For some time a main feature of my internal work has been redefining who I am. Not letting my programming dictate that, but deciding for myself. Of course I set myself up for unfreedom this way too: it’s important to take my definition lightly, playfully — not cling to it or hide behind it; not get stuck in it or beglamored with it. To recognize the inherent limitation of any concept of “self”; to keep opening out to the larger possibilities of being.
Perhaps some day I’ll be able to let go completely of the story of “who I am”; I can imagine the fun of simply improvising every action from some deeper authenticity. Buddha’s teachings help me keep in contact with this ultimate reality. But a lot of Buddhist teachings on how to get there preach an attitude toward “self” that restimulates my conditioning. So I’m looking to get home by another way. (James Taylor singing in the background.)
And meanwhile, it’s useful to have a plan, a framework to hang my hat on. I just try not to let it become full counter-conditioning, rather to focus on learning mental discipline that serves the greater freedom.
Valerie Saiving, in her 1960 essay “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” pointed out that the traditional Christian concept of “sin” was based in inappropriate pride: inflated, overweening ego. And that women did not generally have that problem, but rather a fault of hiding out, avoiding contributing their talents, and demeaning themselves. Women’s sin is different from men’s sin.
What would be the corrective to “women’s sin”? Let’s give a twist to the usual translation of Buddhist terminology that lists various activities as “right” (for example right livelihood, right speech), and talk about “Right Ego” as the appropriate way to do the dance of ego. Yes! the positive way to approach this mess.
For someone who habitually puts herself down, Right Ego means recovering one’s relevance and worth. So I have been working to be clear about my values. Often I discover myself simply rejecting Jesse’s opinion, without any awareness of why, except a feeling of being threatened. Trying to stop shutting down in that situation, at first I would simply lash out in anger — even rage: at my conditioning, at Jesse for his advantage. Learning relationship skills helped me stop blaming him, but it took years of “following my bliss” (to use Joseph Campbell’s phrase) to start finding what I value, what I need to stand up for. Keeping in mind the seductiveness of opinions, I still need to dare to have my own, separate from Jesse’s, separate from my parents’, separate from any guru’s.
This also means owning my feelings. To let myself have them, to acknowledge that they’re happening, and that they’re mine. Not to project them so I think they’re an external fact of existence, or an aspect of someone else. This does not mean blaming myself for feeling them. It does mean just watching them, watching my mind run its trips, without getting caught in them. It’s hard. Habitually I identify with my feelings, thinking they are who I am, and I have to defend that identity. Or try to distract myself with something pleasant to think about.
Or quick! focus on an affirmation that pulls my mind into another direction. This one is even recommended; methods for healing chronic distress patterns often focus on trying to install some sort of positive pattern. For “I am a victim,” for example, substituting “I do a good job of taking care of myself” or “I am a confident, assertive person.” But from my point of view any ego pattern is a limitation of our freely dancing, boundless energy—and to identify with a “positive” one is as much an illusion as with a “negative” one—as likely, in truth, to create defenses, because either one creates a pseudo-reality; captures attention in obsession.
(Hmm, there is a sense in which my daughter Petra is right to object to therapy as “thinking too much.” Very similar to protesting too much.)
This is why outrageous assertions to contradict distress patterns can be more useful than realistic ones: they help us be aware we’re working to get free of a pattern without encouraging us to identify with a new one. So for example if I proclaim
- “Victims of the World, Unite!”
- “Put the Fun back in Dysfunctional!” or
- “Lysistrata now!”
…the purpose is not to install a correct or “positive” mental paradigm, but instead to provoke laughter, to shake down the walls of all my mental prisons. To use story as play.