Identity, Independence and Kindness

Although everything is in every instant changing, which means everything flawed can be perfected, that’s not what Mr. Ego sees.  He’s afraid if he relaxes even for an instant, bad things will come to pass.  He is a deluded Jeeves devoted to caring for a Bertie Wooster whose nature exists only in his imagination.  That he exists only in mine does not make his activities less real.

Mr. Ego and I have been together so long and he is so very diligent; he usually has me believing I am what he imagines.  On rare occasions I do wake up and tell him I’ll be OK, he can go on vacation, but he doesn’t because if he does, I will no longer have an identity.  He thinks that would be very scary.

Psychotherapists say Mr. Ego manifests soon after we are born and develops well into adulthood.  “Saying ‘NO’ is one of the earliest signs of individuation”, according to GoodTherapy“It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different … individuation is … learning what we want to say NO or YES to [and] acting according to what we want and do not want.  It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).”

Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there.  He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME.  He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish.  Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.

In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind.   Our imagined identity, “I am the kind of person who…”, says we are solid and we should make our situation more so, more dependable.  We should instead rejoice that nothing is solid because that means everything really can become more perfect.

A way to dispel the illusion is to recast our identifier from noun to verb.  That makes Martin Sidwell not an explorer destined always to be an explorer and implicitly never doing anything else, but an exploration taking place at this moment.  Thinking of ourselves as verbs eliminates a big part of the harm we cause by believing we have an identity.

Believing we are part of a group is also a problem.  If I think of myself as Buddhist it seems I am different from Christian but if I am practicing techniques that helped others grow more kind even to those who are abusive, I am practicing how to love and turn the other cheek.  The program that helps me is different but the goal is the same as Jesus taught.  I am not different from Christians, Muslims or others.

Keeping the goal clear is especially hard if our group’s identify is that of a people defined by its religion.  A dear friend who recently gave up her long standing role as spiritual leader at her synagogue said:  “What I realized is important is my values.  People I’m close to have the same values.  My rabbi’s are different and we’re not close.  Trying to lead those with his values to a different way can never be helpful.”  But being Jewish informs so much of what a Jewish person does, thinks and feels.  Recognizing what my friend did must have been very, very hard and acting on the recognition must take so much discipline and courage.

The recognition my friend came to may be even tougher for Tibetans whose identity is so deeply associated with not only religion but also their homeland.  Home is our idea of the ultimate refuge.  As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.   My Tibetan friend who only ever wanted to be a nun was expelled from the nunnery by the Chinese government after the Beijing Olympics.   A third of all Tibetan monks and nuns were forced out then after Western journalists reporting the Tibetan protests went home.

Jews whose ancestors were driven from their homeland milennia ago now have Israel.  The homeland Tibetans always had began to be destroyed just as Israel was established.  No wonder Tibetans yearn for that lost world  even though there can be no such place of safety.  It is so hard for any of us to recognize that and the idea of nation makes it so much harder.

China’s rulers always try to control the lands to their north and west because invaders from there have always swept in.  The dynasty that ruled from 1644-1911 was established by invaders from Manchuria.  As soon as the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949 they set out to control all China’s peripheral territories.  Tibetans lost not just their independence as a nation but increasingly also their culture.  The monasteries were destroyed, monks imprisoned, Chinese-language schools set up and masses of Han Chinese settlers imported.  The Tibetans were to become Chinese to make China safe.

We think nations help us to be safe because nations have armed forces for defense.  By identifying with a nation, however, we feel separate from people in other nations.  We think they are different and we become afraid or jealous of our fantasy of what they are.   Our struggle for independence in fact makes us fearful.  The Chinese rulers’ treatment of Tibetans is motivated by fear, as is exiled Tibetans’ yearning for a Tibet they may never have known and that no longer exists.

There are two Tibetan words for independence.  “Rang btsan” means not dependent on anything else and signifies the freedom we associate with independence.  “Rang mtshan” means an independent self and signifies what we associate with being an individual.  Both are pronounced rang tzen, are usually spelled rangzen in the West, and both suggest more than they mean.   Nations are not truly independent and neither are people truly individual.  Geography does not define a people nor is any man an island.  Borders are just ideas that create suffering and limit our compassion.

Opening our hearts to feel the terrible suffering of Tibetans and others can lead us to feel compassion both for them and their abusers whose delusions lead them to their terrible actions.  Then we can try to help both, for only in that way can suffering be ended.  We really can do this if, as in this beautifully rendered Imagine There’s No Rangzen, we think independently.

So many ideas.  We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable.  We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not.   But it can’t work.  How could such a program succeed when nothing can be fixed, when everything is arising in every instant from an ever-changing assembly of causes?

One of the first great Tibetan teachers in the West said it this way:  “The bad news is our airplane is crashing and we have no parachute.  The good news is there is nowhere to land.”  Mr. Ego got us into a vehicle he said would take us somewhere safe, if it didn’t crash.  His fear of crashing distracted us.

That’s why it’s so hard to recognize that in fact we are crashing right now precisely because we imagine we have a fixed identity, we belong to a group whose rules are sacrosanct and we will be protected from those who are not like us by the nation where we live.  We are creating our own fear.

We could instead accept the good news, train ourselves to dispel habitual reactions that grew from our misunderstanding, and grow more happy and, more importantly, more kind.

17 comments on “Identity, Independence and Kindness

  1. I struggled for weeks to see the connections I sensed between the elements of this post and then articulate what I saw. The fog is still swirling but it feels like some clarity is emerging. The puzzlement actually dawned several years ago in a Lhasa hotel room. The TV was tuned to the Chinese government’s English language channel, the volume set low and my eyes were closed as I rested after climbing a couple of flights from street level, not yet acclimated to the lower oxygen content of air at 13,000 feet.

    Suddenly, here’s what I heard –

    – “The Chinese government is playing that?” I thought: “What’s going on?” It was the introduction to a documentary encouraging tourists to visit Tibet.

    I was surprised, I realized later, only because of my preconceptions. No doubt, I still have many more to dispel. I’ll be grateful to have any of them pointed out.

  2. I have many, many questions about this post, excellent and thoughtful though it is. Unfortunately, the conversation I’d really like to have with you about this isn’t one that’s suitable for electronic media. My poor fingers couldn’t take it.

    Instead, I want to point out something I see and ask some more foundational questions:
    “Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.
    In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind. ”

    Should we, indeed, be happy? Is that the “point” of life? Is happiness a thing in and of itself, or is it a byproduct of action? And wouldn’t that be the fruit of desire? Is unhappiness (we’ll treat unkindness separately) something that should be avoided at all costs? Or is it something that actually allows for happiness by comparison? Is it, after all, the sauce of life? Is the ego bad because it makes us unhappy, or does it perhaps have a useful, important function? Is patriotism inherently bad? Is it bad to feel separate and unique? While I certainly accept that the ego’s games are a great source of unhappiness, of conflict and war in the way you describe, are they the only result available? Or is a matter of the ego being out of balance?

    I think we agree more on unkindness than unhappiness. Unhappiness, after all, is one of the primary goads to Buddhism, and many other religions and philosophies. The realization of suffering is often described as the prompt for renunciation (at least it is by the Tibetan Buddhists I’ve studied or discussed this with) and the beginning of the practice, much like the symptoms of a disease prompt seeking out a doctor and treatment. But I don’t think unhappiness (or death, or suffering) is a disease at all. I think that when we treat it that way, we are tempted to flee from life itself.

    Kindness, however, is a different matter. We both agree there, that compassion should be normative. But does compassion truly exclude the ego, or is the relationship more complicated than that. I suspect that it is.

    It seems to me that the ego is a real, and necessary part of the human being. It has a clear evolutionary function, and like most of our primal being, requires some training and education. I do think that our later development pushes us to move past it being dominant (although not everyone even gets to this point), but such a thing first requires the development of a healthy ego. This is something I teach in class quite a bit – that if you have an undeveloped or weak ego or sense of self, your lack of confidence is a major obstacle, and there is a temptation to not think for yourself, but to accept the ideas of another uncritically. There are always spiritual people who chase guru after guru, or system after system, selling out their personal authority. But if we develop a sense of ourselves, a strong, healthy ego (as opposed to an overstrong, or understrong one), I think that real progress towards compassion and insight is possible. I don’t think someone that doesn’t have a healthy sense of ego could actually stand the strain of really looking at themselves or the world.

    The way I perceive what you’re really saying is something similar to what is taught in traditional yoga psychology – first there is the buddhi, which is the “discriminative intelligence” which makes distinctions. The first distinction possible is “me, and not me”, aka ego (Ahamkara, literally “I-maker”) and everything else flows from there. The storehouse of memory of specific likes and dislikes, opinions, musical tastes, national identity, etc, is called the Manas, which we usually think of as “mind”. It is the storehouse created by referring everything back to that “I-maker” and dividing it into “things I like/am, and things I don’t like/am”. All of the distinctions flow from that, and these distinctions are ultimately convention, and not “true” in any greater sense, or in the sense that they are permanent. They are, “maya” or illusion. One of the things I like about this particular “useful fiction” is that the I-maker principal is given its own step in the process. It is, essentially point of view, and is rooted in the identification with the mind-body complex. It would perhaps be more false to say “Martin is that rock” than to say “Martin is an explorer”. If I said the second, you might admit I was essentially correct in that I am describing your behavior, but might try to make me phrase it more accurately – Martin is exploring. But you would probably flatly deny that you are the rock, or say, me. Your ego is, to me, that point of view. That, it strikes me, is not a problem, but a basic orienting function of consciousness, no more objectionable than vision, in which it is normative to make distinctions with. The problem comes later, or so I think. That problem is hard to write out here, but to use the vision metaphor, we might say it’s the refusal to look at certain things, and the insistence on the superiority of what you happen to be looking at.

    It is true that in another light, Martin is not particularly separate from the rock, or me. It is, I believe that it is the mind that creates those distinctions (it might be more accurate to describe the earth as a giant organism, with each blood cell thinking it’s totally independent). The distinctions may be illusion, maya, but maya in yoga has substance and power. It isn’t true, but it is the world we see, at least before we learn to see otherwise. To me, the “reality” it covers is no more true than the illusion. Both are just different ways of seeing the world, and each has its use. To me, psychological health would include the ego, as much as it includes the acceptance of that part of us that is wrapped up in national identity, etc – to create a balance where no one part of the psyche is totally dominant and overvalued, nor undervalued and flattened.

    I read back up and see I’ve broken my own promise to not type too much… and even still I don’t think I’ve managed to really get my point across. I’ll post this in the hopes that you can make out what I’m getting at somewhere between the lines. I’m not sure I’ve been especially clear, and I am certainly not saying that I’m “right”. This is just the most likely story I can currently see. Anyway, thank you for another thought-provoking post. Also, I think your idea of helping both sides, as both Tibetans and Chinese are ultimately motivated by the same internal forces, is spot on.

    • Thank you again, Dave, for your thought-provoking response, I’m so glad you broke your promise! I’ll reply in a series of comments.

      First about “Tibetans and Chinese are ultimately motivated by the same internal forces”. I’m hoping I haven’t upset any of my Tibetan or Tibet-supporting friends, or my Chinese ones. What the Chinese government has done and is still doing to Tibetans is heart-breaking. What I’m trying to say is we should condemn the actions but not the people. I’m in awe, for example, of a Han Chinese family’s love and support for my Tibetan ex-nun friend and at the same time I see nothing surprising about that. The Tibetan and the three Chinese are all just being good people.

    • About happiness: “Is that the “point” of life?” and that “renouncing unhappiness can tempt us to flee from life itself”.

      The word happiness can be understood in many ways. It’s the hedonist’s goal in their search for pleasant and avoidance of unpleasant experiences. I’m not thinking of that. There’s the idea of living life in a full and deeply satisfying way. That’s more like it, but it begs the question of what is that full and deeply satisfying way? There’s the fact that meditation leads to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which is correlated with what observers report as a state of happiness, but while that suggests an approach to the state, it doesn’t offer an explanation.

      The possibility of happiness was not what attracted me to Buddhism because I already was happy most of the time. I wasn’t looking for a philosophy either. What I noticed was some people I met who had diligently followed a Buddhist training program had become effortlessly unselfish. I understand that to be the point. It’s what I wanted at any rate.

      The Dalai Lama, for example, is radiantly happy, it is his state of being, but his own happiness is not his purpose. To live, we all must breathe, but breathing is not our purpose. Happiness is like that.

      We must be happy to be compassionate. Happiness might be a stepping stone, it might be a prerequisite, it might be a result, it most likely has many aspects. What we can be certain of is it’s necessary to make compassion possible.

      That sounds like I mean compassion is the “point” or goal but I don’t mean that either. As far as I can tell, it is simply what manifests when we sweep away the selfish delusions that make us unhappy.

      • Yes! Absolutely. That’s exactly my point. Compassion is a byproduct, not the goal. It’s an excellent bi-product, of course. Thank you for making that more clear.

        As for living life in a meaningful and satisfying way, I can’t help but think about your later comment about stories and scripts. It seems to me that a great deal of the way we find that meaning and satisfaction is through stories, narratives, whatever. Even the value of compassion is both instinctual (mammalian) and story-based. It is part of our narrative about what it means to be a “good person”. However, the story itself has tremendous practical value for all of us. It isn’t “true” but it is felt, and experienced, and therefore real. I don’t think that our selfish, pain-producing scripts are fundamentally different from the scripts we all value in terms of their mechanism. I not only doubt the possibility of eliminating the mechanism, but I question the desirability of this, as I’m not sure meaning or satisfaction is possible to the human organism without it. To me, what is desirable is the recognition that they are all just stories, powerful and real, but untrue and potentially misleading and even dangerous. It is, to me, a matter of gaining consciousness of them, and reclaiming them from unconscious action – in other words not letting them run away with us. Of course, just like it is difficult to acknowledge our past culpability (as you describe below), it seems that it is actually even more difficult to realize that our search for compassion is also a narrative, because we value it so highly and it has such obvious beneficial effects.

    • About “healthy ego” and “lack of confidence is a major obstacle”:

      I believe we’re saying the same thing but I’m using Mr. Ego to signify something a little different. Lack of confidence is indeed a major obstacle. Courage is essential. If we believe we haven’t done anything we regret, it can only be because we have “forgotten” some of what we did and/or failed to see its harmful results.

      To have any hope of not doing more regrettable things we must at least recognize what we already did and thoroughly understand why we did those things. What were the root causes? Accepting that we did hurtful things can be very painful. We must have the confidence that although we cannot undo what we did, we can learn not to do such things again. What gives us that courage is necessary and good.

      Mr. Ego is my metaphor to suggest something different, the mental process that transmutes what we see into concepts. It distracts us from fresh experience and a truly helpful response by means of stories about what it sees. It tries to guide us so we react to what arises in ways it considers appropriate. It gets us to follow scripts, have the same emotional responses we’ve had before even though the circumstances are not the same, or those emotional responses lead to harmful results.

      • Thanks, Martin. It seems (correct me if I’m wrong) that what you call Mr. Ego is what I would call the natural results and implications of the ego as a psychological principal. Although it seems even more clear that we make slightly different value judgements about that content of the psyche either way. I’ll explain below.

    • About “Is patriotism inherently bad?” and ” Is it bad to feel separate and unique?”

      I would say the downside of patriotism is that it’s so easily misused to whip up hatred, but there’s no counter-balancing upside. It’s good to feel blessed to be alive where we are, but that’s not patriotism. There’s nothing about my being an American citizen that makes me intrinsically different from a UK, Nepali or any other citizen, or from a stateless person.

      It is harmful to feel separate because it amplifies our selfishness and because we are not in fact separate. Everything we do has effects outside of what we think of as ourself. However, it is essential to recognize that we are captain of our ship, so to say, that we are ultimately responsible for everything we do.

      It is accurate to feel we are unique, but it’s easy to confuse ourselves about what that means. The assembly of circumstances that result in our appearance and actions at this instant is unique. That does not, however, imply that there is anything fixed. Each of us will continue to be a unique being in the next instant and the next. We will continue to be different in each future instant from what we are in this one.

      I’ll respond tomorrow about yoga psychology because I need more time to reflect. I think we’re seeing the same absolute reality, to use Tibetan Buddhist terminology, but perhaps seeing a little different mechanism by which relative reality manifests. They are both real and the great challenge seems to be learning to live in full awareness that both are true.

      • I agree, citizenship does not make us different, but I’d say that culture does. We have the same organism, but we might say we often run some very different software. I was partially playing Devil’s Advocate concerning patriotism (which Mark will tell you is one of my favorite roles) and I agree with you concerning its dangers. I’m not particularly patriotic, nor unpatriotic. But I recognize that the vast majority of my views are, and always will be, a product of my place and time, and the circumstances of my birth. No amount of travel, living abroad, or education will change that, because I will always be reacting to it, one way or another.

        And here’s where we differ, perhaps. I think that this is a fundamentally GOOD thing. I value not only the fact that I am Daving in a way that no other Dave has ever Daved before (by virtue of my particular, unreproducible point of view), but that no one can Martin quite like Martin is Martining. This is, obviously, my personal narrative, and it gives me tremendous meaning. The notion that the world’s meaning is produced by a tapestry of interrelated, but unique, points of views, all trying to make sense of the same (ultimately unknowable) reality, fills me with wonder, hope, and meaning. It’s not “true” per se, but there you are. In fact, that’s why a conversation like we’re having here is so valuable to me. I know that I don’t have the truth (and I presuppose, neither do you), but I have the hope that in contrasting our views we unveil something that hangs in the gap between them, which may not be true either, but may give us a tad more than we have before, if only in subjective meaning and not hard objective truth. It’s more Socrates than Buddha, but that’s how we roll. 🙂

    • About Ahamkara the “I-maker” aka Mr. Ego and renunciation:

      We humans like stories. That’s why I write about Mr. Ego. Maybe I should add a second roommate, Ms. Buddhi, to represent the faculty that makes wisdom possible? The problems Mr. Ego causes are what I’m motivated to end, but there must be a positive source for the motivation to send Mr. Ego on vacation.

      Renunciation is a confusing word for us Westerners. This tweet from one of my teachers, Phakchok Rinpoche, is clear to me now but I would have misunderstand a year ago: “Don’t hope to be happy, don’t fear to be sad. Hang loose, let be.” It’s not that we should give away all our stuff and loved ones, reject all the beauty of the world, and so on. We just need to free ourselves of grasping and shunning. That’s what leads us into trouble.

      I think it would take me quite a while to get a real understanding of yoga psychology. The Buddhist equivalent grew from the same roots and that’s hard enough to get clear. I’m wary of confusing myself more by mixing the two. This struck me, however: “Without a sufficiently harmonious and powerful ahaṃkāra (personality), it is thought to be impossible to exert the level of effort necessary to accede to a higher spiritual level.” I do see what you’re saying, that ahamkara is a helpful idea. In Vajrayana Buddhism there doesn’t seem to be an individual agent that exerts the effort.

      I have a very weak understanding of Vajrayana theory and perhaps will never really get it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s better to focus on just making the effort because I’ve seen the positive results of that in others.

      Psychology is like any science – the best explanation so far for how things work. That means it matters more that I use a proven training program that feels productive than the extent to which I understand how it works.

      • Thanks for the discussion Martin. I agree, we have to use whatever works to find our meaning and satisfaction. Our discussions always work very well to help me find mine. As always, I wish you continued luck on your own journey.

  3. So much to take in, here, Martin. I have stopped (for the time being) at your contemplation of being a verb rather than a noun. This has personal implications for me. One of the reasons I never wanted to be married is because of the implied and somewhat automatic reversion from verb to noun/wife. From being, if you will, to being something in particular/specific/definable. I have railed against becoming a noun for quite some time. Not sure where this post is going but I will read on in the next week or so. Thanks for a really thoughtful post.

    • That’s a perfect example of what I’m trying to say. You are in every moment Julie-ing. The Bill-ing, Martin-ing, Felicity-ing and many other be-ings are very happy that there is no fixed, definable Julie but a Julie-ing that persists. How cool that is!

  4. From a skype chat with friend who has been practicing Buddhism for many years:

    Friend: “It’s very complicated. Ego foolishly destroys happiness while giving the impression to find it. Ego destroys happiness because instead of looking inwardly ego looks outwardly. When unhappy ego says it is your fault instead of seeing that it is the cause of suffering. To see and understand it is one thing, it is very difficult to be aware enough do it in difficult situations, because of habits over many lifetimes.”

    Me: “It’s so hard even to express the glimpses I’m beginning to get of what I’m doing. I understand at least partially what it means to look inwardly but only because a teacher recently told us to practice turning our eyeballs inwards. It’s easier to see what that might mean if I imagine one eye looking out and the other looking in. The one looking in is watching for habitual delusions that obscure my view.

  5. Martin, there’s a lot here, and I’m late to the conversation – but I’m afraid I’ll never jump in if I wait till I’ve caught up with the whole comment thread.

    I have been thinking this verb/noun distinction in different vocabulary for some time – rather than ‘be creative (or original)’ – create (or originate), for example. We don’t have good active words for being kind/generous/etc. – but those aren’t states that we fall into being or having. We ‘do’ (or don’t).

    I was once in a frustrating conversation with my frail, elderly mother, in which she was being chatty and digressive and I was trying to get some bureaucratic or medical snafu clarified. And she suddenly said, “Thank you, sweetheart, for never losing patience with me.” I wasn’t feeling patient at all, so I was taken aback. But I saw at once that, of course, she was right. I was enacting patience, and had made it my practice for a long time to do so. I have no idea whether she was responding to my own experience of myself as being impatient; or losing patience – as if patience could be a noun, in the world (it can stay that way in the dictionary). In other words, perhaps she saw the effort in the doing, or perhaps she was just ‘doing empathy’ herself.

    Whenever I hear someone say they ‘have no patience’ – I no longer think, “you’d best get some, then.” Though maybe that’s not so far off, since doing patience and getting patience are probably two different weak verbs for the same thing. The amazing thing about ‘doing patience’ is that there’s no Thing To Do, either. You just do patientness, and keep doing it, and sometimes it takes a little more effort than others, but it’s the effort that gives the patience, as the road is made by walking.

    Of course this applies to all sorts of other matters. And of course, I must have been capable of this insight, and the patience I was doing, at least in part because my mother, in her own vocabulary, had shown me how it’s made, done, lived, a thousand times.

  6. Martin, I’m jumping in rather late in this discussion, but I feel like I’m dealing with a ball of interconnected and intertwined threads, and I haven’t been comfortable with how to unravel these threads in some coherent and logical manner. However, here’s my take on some of these issues.

    Regarding some quotes taken out of context from your exposition:

    ——————————————————————————————————————————–

    “We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable. We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not. But it can’t work …”

    “… our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind …”

    “Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there. He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME. He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish …”

    ——————————————————————————————————————————–

    Is a sense of self, a sense of Ego, really all that bad? It seems to me this sense of self and our personal sense of the world around us enables us to more effectively navigate our environment. To me, the core of this discussion is how we perceive the world around us and inside us, and how this affects how we react to the real world as a result of this perception.

    From the moment of birth, and probably before that, we gather information about the world through our senses. We use this information to build up a conceptual model of the world around us and inside us. Negative and positive experiences with our environment provide emotional nuances to components of this model. As we explore our environment, some things we experience will be similar to what we have previously built into our reality model in which case we have information that will allow us to act appropriately (e.g. if we were burned by fire, we know that fire is bad and we can avoid that calamity when we encounter it again).

    Some encounters will require that we modify our reality model to accommodate the new experience and sometimes that new information can seemingly contradict earlier experience (e.g. fire is good because it provides light and warmth and it can be used to cook food). The ability to react to new experiences with information gleaned from previous experience probably arises out of a basic survival instinct. Animals appear to go through a similar process, but humans take it a step further.

    The thing that seems to differentiate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to categorize. This is intrinsically involved with our language ability. We use language to give a name to a grouping whose components we perceive to have similar characteristics. As Dave discussed, the most basic grouping is I – Not I, or Self-Not Self. Later we expand it to Us-Not Us. Not-Us later gives rise to sub-groupings: food-beings, dangerous-Beings, Nice-Smelling-Beings, Bad-Smelling-Beings, etc. Naming a category allows it to be used in logical reasoning and allows communication of concepts between individuals.

    Over time, we build up reality sub-models associated with concept names and we use these models to guide our interactions. On the negative side, they can cause us to react in ways that we might not if we were perceiving objective reality. For instance, during WWII, news media and government propaganda provided an extremely negative model of Japanese people. Acceptance of this model of the Japanese, communicated to us by news media and film allowed us to view with equanimity the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during the war, and the obliteration of civilians in Japanese cities with atomic bombs. We overlaid our caricature of Japanese people on every Japanese person and lost the humanity and uniqueness of the individual.

    On the positive side, these models of reality enable us to deal with complex situations that confront us. our models allow us to develop a sense of family and community and shared experience with our fellow humans. We can improve our reality models by learning from outside sources such as the philosophers of the Enlightenment and from religious leaders like Jesus (“… love thy neighbor …”) and Hillel (“…That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man …”).

    What we perceive as reality is filtered through the intermediation of our sensory apparatus and through the models we have built up in our minds over our span of existence. As with anything, our models of the world around us can be good or bad, accurate or misleading, but they are an intrinsic and necessary component of human nature. Buddhism and other disciplines can teach us to be aware of this filtering of reality and to see through the distortions produced by negative experiences and erroneous information, but I would not classify this marvelous human ability, as a bad thing. Without a sense of self and a well-constructed internal model of our environment, we would not have managed to survive as well as we have.

    • We’re in agreement to a very large extent. That seems to be veiled by my personification of Mr Ego but I’ll stay with the metaphor a little longer and hope it plays out.

      We would indeed have a tough time without Mr Ego’s help as navigator. We should gratefully accept his help, just not accept what he says without question. He’s not always right, so we should not go on auto-pilot.

      As you say: “What we perceive as reality is filtered through the … models we have built up in our minds”. What differentiates us from other animals is more the ability to question our categories and models than their far greater complexity. We can recognize that our models are filtering “reality” and be alert to the fact that they can be highly distorting fun-house mirrors.

      Maybe the heart of it is: “The ability to react to new experiences with information gleaned from previous experience.” The challenge is to be alert enough to recognize what’s new.

      In a fundamental sense, everything is in every moment new but everything is also the product of all that appeared before. The main thing I’m trying to say is that while what happens next results from what came before, nothing that appears now is fixed so everything that happens next can be better.

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