“Who Am I?” Ironies About Self

There are many ironies about feeling good about yourself and knowing who you are. For example, you might think of your identity as who you are. You might think the more you stand out, the more you are you. Yet, the more you stand out, the more lonely you might feel. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what my skills were, how I was unique, and thought that the more unique I was, the more others would like or love me. Yet, the root of ‘identity’ is ‘idem,’ meaning ‘same’ or like others. And one definition of self, in psychology, is how we see ourselves from the point of view of others. To be different, to stand out, you must be connected. To be unique, you must be unique in relation to something or someone(s). The philosopher Martin Buber said there is no ‘I’ without others. I agree.

 

So does neuroscience. When not occupied or engaged in a task, psychologist Mathew Lieberman says our brains turn to social concerns. Whether it’s integrating previous experiences with others or planning for future ones, a good part of our mental space, when alone, is thinking about others. The neurologist James Austin talks about the natural discursive quality of mind: we are often talking with ourselves, engaged in an “inner” conversation, when not in conversation with others. Our sense of self changes depending on the situation, who we are with or who we imagine we are with. The part of the brain that oversees social-emotional concerns, thinking and planning, the prefrontal cortex, is also the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop in each of us. It is an area highly developed in humans compared to other species. Humans were able to survive by developing not only a large brain but a social one. The larger our social groups, the larger our brains needed to be.

 

And whether you realize it or not, relationships, especially loving ones, are one of the greatest sources of happiness. These are most satisfying when you feel genuine, when you don’t have to “put up a front” or be someone you aren’t. You feel best with others who can see or hear you. You can be spontaneous and feel loved or appreciated no matter what. This is one element of what might attract you to someone. What makes the person attractive is a combination of their uniqueness and their ability to see or hear your uniqueness. What makes me most myself is what makes me able to hear others, or to be, to some degree, selfless.

 

One element of being “in flow” or fully, joyfully, engaged in a task, is that “you” are forgotten. You don’t think of the past or future or what others might say about you. You are focused entirely on what you are doing. You are focused on, filled by, one moment of life. Every one of us knows how wonderful such moments are and how destructive concerns of self image, failure or success can be. Yet, you need a sense of self to even step off a curb and cross a street.

 

A Zen Master named Dogen said, “…to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things….” Think about this. It is not just about “forgetting” but enlightening. When you are most empty of your expectations, worries, you are most able to take in “all things,” to appreciate others, to feel and enjoy what you experience. To be most full, you must be most empty. To study the self is to study how I am others, and others are me.

 

Feeling “off” or discontented, or that you are missing something, is feeling there is an intermediary or a distance between yourself and now, between awareness and the object of awareness. Feeling fully alive, “on,” is feeling there is no boundary, that you can deal with whatever comes up, that whatever arises can teach you something. It is feeling this very moment, in fact, all of your life, is worth living, not something to distance from or deny. Feeling “on” is enjoying the ironies of self.

 

Without Empathy and Feeling, Thinking Suffers

All too often, people forget or fail to understand how feeling, particularly feeling empathy, is necessary for clear thinking. Empathy aids thinking in two ways. It allows you to more fully understand a person or phenomena, as in “putting yourself in the shoes of another.” And to think clearly, you must think with less bias and distortion from your own likes and dislikes; empathy can actually counteract this distortion.

 

To think, you need relevant information and ways to organize, “view,” and explain that information. But information remains just random words unless you connect to it. You need feeling to derive meaning and you need to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” in order to understand what standing in their shoes is like. You can’t understand a time in history unless you imaginatively, with feeling, put yourself there. In a similar way, you can’t really understand a mathematical formula or scientific theory unless you can use it and conceptualize the consequences of applying it. And to do that, you need to think from the perspective on the world that the formula or theory implies. If you are to answer questions and solve problems regarding the world around you, you need to “open to” others and your world, as well as see the world from their perspective. You need this “felt relationship.”

 

This “felt relationship” is empathy and compassion (and imagination). Psychologist Paul Ekman describes three forms of empathy. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or care for, the other. A sociopath might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other. Compassion takes this further, to the point where caring and feeling propel action. Compassion is the felt awareness of interdependence with others and caring enough to act in response to that felt awareness.

 

James Austin, a clinical neurologist and Zen meditator, discusses how, when you practice empathy and compassion, you use more “selfless” pathways in the brain. This provides a natural counter-balance to the distortion of likes and dislikes. When you perceive a blackberry bush, for example, you need to see it both from its’ position relative to you (which uses dorsal, top-down brain pathways) and see the bush itself in relation to other bushes and trees (ventral, bottom-up pathways). This ventral pathway asks “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” in comparison to the dorsal asking, “How does it relate to me?” Even at this basic level of perception, you need both perspectives.

 

We need to value, “feel for,” both perspectives. But much of our society teaches only the value of “self-knowing.” Self is defined only as what distinguishes and separates us from others. The result, according to many researchers, is a one-sided and isolated sense and concept of self and increasing narcissism. Even President Obama, in several speeches, warned that our society is developing an empathy deficit disorder. This one-sided knowing, and intellectual and emotional attachment to a concept of an isolated sense of self, leads people to defensively react to any appearance of a threat, even one not to the bodily self and world, but only to the concept of a separated self. This can undermine the sense of society as a relationship of all its members. It is one reason why schools must include not just an education in reasoning and memory, but feeling and empathy. When the conceptual framework of a culture devalues empathy and an understanding of the role of feeling, we’re in trouble.

 

Many students come to class and argue that empathy and compassion don’t really exist. They say that humans act compassionately only out of self-interest. Some teachers argue the same. Acting with compassion and empathy is in your self-interest. It helps immune response and improves emotional well-being. According to James Austin, it also leads to more effortless learning, especially when sustained attention is required. But all of these goodies are undermined if the outwardly appearing act of compassion or altruism is done with self-interest in mind. The intention to act with the other’s welfare in mind is what leads to the positive rewards.

 

So, what can schools do? Teachers can model empathy. Mathieu Ricard, biologist, author, and Buddhist monk, cites a great deal of research to show that when teachers practice and act with empathy and compassion and establish a personal relationship with students, student learning improves, violence and absenteeism goes down.

 

Teachers need to point out that when you disagree with others, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might look down on your “opponents” and think you know something they don’t. If only they knew what you knew, they would “repent.” In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.

 

You can directly develop compassion through meditation practices. You can also start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. So, hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor and this will leave room for others to enter.

 

When you feel an emotional response to what another person says, or you are unclear about what was actually said, ask: “Can you repeat what you said and clarify what you meant? What was your line of reasoning?” One of the most valuable lessons hopefully taught in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. When you face a viewpoint that is different from your own, take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.

 

So, when you run into what you perceive as a threatening idea, or when you don’t understand someone, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with, not a lifeless concept. Feel the fact that the person might be feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Empathy and feeling will contribute to clear thinking. And you and the other person will then meet.