Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Illusive Self?

Professor  Bruce M. Hood argues that  there is no self as the self is largely determined by those around us and  that the self is constructed over the course of childhood by the powerful influence of our parents and those around us. Dr Hood wrote in his book, “The Self Illusion” : “Nature has built into humans the capacity to learn and to learn very quickly from others. It is not only doting adults who focus their attention on their offspring; each baby is wired to pay attention to others. It is how our species has evolved a remarkable ability to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next and no other animal on the planet can do this as well as humans. But do babies know who they are? Babies have conscious awareness but does a baby have a sense of self yet? We cannot know for certain but I suspect not. Beginning the process of creating the self illusion requires early social interactions. ” According to Bruce Hood, not only do we humans learn from others about the world around us, we also learn to become a self and we come to discover who we are through  the process of watching others and trying to understand them.

While we are our brains, which create our sense of self , we readily conform to the will of the group of people we mix with. The people we mix with are usually people we are attracted to and we are attracted to people whom we think we share the same values with . Our brains grow as we learn to cope and negotiate the best path through the social landscape.

These days many of us enjoy being on the Web and actively use the Facebook and Twitter to interact with others. There is a certain degree of narcissism when we post our profiles. There are also many who do not feel the need to surrender precious time, effort and privacy to join online communities. Dr Hood wrote in his book “The Self Illusion”: “ If the self illusion is correct, social networking sites will continue to expand in popularity and will increasingly shape the sense of who we are for the next generation and those that follow. So long as we remain a social animal, social networks in one form or another are here to stay. This is because most of us want to be noticed….

Whether or not we matter to those who we interact with, it is important that we have a strong sense of self in order to be reasonably happy in this fast moving world. We endeavour to  establish our own identity among our peers yet it is not easy not to succumb to peer pressures. We  like our opinions to be validated by others. But how often we find that our  views and values may not be shared by others or that we are often misunderstood when we try to explain things or that we think we are being objective and open-minded when we are not. After all, everyone is entitled to form their own opinions. There come a time when we will find that humans are basically  self absorbed and all consumed with what they want for themselves and what they choose to believe and not believe in.

During my teenage years, I kept a journal and there was this one time  when I was in my early teens, both a good friend and I took part in an elocution contest held by the school and the winner would represent our school to take part in an inter-school elocution contest.  By a stroke of luck, I won the competition held at the school and this friend came a close second. As we were buddies, I knew how badly my friend had wanted to be the winner and take part in the interschool competition. To much disappointment of my dad, I let this friend take my place. On reflection, the cynic in the present me questions : Did I give up the opportunity because I was too afraid to lose in the bigger sphere or that the competition did not matter to me at all? I conclude that I was basically a slacker and in the face of a rivalry or conflict, I chose to walk away. Maybe it is all of  the above reasons not that any of it matters.
When I read 'Tolstoy and the Purple Chair  My Year of Magical Reading' by Nina Sankovitch, I could so relate to her concerns about what examples she was  setting for her children.

One day, Nina went out to the side of the road by her house and dug out a  tiny maple tree growing up in the shade of bigger trees. She dragged the tree and carried it home in a wagon and  planted the tree beside her patio. The tree provided just enough shade in one corner of the patio. Her children had asked her for the reason of her action. Why had she not gone to the nursery to buy a nice tree instead of doing what she had done?

She explained that the tree could get bigger but was not going to get any bigger if it had stayed under the shade of those big maples so she saved a tree that had a potential to grow bigger.

The sons offered different explanations for her action amongst which “ You don’t have money for a new tree?” “ You’re cheap” “ You love to dig” . Nina’s husband offered, “ Your mother is crazy.”

Nina said “All of the above” and “ I wanted shade on the patio.”

I like the little anecdote that shows her mindfulness in bringing up her kids.  Nina Sankovitch was reading to come to terms with  the  pain of losing her sister Anne –Marie who had boundless energy and endless curiosity for new ideas and new ways of looking at things.

Buddhism holds that changes take place all the time and the world is in a state of constant flux thus change is the only constant. Nothing is what it seems. In his book ,“What Do Buddhists Believe? Meaning and Mindfulness in Buddhist PhilosophyTony Morris wrote “And Nothing is separate. Everything is connected. People love to think of themselves as individuals. The human ego seems to have a vested interest in bolstering the view of a separate existence, a world out there! But nothing happens in isolation. Phenomena that may appear distinct are, in fact, fundamentally connected.” 

Tony Morris also wrote in his book : “ In essence, the Buddha analysed human behaviour in the way a  modern psychologist might, identifying the drives, motives and impulses which shape our perceptions and lead us to respond in particular ways. As one commentator (Elizabeth J Harris)  memorably puts it, ‘Buddhism sees human beings as verbs rather than nouns.’”

We are matrixes of our minds and we define ourselves by our thoughts and perceptions. How often we find ourselves incoherent individuals, our behaviour erratic and our attitudes changing and  even our memories may become unreliable.