Thursday, December 06, 2012

ARTICLE ~ Binding One's Self Without A Rope ~ No 2

Part Two - Discovering Yourself

'Binding’ is always done in relation to something or someone, and Dogen seems interested in how this is applied to one’s Self. When I look at the first three words of our phrase; ‘binding one’s Self’, it is that seemingly insignificant possessive word one’s which draws my curiosity and attention.  It’s an odd, slightly formal English term, often used disingenuously to give an impression of objectivity, aloof and impartial, whilst the speaker is really being subjective and  partial in the opinions they’re expressing.  There is this, our sense of this, and  how one believes one should see this.

It seems important to create some distance imaginatively from our own Self. It is a bit like owning a coat, we know what its like to wear it from the inside out, but we need to see it from the outside in. To look in a mirror to see if it suits us, or gives the desired impression, or we take the coat off completely, hang it up on a coat hook, and take a good long look at it. Our subjective experience needs objective, and external ratification.  If one were to receive that, then one would have sufficient proof that one’s Self had a distinct concrete existence. For this to occur the sense of one’s Self, has to be in a formal, fixed and factually absolute context, otherwise this evaluation cannot be done. This is only a ruse, one we willingly partake in, whilst the actual conditions forming our relationship with the Self, remain, as ever, informal, fluid and factually relative.  In our heart of hearts, deep in the murkier levels of our sub-conscious, we know the latter is true. The infirm nature of the sense of one’s Self lies at the root of most human insecurity, neuroses and paranoia.
‘Binding one’s Self’, describes the Self as though it could be purchased, like one’s house or one’s car might be. This betrays a possessive theme that seems intrinsic to its nature;  even though we describe it as though it is inseparable from us, it remains something extra, in addition to - like a handbag.  Like a handbag, its functions are both ‘practical’ and ‘decorative’.  We carry it around with us, wear it as an accessory, and highlight this embellishment as integral to our identity.  The world of the Self, so constant and  familiar we feel it can be owned, remains essentially fleeting, as insubstantial and difficult to keep up with, as are current fashion trends.

The neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book, The Feeling of What Happens describes consciousness of the Self as possessing three levels. At the foundation level is 'The Core Self', defined by the exterior form of the human body. The limits of skin, flesh and bone give a tangible boundary to what needs protecting. This desire for preservation is an instinctive reflex barely self-conscious, but nevertheless fulfills the core responsibility - to survive.  

The next level is 'The Extended Self', this adds onto 'The Core  Self'  the feeling that someone is responsible for the desires for food, shelter, warmth, and hence to find solutions for them. Self preservation becomes self conscious in an elementary way  –  I am hungry, I need to find food, I need to hunt etc.  'The Core Self' has developed into someone with needs, who instigates actions to meet them.  The Self is extended because the remit of self preservation has been stretched from ‘survive’ to ‘I will survive’.

Finally, at the third level, what Damasio calls 'The Autobiographical Self'; extends the imaginative boundaries of self-consciousness further still.  The sense of one’s Self now has a memory, it has ongoing stories it repeats about itself, tales  with a sense of lineage and an experiential history.  This Self has an ongoing internal dialogue, it says :- ‘I’ve not felt this hungry for weeks, though I’m so lazy, I really can’t be bothered to spend hours hunting. Last Spring, I  hunted young deer drinking water down by the river, I picked them off easily, feasting on venison for days after, which was sheer bliss. Maybe I’ll make my way there now.’ Self preservation has formed an even tougher carapace for itself.  Expressed simply it has evolved from ‘survive’, to ‘I will survive’ to ‘I know how I will survive’

The 'Core', 'Extended' or 'Autobiographical' sense of Self all have this cardinal impulse at their root; to enable survival.  A continuous loop of feedback joins our present Self up with the past – the present experience reminds us of a past experience – that is then used to reinterpret the present experience – and we adjust our reaction accordingly This narrows down the range of responses, improving our prospects of survival.  Maintaining a continuity to our experience within the known boundaries of a body, does help to defend it better. Its something humanity has developed a pre-eminent skill  in. This practical benefit to owning a Self should  not be overlooked, or undervalued, as we proceed to further dissect and deconstruct its nature.

In The Sutra of Golden Light, a simple, compelling simile is used to capture how our sense faculties and the sense of one’s Self interact. The senses are described as thieves, and a thief always steal something that is not theirs, they have no right to possess what they take :-

“And this body is like an empty village. The senses are like six village thieves: they all dwell in the one village but do not perceive one another. The eye-sense runs after forms, the ear-sense after the consideration of sounds, the nose sense takes up various smells, the tongue sense runs after tastes continually, the body-sense runs after the sensations of touch, the mind-sense after consideration of things….The mind is flighty like magic and the six senses consider their objects just as a man runs about in an empty village and is dependent on the six village thieves….And in the case of all six senses the mind, flighty like a bird, enters the senses and whatever sense it bases itself upon, it gives that sense its peculiar knowledge.”3

The sense of one’s Self would seem then to be a stolen commodity, one   assembled from bodily sensations. Sensations passing through the mind’s myopic lens, which experiences them, interprets them and consigns them to memory, so they can be recollected when required. It is during this process of reflection and evaluation that the mind gives back to them ‘its peculiar knowledge’; the story of a continuous and ongoing Self.  This self-knowledge becomes as indicative as fingerprints, in representing what is unique about us.  The mind through this perpetual dialogue, and Self appraisal, draws out useful boundary lines, it says  – I go this far and no further – beyond this, are all the others who are similar to me, but not me.  A sense of Self defined as separate from Other, does have strategic benefits defensively.  It might be envisaged as like a stockade circling a medieval village, built to withstand heavy and barbarous attack. However, such seemingly impregnable defenses, could, under prolonged siege, be forced into submission simply by hunger.  The sense of one’s Self,  might protect and survive, but it can also be susceptible to alienation or xenophobia. Self defense may become imprisoning and starve us of simple human contact and intimacy.

The mind brings to the Self a restless capricious nature – described in the sutra as flighty, magical or birdlike, because its constantly changing its viewpoint. Hopping around like a bird in the branches of a tree, at first it desires to be here, then here, then here. Always it’s a new branch, a new view, a new perch for the Self. The life blood that feeds and sustains the Self, the thing that keeps its pulse racing, its heart alive and fluttering, is desire. There is the Self that is desired, and the Self that is desiring - these two impulses, aren’t always compatible even when acting together.  The Self that is desired is ‘practical’, primarily seeking security in the present through asserting ‘who I am’. The Self that is desiring, primarily seeks fulfillment in the future through fantasy and dreams of ‘who I would like to be.’  I’m calling the latter a ‘decorative’ function; because what it does is not essential for survival. This type of self- consciousness is defined by its preferences, things it likes and dislikes, how it wishes to be, how it would like to be perceived. It is not practical in its focus and seeks a liberated imagination; the freedom to be or to do anything it wants – to extend the parameters of 'who I am.'  At its most extreme, the ‘decorative Self’ creates idiosyncratic behaviour, affectation and narcissistic forms of individualism. It has a youthful aspiration and spirit, which easily becomes the creed a surgically enhanced celebrity lives by, and the pool an overdosed rock’n’roll legend will be found floating in. Fame is, it seems, a double edged sword, as Oprah Winfrey once reflected:-

“ If you come to fame not understanding who you are,
it will define who you are”4

Celebrity, is one very special circumstance that a few people find themselves in. They often obtain it, but come completely unprepared for the way an imaginary and false sense of one's Self, will be bound to them, no matter how ill fitting, uncomfortable or inappropriate this maybe. This may explain why the sad consequence of such immeasurable fame and wealth, appears often to be unbridled indulgence and obesity, one that becomes self-hating and self-destructive. The 'decorative' function,- who I'd like to be has become separated, if not divorced, from its 'practical' partner - who I am.  For most of us,who lead more ordinary lives, who I'd like to be, has some very practical restrictions, usually lack of time, talent, money or opportunity. What Oprah Winfrey said I think applies more broadly; if we don't understand who we are, any circumstance we find ourselves in, will end up defining who we are.

It is unsurprising then, that, irrespective of circumstances, these ‘practical’ and ‘decorative’ functions do require  arbitration. The ‘practical Self’ desires a secure room with a view. The ‘decorative Self’ desires to change the paint work, wallpaper, furniture or curtains, to move everything around within the room, or transport it to the Mediterranean coastline, all to change how the room feels and improve its prospect. The ‘decorative’ aesthetic chafes constantly against the ‘practical’ functionalism of self imposed walls and a static unchanging viewpoint. Fear can prevent any step being taken beyond those walls, because the default position for the Self, falls first and foremost, to safety and security. The ‘decorative Self’ adjusts, reluctantly, to living within specified boundaries, whilst complaining incessantly about the iron bars in the window restricting the view of the garden.  Here, the Self is the one who binds, its containing influence acts as an implacable jailer.

The ‘practical Self’ does have to accommodate the impulses of the ‘decorative Self’ in some way. No-one can sustain for long a divided sense of Self. We’ve all known, or have at least seen, people who live completely different private and public lives.  Bank Managers, who go to Salsa classes on Wednesday evenings.  Plumbers, who love Country & Western music and dressing up as a cowboy. Teachers, who love the feel of a leather jacket and a Harley Davidson rumbling between their legs. Computer Programmers, who take part in medieval battle re-enactments on Bank Holiday weekends. These quite innocent pastimes, maintain an ongoing truce, between the desire to be secure and the desire to be what you dream of.  If dreams are not embodied in some way, if they are starved or heavily suppressed, can destabilise the sense of one's Self. Psychologically, the centre sometimes cannot hold, because contained creative energy is unable to be released.  A refreshing, newly revived perspective needs  to be brought to the Self.

Whilst we nominally grant the sense of one’s Self a fixed continuity, this doesn’t mean we can wash our hands of responsibility for how we are, or who we have become.  We cannot shrug our shoulders and say that ‘this is just how things are, this is how I am and everyone else will just have to adapt and get used to it – because I can't change it.’  If the Self is not a permanent fixed entity, it cannot be used to  predefine our future destiny, its not excuse or an alibi. The Self is only an instrument of our fate of we let it be.  Frederick Nietzsche, challenges our tendency to become passive towards ourselves and life, bemoaning our lot, as if it were somehow predestined  :-

“ We bear loyally what we have been given…and when we sweat we are told  ‘Yes, life is hard to bear !’   But only man is hard to bear !
This is because he bears too many foreign things upon his shoulders
Like the camel, he kneels down, and lets himself be well laden.”5

Assuming responsibility for what happens to us in life is discomforting, we’d rather not do it really.  After all, we may end up not liking our Self and who we have become, and that could indeed be hard to bear.  However difficult life might be, change is never impossible, The personal preferences and biases that usually inform our priorities can be adjusted.  Whether we feel able to take it up these choices is really the most pertinent point here. Its another  example of how we may be restricted and bound by the sense of one’s Self.

Consequences roll inexorably after our choices, as though they’re subject to gravity and develop their own momentum - like a stone tumbling down a hill.  The effects of consequences are similar to the weather - unpredictable, persistent, sometimes beneficial, sometimes harsh, and will certainly ignore the depth of our desire for it to be otherwise. The storms that are brought forth may be ameliorated, but they cannot be changed substantially or stopped in their tracks.  This is what we will  frequently find hardest to bear in our life.

If we drop a pebble into a lake, once it has been dropped, there is no way to forecast how far, or for how long, the ripples will radiate out. Though the ripples disturb the reflective lake surface in countless waves crossing and cross cutting each other, the ruckus to light and water cannot be forcefully stilled. In its own time this motion eventually dissipates. There is no set period for when the stream of consequences flowing from a decision will run out of impetus. The ripples and rivulets emanating from the past, continue to affect us well into the present, even to the end of our lives, and according to some Buddhist doctrines even beyond that.  All of which could appear to be a rather depressingly fatalistic viewpoint. Though this would be mistaken, and really isn’t the case. Though its easy to see how this conclusion could be arrived at. Fate and consequence cross very similar terrain, but behave and respond in markedly different ways.  You could envisage life as a  river. The concept of fate would direct its energy and forcefully re-channel, control and dam its progress. Making it unable to  move, or be moved by free will, from a fixed and predefined course. Consequences, cooperate with the free flowing of a mountain river. The flow can be intense, furious and turbulent at times, depending on the territory its crossing. As the river progresses consequences adapt with it, whether its to the roar of the rapids or the leisurely meandering of an estuary. Every mountain river eventually becomes a languid estuary or delta, one that vanishes into the all encompassing vastness of an ocean. Consequences may be out of our control, but they are more opportunistic than vindictive, though never be predestined or eternal. Fortunately, consequences are a conditioned thing too, and are thus impermanent.

This doesn't stop life from feeling heavy sometimes. So, if we are like a camel that lets itself be well laden, then wouldn’t it be great if we could just off-load and be set free of everything that weighs us down?  We all have decisions we’ve taken, things we’ve said or done, things we’ve neglected to say or do, things we no doubt regret.  We’d love to be able to wipe the board clean and start again.  We appear to feel free only at the very moment of a decision. Thereafter, the consequential process adds more weight to camel and dampens our briefly liberated  spirit.  Though we may desire to have freedom of choice, the evidence appears to indicate that self-determination is, to a degree, circumscribed.  Who we are now,  who we will be in the future, can only flow out of who we have been in the past. A river is propelled by where its been, as much as by where it currently is going. The sense of one’s Self, is very much the result of the conditioning influences of circumstance, choice and consequence, in the past, as well as the present.   

This is just how things are, and not necessarily a bad thing, though it can become so if we resent feeling restricted by our Self and its history.  Quentin Crisp, said something  uncomfortably prescient about this :-

“It’s no good running a pig farm badly for thirty years,
whilst saying really I was meant to be a ballet dancer,
by that time pigs will be your style”6

We may wish to turn back the clock and take a different path, redesign ourselves in the light of experience, to somehow escape the feeling of constriction that the sense of one’s Self can sometimes create. However, a bound man, in struggling to free himself, often makes his bonds grow even tighter. You taste a different type of freedom once you are willing to acknowledge your bound conditioned nature.

In my youth, I definitely thought I could willfully determine the path my chosen career would take. Once I knew what career that would be of course. In reality it proved to be a decidedly more haphazard, intuitive route, like picking up an erratically strewn paper trail.  From childhood through to my early teenage years, my all consuming passion had been for History - ancient or modern it mattered not. I loved reading about it, and visited every church, stately home, castle and abbey ruin possible.  My early creative imagination was alive to a sense of place, period and how people may have lived.

At sixteen I chose to go to Sixth Form College, envisaging a future career  in someway related to History. I was down to study two subjects for ‘A’ Level; History and Geography. I went with my parents to see the College Principal, Mr Charlesworth, who was a lanky man in old fashioned tweeds and half moon spectacles.  The latter, bifocal and hinged, he nervously flicked up and down as he spoke. I can see him now peering down at me from over those blessed spectacles, saying  “We like all our students to study three subjects, your third needn’t be that important, though it might as well be something you enjoy doing”  I’d always enjoyed Art, so I chose to do that.  

Miss Bamforth, the Art Tutor, was an enthusiastic middle aged woman, with a no nonsense approach. Her encouragement, revived my faith in my own creative potential. History, suddenly seemed dull and boring in comparison. I changed my future plan, and chose instead to apply to Hull College of Art. I was accepted on a Arts Foundation Course, which lasted only a year. By the end of it another choice loomed.  Did I want to pursue Fine Art, or a Design discipline?  In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better if I’d chosen Fine Art, but at the time, overly influenced by my parents concern about a career, I chose Graphic Design. Design appeared to have job prospects at the end of it. This I knew my parents would understand, just being an artist didn't seem a positive a career option.  To my parents, artists were lazy, anarchic, spongers on society, sexually licentious, perpetually intoxicated and off their trolleys on illegal drugs. All of which I discovered did happen, though you didn’t specifically have to be an artist to be any of those things.  All the same, I’d never have dared to do it myself.

I left Art College with a BA Degree in Graphic Design, already in possession of a disillusioned view of my future career. Ten months later, I started my first job in the Art Department of a London book publisher.  Eight months after that, the company changed ownership and  I was made redundant.  One morning, not able to bear the thought of hawking my portfolio around Design Studios, yet again, I took a momentous decision; I decided I’d go for any job, no matter how humble - bricklayer, window cleaner, road sweeper, who cared?  I can remember now the sense of elation as I walked home from East Finchley Tube Station, joyfully turning my back on a chosen career. That sense of a spirit freed by reckless abandon, soon vanished once faced with the hard facts of what my job prospects were.

There was a consequence to having a background in the Arts - I easily got a job working in an Art Shop, one I found I was more than just good at. Over the next ten years, I progressed from being a Shop Assistant, to a Manager, to finally owning and running my own Art Shop. Though retailing  successfully dealt with the ‘practical’ issue of financial security, my desire for creativity, the ‘decorative’ need for self expression, went through a variety of artistic disciplines. The search for a lifelong vocation outside work, meant I took up at different times in my life - acting, performance art, painting, poetry, interior decoration, and even morris dancing.

A small decision, taken spontaneously without much thought, to do Art as a third subject, ended up defining the direction of most of my adult life.  Its consequences continue to colour possibilities right up to the present moment.  Even though I’m still an enthusiast for History, fifty years on, too much artistic water has rippled under my bridge, for a career in that field to fully blossom. Following the trail  of Art, meant I turned my back on ever becoming a Historian. Art and Retailing have inevitable ended up shaping and defining me to some extent. The sense of my Self, even thirty years later, still fidgets slightly within this limitation, as though unable to find a permanent place to settle these aggravating facts.

Whether choices like mine were made spontaneously or not, they are usually made for a reason. There are things we hold paramount; security, affection, love, to belong, to be free etc.  At that time, I knew I wasn't emotionally robust enough, to manage the insecurities inherent to a full time artistic career. My Self had, and still has, a strong desire for security, financial or otherwise. This motivation, similar to the glue that binds a book, holds the sense of my Self together, and limited the choices I felt were available. A binding is also attached to the ragged edge of a cloth to prevent it unraveling. Likewise, we bind ourselves out of fear that frustrated desires might one day cause us to unravel and fall apart.  Perhaps this was what most of us fear.  At root we’re all  anxious not to lose the sense of one’s Self, however frayed or threadbare it may have become.   

Life and circumstance do on occasions lead us to unravel. This can be what initially sparks the quest for a spiritual solution. The restless discomfort and suffering of my dissatisfied spirit brought me, as a consequence, to Buddhism. In the aftermath of any period of instability, we want to find a better more durable way of binding, of holding the sense of one’s Self together.  When I came along to Buddhism for the first time, I‘d been desperately wishing for certain outcomes  most of my adult life. Usually, these were in the form of monetary success, a fulfilling career and a handsome, kind-looking sexual companion to share the proceeds with. I fell painfully and repeatedly on the sword of these ordinary, but distinctly unreliable expectations. When I first heard the arya satya – the noble truth - that suffering arose out of craving - it was as if I’d finally stumbled across a key to a whole new wing of a house.  As it opened, a fresh way of seeing myself and the world emerged from behind it.  This didn’t produce an immediate change of perspective, but more a gradual revelation, as though I was gentle unfolding a completed piece of origami, to find out how it was made.  I started examining my reactions and motives in closer detail than I’d ever done before. This slowly began slackening some of the bonds that I’d tied myself up in. The Buddha used similes of release from bondage, or from carrying a great weight, to convey how the insights from 'awakening' transform the sense of one’s Self. Until we are relieved of this duty, we don’t know what a burden it has been. Little realising how, maintaining the sense of one’s Self, restrains us more effectively than any rope.

Part Two - References
3 – Taken from – The Sutra of Golden light – Translated by R.E. Emmerick.
Published by The Pali Text Society 1992.
4-  Taken from the website – – Top 10 Oprah Winfrey Quotes.
5 - Taken from - A Nietzsche Reader - Selected & translated by R.J.Hollingdale.
Published by Penguin Books 1997.
6 – Taken from – Resident Alien – by Tim Fountain / Quentin Crisp.Published by Nick Hern Books 1999

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