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My Little Known Self

March 22, 2018

“There was a hole in the wall. It’s gone now” by Sergio Y Adeline via

Yesterday was a good day. I slept, ate, worked, socialized well. Then around 8:30 p.m. for inexplicable reasons, I was grumpy. Colin and I were having a conversation and everything he asked was irritating, the way he ate his pasta was obnoxious, the effort involved in getting ready bed seemed like a giant burden. I was just grumpy.

Maybe I’m just toddler-ed out, I thought. You know when you see a toddler in a supermarket who was happy one second and then suddenly they’ve depleted their energy reserves and they’re tired and they want to be done and can’t handle their own existence anymore? Like that, but for adults coming at the end of a full day.

I tried to be as transparent as I could with Colin. I knew it didn’t make any sense. How can anyone eat pasta obnoxiously anyway? He took it with aplomb and I got ready for bed.

This morning I’m still grumpy. My mind is discursive and dwelling far too frequently on the negative and the unknown, whereas int he prior two days I felt positive and energized for everything I had to do.

Yesterday over lunch I watched a TED talk by Tim Harford about complexity. We actually know so little about how things work, he argues. Mostly we got here by trial and error. We find out what works by finding what doesn’t work, but most of the time, we don’t know why one thing works and one thing doesn’t. We know so much less than we pretend we do.

I feel that way about myself. I really don’t know how my self works. I mostly get along by trial and error. Right now, I suspect I’m under the influence of a swing in hormones or fluctuation in neurotransmitters, but I really don’t know. Maybe my immune system is fighting a virus? Maybe I was subconsciously psychologically triggered by something I read or watched? But I know from experience that getting into a fight with my partner would be an error and going to bed will probably work out better for us both.

The point is, I don’t know why I was grumpy but I know I wasn’t fully in control of what I was feeling. Something happened and I was just observing it and trying to do as little damage as possible to those around me.

It’s moments like this that remind me of just what a construct the “self” actually is. It’s an aggregate of fluctuating causes and conditions popping in and out of existence over which we really have so little control. It’s not random. It’s just inexplicable.

The “Self” (big “S”) is the idea that we have more control than we think we do. That we understand. That whatever we’re feeling or thinking or doing is somehow validated and justified because it’s “me.” It’s the idea that I have every right to tell Colin off for being an obnoxious jerk and pestering me when I’m tired and he should know better, even though his behavior was no different from any other night or even the hour before.

Little “self” isn’t much of a problem. It’s just a handy label for a collection of phenomena that really have no hard and fast borders. It’s like looking out at a body of water and calling it the Missouri River. You know that the water you’re looking at from one second to the next is never the same and if it dried up it wouldn’t be a river anymore.

Big “Self” can be a big problem when we let it. We buy into our emotions and thoughts, identify with them, create stories around them, act them out among others. We try to hold the river still. When someone dares suggest that our feelings or thoughts might simply be momentary or not really caused by whatever story we’ve made up to explain them, we feel like they’re challenging our very identity – an identity we built. It hurts.

I fall for this trick a lot. I see my “Self” one way and I invest in that. I build walls around it and defend it from attack. But the joke’s on me because I can’t control what’s coming in an out anyway.

Last night it was too inexplicable and I was too tired and maybe this whole anatta thing is starting to sink in, but I just noticed I was grumpy, shrugged, apologized to Colin, and went to bed.

This morning as I brushed my teeth, still grumpy, I wondered about how western psychology and culture reifies the big “Self.” As a chaplain, I’m trained to accept and validate people’s emotional reactions. I meet them where they are, hear their stories, and try to empathize. Sometimes, I’m the first person to really provide that kind of nonjudgmental witnessing and support and it can be immensely healing.

As a Buddhist chaplain, I take it all with a grain of salt. There’s a trick to absolutely believing what someone tells you about their experience while simultaneously believing they really don’t know what’s going on simply because nobody does (including me). It’s about validating their emotions and seeing through them at the same time. It’s about understanding their thoughts and reasoning and knowing that whatever they can put into words is only a fraction of a fraction of the truth behind it.

It’s what Zen Buddhists call the not-knowing mind, neither affirming nor negating, just letting be. It creates a tremendous sense of possibility. Great anger can turn towards forgiveness. Great passion can mellow into deep friendship. Mild grumpiness can be humorous. When we think we know, many possibilities are foreclosed, so I also try to not-know when it comes to myself.

I hold myself in skepticism. My emotions aren’t always justified or valid or useful. They’re just there and they tend to drive my decision making, whether I want them to or not. Sometimes they’re wise and trustworthy, sometimes not. My rational mind is powerful, but tends to operate post hoc most of the time, helping me make sense of what’s already happened. It’s also a big fat liar, trying to explain the inexplicable and justify the ridiculous. Just look up the lists of logical fallacies and cognitive biases to which we are prone on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.

But you know, once I began to approach myself with that skepticism, it lifted a tremendous weight off my shoulders. I feel so much lighter for not having to invest in my every passing emotion or thought. I don’t have to build those walls around big “Self” quite so high. They’re still there, make no mistake. (I’m still an academic after all, so my whole identity is built on confidently knowing stuff.) But sometimes I get to look at those walls and realize how silly they are.

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