard that I do not protect my boundaries well and have on a number of occasions ended up far more involved with unreasonable people than was good for me. They are allowed to get angry about things, I am not. They are right, and I am wrong (always) they are good and I am unreasonable, they are perfectly acceptable as they are, I must work very hard and make lots of changes. And so on. Endlessly. It’s impossible to be happy if I don’t spot this early and step away from it.

My acceptance of the double standard has been absolute. In my toughest patches, ingesting the double standard further has left me feeling sub-human, made of straw, not a real person. Of course they would react this way. Of course they would treat me like this. And so I don’t stand up for myself, protect my boundaries or ask for what I need all too often, and I perpetuate the double standard still further and accept it as who I am. It becomes ok to hurt me, to ignore me, blow hot and cold, get cross with me, mess me about in any number of ways, make impossible demands.

There’s very little I can do about other people’s attitudes to me, current or historical. What I can do, and have done, is to question my own beliefs and choices. It hasn’t been easy, letting go of the idea that there is something about me which makes any kind of unkindness or lack of care make perfect sense. I’ve kept this story because it has allowed me to think well of people who I otherwise cannot think well of. It allows me to function in situations where otherwise I might quit and run away. I have come to the conclusion that this is not a good thing.

Habits and beliefs of a lifetime do not fall away overnight. To change this I am going to have to pay a lot of attention to my own emotional responses, to spot what I genuinely feel before I slip into suppression and co-operation mode. I have to watch my own thinking, alert to signs that I am letting someone else get away with something that would be totally unacceptable if I did it. I have to check my actions and make sure I’m not doing things that keep me in these loops. None of this will resolve quickly, but habits of thought can be changed.

I need to draw up some new lines about what is acceptable and what isn’t. I need to work out what is intolerable to me, draw a line, and hold it. Without these things, proper boundaries and a sense of self are just not available, and to go forward, I need to relate to myself as being as much a person as anyone else.

Identity and address

When pondering that deep question of ‘what defines the self?’ we might bring location into the mix. The land we grow up in, the shape of it, climate, trees and the such can shape our growing selves. We might think about our relationship with the soil, and the presence, or absence of the bones of our ancestors. There’s much scope for getting all poetic here.

What you probably won’t jump to thinking about, is the relationship between your postal address and your identity. Legally speaking, your post is a big part of your identity. Your credit rating, police checks, your contracts, and ability to access the wider world are all tied to the post. Your ability to vote in elections depends on an address, or a lot of wrangling, assuming you can find out how to do that. In some circumstance, a letter or two with your name and address on, constitute proof of identity. For most of us, most of the time, there’s no reason to give that a second thought.

It was only when we moved to the boat that this one really hit me. By having a care-of address rather than a letter box of my own, I was suddenly a bit marginalized. Extra hoops to jump through sometimes manifested. Lengthy explanations had to be given. No, we don’t live at the post office, we live on a boat. Fortunately, the lady running our post office was brilliant and really went out of her way to help us. For example, important paperwork allowing you to stay in the country can only be delivered to your postal address and your passport must be shown to get it, and no, they can’t give you a day or time. All manner of things I had taken for granted suddenly became tricky. We managed, but it was a lot of unwelcome hassle.

This is a common issue for boaters. I’m sure other travelling people must have the same problem, and for anyone who is homeless, it’s another problem to add to the many. It was an isolating and unnerving experience, and it left me feeling vulnerable and disenfranchised. With housing ever harder to afford, housing benefit being capped, wages not going up while rents and mortgages rise, ever more people are going to have to resort to unconventional living arrangements, for the short term and for some, probably longer. Cars, caravans, boats, yurts, couch surfing… there are all kinds of solutions that take you out of what is normal. There are, I gather, people in the UK who in desperation have resorted to living in caves. No postal address there. Where poverty gives rise to shanty towns, no formal addresses exist, and those at the margins are vulnerable indeed.

We don’t tend to think about legal identity as part of our personal identity unless we are pushed into a place where that’s an issue. It can come as a nasty shock. A person without paperwork struggles to legally exist as a person at all. I’m a Druid, author, daydreamer, wife, parent, cat-mother, activist, trouble maker… I am now a person who can apply to vote, a person who pays council tax and has something of an official existence. I didn’t notice those as being part of myself until I no longer had them. What else have I taken for granted? What else is more fragile and unreliable than I would wish to think?

Desire and the quest for self

I blogged ages back about trying to build some sense of self. So much of my default behaviour has been reactive, not any kind of ‘me’ and I’m trying to fix that. I’ve mentioned T Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of your Life a couple of times this week, because it chimed for me in a number of ways, and this is another one of those. One of the concepts driving the book is the importance of desire in defining who we are and what our work in this world is.

What do I desire?

I still have trouble being honest with myself about what I need, and seeking that. I spent too long in circumstances where needs were not being met, and I learned not to think about it too much. I’ve been working on this one, and on being able to want things. Again, historically there were issues about being able to choose for myself – food, clothes, ornamentation, and other personal things. When I was much younger the issues were financial, in later life I found myself under a lot of pressure to be what other people wanted. I didn’t know how to resist that. Now, there is nothing to resist. I can go into clothes shops and wonder what I might wear. I seldom buy anything, I’m just trying to imagine some preferences and feelings. Those are coming. I’m working on letting myself want small, ordinary things, and I’m progressing, but desire?

I want to know what is most essential to me. I think that uncovering and understanding what I desire would go a long way to helping me establish that, and I like the idea that questing after my heart’s desire is a good way of figuring out what my work should be. I love writing, but that’s like saying I love breathing. I feel crap if I don’t do it. There are all manner of things around my relationship with my bloke that fire my imagination, my senses, my intentions. I’m remembering how, when I was much younger, I believed that my work could make a difference and add something good to the world. The loss of that belief crushed a lot of my desires around writing, but I’m rebuilding.

I want to help, and do good stuff. I think a part of what blocks me is disbelief. There’s a partner to desire, a necessary second for that dance to work – some sense that it is possible. Hopeless desire for unobtainable things will not get a person out of bed in the morning. Might as well lie there and dream the day away, and avoid the real life disappointments. Some kind of belief that there is even a shred of a chance, is necessary for undertaking any work. I can do what is necessary as an ‘in the moment’ thing, but I can’t do anything bigger, and as I crack that idea of desire open, the need to do something that makes a difference is clear to me. Doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but it does have to be real, and worth enough to make sense of the effort.

So I think what I desire most at the moment is hope, and I think I’ve got to build that for myself, but that’s something to be working on while I figure out other stuff.

The quest for self

I follow Jo’s blog http://www.octopusdance.wordpress.com with a mix of fascination and bemusement. I’ve blogged here in response to her writing a few times now. I think Jo is a brilliant blogger, and I am intrigued by the reflections that come from her blending Zen and Druidry. I’m also very conscious that I’m reaching for something entirely different, but that often means I find her words very helpful, enabling me to get some sense of where I’m not going.

I’ve come to realise that the loss of self and the endeavour to live wholly in the moment are not for me. I do strive to be present, but am aware that my life exists very much between past and future in a way that I am not inclined to relinquish. Rather than wanting to relinquish self, I’m working to know and understand who I am with a view to developing and growing into something more like who I want to be. As Paul Newman said in the comments on my last post, “Who am I?” is the most important question to ask, from this perspective.

I’m engaged in an ongoing process of picking apart my beliefs, assumptions and habits, to find out what they are made of, whether they make sense and if I want to keep them. In parallel I keep experimenting to try and find out, based on what I actually do, what kind of person I am. If this sounds in any way weird, self referential, navel-gazey, and rather an odd way to go around thinking about myself… well, it is. But, I’ve had my perceptions and sense of self messed with so badly that the only sane way forward I can see is to try and dismantle what I can and rebuild.

I came to believe that I was an unreasonable, aggressive, demanding, ungrateful, lazy sort of person, irrational, fond of emotional blackmail, manipulative, dishonourable, perpetually dishonest, a lousy parent, sexually cold and more… I came to a place, some years ago where I either had to reject this entirely, or the depth of self loathing and feelings of worthlessness this had engendered would have driven me to suicide. I had no sense of self worth in those days and an increasing suspicion that the only positive contribution I could make to the world would be my death. This is not, I must observe, a very good place to live. Retrospectively I am a lot more suspicious about the way those feelings were engendered in me. But I still have the fallout to deal with, and a sense of self woven through with misinformation, fear and wounding. I don’t want to be that person any more.

Now, perhaps there are ways of releasing and melting the self, zen-style, that would solve this for me, but I’ve no idea how to do that. I get the impression that in zen, the act of letting go of the self would solve all this. It doesn’t speak to me. Even the promise of relief from pain is not tempting enough, it turns out. I don’t want to let go. I want to understand.

As with the recent illness example, there’s a process. Slowly, I get some sense of why I feel as I do, where beliefs have come from and what holds them together. That enables me to consider how useful they are and whether they are supported by good evidence. Where I can see, rationally, that I’ve been led to think in certain ways because it served someone else, I can consider trying to think differently. Emotions are slower to shift but I’ve been told they will follow the thoughts in time and that I can use my rational thinking to re-craft my emotional self. So I’m trying to do just that. Thinking, experimenting, trying to work out what is intrinsically ‘me’ as opposed to things that were inflicted on me from the outside. Much of who I am owes to my environment, but is there an intrinsic self? Are there qualities or attributes, preferences, feelings that are ‘me’ and not about external influence?

If those core things exist, I want to know what they are so that I can build on them, confident of my foundations, and get on with trying to figure out how to be a person. I suspect, if the unpicking process simply unpicks, and only ever finds new knots to unravel then there will come a morning when the quest for self, becomes, all by itself, a more zen-like quest for no self. I’ll keep reading Jo’s blogs not least so that I’ll have some sense of how to proceed if that happens. And if it doesn’t, if I find a core that I believe is intrinsic to me, essential to me… if I find a sense of my own soul and identity in a way I can talk about, I’ll come back and talk about it.

With or without ego

Yesterday Jo wrote about zen over at www.octopusdance.wordpress.com “What I wanted to put forward was the idea of no thought.  In Zen, this is a great and achieved state to be in – the complete stage where you are at one with the universe. The ego has dissolved, and there is only pure connection. Once a thought comes into the equation, it’s as if someone has commented on it – an opinion, a judgement, a thought has occurred on the matter, instantly disconnecting us from the actual moment.  For to make or form an opinion on something, we must detach ourselves – we have to step back from the situation and make a judgement call – this is good, this is bad, this is beautiful, etc.  We bring up our past experiences to relate to in order to say whether something is good, bad or indifferent.  The threads of that moment have been cut.”

This really got me thinking. Note both the ‘me’ and the ‘thinking’. I’m just going to explain where I am and why.

I like thinking. The more I am thinking, the more deeply I am connecting and experiencing. The more conscious I am of myself as present within the moment, the more I experience the moment. I have explored trying to silence that inner voice, trying to dissolve ego etc. It isn’t for me. I live in my own head. I am very conscious of myself as discreet entity in relationship with everything else – which is all individual and unique as well. I am not seeking the kind of oneness Jo describes.

I have mostly made peace with the idea that I am on my own inside my skull, and that I can only experience and interact with other things. I am conscious that there are many complex things – air, soil, ancestry, carbon cycles, water for example that connect me in tangible ways to everything else. There is a whole, and I am part of it, but I experience separateness.

It is only through consciousness of that separation, I think, that I can then explore what I can of all that is not me. Recognising the differences, the otherness, the unknown. It is because I am a discreet entity that the world is full of mysteries, and I like that sense of mystery and otherness.

I want to experience the world in a way that affects me. I want to feel awe and wonder, joy, pain, fear, amazement. I want to experience beauty or disgust as viscerally as I can. This means, from a zen perspective that I may always be one space removed. I am fine with that, and not seeking for more. I am not seeking for oneness. I am aspiring to be something that is unique and deeply engaged with every other unique thing I encounter.

Relationship very much underpins my druidry, and for me, that depends on a sense of difference. I also wonder, in a strange and convoluted way, if there is a risk of a kind of ego-in-not-ego state that a person could inadvertently fall into, if it is possible to be in a state of non-ego at all (I don’t know, I haven’t been there) or if this could become a way of negating self and responsibility – not as an inevitable consequence, but as a place seekers might go by accident. I think about mediaeval mystics and what became almost a luxurious indulgence in self denial. Humbleness can become a weird form of vanity. Excess of piety can turn out to be pride. When we try very hard not to be something, we can end up being it even more, with a layer of confusion pasted over the top. I think about those religious people who preached chastity and flogged themselves to destroy the ‘base impulses’ of the flesh. I think about all the people who enjoy physical chastisement in a sexual content, and wonder what was really happening with those religiously motivated folk.

I suppose we never know what any of it means or whether what we are doing is what we thought we were doing. I can’t know how a tree responds to me, or how the soil feels about my presence. Any relationship I have there is only in my head. And even dealing with people, we so easily see what we want to see, what can feel like profound connection at the time can turn out to have been meaningless.

I am hugely grateful to Jo for the provocation to think about this. It’s really made me look at what I believe, and what I’m seeking. Realising that I am entirely at odds with her perspective has been a perfectly comfortable experience. We do not all need to walk the same path or dance to the same tune. Jo clearly finds something profound and important in the work she does. It would not work for me but then equally, what I do and where I quest would, I suspect, be equally perplexing to some. I don’t think there is any one right way, there is just what speaks to us.