This TED talk by Julian Baggini is a wonderful discussion about how we think of ourselves, and how our beliefs can affect our openness to change.
Baggini, who is author of the book, The Ego Trick, notes that Western philosophy has traditionally thought of “the real you” in terms of some core essence that is permanent and unchanging. People who follow horoscopes or use trait psychology to define personality adhere to this view. We like to be diagnosed because it feels good to have an authority who tells us the truth about who we are, what’s wrong, and how to make it right. The experience of going to therapy is powerful and affirming because a licensed, trained specialist provides some clarity for you about what it takes to be made well.
But Baggini argues that maybe our memories, desires, temptations, and sensations exist only in the moment. It is the task of thinking to tell us, “This is me” and, “This is not me.” We develop a narrative about ourselves that defines us.
It’s the shift between thinking of yourself as a thing which has all the experiences of life, and thinking of yourself as simply that collection of all the experiences of life. You are the sum of your parts.
There is something therapeutic about the ability to reinvent yourself. Your past is part of who you are, but your past doesn’t have to define you. The future can be different. And no matter how intolerable the present moment might be, the pain of the moment will pass.
The challenge of growth is deciding which experiences and desires we will accept and remember, and which ones we will reject and forget. We frequently experience anxiety, anger, and frustration about our lack of control as circumstances change. It is easy to forget that we are not simply victims of our experiences, but active participants in the process of paying attention.
Baggini’s metaphor is that the self is like a waterfall. The water flowing over the waterfall is the collection of experiences, desires, and sensations from moment to moment. But there is also a channel that allows the water to flow, and as the water flows over the channel, the water gradually changes the channel through erosion and motion.
The constant flow of experiences, desires, and sensations can occasionally be overwhelming for us. At the same time, there is some comfort in knowing that these experiences are affecting who we are. We have some choice about what we choose to hold onto, and where we pay attention in the moment. We can fear the loss of our selves, or we can welcome the changes as they happen.