“During our dependent and vulnerable childhoods we develop the psychological, behavioral, and emotional composite that we later mistake for ourselves.” — Dr. Gabor Mate
In zen, one’s “true self” is often explained as “no self,” or a self so interconnected with and interdependent on everything else in the universe that there’s no separate “there” there. This is sometimes called the emptiness of self.
Yet self also has a form. In the net of interdependence, each intersection of the shimmering strands of being creates a unique jewel, a form, that reflects the entire net within itself. It’s this identity — a zen-spirited word that manages to connote both sameness and uniqueness — that I want to discuss today.
According to Dr. Mate, many of us suffer a case of mistaken identity: we confuse an environmentally conditioned set of adaptations with our actual self. And then we compound the error by presuming that this self is fixed, even hardwired somehow — genetically, perhaps — and therefore beyond the reach of transformation.
The only thing more disturbing than such an assumed, immutable identity is the realization that it might not be accurate. Because if we’re not our conditioning, our karma, then who are we? I don’t think the emptiness of interdependence is a sufficient answer to this question, although it’s part of the truth.
“The emotional contexts of childhood interact with inborn temperament to give rise to personality traits. Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, [but] only coping mechanisms acquired in childhood. There’s an important distinction between an inherent characteristic, rooted in an individual without regard to their environment, and a response to the environment, a pattern of behaviors developed to ensure survival.”
Bearing our inborn characteristics, we develop in such a way as to ensure the best chance of thriving within a particular environment: a given place and time, family, class, culture. Then the environment changes, and sometimes we do as well. But sometimes it’s as if we never noticed the change in scenery. We keep doing the same things even if they aren’t necessary or desirable in our new environment. One of the reasons we do so is that we’ve adopted our adaptations as our identity, the essence of who we are, rather than a by-product of where we were.
Even our genes, the modern version of destiny, are sensitive to changes in our physical and emotional environments, capable of being switched on or off by various external and internal mechanisms. One of the most powerful of these influences is the thoughts and emotions that we choose to fuel with our time and energy.
How do we distinguish our true selves from our “convenience” selves? Inborn characteristics from environmental adaptations? Which is not to imply that inborn characteristics are good and environmental adaptations are bad. It’s recognizing which are which, and learning to work with them all to polish our moon: to continue becoming our best and brightest selves over the course of our lives.
Who are you, really?
And if you wanted to, could you change your self, and never be the same?