Note. this post comes from a place of introspection that I sometimes find difficult to find the proper wording for. It’s abstract in nature but still paints a picture that is worth not only discovering, but remembering too. This is why I’ve put it in writing.
A lot of my recent posts have been about the automatic; decision making that is sometimes out of our control. Instinctual quirks that create cognitive biases and sometimes have us behave in ways that are in contrast with our best interests — void of what I would call conscious intention. I don’t have a particularly positive or negative stance on the automatic other than it seems necessary in order for one to function in daily life; however I want to better understand it in an effort to understand myself. To quickly recap, I see this “automatic me” as the following “Me”:
“Me” is an easy enough concept to grasp. It is the physical and mental you, the cumulation of all the G,T,C,As of your genetic makeup along with the personality you’ve developed as you’ve grown. It is all the advantages and disadvantages your heredity gives you, and all the battles you’ve won and lost along life’s journey.
It’s the immediate “you”, the you that lives in the “now.”
Now let’s leave that concept alone for a second and shift gears towards a different understanding of the self. A self that is a construct, and one that often manifests in our future intentions.
This second incarnation of the self is a little bit harder to grasp and I admit I’ve heard many variations and thought I understood it, even when I didn’t. Some call this self the story we tell ourselves about who we are. It’s built by our desires and is composed of countless symbols. Some call this our identity, we built it by looking out into the world and attaching our narrative to the things we want to become, while avoiding the things we don’t care for. Some call this the “symbolic self” or the bridge to consciousness.
My interpretation of symbols is that they are the common building blocks we use to connect with each other. I may attach to a symbol like graciousness, and a good number of my actions might show that, just as I might attach myself to the symbol of good looks, in which case you’ll be aware of my actions to look good. In many ways I think the symbols we attach to will decide our friends, or the people we want to be friends with.
“Myself” is the culmination of the symbols we attach to our identity.
There is a Buddhist philosophy — Anatta (no self), which seems similar to the concept of “myself”. There is no self because “myself” is just the aggregate of the symbols I attach to, if “myself” is just the sum of its parts then my symbolic self is just as “un-real” as the symbols themselves. The Buddhist path is one of avoiding “attaching” altogether; no attachment, no self.
This idea is important because if we look back at the idea of “me”, it has no vehicle by which new acquaintances can consume it. They don’t know your intimate history, or where you come from, or our past actions or intentions. Those we meet can only consume and interpret the symbols we have shown to identify with. Using what symbols they see, they develop an understanding of who “Mike” is.
“Mike” is the self as seen by others. Like “Myself”, “Mike” is composed of symbols, albeit a much smaller number of common symbols in the lexicon of the perceiver. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re a walking ball of symbols, but not in the way you think. You may like hockey, and it’s something you watch because you admire the work ethic and talent of the players, but to someone else this may be a symbol for how you’re a competitive person.
The key here is common symbols.
A while back I wrote an article about compatibility effect, the idea that shared past experience leads you to deeper connection with people. Symbols are perhaps the genesis of this compatibility, they are also the reason people drift apart. A major shift in the symbols to which we attach can make us incompatible with old friends who don’t change.
Nothing (or Everything)
I write this last section with trepidation, since this isn’t an advice column it’s just my attempt to articulate my thoughts. However if there is anything that can teach us who we are it’s the sharp contrast between self (me, myself and mike) and complete lack of self, nothingness. The new age Eastern infused self-discovery gurus tell us we can find this nothingness in meditation, however I admittedly haven’t explored this enough.
I’m not seeking to completely shed my immediate or symbolic self, but instead to understand its levers and shed the symbolic attachments that are nonconstructive, while coming to grips with the reality that “Mike” is completely out of my control.
I also want to focus on attaching to the new, detaching from the old, and re-attaching when needed throughout life.
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
What are you attached to?