Losing the Self

In the past, I had been concerned about "losing myself" in a relationship. Partners have expressed the same reservation: "I don't want to lose myself!". Years ago, I felt this as a real possibility, and I tried to be aware of any loss of self (as I understood it at the time). More recently, I considered the possibility less likely because I "have a strong sense of self"; how could I lose something so solid?

Now I've come to realize what I really meant by "losing" and what that self actually is. The self that changes in a relationship is the constructed, conditioned self -- basically, thought patterns, emotional responses, the physical body (to an extent). This incredibly malleable self changes all the time due to a vast network of conditions -- choices we make, effects from the environment -- although some aspects seem more solid than others. For instance, a person's morality or character can seem to remain constant over many years; it can even be apparent from a young age. Moral stances can and do change over time, although they might be more difficult to change by force of will. Other aspects of the self-in-flux change much quicker -- fashion, humor, language. But it's all up for alteration.

This conditioned self will change in any relationship. When you look into it, you can see the truth of the expression, "you are the company you keep". The conditioned "you" changes its conditioning with exposure to other conditioned selves. In large groups, the changes can be so drastic that someone may be driven to join a riot or a genocide, when they never would have considered it otherwise. When living with other people, the changes may be much more subtle, because they occur over a longer time. One may pick up destructive habits because one's friends or roommates are constantly bringing their own destructive habits to the relationship. The more intimate the relationship, the more possibility there is for significant changes to one's conditioning.

A "strong sense of self", in this situation, really means having solid boundaries. Someone with a strong sense of (conditioned self) could live among heroin addicts without becoming a heroin addict, while somebody with a weaker self would take on the destructive energy of the addicts. But what's going on is that the "stronger" self is continually renewing his past conditioning with willful choices (some people might say "grace" instead of will). He decides, "this is how I am", and renews that sense in relationship to others by using memory and the will to resist changing his own conditioning. In the case of living among addicts, building boundaries by renewing one's conditioning seems like a healthy form of protection against developing a destructive habit. But always maintaining strong boundaries doesn't work in an intimate relationship.

A trivial example of "losing one's self" in relationship might be changing one's taste in music. "Before I met you, I loved only death metal, but now, because all you listen to is bluegrass, I've lost my love for metal!" Someone with a strong sense of self might resist such a threat to his preferences -- "I like my music and hate your music, so let's just agree not to share music collections". A weaker self, who notices that he's lost his love of metal, may react by fretting over "losing his self" in the relationship, but that's just because he desires to have a stronger self! On the other hand, with the awareness that the conditioned self always changes, I can ask: how important is the particular conditioning that I'm defending? Maybe, when it comes to music, I won't have any boundaries, making those tastes totally open to change. Perhaps, if it comes to physical health, I'll resist taking on habits that I perceive as unhealthy; I'll place stronger boundaries around that conditioning. Or maybe it's the other way around.

In any case, I want to participate in the process of this changing self, with the total acceptance of inevitable change. Participating could mean being open and vulnerable at times while renewing the conditioning at other times. Two people in a relationship bring their conditioning (all 13 billion years of it!) to the situation, and then those two paths start to intertwine deeper and deeper. Memories become shared, tastes change, and values can change. All of that usually happens subconsciously, with more or less resistance. Without awareness of the malleable self, a relationship can easily become mired in conflict or just a low-energy replay of the same patterns, day in and day out. With awareness, intimacy, and participation, two constructed selves begin to reconstruct themselves, for the better. They each will always carry their individual conditioning, but where they meet and intertwine, a beautiful harmony can result. I would like to aim for this intimate harmony.

Of course, none of what I'm talking about pertains to the "true self" -- unconditioned, unborn, infinite. In that sense, when I used to pride myself on having a strong sense of self, that really meant having careful awareness of the conditioned self, combined with strong boundaries. But all of that is irrelevant with regard to knowledge of the true self, which is unknowable... (and the funny thing is that the true self of individuals in a relationship is identical -- since all conflicts are about conditioning, there can be no conflict in the realm of the unconditioned self. On the other hand, because variety is the spice of life, and conditioning=variety, we can't ignore the sort of conditioned self we're creating, in favor of some idealized union of capital-S Selves!)

useless Shu

There was once a hunchback called Shu. His chin rested on his navel, his shoulders rose up over his head, and his neck bone pointed to the sky. His five vital organs were upside down, and his hips were level with his ribs. By sewing and taking in laundry, he made enough to feed himself. By winnowing and sifting grain, he earned enough to support ten people. When the authorities were raising an army, he came and went without having to hide. When a big public project was planned, he was assigned no work because he was a chronic invalid. When the government was giving free grain to the sick, he received three measures and ten bundles of firewood. If a man whose body is strange can take care of himself and live to the end of his natural life, how much easier it is for a man with strange behavior. Chuang Tzu

night commute

two hour journey, chasing a sliver moon
on the horizon, an eerie purple
thunderstorm in the distance and water in the air, my lungs
almost summer feeling
the last stretch of potholes, heavy fog
crossing the road, peepers
hopping, between my swerves,
i am so sorry

it's like

...trying to unscrew a tight bolt that's 2 feet above your head. would you struggle and strain from where you stand, or would you fetch a ladder or a chair so that you can have some leverage on the bolt?

it seems to me that many people live their lives without considering chairs and ladders. they suffer in frustration, never finding the right leverage on their problems.

"your very flesh shall be a great poem"

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body. The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is already plow’d and manured; others may not know it, but he shall. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches—and shall master all attachment. Walt Whitman, Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.