It seems to be widely accepted in our society that "destiny" is somehow shaping our existence and that there is nothing we can do about it. We are told that, since we are destiny's pawns, it is futile for us to think that we can - or should - take individual responsibility for who we are or what we do.
There is another option to accepting this admittedly seductive counsel. If we accept that we are self-determined beings, we can open the way to the restoration of fully functional existence and thereby the recovery of personal autonomy. The method involves revisiting, reevaluating and finally taking responsibility for all of our agreements with our cultural milieu - past, present and future.Over twenty-five years ago, as I entered middle age, I realized that for the first time in my life I could no longer depend on others to "look after" me; that is, to make my decisions for me. I could no longer merely be the effect of others' decisions. I finally fully understood that I, and only I, was ultimately responsible for my life. Like many others of my generation it had not up to that time occurred to me that, rather than the development of my life depending on the decisions of others, who I am, where I am and what I am doing is solely my responsibility. When I fully integrated that concept, which in real time occurred very quickly, I turned a corner in my mind.
What follows is a personal account of the conclusions I have drawn from following such a path, as well as some suggestions for others who may wish to do likewise.
In essence, I realized that at an elemental level I had been working from a fundamental hypothesis, from which all else flowed. My basic hypothesis was, "I'm somebody else's problem." Change occurred for me when that postulate was rejected; that is, when I fully accepted that I - and only I - am responsible for my behaviour at any instant. Further, I understood that my reality (which I define as how I process and interpret my sensory input at any moment) is my own construct; it not imposed by others. Implicit in this was the concurrent acceptance of responsibility for the whole of my self. I then understood that it is not necessary for me to prove anything to anyone or to seek the agreement of others in order to validate my existence.
Once I realized I was responsible for my life -- past and future -- my entire suite of past agreements, as well as the decisions which stemmed from those agreements, were available for review and modification. I then elected, in order to expedite the process, not to recall specific instances of agreement, but only to modify my agreement. In effect, I suspended all agreement for a time, then selectively evaluated and reincorporated by agreement that which was useful and discarded that which was not.
Moving from the known to the unknown (and for me this was unknown territory) was frightening. But I quickly learned that its benefits infinitely outweigh its hazards. While it looked from one side like stepping off a cliff, it became from the other side a new, novel, useful, and in my case, irreversible way of apprehending reality and concurrently reconstructing the self. That is, the understanding that personal reality is self-defined became a construct with which I could restore full functionality.
I characterize the creation of personal reality as follows: each of us selects out from a chaotic sensorium those inputs and constructs which we deem useful, however we may define "useful". Furthermore, the selection process is self-determined, just as is the definition of useful. Finally, selection and definition remain arbitrary and voluntary, although our culture seeks to coerce agreement with the cultural consensus.
In my view, differentiating sensory input is the first step in individuation, which the dictionary defines as, "the process by which individuals in society become differentiated from one another." I have come to understand this process to be the creation of a personal reality. Social psychology, however, defines this activity as "socialization"; that is, the way the self learns how to interact with its social surroundings. This definition presumes that something called the "self" is always present; and, moreover, that the self, at some early point in the development of personality, learns how to function effectively within its parent society through assimilation of that society's definition of its physical and cultural environment. I have learned - experientially - that the process begins much earlier than this. Indeed, individuation; that is, the creation of selfhood, begins at the instant one begins to differentiate sensory input; that is, at some point before birth.
The paradox is that individuation, by definition, sets limits upon the self. However, it is an essential survival mechanism, since without learned differentiation all would remain perceptual chaos. John Locke's notion of the infant mind as a tabula rasa, a clean slate, is a useful simile: individuation begins by oneís agreement to delimit a limited specturm of input from that chaos. This primal agreement has been called "the decision to become human". The creation of personality is initiated by the "awareness of being aware." At that instant the self begins. However, here is where the simile fails. Rather than the self being somehow written by the impingement of the sensorium, all else after that instant is overlay. As such it can be removed, modified or, if one so wishes, replaced.
To reiterate: perceptual input remains chaotic, and meaning is not inherent in our perception of our environment. Rather, meaning is assigned only after it is learned. That is, our culture prompts us to invest a culturally defined definition of what our sensory input is signalling through an act of cognition. Prior to our agreement with these meanings, or labels, sensory input remains undifferentiated.
In my experience the ability to experience undifferentiated input, and to respond noncognitively, remains available and can be accessed in a number of ways. For example, one can experience this on a selective basis by removing the cultural definition, or, more concisely, the referent suite, from a word by continued repetition. This exercise demonstrates at least two useful concepts. First, at some point during the continued repetition of a randomly selected word, one will become aware that the sound previously assigned the label, "word" is now just another sound. Content of the sound; that is, its "meaning," has been removed. It is now undifferentiated input, inducing no cognitive response.
Initial reaction to this realization is usually some degree of panic as the self scrambles to reassign meaning. At this point it is useful to become aware of how personal meaning is assigned. Simply becoming aware of this mechanism will confirm that meaning is in fact assigned to the sounds we call "words": meaning is not inherent in the sound.
Furthermore, reflecting upon why a particular meaning, as well as an emotional valence, has been assigned to the word in question can provide insight into the influences which impinged upon the self at the time that meaning was assigned.
Once this is understood it will eventually become obvious that the assignment of personal meaning is not limited to words, but to all sensory input, ordering perceptual chaos according to societally agreed upon parameters. Thus the content previously assigned can be removed on a nonselective basis from all stimuli -- sound, light, gravity, temperature, and even time -- while still remaining aware of these inputs. Alpha state consciousness, achieved through meditation, or volitionally through systematic relaxation (and automatically just before falling asleep) is a convenient medium for this experience.
Essentially, while one remains aware of the sensorium, nothing is labelled. If in this state the self applies a label to anything, normal consciousness resumes, almost with a snap, and often with regret, since this condition of relaxed, undifferentiated awareness is extremely refreshing: one is at the point of infinite potential. The moment one once again permits the mind to delimit existence through its insistence upon taxonomy, a finite reality -- that is, the logical construct of that taxonomy -- is once again actualized. With practise, however, it is not difficult to decide to remove cognitive labelling and thus rehabilitate one's potentiality whenever and for however long one wishes to do so.
What, then, is the role of agreement?
I am now convinced that agreement, whether it be the consensus of two or of a million, creates reality. The psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan suggested that how we decide to behave in a given situation involves our analysis of the interaction of several people, all but one of whom may be imaginary. Thus agreement with oneself can also effectively create reality. There are, certainly, personal as well as environmental constraints. Few individuals or societies, however, test the constraint envelope, since it's infinitely easier to accept a societal (or personal) definition of limits. All too often we are coerced into agreeing to that assignment by our culture, creating what others have termed consensual reality. Once again: personal reality is created from chaos by the assignment of meaning.
Each of us creates our own reality -- piece by piece and bit by bit. Whenever we find a bit of another's personal reality to be useful and/or appealing we incorporate it; that is, we agree with it. Thus does a collective, consensual reality emerge. And thus, if someone is able to adequately articulate his own reality and is able, therefore, to convince others of the utility and/or appeal of a bit of it, do oneís heroes emerge. Yet the only reality inhering in anything is that which we each, individually and personally, assign to it.
This is not to say that something that we call, for instance, "table," exists only because of our agreement, but rather that our agreement to label a particular matrix of sensory input "table," and to act toward that matrix accordingly, is an arbitrary investment of meaning and purpose within the societal consensus. Further, this investment of meaning and purpose by agreement is not limited to tangible objects, but also to beliefs, attitudes, emotions and opinions; that is, to our entire perceptual and emotional sensorium.
An important, perhaps primary, way in which society imposes consensus is by exploiting childrens' fear of being alone, through withholding agreement with any of childhood's non-consensual output. Since an infant is incapable of surviving alone, this is a powerful tool to enforce society's version of reality. Children then grow to adulthood, still deeply convinced that to survive they must not be alone, and if they disagree, they will become alone. It's not easy to break this chain, but it can be broken. However, breaking the chain by self-integration; that is, by the realization that each of us creates and refines our reality, remains an active, not a passive, process. It is a function of the self, not a result of effort by others, no matter how well-meaning that effort might be.
Our usual response to a new situation is to repeat as closely as possible our last successful response to what we perceive to have been a similar situation in our past. These "stock" responses can be compared to clothing in our psychological closet. Extending the simile, the reconfiguration of personal reality can be perceived as cleaning out one's closet of clothes which no longer fit, thus rehabilitating spontaneity. However, in my closet I'm the only one who really knows what fits and what doesn't. Others may suggest, and give well-meaning advice, but I'm the only one who can open the door and discard what I now know to be useless.
Fully functional existence is, and will always remain, self-determined. That is, all is available; however, one can (and will) freely choose, or freely elect not to choose, components of one's selfhood which may or may not be fully functionalized. The choice is always there. Insofar as manifesting behaviour which may be deemed by others to be dysfunctional is concerned, I repeat: it's a free, non-confluent choice, once it is realized that acceptance of responsibility for the self forgoes confluence. As a self-determined being, I freely choose my behaviour, without undue regard of the value judgements imposed by others. That being said, however, choice of behaviour which one understands to be self- or societally-destructive is contradictory to full functionality.
As I now understand my own experience, the process of reconfiguring my reality, and thus rehabilitating my functionality, was not so much a picking and choosing of bits and pieces from a number of spiritual and philosophical writers in order to create my own personal viewpoint, but rather the other way around. Once I had grasped what was for me the pivotal concept that personal reality is created by the self, together with all the other correlatives deriving from this fundamental insight, I began to discover elements in other disciplines which I recognized as congruent with my own viewpoint. Prior to that time these elements were invisible to me, thus giving new meaning to St. Paul's remark that "the scales fell from my eyes", the obvious metaphor for what I've just described. If it is accepted that one's reality is one's own personal creation it will be immediately obvious that one really only "sees" what one is looking for.
And this would seem to be the basis of "scientific method," which operates as follows: an hypothesis is enunciated ("Perhaps the following is true. . . ."), then data is procured through experiments designed to prove the hypothesis is not false or, in statistical terms, that "the null hypothesis is rejected." The experimenter can then declare, with full societal approval, that since he has "proved" his hypothesis not to be false, it must be true. That is, scientific method requires that the experiment be designed only to prove that which is a priori assumed to be true is not false.
In much the same way, convinced devotees within each of the various religions, philosophies, and cults tend to have the same relatively narrow view of truth, and go to great lengths to construct and disseminate involved "do it yourself" procedures designed to show others the way to immutable truth. This, I think, is the basis for much of the presumed necessity for the complicated rituals and specialized vocabularies which pervade New Age philosophies, certain cults, as well as all established religions, be they Eastern or Western.
Nevertheless, there are always those who say that, if you do thus-and-such, you will be saved, or that the only way of describing "how things work" is their way. These are sure signs of somebody who has gotten stuck in some aspect of "power" he's found he can access. Others are convinced that crystals, pyramids, statues of the saints, or the viscera of chickens possess certain inherent powers. Depending upon the charisma of whoever originally assigned the "powers" we utilize to an object, or class of objects, certain of these things become more widely accepted than others.
It's worthwhile to remember, however, that those powers, like meaning, are assigned by the self; they are not somehow inherent, fixed and immutable. Over time they become part of the conventional wisdom, and we tend to think of them as intrinsic to the object.
In my view, however, everything works; that is, the power we invest in any of these things, the significance we assign, tends to assist in "giving oneself permission" to be aware of aspects of oneself -- one's abilities -- hitherto ignored or more likely denied. I'm not convinced of any intrinsic power inhering in any of these artifacts existing independently of the observer.
Stress-reduction trainers, when teaching breathing exercises, say things like, "Give yourself the permission to relax. . . Be aware of what it feels like to relax. . ." They also speak of "concentrated awareness" when dealing with specific muscle groups. Recalling the lessons learned from voluntary transiting between cognitive and noncognitive response and applying those lessons to our perception of sensory stimuli, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this concept of concentrated awareness can be extended to the ability to focus on -- to be aware of -- anything, including any and all of one's own organs, physiological processes or other heretofore unrecognized abilities. It can easily be surmised what can be done with that ability, once one gives oneself permission to do so.
My realization that concentrated awareness could be focused on whatever I wished, when I gave myself permission to do so, was a part of my "turning the corner", mentioned earlier. It resulted in, among other things, my experiencing a phenomenon that I can only describe as contacting; that is, becoming absolutely, viscerally aware of all the pain in the world. Living with that, and learning how to switch it on and off was, I later realized, a tutorial in the stewardship of what some writers have called power: I learned that any ability can be invoked at will.
That is, I understand, a bald, unrelenting and terrifying statement. As is the experience. However, I was fortunate in having heard a comment by Ram Dass regarding his own experience with the mantram, "Om Mane Padme Hum." Briefly, during a time when he was repeating the mantram as a meditative exercise, he suddenly heard a chorus of excruciatingly bass voices (which he imitates in an impossible mutation of his own normal voice) chanting the mantram. He got very excited, and went to his guru to tell him of this enormous revelation which had been vouchsafed to him. His guru said, in effect, "Don't worry about it. You just joined the 'OM car.' [That is, everyone who has ever chanted this mantram]. It's nothing to worry about -- it happens all the time."
In my own case, I had only joined the Pain car. "It's nothing to worry about -- it happens all the time." Thus reassured, I began to understand the dynamics of "power". The only way I can describe the mechanics of this is to say that the key, if there is a key, lies in allowing oneself to access and to exercise one's inherent, or built-in, abilities -- to become aware.
If one wishes to access hitherto unavailable abilities, so be it. What one does with those abilities is another question. While each ability can have its own utility, all carry certain caveats in their use, the most important of which is that manifesting an ability, or "power", is the easiest way to lock oneself into a less than fully functional state. In the '60s this was accurately, although inadvertently, described as getting off on a power trip.
A story is told about a Zen master and a Hindu guru, who were walking together along a riverbank and decided to visit a nearby island. "Letís walk to the island," said the guru. "Why not take the ferry?" suggested the Zen master. "Because," said the guru, "Iíve spent twenty years learning to walk on water." "Why take twenty years learning to walk on water," asked the master, "when you can take a ferry for a penny?" Thus the remainder of the key is usually to eschew the invocation of an ability.
[All of that being said, it is useful to remember that Shakespeare's Glendower asserts that "I can call spirits from the vasty deep." To which a sceptical Hotspur answers, "Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come?"]
The message in all that I have said so far is this: each of us is, when all is said and done, alone. That is, we are ultimately constrained by the meaning we have invested in our perceptions. The parameters of our constraints are unique to each of us, since no one assigns precisely the same meaning, even to a shared event. The immediate corollary to this is, however, that since meaning is not somehow inherent, but rather only a system of self-assigned labels, we remain free to change the labels if we so choose. Nonetheless, since it is impossible to totally agree on any meaning, we still remain essentially alone.
I once dreamt that I was building a house, and that the concrete foundation was completed. The plate had been installed on the top of the foundation, preparatory to putting up the exterior walls. As I began to erect the walls, however, a disintegrative entity appeared, and the foundation began to sink. I soon discovered that if I thought in a disciplined way about the foundation, I was able to bring it back to proper grade. But then the entity would then assault some other aspect of the reality I was in, and I would have to focus on that aspect in order to maintain it.
In this way I learned that, in order to maintain everything simultaneously, I had to be aware of everything -- if my awareness slacked, the entity would attack the neglected part. At first this required considerable effort, but with practice it became easier. This is, of course, an allegory of how we each maintain our own personal reality -- by remaining aware, at some level or another, of each of its components at all times.
Another person who came to realize the nature of personal reality as I have outlined it (but who did so long before I did), said this about that realization:
What is the total structure of a man? You are, within yourself, the world. You are, within yourself, the space-time continuum. You asked me, "Was there a difference"? There probably was. I made my world different. I changed it.So have I, and so can anyone.