WHO ARE YOU?

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Let’s say someone asks, “Who are you? And you answer, “I’m a teacher.” There is nothing wrong with calling yourself a teacher; we have to call ourselves something when others ask. Perhaps that is the best role to play for the specific interaction or moment you are in. But if you see yourself inherently as a teacher (as if you were “born to teach”), then you have confused yourself with one limited, and limiting, identity, and you are setting yourself up for suffering. It will be hard to impossible to act like a “teacher” in every circumstance, now and forever. More importantly, rather than choosing effectively the best way to be in any circumstance, you will always be compelled to “be” the teacher because it’s your “true self.” You won’t act in any other way because you won’t see that there’s a choice; indeed, you won’t see this way of being as a “role” or identity at all.

By identifying a “true self,” you are compelled to behave and think in that particular way. But imagine if Tom Hamks thought that he actually was Forrest Gump. He’d be considered delusional, since he wouldn’t understand that he’s an actor. And if he thought he could play only “Forrest Gump,” then he’d be considered a “bad actor.” Actors get “typecast” all the time, so that they are hired to play the same type of part in every movie, and they tend to have limited careers. Thus, we become “successful” actors in our life when we learn to cultivate flexibility, awareness of roles, and control over the ones ignorance compels us to play.

THE MANY ROLES OF “I”

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

The metaphor of acting is useful when trying to understand the multiple “I”s that exist and how they are purely relative in nature. Think of all the different roles that Tom Hanks has played in ten of his most famous movies:

1. Splash
2. Forrest Gump
3. Saving Private Ryan
4. Sleepless in Seattle
5. Philadelphia
6. The Green Mile
7. Big
8. Apollo 13
9. Cast Away
10. The DaVinci Code

Tom Hanks knows that he is not truly Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump. Yet, he is considered a great actor because he plays these roles, or identities, so well; his commitment and skill create convincing portraits of wildly diverse people that can genuinely move and inspire us. Further, playing these roles serves a useful purpose (in this case, communication and entertainment). Our multiple identities are much like the multiple roles that Hanks has played.

However, unlike Tom Hanks, who knows he is acting, we typically do not grasp the idea that we are constantly and continually playing roles. These roles, or identities, are relative and temporary and serve a purpose, but they are not who we are in an absolute sense. However, they are who we think we are, absolutely.

(This topic continues in the book The Misleading Mind)

THE FOLLY OF INDIVIDUALITY

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Belief in the independent, individual, unique self is powerful, however, and not easily dislodged by logical arguments. Every day, our senses seem to reinforce that each of us is “separate” from everything else. When I walk, I walk in my shoes, not yours. When I eat, I am eating and become full, but I cannot eat and have you become full, nor vice versa. When my son is telling me about his life, it is I who is listening, not anyone else. It is I who notices the new moon at dusk and shares my wonder with my wife on our evening walk. It is our relationship with these experiences that compels us to see ourselves as the center of our own universe.

In fact, Western culture encourages us to think of ourselves as the center of our personal universe. Individualism is promoted and even exalted. And yet, in many areas of the world, the idea of “individualism” seems quite strange, if not dangerously wrong–headed. I am not an anthropologist, but I have lived many years of my life in various eastern cultures where our concept of individualism is regarded as Ill–conceived self–centeredness. In these cultures, the family, the tribe, the community, the monastery – these identities are more important than the individual self. The “center” of the universe is the community. Typically, these cultures also teach that the more one looks after oneself, the last one is actually happy. This runs directly counter to the Western “path” to happiness which is focused almost entirely on pleasing oneself, even at the expense of others.

A PORTRAIT OF THE FALSE SELF

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Descarte said, “I think, therefore I am,” and Buddhist psychology does not agree. Perception indicates a “self”; indeed, perceptions are self-created and are therefore, as we’ve discussed, limited. The more important and useful question is: What is the nature of subjectivity? In other words, this chapter poses the age-old question “Who am I?” Who is the “I” who says, “I love ice cream,” or “I am mad at you and need to talk”? It is curious and revealing that we constantly refer to ourselves, our “I,” and yet we don’t really know the manner in which this “I” exists. Where am I? Can you point to your consciousness? Am “I” my physical body: my nose, my face, my leg, my brain? However, doesn’t the shelf or “I” survive even when we lose an arm or a leg or eye?

Am “I” my mind: my emotions, thoughts, memories, and concepts? We might say, “I am my soul,” but it amounts to the same thing, for what is that and where is it located?

(This topic continues in the book, The Misleading Mind.)

CASE EXAMPLE: EMERGING EMILY

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Emily was one of my first clients. She started seeing me when I still an intern and has continued to see me off and on until the present time. For the first half of our therapeutic work, she sought counseling primarily to help her be a better single mother for her two sons. However, after her sons reached young adulthood, the therapeutic focus shifted to investigating her relationship with men.

She tended to seek men who would treat her poorly; they were often alcoholics or substance abusers who eventually took her for granted. She understood herself to be “codependent” in the classic sense, as someone who was catering of another person at the expense of her own well-being.

Emily is an excellent example of how our constructed sense of self – our perception of who we are – can undermine our own happiness, as well as of how transforming that self-destructive “version” of reality can lead us to make better choices and increase our happiness.

(Emily’s story continues in The Misleading Mind. Order your copy at Amazon.com)

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Buddhist thought proposes that we all suffer from a misperception of reality. Our “misleading mind” treats the thoughts, emotions, and concepts that it creates (and which exist only in our mind) as real, thus missing what is true and real in our experiences of life. This includes our concept of self, or the self-referential “I” at the heart of every emotion or desire, such as when we say, “I feel…” or “I want…” In other words, Buddhist thought maintains that our everyday sense of self is mistaken, and until we realize this, we won’t be able to truly get free of all the disturbing emotions that arise within us.

(This topic continues in the book, The Misleading Mind.)

FALLING IN LOVE WITH FICTION

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Often times, we “fall in love” only with our projections and desires, and we never really see the other person as they are to begin with. This type of “love” isn’t the authentic, unselfish love described previously; it is only attachment to the object of our desire. Like any projection, this type of conventional “love” cannot survive in the face of the complex reality of another person.

For instance, consider the story of Rachel and Stu. When they came to see me, they would sit on my couch cuddling, caressing, and exchanging affectionate looks. Stu had expressed a number of times how he had become instantly attracted to Rachel and that he made it is project to woo her. Now, newly married, they were in therapy because they would find themselves arguing, sometimes violently. They were confused and distraught. Why were they simultaneously affectionate and angry with each other?

What we discovered was that they had each fallen in love with an illusion of the other — one that had blinded them to true questions of compatibility. They exemplified the “opposites attract” romantic love story: Rachel was self-awarely attractive and Stu was studiously ordinary. Rachel was in her early twenties, while Stu in his late thirties. He was an engineer; she was into marketing and sales. She was athletic; he was a couch potato. She was vibrant and extroverted; he was somewhat depressed and a loner.

CLINGING TO LOVE

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Typically, among therapy clients, the suffering and unwanted emotions they’re experiencing have arisen in their relationships with others. Their partner, their child, their colleague, or their friend is treating them in a way they do not like. The other person, to some degree, is “hurting” or “upsetting” them, or the client wants something from the feeling and believe we “need” the other to feel it. We don’t want to lose the feeling. We desire authentic, healthy love, and in our confusion, pursue it wrong-headedly. Authentic, “unselfish” love changes the moment we try to cling to and possess it. The moment of experiencing authentic love quickly gets replaced by self-centered thoughts like, “Is she going to just use me?” “Am I going to get back what I’m putting into this?” “Maybe I’m being taken for a fool.” Pure love and attachment are mutually exclusive. One cannot exist in the presence of the other, just as a room cannot be both light and dark at the same time.

No! No! A Thousand Times, No!

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

“I don’t want this. I don’t want that.” These statements play constantly, 24/7, in our heads. Even when we brush our teeth, we are engaged in wanting one thing, clean teeth, and avoiding something else, dirty teeth and all that comes with them. In other words, aversion is just another form of desire. It is desire in reverse, the same impulse but in its opposite form. All day long we swing between wanting and avoiding, running toward certain experiences and away from others. This is another way to understand why “renouncing” things doesn’t necessarily solve the problems of desire in our mind: “Avoiding” material pleasures is merely the opposite expression of “wanting” them. It is often, in fact, the wanting of something else.

Clients come in for therapy wishing to be free of a painful or distressing mood or mental state. They are suffering and want it to stop. In essence, what Buddhism says, and what mind training reaches, is that suffering can be stopped, but only internally. Future suffering can be stopped only by continually refraining from creating in this moment the causes of our future suffering. And present suffering can be alleviated if we are unattached to what we want. If we are “attached” to what we want, this causes suffering; if we are “attached” to avoiding what we don’t want, this causes suffering.

The Error of the Outward Approach

(Excerpt from the book The Misleading Mind)

Many people, particularly when discussing the pitfalls of sensory pleasures and materialism, think that the antidote is to give up all their possessions, move to a mountain hermitage, and live off the land. To “let go” of these desires, they think they now have to become a monk or a nun and live a life of stark simplicity.

In itself, such a radical conversion is highly suspect; it can rarely be sustained, and the person is most likely missing the point. The “renunciation” is in the mind, first and foremost. Many people take on an outer appearance of simplicity – they give away all their stuff – but inwardly they make no change at all to their concepts. Their new lifestyle is a way to “deny” themselves, and in this way they are still at the mercy of their desires; they are no closer to contentment for having “given up” their lifestyle. Trading your BMW for a bicycle does not necessarily deepen your mental quietude and lessen the habit of desire. It might help for a moment, just as satisfying any desire feels good for a little while, but pretty soon you just redirect your habitual patterns of desire and attachment to your new lifestyle.

Thus, the heart of emotions as the “problem” we need to fix, and these arise and are solved only within our mind. If we can do this, we will never again bed confused by desire’s outward appearances.