Monday, June 07, 2010

Looking for My Self

Long ago I concluded that the most important questions in life were: "Who am I?" and "What am I to do"? The second is pretty much a closed book now in old age as I slide toward oblivion. Cleaning up the messes I've made is certainly a high priority. But the first question still has me stumped. You'd think, after writing over 400 blog posts here in the past four years, that I'd have a clue. I can think up long lists of attributes and accomplishments to go with the name my parents gave me. But when I compare my sense of self, of who I am, with the feedback I receive from others, cognitive dissonance arises.

The Buddhists have the notion of no self, anattā in the Pali, which denies the existence of an unchanging essential or metaphysical self, a soul, that transcends the body, although there is a certain something that accumulates kamma through good and bad actions and determines consequences, usually after rebirth (if you believe in that sort of thing). This empirical self is personal but not eternal. The self that lives in this world attached to this body is the the product of sensory input, mental intentions (mind is one of the six senses for Buddhists) and actions taken, a veritable stew of individuality with nothing left over at death.

These philosophical ideas, however, provide little comfort from the slings and arrows of judgment and rejection. Someone my age is bound to have accumulated a few enemies. The little boy I hit with a pipe when I was five probably never forgave me. I've had my share of disagreements. My friends have possessed many and varied temperaments, some so different from mine that I've had to juggle my reactions and dissemble my thoughts in order not to offend them. But finding compromise in a relationship is like dancing; sometimes we step on each other toes. I learned at an early age to avoid confrontation as best I could, and have gone to great lengths to placate and pacify my opponents. Much of my stubbornness unfortunately oozes out in a passive aggressive manner. I do lose my temper, frequently, but the best I can say of it is that it soon passes and I am quick to beg forgiveness. I have been a faithful friend, loyal to those I made in my youth with a fierce possessiveness. Facebook has reunited me with quite a few.

What of the people closest to us, those as near as our jugular vein (to misuse a Koranic verse)? From long familiarity, it seems they should know us as well as we know ourselves. They've been there through thick and thin. Often, though, it is they who are most judgmental, holding us to a standard from their past we can no longer achieve. The fact is, we are not transparent to others. All they have to go by are our words and deeds. The complicated mental gyrations we spin, the moral intentions we intend, are invisible to them, and our attempts to explain are often misunderstood. How can we articulate our mental representations, often resembling dreams or even nightmares, to another person? In the end, all we are left with are misconstrued hunches and guesses.

I think I'm a good person, but I'm hard put to prove it. My intentions are ever kind and generous. I seek to avoid doing harm to anyone. The five precepts of Buddhism are a good guide, better than the God-centered Judeo-Christian 10 Commandments with obedience is the key. Buddhists pledge to avoid killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and indulging in mind-altering drugs and alcohol. When I was 10 I killed a bird with my BB gun and swore off hunting forever. I've never killed a person; thankfully asthma kept me out of the war in Vietnam. In Thailand eating meat is accepted so long as you don't kill your dinner. Lying and stealing are more complicated when you think about not telling the truth to avoid hurting someone, or violating copyright laws on the internet. As for sexual misconduct and use of intoxicants, I am guilty as charged, but sorry as hell. It's clear to me that my offenses are largely attributable to selfishness and self-centeredness, not to mention ignorance, greed and anger, and now that I'm in my twilight years I want to change that.

It hurts to discover that my intentions are misunderstood and sometimes only my faults illuminate my persona. When criticized, I can immediately churn out a whole raft of justifications. Because I am a word person, I'm pretty good at it. I can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, as my mother would say. My shit can smell as sweet as the output from my Oregon cousin's compost toilet. But those who know me best see quickest through my verbal disguise. Or at least they deny the truth of the justification, no matter how true it might seem to the inner me. Who knows me better than I know myself? And this gets back to the original question: "Who am I?" Do I really know? Can I ever completely know? For of course Freud and a host of followers and innovators of the discipline of psychology have discovered innumerable ways in which we are a mystery to ourselves.

Since I no longer have any faith in metaphysical answers to unanswerable questions, I am on the lookout for a moral grounding to my actions, one that will give me confidence to say I am a good man. My friend Jim subscribes to a "do the right thing" philosophy which affirms the findings of cognitive psychologists that children intuit at an early age in their culture how to tell right from wrong. In Spike Lee's film of the same name, a violent confrontation in a minority neighborhood reveals two separate answers to the problem of racism, the ideas of Martin Luther King and those of Malcolm X. On violence, they are incompatible. I think Lee's answer is that morality is messy, like life, and there are no perfect actions to use in every situation.

I know the times in my life when I did wrong. I also understand most of the inexcusable reasons for what I did. I've asked forgiveness, and sometimes have gotten it. Christianity has an edge on forgiveness, claiming that the divine offers to forgive everything if you ask for it (and believe). There are people I've hurt in my life who can't forgive me. And there are others whom I can't forgive for what they did to me. I think forgiving and forgiveness go together and unless and until I can give up my own judgments I will be subject to the judgments of others. But I can't prove this.

This blog post I've discovered is really about the lack of forgiveness I feel in my life. And the response I think is in how I live the rest of my life.


Anonymous said...

A thought provoking post enhanced by excellent photos. Thanks for this.

I'm really enjoying your blog.

All the best, Boonsong

Janet Brown said...

"I think forgiving and forgiveness go together and unless and until I can give up my own judgments I will be subject to the judgments of others. But I can't prove this."

That is a very interesting thought--I'm keeping that one with me. Thanks. Will.

steve said...

Re the Five Precepts: The Tibetans use The Ten Virtuous/v. Nonvirtuous Actions, pretty much like the Ten Commandments, with a little added attention to mental actions (reminds me of Jesus' view of anger).

One wonders how seriously many Buddhists take the precepts, when (in one practice I am familiar with), you can decide on any given day which ones you'll keep for that day, maybe just one. And then of course they murder other animals just like most people -- so much for not harming, the most basic precept.

The whole hypothetical karmic machine is energized by moral and immoral action. Basic meditation is to suppress the mental afflictions (kleshas) that lead to nonvirtuous (immoral) actions. Vipashyana is to try to uproot the belief in a permanent unchanging self that is the basis of the kleshas. The whole program is about morality, and some of it very conservative. (Ask the Dalai Lama about the Buddhist take on masturbation.) And I don't see any evidence that Buddhists do any better at practicing it than Christians are. If you've any doubt, check out the Buddhist treatment of Christians in Sri Lanka.

Okay, my diatribe is winding down. But as you know I've been a card-carrying Buddhist for a long time and a practitioner starting 30-some years ago.

The notion that Buddhists as some collective are somehow more rational, more peaceful, blah blah blah is nonsense. A religion that is fundamentally about trying to bail one's own ass out of the unplesantries of life (not the Mahayana) can hardly claim the moral high ground.

Anand .J said...

And such a trend is starting in India too, a hostile view of family as constrains of ones life! that being said your blog is beautiful