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Posts Tagged ‘identity’

binocularsHave you noticed how we label things in an attempt to understand them? It’s not too bad with the simpler nouns -like “stone” perhaps: Stone, small, round, and maybe if we’re more knowledgeable about stones we can add other label to include categories like: basalt or granite. And thus, gradually, we come to understand the stone. But when it comes to people our understanding is often simplistic to the point of uselessness, because the labels are too small for the essay we each deserve, yet this doesn’t prevent others from attaching those simplistic monosyllabic labels to us.

My schooldays were made difficult by disruptive children in class. They sparked chaos, turning the teacher’s faces beetroot red with rage – a rage that was turned on all of us, both innocent and guilty. I don’t know what makes kids behave like that, other than stupidity. Nowadays I guess they’d be labelled as suffering from something like ADHD. Diagnosis is made via a tickbox of responses, and thereby we create the illusion of an understanding, of a “category” of person. The kids are still disruptive, still cause nightmares for the sensitives ones – who could possibly also be labelled with any number of acronymic anxiety disorders. Drugs can be prescribed for categories of suffering – downers to stupefy the violent , uppers to make the passive ones less shy. But is this really what we want?  And why am I harping on about my schooldays when what I want to talk about is binoculars?

Yes, binoculars!

When I go for a walk in the wilds I carry a pair of lightweight binoculars. Other walkers will often stop and ask me if I’ve seen any interesting birds. This happened twice today, during just a few hours’ walk up Great Hill in the Western Pennines.

I had seen no interesting birds – just a couple of crows, and no offence to crows but they are rather too common to be labelled as interesting. Birds are a feature of any walk of course and I do like to tell them apart, but I’m not a bird watcher. I carry binoculars for another reason, which is:

From the summit of Great Hill, I saw the Lake District fifty miles away, ditto The Yorkshire Dales. I spotted a new cairn raised on Darwen Moor, or possibly an old cairn grown much bigger – a thing that warrants further exploration. Conversely I saw the cairn on Round Loaf was tumbled flat, prompting a note in my diary to go and build it up again. I saw the giant Wind Turbines on Scout Moor with their arms arrested in the late afternoon sunlight, their leading edges seared with fire. I saw the coastline, from Liverpool to Preston taking on an amber glow. I saw the curious brown pall of an atmospheric inversion, running the length of the Ribble Valley, and wondered, in an era of de-industrialisation where the smog could be coming from- just traffic, I suppose?

Yes, binoculars add another dimension to the appreciation of any high altitude walk – even Great Hill’s modest 1200 feet . I get to enjoy both the near and the far distance in equal clarity. But how to explain all of that to the particularly inquisitive, woolly hatted gentleman I met today:

“Is that what you do then? Birds?”

No, that’s not quite what I do. What do I do then? Why the damned binoculars, as if it’s anybody else’s business? If I must wear a simple label for the day, then let it be “walker”. But just because we have a diagnosis, and therefore a cure for the curiosity of passers by, it does not mean we grant them any more of an understanding about what’s really going on, about what or who we really are. I might also have said, writer, since I was also unconsciously gathering material for this piece. Romantic is also a good label for me since I always at least partially envision the land through my imagination. But this complicates things, deepens them too much for passing conversation.

Returning from Great Hill I was accosted by a noisy bunch of lads who looked like they might have been the disruptive type at school. They each held by the leash a killer dog.

“Seen any interesting birds mate?” asked one.

His associates tittered approvingly.

“Not many interesting birds up here, lads,” I replied.

Jocular titters all round – the feathered variety is not what they meant, but I was too slow to realise. Either way my reply sufficed.

Perhaps I should leave the binoculars at home next time, or hide them in my bag and spare the tiresome ritual of repeated explanation? Or just pretend to be a twitcher.

No, we are what we are, and that needs no explaining, or excuses. To anyone.

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philosophersWhat do we really know for sure? When it comes to defining the nature of reality there’s actually very little we can be sure of at all. I can even view my surroundings right now, and my presence in them as a dream, indeed I might as well for it’s impossible to prove things are otherwise. Even when I suffer I might be dreaming my suffering, and in the presence of others, I might be dreaming their presence. And the facts of the world, the laws by which it is governed may simply be the facts as I have invented them in the dream of the world, from the rising and the setting of the sun, to the swirl of atoms. As for the laws of physics not yet discovered, perhaps I merely invent them as I go along.

We learn from dreaming how malleable facts can be. The preposterous becomes true, not merely because we allow ourselves to believe it is so, but because the entire dream paradigm endorses it as such and so it becomes, at least within the bounding conditions of the dream, a verifiable fact. Often I will dream I have dreamed a dream before and only on waking realise the deceit, that I have not dreamed it before, that it was only a fact of the dream and only upon attaining an external perspective, by waking, do I realise the dream’s false nature.

Similarly in order to realise our false perceptions of the waking world, we must gain an external perspective, for only then might we know it for the illusion it either is, or is not. You might think this is impossible, that we are too firmly embedded in life in order to see our life in the third person. However, by a process of contemplation we can loosen our grip and achieve a somewhat abstract focus upon the world, sufficient to realise the only thing we can be certain of is the fact of our consciousness.

We are conscious.

There,… it’s a start.

And having realised it, there is a stage further we can go, already implied by the realisation, and this involves the realisation we are conscious of our consciousness, that we are self aware, and self reflective, and then it is only one more step to the realisation we can observe our thoughts as we think them, that we can become aware of ourselves thinking, that we are not in fact our thoughts, that another presence altogether is responsible for that sense of self awareness.

And this is who we really are.

This is a pivotal realisation for a human being, one that marks a separation of the true self, this sense of self awareness, from the thinking or the false self.

That we are not our thoughts.

Thinking does not reveal the underlying truth of anything. On those occasions when the mind approaches an axiomatic truth, it is noted how sophistication falls away, that insight is achieved
more by observation without judgement, and in stillness. In such moments truth is revealed as plain as a key, and truth is what lies behind the door it spontaneously unlocks, and is felt in the feeling tones of the experience.

In this way we come to realise there can be more truth in the fall of light upon a pebble than in the liturgy of all religions, and in the whole of poetry; it depends how you view it and where your heart is at the time. At all other times it’s just a pebble. Purple prose will not convey its essence, for the longer a name and the more adjectives and metaphor we deploy in its description, the less resemblance it bears to any truth we might have felt. Nor does the truth bear with it any sense of urgency. It does not hurry us along to some imagined goal. It does not speak of time running out. It does not measure or judge, but possess instead a spaciousness and a love in which to rest, unquestioning in the peacefulness of true insight.

Anything else is just the noise of the world.

So, what do we know for sure? Not much. But then we don’t need to know much to be certain of the single most important thing in the world. Indeed for that we don’t need to know anything at all.

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shadow games2Life is in part a struggle for identity; we try to define who and what think we are; we carve for ourselves a slice of something recognisable, and we say: “I am this”. We draw a line around the shape of it, and we present it to the world as our identity, our mask. But in deciding what we think we are, we also reject what we think we’re not. We reject that we might possess certain innate tendencies that seem unpleasant, embarrassing, or reprehensible. We reject that we can think certain thoughts which might be deemed “deviant” or “dark” or “pathological”. What we reject then becomes, in psychological terms, our shadow, and the more vehemently we reject our shadow natures, the more troublesome and the more powerful our shadow becomes.

The shadow is our worst, indeed our only enemy, for it is through him we project all our quarrels into the world, through him we awaken our worst insecurities, through him our deepest neuroses are born. Befriending one’s shadow is therefore the first step along the path for the spiritual hitch-hiker in search of that door to the contemplation of deeper layers of the psyche. It is the first hurdle, if you like, of a descent into the depths of our selves, on our journey to meet the soul.

These were my first lessons, and conversations with my shadow over the years have opened the door on glimpses of a rich inner world, as well as dissolving much of the angst I felt as a younger man, but it’s also become clear that my shadow is a thing I’ll always be learning from, that no matter how far I think I’ve travelled I’ll never be done with him. My shadow is my greatest enemy, but also, potentially, my greatest guru.

When we talk of rejecting certain aspects of character, it’s easy to recognise the things that can land us in jail. We say: no, I’d never do that – never kill, maim, defraud, rape, abduct, insult or lie. We experience a visceral reaction to newspaper headlines that talk of such things, because the news media are great manipulators of the shadow archetype; they raise our shadow up in the guise of some dumb schmuck in handcuffs and they call him names: killer, con-man, abuser, slacker, benefit cheat! While it’s important to know wrong from right, emotional reactions to shadow archetypes are at best unhelpful, and sometimes dangerous, often leading to the wrong man getting lynched. Fear of the stranger is another shadow-based insecurity: the foreigner, the black man, the man who is not like me. And then there’s sex in which the shadow manifests itself in the vilification of homosexuals or transsexuals or anyone who doesn’t “do sex” in what might be perceived to be the “normal” way. It’s hard to accept, but these shadow insecurities are a rejection of the fact that we might harbour, or even secretly cherish the possibility of those same tendencies in ourselves.

We all believe ourselves to be good people – and by far the majority of us are – but the worst thing we can do is become so sanctimonious we reject the possibility we can ever be bad or wrong or just plain different, or that we can think things that others might find shocking. This is the most valuable insight in a century of psychoanalysis.

These are the stronger shadows that we cast, and are fairly easy to spot, fairly easy to dissolve, and to own back. Yes, I tell myself, I would like to think I could never hurt another human being, but if I’m honest, I have thought about hurting others, and I accept therefore that the worst of humanity dwells also in me, as at least a potential for harm – that, there but for the grace of God, go I. Herein too lie the roots of compassion. We need not love the transgressors, paraded for us by the news media in all their shame-faced glory, but to hate them is also to hate ourselves.

I’ve been working on my personal shadow for twenty years, but he’s still there, still following me around, though he’s grown more subtle and elusive. I recognise him in authority figures now, and my irrational mistrust of them – managers, officials – anyone who dictates to me what I can and cannot do. The problem here is not actually a lack of trust in authority, but more that a part of me would like to have authority over others. Indeed a part of me wants to be a manager, a controller, a ruler, and wield power. It’s just that I don’t think I’d be any good at it; I imagine I’m not thick skinned or assertive enough, so I have always avoided promotion to such roles. The result is that my relationship with “authority” is never a good one.

There are a myriad other subtle issues, always illuminated by an adverse reaction to another human being, a strong negative arousal, because something I imagine they possess or represent is something I have yet to own up to as at least a potential in myself. The road is long, and there are many a twist and turn along the way, but we can rest assured we shall always have our shadow for company, and that our progress shall always be a measure of how well we’ve grasped the games our shadow plays.

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The question of identity is one that reaches to the core of who we think we are, obviously, but it also has a bearing on how we view the nature of reality and our place within it. It’s unfortunate then how we often misinterpret our identity, mistake it for the mask of what we think we are, or even what we think we’d like others to think we are. We parade this mask every day and we sell it on the world’s stage, trying to convince even our own selves it’s the nearest thing to who we think we really are.

When seen through the eyes of this mask, however, the nature of reality becomes distorted, our vision clouded. It renders us vulnerable to seduction by things we should value the least, vulnerable to injury from things to which we ought to be naturally impervious, and it renders us prone to discarding as worthless the keys to unlocking a deeper understanding of the authentic nature of our selves.

When tested, when challenged by life, our imperfect mask can slip, it can tear, fall apart, disintegrate. If we identify too closely with the mask, we imagine it is our own selves under threat, our own selves tearing, falling apart in the face of the seemingly insurmountable pressures reality imposes upon us. We see it as a battle for our lives against a myriad unseen foes. It can be a terrifying experience.

We lose our footing, and we fall.

It’s important then that we pause occasionally, lift the mask and look beneath in order to get a glimpse our original self, our immortal and indestructible self. We needn’t worry; we are none of us as ugly as we fear – unlike the mask which is guaranteed to be a misshapen parody of our life’s potential, our true self.  Seeking our original face, remembering who we really are, and being content with that, is the only way of being truly grounded in the world and, being grounded, impervious to its storms.

I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of now” again, a much thumbed copy, one I borrowed from a colleague who has already loaned it out to various people, countless times, but always seeks its safe return. In its current condition, you wouldn’t get ten pence for it in a charity shop, so battered and creased it is, but I take its fragile state as a testament to its resonant power, that people want to come back to this precious little book, time and time again, in order to refresh themselves, and remember who they are.

Like many spiritual teachers, Tolle is at pains to point out that we are not our thoughts. He tells us it was Descartes who coined the phrase: “I think, therefore I am”, but he urges us not to listen, that who we are is actually not defined by our thoughts at all. A more accurate phrase then might be: “I think, therefore I forget who I am.”

This is a difficult concept to grasp in a culture where we are taught from an early age to identify very strongly with ego consciousness. Ego is easily bruised, and then we find ourselves pointing fingers at the bruiser, seeking redress or even financial compensation for our woes. I’ve read and written about, and pondered on this over the years, but reading and writing, and pondering aren’t the same as getting it. I’m still in the process of getting it, and it looks like being a lifelong journey.

When we sit down to meditate, we are immediately confronted by the rush of our thoughts, chattering, nagging, slipping in under the radar of awareness, so that suddenly we wake up in the middle of our meditation, realise half our time is already gone and we’ve been lost in a storm of anxieties, instead of forgetting them – which is what we originally sat down to do.

Once in a while though, we catch ourselves. We say, no, I don’t want to think about that right now, and we brush our thoughts gently aside. They always come back, but in the between times we eventually become aware of a mysterious part of our selves observing our thoughts. This silent observer seems to sit in the background, watching their ebb and flow from a perspective that is one step removed from the self we think we are. This observer, this silent watcher, is clearly a part of who we are and it’s interesting to note how disconnected from the material world this normally hidden part of our selves is.

To this mysterious, and possibly higher self, all the worldly goings on are no more than froth; all the wars and the famine and the strife are no more than the fleeting interplay of a moment’s light in the deep, dark stillness of eternity. Finding our way into the unambiguous presence of this almighty sense of inner knowing is one of the hardest and most ambitious adventures any human being can undertake but, unlike climbing Everest or voyaging to the moon, it is an adventure open to any one of us.

Such existential musings have been brought into sharper focus for me recently – this business of who I think I am. It started when I saw some of my self-published novels for sale on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace. They were being sold under my name, but I’ve no idea how they got there or who was really selling them. For a moment, it was like staring at myself from across the threshold of an alternate reality – and even though I knew someone had simply stolen them, my sense of identity had been sufficiently shaken to make me think again about who I am and what my purpose is in the world.

The novels – three in all – were the sum labour of about five years work – pleasurable hours gleaned in the evenings and weekends of my day to day life. I’m not saying they’re great novels. They are what they are, I write the way I write, and when I’m done with my stories, I give them away. Certainly, they are of personal significance to me, but only in so far as the events and dialogues they describe are the roadmap of  a personal psychical journey. They plot my trajectory from the immature and egoic masks of youth, to this middle aged guy who sits blinking up now into the starry skies of an evening, partially unmasked at times yet still, it seems, none the wiser for any of it.

That someone else came along, cut and pasted those five years into a hastily cobbled e-book, called themselves Michael Graeme, and tried to make a few bob by pirating stuff I give away for free, should be neither here nor there to me – that is if I’m thinking straight and can avoid my ego feeling bruised. Even the fact that I have to prove my identity, and my legal right to call my thoughts my own, to the almighty Amazon, again, should be of no account to me,… that is if I am sufficiently secure and grounded in the knowledge of my own identity.

On this matter, the muse quietly takes my ego in her arms. She soothes away the angst with the warmth of her embrace, then she brushes off the dirt and reminds me I am not my thoughts, not my words. I am the silent watcher, she says, and like her, always a few steps removed from the tangled web of collective hope and expectation we mortal beings cling to, and which we call reality.

My mysterious Amazon doppelgänger did not make that journey. Their actions betray only the fact that they have not evolved emotionally, spiritually, or philosophically very far at all in human terms. Their life’s journey has been perverted by a misidentification with a mask they take as being the most fitting, but sadly one which makes them only ugly to the rest of us.

One of the hardest things to grasp in the quest for  maturity, and a sense of groundedness is that the right thought, the right deed, is right whether anyone bears witness to it or not, whether you profit personally from it, or not, whether the intrusive cameras of that reality TV show are switched on, or not.

The existential contract outlining this, our three-score years and ten of material reality, requires no verifying witnesses, and the presence of only two signatures, in order to make it valid and spiritually binding – our own, and that of the eternal sense of being rising beyond even the silent watcher of our thoughts.

I am, but what I am none cares or knows (John Clare, 1848) – we are each the self consumers of our woes. For “woes” here, we can read “thoughts”, which are for ever poised ready to warp into woes at a moment’s notice. We must all try therefore to remember we are not our thoughts, otherwise we end up consuming what we perceive to be our only self. This in turn results in a distorted vision of reality, one in which we see only a barren wasteland of broken promises and ruined hopes – or to quote John Clare again – the shipwreck of our life’s esteems.

But much as I revere John Clare, it really isn’t like that.

The times when reality comes most sharply into focus are the times when we are thinking about it the least, when our thoughts are stilled. Then a truer vision comes rushing in, presenting the nature of all things in their sublime glory – not as separate, but as an integral part of who and what we think we are.

It’s always been this way. It’s just that we’ve forgotten.

Good night all.

Graeme out.

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