Saturday, February 9, 2008

Who are you?

I have often thought that most political disagreements break down along the lines of two slogans:

If you're conservative you believe that everyone lifts themselves up by their own bootstraps.

If you're liberal you believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

We who are liberal tend to look at our collective responsibility to one another and cannot separate our sorrows, successes, failures and joys from those of others. I'd like to take a deeper look at this notion, something that was prompted by an essay written by Edger this week titled This Is Me in which he quoted Alan Watts:

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.

The idea that we are "isolated egos inside bags of skin" is something that has permeated our culture so deeply it becomes manifest in almost every facet of our lives. I am reminded of a book I read not too long ago that challenged this kind of thinking and left me forever uncomfortable with the notion of isolation. The book is No Boundary by Ken Wilber.

In the first chapter titled "Who am I," Wilbur asks us to think about how we define the difference between "me" and "not me." Where do we draw that boundary? Seems like an easy question to answer doesn't it? But Wilber shows the complications involved as he walks us through the various "self" boundaries we have created.

The first place most people draw the boundary is the one Watt's referred to - our bodies. The line between myself and the rest of the world is drawn by my skin. But Wilbur asks the following question:

Most individuals feel that they have a body, as if they owned or possessed it much as they would a car, a house, or any other object. Under these circumstances, the body seems not so much "me" as "mine," and what is "mine," by definition, lies outside the self/not-self boundary.

This drives the question inward then to a postulation that the boundary of "me/not me" lies between the body and the mind or ego. This form of disembodied self is not as obvious to us all, but does play havoc with our sense of self. So many of the breakdowns between medicine and psychology are based on this unnatural boundary that we so often draw. And, as Wilbur says,

The boundary is drawn between the mind and the body, and the person identifies squarely with the former. He even comes to feel that he lives in his head, as if he were a miniature person in his skull, giving directions and commands to his body, which may or may not obey.

But psychologically, there is yet another boundary that is often drawn even more narrowly in the attempt to answer the question "Who am I?" That is the boundary between the part of our mind/ego that we are willing to accept, and the part that is often called the "shadow." We want to wall off from consideration those parts of ourselves that are unacceptable and only embrace the good in our self-definition. This boundary causes reactions like repression and projection of the negative onto others; something often seen in the authoritarian personality.

Now it becomes clear why Wilbur titled his book "No Boundary." His prescription is to get rid of the boundaries and find the "transpersonal self," which he describes this way:

As the individual begins to reflect on her life through the eyes of the archetypes and mythological images common to humankind, her awareness may begin to shift to a more universal perspective. She is looking at herself not through her own eyes, which are in some ways prejudiced, but through the eyes of the collective human spirit - a different view indeed! She is no longer exclusively preoccupied with her own personal vantage point. In fact, if this process quickens correctly, her identity, her very self, expands qualitatively to these more or less global dimensions, and her soul becomes saturated with depth.

I am way too much of an amateur to go much farther with all this. But somehow I feel that this distinction is critical for us to begin to grasp and that our ability to do so would revolutionize how we treat each other and the planet. Our feelings of loneliness and isolation are fed by these false boundaries we create for ourselves. And that, in turn fuels the fear, greed, and addiction that keeps people so blinded and numb to what is happening in our country and in the world.

So I'll leave you with Wilbur's question, "Who are you?"

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