On being special

We all want to feel special.

Special in this context means “marked off from others by some distinguishing quality”.

So to be precise, we all want to be special in a good way.

Maybe we won’t admit it to ourselves or to others, maybe we prefer a different form of words, or a different kind of specialness. Maybe we’d rather say loved, respected, admired, important, powerful, rich, talented, and so on.

But these are, I would argue, just different ways of being special.

Some people may have found the special status they are looking for, but for most of us the desire to be special brings to light the inverse: we don’t feel special, or loved, or respected, etc.

In my experience and study, our search for some means of becoming special is ultimately futile because it is based on a misapprehension. We take “not special” as the default reality and seek to change that reality.

But “not special” is, according to various mystics, sages, philosophers and other observers of the human psyche, a false belief or fear, hence any attempt to remedy it by becoming more special is bound to fail.

The desire to feel special is part of a natural desire for wholeness, peace, joy, and other good things. But we have misdiagnosed the problem, the obstacle to experiencing these very positive emotions.

It seems that the obstacle is reality. I’m not special enough, that’s why I don’t experience these positive emotions. Therefore I need to find a way to become more special.

But the true obstacle is a false self-image, a self-image that contains gaps and holes and knots.

The self-image is false because we built it when we were children, on the assumption that we could take other people’s reactions to us at face-value.

In other words, if your siblings always treated you like a little prince or princess, you would accept at face value that this is how you deserved to be treated. You would assume that something about you was causing this response in them, as surely as good food elicits hunger and ends in satiety.

But if your siblings treated you like a perpetual nuisance, a wearisome annoyance, or an unwanted competitor for parental attention, then likewise, you would assume these reactions followed naturally from some aspect of yourself.

Young children do not understand that the minds of their elders are clouded and confused by a variety of motives: fears, desires, anxieties, and their own flawed self-images.

Children grow up, unwittingly cultivating these false selves. Expecting everyone to treat them like a prince and becoming angry and resentful when others don’t. Or expecting everyone to resent and despise them, and denying opportunities to experience something better.

A large part of our spiritual path lies in recognising that people’s responses to us when we were children were governed by forces and themes much bigger than we could have understood at the time. We come to understand the motives of our parents and siblings. We recognise that the way they treated us was not about us at all, or only minimally.

But the flawed self-image we carry around is hard to shake. It’s like being raised in a cult, and then having to relearn everything about how the world really works. Learning that the government isn’t out to get you, or that aliens aren’t coming to rescue you. Or that your leader wasn’t a prophet but a narcissistic manipulator.

That’s why genuine religion both depreciates and transforms the self. The theme of death and rebirth is ubiquitous because so is the mechanism of our flawed self-image.

In practical terms, what can we do about it?

In a religious context there are devotional and meditative practices designed to lower the protective barriers of this false self. These include practices like trying to feel the presence of God rather than focusing always on your selfish fears and desires, or trying to recognise the fragility of the self in metaphysical terms.

At present I’m just trying to remind myself that I don’t actually know who I am, and to then try to be conscious of the subtle traces of my false self-image where relevant – usually in the midst of fears and desires.

In the context of wanting to feel special, what we seek is not to be found by adding something to ourselves, but by letting go of, or seeing through the illusion of this false self-image. The reason we don’t feel peace and joy and contentment is that we have learned to expect much less from life. We can’t accept whatever peace and joy and contentment are available to us in the present, because our self-image is too tightly wound  to accept it.

We’ve been inculcated with a false requirement to change ourselves, improve ourselves, achieve something in order to be content, to be happy. We’re primed to view everything in life with respect to how it advances or impedes our desire to be more special.

On knowing what you’re doing

I seem to be one of those people who needs to understand fully what he’s doing and why, before he can commit real energy to it.

Some people seem to be content with just leaping into an exercise or practice. Maybe they work it out as they go along, or maybe they already have a better “feel” for how it’s supposed to work.

Whatever the reason, I crave a systematic and deep understanding of the things I do.

The things I don’t understand have proven to be challenging. Martial arts are the best example: I’ve been doing it for 17 years, but I still don’t have a clear understanding of how it is supposed to work.

That’s like driving without a destination in mind, but still hoping to get somewhere specific!

Bear in mind that my idea of having a clear understanding of how something works is to perfectly control all the relevant variables to their necessary degrees. That is, I don’t require useless knowledge of how things work, I just need to know enough to calibrate my own actions and controls.

I’ve applied this approach to posture and biomechanics over the past year, and it’s achieved good results. Learning how the shoulder girdle is supposed to function, how the ribs, pelvis, and spine should align, when the glutes and hamstrings are supposed to activate…I wish I’d learned it all years ago.

There’s still more to do, but it’s obviously been worthwhile. The only challenge is that every body is unique to some degree, and so it takes time to work out precisely what is going wrong. Plus, posture is a function of the whole body. It won’t be completely right until it’s completely right.

Meditation is another good example.

I’ve tried different forms over the years and none of them have been worth continuing. The problem is that I don’t understand in sufficient detail how they are supposed to function, what the benefits are supposed to be, and how it relates to my internal landscape.

The first book I read on meditation was really about awareness generally. It was called ‘Awareness’ in fact, by a Jesuit priest from India named Anthony de Mello.

De Mello’s work came under criticism at one stage by then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. He (correctly, in my view) warned against the syncretist implications of de Mello’s work, and other inferences that conflicted with Catholic teaching.

My criticism of ‘Awareness’ was that it promised too much, too vaguely. Perhaps it was okay as an introductory text, but like many self-help books it implied that simply being aware is a panacea that leads to spiritual enlightenment.

Everyone is different, at least to some degree. And mindfulness, awareness, trying to be more conscious, are not panaceae.

Nonetheless, there is obviously a role for being more conscious of one’s thoughts and impressions. For me, that role is becoming more evident and necessary, as I begin to notice how my mood and my motives are steered by very subtle thoughts and fears.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we form a self-image from childhood that dictates — like a character in a novel — how we live the rest of our lives. But that self-image is typically false. We don’t know who we are, we simply live according to habits and beliefs developed at an early age.

Not knowing who we are is a challenge, because we cannot simply replace our flawed self-image with a new and improved one.

But we can pay attention to when our self-image steers us. We can notice the occasions when our past dictates our present behaviour.

This seems to occur through the influence of subtle, momentary thoughts and impressions that invoke our flawed self-image. If we pay attention, we can notice these subtle influences and decide not to follow them.

If we don’t pay attention, we will follow them out of habit, largely unconscious of them, but feeling their negative effect.

The answer therefore is a disciplined, consistent effort to be conscious of these subtle influences.

Now, this sounds very much like ‘mindfulness’, which various people and popular culture have urged us all to enthusiastically embrace.

But the difference for me is that I have a precise purpose, I understand the direction. I know what I’m looking for, and what the outcome will be.

That’s the difference understanding makes. I’m not flailing around on popular recommendation, seeking to do this thing called mindfulness. Instead I’ve recognised that to make further progress I need to pay very close, very consistent attention to a specific set of influences in my mind.

On not knowing who you are

As children we accept at face-value the actions and reactions of those around us, those closest to us.

What does “at face-value” mean in this context?

It means we don’t consider the hidden motives, considerations, fears, and desires that might be influencing other people’s behaviour.

It’s no surprise that children don’t try to peer inside other people’s minds. Many adults don’t even try, and even trained psychologists can get it wrong, or be ineffectual.

Besides, we tend to assume that other people are like us on the inside. Young children are quite straightforward — for a child, face value is the only value.

The problem with this ‘face-value’ approach is that most adults are not straightforward. So, children are raised in an environment full of disparity.

There’s a disparity of information between the child who takes everything at face-value, and the adult who knows that life is complicated and long and everything has a backstory.

There’s a disparity of power, where the child is dependent on the adult for its very survival.

There’s a disparity of psychological formation, where the events and relationships the child experiences will inform its future with greater impact than the already mostly-formed adult.

In this disparate environment the child makes a serious mistake — it accepts the actions, reactions, and treatment of others as a true and honest reflection of their own existence, nature, and qualities.

We know ourselves primarily through our relationships, but children lack the experience and insight to understand that those relationships are imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed sources of knowledge.

It’s like trying to work out what your face looks like without a proper mirror to help you. So you look at whatever reflective surfaces you can find.

Other people can be very imperfect, very limited reflective surfaces. From them we try to piece together a self-image. But if we don’t know that these reflections are so imperfect, the self-image we infer from them will be horribly distorted.

Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are often said to be damaged by their up-bringing, and in a sense that is true. But it’s important to also recognise the nature of that damage.

A significant portion of the damage is contained in a distorted self-image, inferred from a face-value perspective of their formative relationships.

Why is this damaging?

Because if the people closest to you — the ones who know you best — treat you badly, then the face-value explanation is that you don’t deserve any better than this bad treatment.

If the people closest to you betray, humiliate, threaten, or harm you, then either there’s something wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with you.

The truth is that there’s something wrong with them, but children lack the knowledge and experience to understand this. They take the other option by default, thinking that they must somehow deserve, or even inspire such awful treatment.

Imagine how awful that must be: to feel that the people who know you, the people you depend on, the only ones you can depend on, react with displeasure, anger, envy, ridicule, neglect, or a hundred other foul responses to you; and to have no other way to explain it than to conclude that these must be honest, authentic responses to who you really are.

The truth though, is that children do not inspire such responses from healthy, happy, sane people. Generation after generation act out their own damaged formation on their children, and the dysfunction is passed down like a curse, like original sin.

The fact is that most of us don’t really know who we are, because our self-image is inferred from our relationships with others, with the childhood assumption that the feedback we receive from others is honest and authentic.

It’s not.

People don’t really know you. And if your self-image is formed from their flawed and selfish responses to you, then you don’t really know yourself either.

Granted, there are moments of real knowledge and real insight and authentic relationship, but that doesn’t mean the whole can be taken at face-value, especially where there is abuse, neglect, and the kind of dysfunction we might only recognise as mature adults.

I think this is where the desire to know our real self, our inner self comes from. It’s a desire to break from the conventions and continuity that has shaped our false self.

Whether we intend it or not, this desire seems to lead to the deeper self-reflection of the mystics, sages, and saints. The people who have realised the falseness of their conditioned, inauthentic self-image and gone looking for whatever truth lies beneath it.

Incidentally, this is why orthodox Christianity teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, kept immune from it. So pervasive is the effect of our inherited dysfunction that it required divine intervention to preserve a single human from it.

In this context, it implies Mary’s relationship with God preserved her from a psychological formation corrupted in untold ways by the defects of her own parents. Original sin is more than just bad parental modelling, but the two are intimately related in light of our relationship with God.

These ideas — inherited dysfunction, a false self, a true self, an unfulfilled relationship with God — put into context the need to be “born again” in the model of Christ. In that sense, the symbolism of the incarnation — God born as a child in the humility of a stable — represents the divine born in us.

We hear of being “born again in Christ” so much from a particular brand of Protestant culture, but the mystical tradition speaks of Christ being born in us. As Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan mystic and poet wrote:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.”