The following series was, like many good things, born of a conversation. The talkers in this case are two people from entirely different generations, backgrounds, and life circumstances, but the question being addressed is one that affects both of us deeply. In fact, it’s universal. Perhaps the answer to the question is as simple as “know thyself,” a maxim offered thousands of years ago at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, inscribed on the Luxor Temple in Egypt, and even invoked by the makers of the Matrix trilogy. Despite its perseverance in culture, it’s an idea more often noted than it is applied, and through this conversation, we hope to uncover some of the paths to achieving this feat and some of the obstacles we face in making such an attempt.
Bill Rossi is educational director for Merge Education. To listen to him play jazz or speak about the world is a privilege I’ve had for the past four years, and I will endeavor to convey the experience here. I am a writer from the Millennial generation with a desk job and the ambition to alter my world one word at a time. While our discussions of obstacles tend to include some of the pitfalls of technology, it’s a conversation we wouldn’t be having without it. I met Bill and his wife Mary-Helen after searching non-profit opportunities on Idealist.org when moving from Los Angeles back to my hometown of West Chester, PA. Since that time, we’ve each moved three times and continue the conversation long distance, Bill in Boston and myself in Harrisburg, PA. Meanwhile, we attend board meetings for YATMA, now located in Danbury, CT via video chat and publish our conversation globally via the Internet.
The importance of this writing being a conversation lies in the idea of knowing oneself. To converse is to connect, and connecting with the people around us in real time teaches us not only to connect with the present moment but also to connect with ourselves within that moment. Emotions and ideas may seem latent when engaged in a passive task, like scrolling through news feeds or watching television, but such is not the case in a conversation. It gives us the chance to actively engage, and, if executed properly, almost negates the possibility of separating the current thought from the current moment. It seems like a very basic idea, but diligently applying yourself to being in a conversation, whether its morning small talk at the office or it’s a serious discussion with a loved one, may be something you’ve neglected, something that could further you on the path of self-knowledge.
Another amazing aspect of conversation is the realization that certain experiences are universal. Like the Blues, the more a person narrows in on a specific moment or feeling from their own life, the more universal their words become. Knowing yourself gives you the opportunity to express ideas that will more likely reveal kindred spirits than it will further a sense of isolation. One of the hardest things in life, for me at least, is finding an anchor and feeling attached and grounded to myself. There are so many other factors to consider. What does this person think of me? Who am I as an employee? Who am I as a friend? Who am I as a sister? Am I fulfilling my potential as a human being? Do I look OK in that picture? How can I look better to others? How can I be of value to others? Yes, many of these things actually matter, but, even multiplied exponentially, they feel weightless. Without answering the internal questions, I’m floating in space from one external perception of myself to another. I know that’s a universal idea because I’ve read it in texts thousands of years old, and, more importantly, because I hear other people around me expressing it. I’m also aware that cultural and technological developments pose previously unimagined ways to feel lost. It should be obvious that the only place to find a self is in the self, and that’s a worthy task by whatever means possible. Here we’ll explore some of those means.
A Practical Approach to Spirituality
Culturally speaking, there is a very high premium these days on the ability to multi task. The world moves very quickly, and a great deal needs to be accomplished simultaneously. It only makes sense to hone this skill, lest one fall behind the pack. Habitually divided attention, however, may not be conducive to the act of knowing one’s self. In fact, it may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks our generation faces to cultivating an inner life. More times than I’m proud of, I’ve been speaking on my phone or using it to play music while frantically searching for the very phone I am holding because I think I need to see if someone texted me, check a bank statement, look up a fact, or see if anyone had anything urgent to say on my Facebook wall. Thank goodness I have a laptop to help me in moments of such scarcity. It’s embarrassing. It’s like thinking, “I could really go for dinner,” while shoveling an appetizer into your mouth. It isn’t the dependence on technology that frightens me about this kind of behavior, it’s the devaluation of self. In such a scenario, to be so un-tethered to an inner place that my awareness is fully held by my technological extensions, avatars representing various pieces of me but never coalescing into the full picture.
I constantly find myself coming back to the Buddhist idea of the “hungry ghost.” This ghost can be seen as an otherworldly being, a mythological character, or a possible realm of reincarnation, but the concept aptly applies here. The hungry ghost is someone who consumes with avarice but is never full. No matter how much it takes in, it cannot be satiated. This ghost can show up in all kinds of vices, from alcohol to entertainment, but in this context, it’s showing up in information. How much of any person’s day is spent without any deliberate input from music, TV, social networking sites, blogs, articles, podcasts, or books? How does that compare to what we’re outputting from ourselves? When we’re putting out at the same time we’re taking in, is the quality of each lessened? How often is either of those things achieved in real time face-to-face connection with another human being? That is to say, the notion of being fully present in a place with another person has been bereft of value in a world where so much is achieved so quickly via digital means. Our minds are less and less in the same space that our bodies occupy, and our definition of self is more and more calculated and digital.
It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling of this phenomenon. There is a muscle that seems to atrophy, but unlike the appendix or some other vestigial reminder of our evolution, the ability to connect with each other and our own present experience has proven necessary for our lives and health. Mental health issues are one of the most persistent and widespread problems in America today. They extend across all levels of income, occupations, ages, and cultural groups. We are constantly reminded that while we are quantitatively doing better than ever, there is some qualitative deficiency. Furthermore, we’re seeing a cultural backlash to the problem. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are broadcast all over the Internet, often pointing to the use of social networking as the root of this dissatisfaction.
The mere existence and use of technology is not the problem that is digging away at people. If it were, loneliness could be remedied with more virtual “friends,” or isolation could be thwarted by a trip to a coffee shop with wifi. While the path to knowing oneself may involve quite a bit of time spent alone, the cultivation of a rich inner life will undoubtedly help a person to be alone without feeling lonely, to rest in that space without reaching for their nearest device to make sure that the world is still out there connecting to itself. In fact, learning this kind of attentiveness may well enhance the quality of your virtual interactions simply by allowing you to be more genuinely present and conscientious. In the meantime, all the avatars in the world will not tell you who you are.
Self vs. the Individual
Why is it so difficult to spend time alone with the one person you’re conditioned to believe is the center of your universe? Our culture may tout the virtues of rugged individualism emphatically, but does it do so in a way that benefits the individual? Does it further our self knowledge? We hear that we are to compete, to stand out in the crowd, to put number one first. While there is certainly a great deal of virtue in speaking and living one’s personal truth, a great deal of personal destruction can come out of the egocentric mindset that is encouraged – if not demanded – by social, educational, and economic institutions. While it may have value in the marketplace, it’s clear that the practice of putting “me” before “we” leaves much to be desired when it becomes a lifestyle. We’re so individualized that we spend half our time comparing nuanced customizations of material and virtual goods in order to convince ourselves we’re on the right track.
Why do we assume that the right track is the obvious one? As quickly as we are up in arms about the failures of our institutions, we still rely on them to tell us the most important thing, who we’re supposed to be. Where should you spend your time? How should you spend your money? What is most important to you? Are you finding those answers in yourself, or are they handed to you? Whether it’s something as superficial as your appearance or as deeply rooted as your lifestyle, there’s a culturally accepted template. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if everyone wore a size 9 shoe because it was in fashion, regardless of the discomfort it might bring them. Why do the same with your life?
The manner through which this conditioning occurs is so subtle and pervasive that we don’t even realize we may be focusing our attention on the wrong things. We’re just living life the way we’re supposed to, a way that allows one to put their best self forward. What may go unnoticed is that so much attention to the self as it is seen from the outside as opposed to how it is perceived from the inside, may tread dangerously close to narcissism, a natural end to the cultural path presented. You are a narcissist. So am I, and that’s the way we fit best into our society. This fact brings me back to my initial question. If I’m number one, why isn’t it a Christina parade when the phone and computer and TV are off and I’m alone with myself? Where does the pep rally go when the model individual actually has to be just that?
Of course, it’s possible that the answer could be found by removing, not amplifying, the things that make us distinct from others. Maybe you’ll find a better sense of who you are by acknowledging that you are not, in fact, the most important person in your world, even if you feel totally alone in it. You are not number one because no one can be. Either you are literally the most important person, taking precedence over six billion others, or you are part of something bigger, possessing untold value to be sure but not any more or less than anyone else.
Sure, you’re special. You’re conscious and alive, and that’s nothing to frown at, but the Gandhis and Mother Theresas of the world, the ones we truly remember and admire, are the ones who put the good of the whole before self-interest. In fact, Mother Theresa’s personal diary reveals a fifty-year crisis of faith during which she continued to be one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century. She didn’t do what she did to maintain her fame or get a special seat in heaven; she did it because she saw a need in others that she could fill.
Maybe it’s a little early to sit alone in a quiet room and face “number one.” That’s a big task. Maybe turning off all the things that keep us connected will cause more separation anxiety than it does personal, spiritual fulfillment, but few real changes occur overnight. The best place to start, I think, is by reaching out to someone else, acknowledging that you’re in a constellation and not a single star shining for everyone else to wish on. Stop and talk to a stranger you’d usually pass by. Give your time to a cause or organization that you can get behind. Find your individual self in terms of how it relates to someone else.
Small Stones, Big Ripples
My first inclination when I think of taking on any kind of spiritual or psychological growth is to lock all the doors, turn off my cell phone, and perhaps even consider taking some sort of ascetic vows. Extreme? Absolutely. In such a connected world, however, it sometimes seems like the only way to achieve the goal of knowing one’s self would be in total isolation. When I look out at the world, nothing seems compatible with, much less nurturing of, the higher self I’m trying to cultivate inside. I could cultivate all kinds of avatars online or in my interactions, never strengthening my connection to or knowledge of my internal self. I could spend all day alone without ever taking a second to address the issue so long as I stayed connected to the outside world. There must be an alternative. There must be some grounds on which a person can stand with a strong relationship to themselves and the world around them.
“To be in the world and be not of it,” is an idea that was first presented to me in Methodist Sunday School, but I’ve heard it echo throughout my life many times in many venues, long after I stopped attending traditional religious education. Aside from being a fundamental aspect of many spiritual disciplines, it is often repeated by psychologists interested in mindfulness. It comes up both in trite clichés and deep philosophical musings inspired by the scientific advances revealing our place in the universe. Hearing it often, however, doesn’t make the task any more easily achieved. Say we’re made of stars or we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. Forget that, and simply consider that we are conscious, and that consciousness has the capacity to create new things in the world, be it life, art, or technology. There has to be a way to honor and revere that aspect of the human self and still find fulfillment in the more commonly understood cultural and material realms. In fact there are many ways to do that and many places to start. The thing is, though, that you have to start.
Let’s say you find one way to make that connection in your life, just one small way that doesn’t feel overwhelming or require locking all your doors. It almost seems counter intuitive – in today’s perspective anyway – that we can begin to grow inside by taking more deliberate actions in the world outside, but the conversations Bill and I are having are convincing me otherwise. In fact, Bill suggests that one of the best places to start is simply in not being overly concerned with yourself; rather, one could start with small acts of generosity. We’ve brought up in previous articles the idea of volunteering as a means toward cultivating an inner life. Even if it doesn’t jump out at you as a completely unselfish activity, it’s a step in the right direction. Maybe you’re motivated by the value philanthropy will add to your resume, but you’re still putting yourself in a position to reap the benefits in giving of yourself, and it may not be long before volunteering is an activity you cherish, not a chore. Effects will ripple out from there. Making these external connections, helping others, may begin to break down barriers between your inner life and the life around you. You may find you can learn more about your true nature by collaborating with others than by focusing on what separates you from them.
Bringing positive attention to one area of your life makes room for the effects to overflow into other areas. Whether it begins as a trickle spilling over the edge or it begins as a total avalanche, taking the first step will make every step after just a little bit easier. For example, I recently changed my diet not to include certain unhealthy foods. I noticed an almost immediate change. Not only do I feel better without them, but I have become more sensitive to everything else I eat. I am more aware when I eat something that makes me feel jittery or sluggish, and I naturally cut back the role it plays in my meals. Imagine how that would feel when applied to another area of your life. It’s a very practical way to start making the changes you want to make. Say you decide not to look at your phone when sitting at the table with friends and family. This is a good way to be generous toward the people around you. Maybe after a few weeks, you would realize you were on the phone during other moments in which other things need your attention. Before long, you might be the rare kind of person who doesn’t feel totally lost if they accidentally leave their phone at home. Even if your phone or diet isn’t your biggest stumbling block or it seems too big of a challenge, you can think of other areas that would welcome such small changes. It is safe to say that these simple adjustments will begin opening new doors in your life and inspire further growth.