I wish to talk a bit more about the self from a Buddhist perspective.
The historical Buddha made the radical discovery that we do not exist as separate beings. He taught that the limited self is an illusion. He added that we suffer unnecessarily because of the belief that there are any separate beings at all, when in fact, all life is continually and interdependently co-arising.
This co-arising is made up primarily of five changing processes (skandhas): body, sensations/feelings, perceptions, impulses/thoughts, and consciousness (vijnana in Sanskrit), the story we are continually telling ourselves about the first four. This ongoing story turns into a sense that there is actually a storyteller, when, in fact, there is not. The sense of a substantial self arises whenever we grasp at or identify with these stories. This self is made up of limited identities with specific roles we take on (e.g., “I am a man, a parent, a grandparent, a Zen teacher”). The “I” needs to protect, defend, and act from these different roles to maintain a feeling of substantiality. And then we spend my whole life holding trying to hold this self with all of its different roles together.
Most of us have more than one persona and we act differently according to the role we play. How you interact in a class is different than how you interact during social hour at Zen center. Often, one persona becomes more prominent. I had a friend years ago who was the clown at Zen Center. People liked his humor, his easygoing laughter, and the reinforcement that he got for it solidified his clown-like persona.
Our patterns of behavior and our personalities are influenced by three factors: genes and biology, environment and culture, personal constructs and goals. My friend Peter is one of the most introverted people that I have ever met. His father was also introverted. And he was raised in a very quiet household. Recently, he had a party for his stepson. He was able to be active and out-going for his guests, because being a “good father” was a vitally important personal construct and goal for him.
And, of course, in Hindu culture and much Buddhist culture there is an additional factor, since both your past lives and the position of the stars when you are born influence who you are and who you become. A famous Indian astrologer drew up my chart many years ago. After she had completed it, I realized that I had given her my wrong time of birth. She re-did it and it came out quite different, resembling me much more than the original one.
However it occurs, we put all of our different selves into one singular identity. The when we are out of sorts, we say, “I am not myself today.” When I was a young man I worked in a nursery run by a Japanese family. The owner never went on vacation. He had been raised in an environment in which nobody ever went on vacation. Once his wife talked him into going on vacation and he had a miserable time because he felt awkward and didn’t know what to do with so much free time.
Things get difficult when we are in a context that calls for a different way of being than we identify with.
I had a close relative, who was a successful attorney, fiercely competitive and argumentative, both at work and at home. In preparation for a family reunion, his wife talked to him about putting his best face on, smiling more, being friendly toward everyone, and biting his tongue when he had the urge to argue or debate. He did it, but when he got home in the evening he was exhausted and had to spend a couple of hours just relaxing before he could even be with his family.
The question becomes then, how can we see the roles we identify with and move beyond to experience more fluidity and resilience in our lives? Can we develop awareness of our multiple identities and multiple selves without clinging to any single one? Can I move gracefully between being a husband, a father, a son, an author, a friend, a Zen teacher, and an MSNBC junkie?
The more we are aware of our different identities, the more “degrees of freedom” we have. The first step is to be aware of how we change our speech, body posture, facial expressions, and behaviors depending on the context of a situation and the people we are with. The second step is to accept and embrace different ways of being. As we release our stuck-ness on one, two, or even three roles, we experience a freedom which can be very refreshing. The third step is to consciously act in ways that go beyond our typical personality and comfort zone, as Peter did, when he threw the party for his stepson. We can all practice “acting out of character.” We may surprise ourselves and learn something that we didn’t know. As our identity expands, we are more enlightened, because we lighten up. We shouldn’t force this too much, however. As with Peter, we all need “restorative niches.”
I often refer to Zen practice as “turtle practice.” We steadily take one step forward and then maybe another, realizing that we can rejuvenate ourselves retreating into our shell whenever we want.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher