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Self, other, actor, environment, and the oddities of perception

In a recent discussion with old friends, we pondered different ways of experiencing the “self.”  One felt that the self was something true that can be found and held dear.  This could be accomplished, in her example, through painting - where the artist’s perception and feelings at that moment could be focused and solidified.  Another felt that the self was something to be experienced, challenged, and opened.  This could be accomplished, in his experience, through trying to find all the things he most feared and go into that fear as deeply as possible.  In this way, his self was able to grow rather than be limited by old traumas and current worries.  My feeling is that I really only experience self in relationships.  When I’m by myself, I really don’t notice a self.  I notice it most clearly in reaction to others.

I don’t think that any of these approaches is “right,” at least not for anyone other than the individuals involved.  But it did strike me as surprising that there are so many different thoughts about something that we all take for granted as being universally understood as part of the human experience. 

It gets even stranger, though.  In retreats, when I’ve asked people to examine how they experienced their “selves,” I hear things I’ve never experienced.  One woman (a lawyer in her 30s) found that as she hunted for herself, it appeared to be very, very small in the center of her chest.  She worked to see if she could bring that sense of herself out to fill her whole body, and this gave her a tremendous feeling of presence and of her own power.  A woman in her 60s kept feeling that the self was something that she had to “fight” for constantly – it was always under threat and needed defending.  Another approached it apophatically – realizing that her “self” really was none of the things that she typically assumed, such as a mother, a teacher, a partner, etc.  This process of deletion left her feeling there was nothing that was a self.

My current view is that the self is a koan.  It’s always in motion.  It’s always a process.  It therefore can’t really be defined, as it is constantly changing in reaction to the present moment.

Even this conception, however, is probably too limited.  Alan Watts spoke about how our typical view is that we have a limited self to which things happen from the outside.  Our feeling of self is limited to only that which we believe we voluntarily willed.   Therefore almost everything that happens to us is not us, from large things like earthquakes to break ups to our feelings, which are someone else’s “fault.”  In fact, even our internal states are not seen as self, if we didn’t will them.  If we get hiccups, a stomach-ache, or the flu, those are things “happening to us,” but are not us.

The problem is one of human psychology – we see and prefer the figure to the background.  Once something seems constant, we ignore it, and are on constant alert for the solitary thing that is moving.  (For example, in the photo above, you probably separate out individual specific things like the fountain, the tree, the lamppost, and the children.  In the video below you will notice most clearly the people, the target, the cheetah, and the person at the end, as they stand out from the background environment.) This means that we ignore two basic truths.  First, we ignore the truth that the actor is never independent and separate from the environment.  In fact, when trying to describe what some animal or person is doing, we always discuss it in relation to the environment.  Even seeming non-action requires the environment: simply breathing requires air, sitting requires a surface, etc.  But because surfaces and air appear relatively constant compared to the act of sitting and breathing, we ignore them.  We see the sitter as figure and the environment as unimportant background.  We have a much harder time keeping the attention on the continual interaction of all parts of the environment, which of course includes all of the actors.

Second, we usually ignore the truth that our limited viewpoint is only at one level of magnification.  Therefore, we cannot perceive bigger or smaller patterns that are also happening, but take our point of view as being “correct.”  This is funny, because if I asked you whether it is more “correct” to look at something with a microscope, a telescope, or the naked eye, you would likely respond that none is correct – they all are.  Alan Watts noted that if we looked at our bodies microscopically, it would look like we have all these different types of cells and proteins rushing about and fighting each other constantly.  Yet, at our usual level of perception, it seems to work remarkably harmoniously most of the time.  Similarly, our usual level of perception suggests to us that our lives are full of conflict and stress.  If we were able to see it from a broader perspective that included the full environment, we would be better able to see the harmonious whole of which we are an integral part.  The small conflicts become our “figure,” and we ignore the background: that the universe gives us basically everything we really need all the time.  Even life and death are part of this harmonious whole.

Another analogy is a photograph in the newspaper.  When seen under a magnifying glass, it is a seemingly random collection of dots.  But if we back up, we can see that each dot is part of a grander harmonious whole.

We see our “selves” as one dot.  But we are not independent of all the other dots in the world.  In fact, the other dots depend on us as much as we depend on them.  Self and other are two sides of the same coin.  There is no independent actor without the environment within which it is dependently acting.  Self includes other.


Photo credits: The author and here.

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A personality disorder exists when personality traits are inflexible and maladaptive and cause either significant impairment in social or occupational functioning or subjective distress. Characteristic features are typical of the individual's long-term functioning and are not limited to discrete episodes of illness. - psd to bootstrap

Oddities of Perception

The oddities means something against the norm. In this case the norm of the majority of toxic environment in League of Legends. So far we have quite a few people who have the same mindset that would like a friendly and fun environment.

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