A puddle of water collected from last night’s rain is shrinking into itself as the sun goes up. Douglas Adams once said, if this puddle were to be sentient it would count itself very fortunate. The puddle is of course pleased to have found a hole shaped exactly like itself. Often even the smartest people have nothing but fantasies about themselves and their circumstances. Why?
Understanding one’s own true nature is hard. It is hard as a deceptive puzzle – like concluding the earth is spherical in the face of overwhelming sensory evidence against the fact. It is not only hard in the cognitive sense, it is also hard in an emotional way – like parting with a loved one or facing shame. And finally it is hard in the physical sense – knowing oneself is a lot of active work.
Having a clear pulse on one’s own nature is valuable. Great artists have good taste, and that is not a coincidence. When you can say something is not good enough, you can make it better . When you understand yourself, you can use that knowledge to push the limits of your possibility, become what you can be.
We are evolutionarily hard-wired to avoid pain. Since instinct happens below our awareness, it often is not available to us for examination. And humans are social creatures; unsurprisingly, we try to avoid pain of the social kind – shame.
In cases like sexual orientation, it is easy to see how shame might form a barrier to understanding one’s self. The typical human gesture we associate with feeling ashamed is to take one’s hands and put them over one’s eyes or look down, as if not wanting to see. But the intention is really not wanting to be seen! This serves as a good metaphor for how shame works to blind you. No one chooses to develop a mental blind spot to self-awareness, but this is a side effect of being ashamed.
Shame is just an approximate word I use to point to a fleet of less intense but similarly counter-productive feelings. We are not exactly ashamed to wear socks that do not match, we might merely be embarrassed. But you can see we pay pervasive attention to how others see us. This is not all bad. We often learn, survive and form relationships based on this need to gratify. A toddler who is merely trying to please her mom by not running across the street is one example. But the training wheels have to come off and leave you with a self-balancing personality. Instead they might turn into fossilized crutches we hold on to as a substitute for thought.
Most kids want to be firemen; they are attracted to the sound and light that they see whizzing down the streets. The fire engine, designed to be very apparent to other drivers, unwittingly turned into a recruitment vehicle. But even as we grow, we are still attracted to social glitz. People setting out to be doctors are one such example, surely we need doctors, but do you have to be one? Can you be one? These questions are feeble whispers against the deafening sound and blinding light created by dignity. Unlike shame, dignity is desirable, but dignity has the same blinding ways of shame when it comes to self-awareness. Hence in the quest to be self-aware, dignity should go into the same box as shame – an impediment.
Door handles are designed to be held by human hands. Over the years, I have seen hundreds of different door handles, but all of them not surprisingly resemble… well, a door handle. Just like the door handle has to be a certain shape in order to fit human hands, when we seek social acceptance, our thoughts will come to be in certain boring shapes. Seeking dignity, we lock ourselves from vast creative possibilities.
So how does one counter shame/dignity? As crippling as the effects can seem, the methods of countering shame, at least on paper, seem simple. Merely being aware can do the trick . No one starts their day thinking they are going to make decisions today based on their particular feelings of shame. It is there just below your awareness, subtly directing your thoughts. Once you make a sincere attempt to evaluate your thoughts and try to tease out the amount of social influence each of them contain, you will start doing better.
Shooting an arrow, the archer compensates for the blowing wind. Aiming dead on the target is going to send his arrow off. He has to aim a bit into the direction of the oncoming wind. In order to flex your anti-shame muscles, I feel, trying and being inappropriate from time to time is a good idea. Who would have thought the iPhone farting apps could hide such philosophical uses!
Pain is the guide that we use to feel our way through life, and yet it is pain that we often seek to avoid. We are not aware of this contradiction. One example of pain that brings little value to us is accidentally stepping on a piece of glass. But enduring a long morning run is sure to bring you energy and clarity throughout the day, and is the sort of pain we should undergo.
It is simple to talk about such embodied forms of pain. I suspect this is so because these forms of pain are outside the mind, they happen in the body. When pain happens in your mind, it becomes hard to track.
Agatha Christie wrote a book “Elephants can remember”, a detective story structured around people recollecting events that happened long ago. Years later, a group of researchers discovered that she had the starting signs of Alzheimer during this period. They did this by analyzing the range of vocabulary in her writings and there was a significant drop in the size of her vocabulary (15-30%) and an increase in the usage of indefinite words like something/anything. We can never be sure if she was aware of her slow deterioration, but something has pushed her to dwell on the subject of memory long enough. Even before we can consciously articulate the experiences of our brain, clues to our deep inner experience is scattered all over in the everyday choices we make, even in the choice of our thoughts. Look at the books that you bought, and the books that you ended up actually reading. You can apply the same to every bit of choice you make in your life, and you can put together a wonderfully detailed picture of your deep inner experience.
One particular corollary to this interrelation of pain and choice is our relationship to deficiency. Chuck Close drew pictures of human faces. His portraits are highly sought by museums and collectors. Chuck Close has a neurological condition known as face blindness. He cannot recognize human faces.
Rivers flow. The fertility from the resulting flow leads to formation of entire cities along its edges. The overwhelming focus that pain brings to particular deficiencies we face makes them the central structure around which we form our characters. I would not exactly say this is a bad thing necessarily, but it is a narrative that will help you explore yourself. It will take you to the far corners or more likely to the very foundation of your personality.
Let us explore how pain that is not embodied can misguide us. It is almost always painstaking to attain good things and this can cause the following association. Anything that is painful is good for you, and further anything that is not painful is not good for you. Following these instincts without examination can lead to disaster. Bloodletting as a practice of medicine persisted up until 20th century. How can piercing a patient and letting his blood out not be good for him? This gives you some idea how powerful this association can be.
If you were Mozart, listening to a song once and playing it backwards is the most natural thing for you. It does not involve any pain, and yet it is your most valuable skill. I have seen this happen over and over – where people brush off their most natural frequency as just something they do! Ask yourself how hard this task is for other people. If it is hard for most people, while being easy for you, then this is probably a sweet spot where you should plan to spend more time.
Finally, one last way in which pain forms a barrier to self-awareness is by restricting movement. The more experiences we have, the more data we have to sort to gain a big picture. The many sides, edges and corners of our personalities can only be fully explored by moving around in the field of experiences. Many people have a good idea of when things are not working whether it is in relationships or work. But the pain of quitting keeps them entrenched. You should not persist and brave the pain caused by a bad boss or the work that you were not meant to do. You should persist through the pain caused by hard work – knowing the difference is what this game is all about.
To condense what we understood so far: have a lot of experiences, think about your choices, your deficiencies and what you consider too easy to be worth your attention. Think about these without paying attention to what other people think.
We are immersed in ourselves. We simply know too much detail; we live with ourselves day and night – almost all our waking time and some semi-aware sleeping time as well. Too much detail can actually cause a sort of blindness.
It should not be surprising though, imagine a picture of a heart on a hallmark greeting card, and now also imagine a heart diagram in a cardiac surgery handbook. One of them is merely a very highly detailed version of the other. Both of them represent a heart. And yet, you can imagine a medical student will not be amused to see the hallmark version in her surgeon’s handbook. A detailed view of an object A might actually seem like object B. At each level of detail, information holds a separate and sometimes distinct quality.
When you have too much information you have space for endless interpretation. The ego exploits this. It fascinates me how people repeatedly failing at a particular task keep coming up with new reasons as to why they failed this time. They see each case as unique because it is different in some minor detail. And in that detail, the ego finds the crack it needs to hide from reason.
Whereas in the case of shame, the anti-dote was to try and go against what people think, the strategy to deal with too much information is involving other people. They fortunately have a very low-detail cross section of you. While it might often be frustrating – if you put in work, it can actually move your understanding forward. But the trick lies in how.
A friend introduces you to some one new and gives a one-line introduction to serve as an icebreaker. Sometimes that line can make you cringe. But it would make you good to instead take it as is and try to reason with it as a mental exercise. Why did they choose that particular thing to say about you of all the possible things? What does it say about them, what does it say about you?
When it comes to taking critical feedback, the following rule serves as a rule of thumb. If it hurts the person giving you feedback and they are still going ahead with it, then you should probably pay all the attention you can muster. Your close friends and family come to mind. Resist the human impulse to defend yourself. It is rare to see someone sincerely talk about you, and they are probably already very sensitive about hurting you. Each word you say in your defense is going to reduce the amount of information they hand down to you by half. Instead be ruthlessly calm and encouraging of their words. If you are hurt, you can express and explain yourself later. But now it is time to gather valuable information.
On the other hand, some people gain pleasure by saying bad things about you – a random Internet troll, who leaves a nasty non-constructive comment on your blog, is an example. Just ignore such cases, defending yourself is wasted energy.
Language is the medium of thought, and when words do not mean what we think they mean, we end up having approximate thoughts or worse – inaccurate ones. When you are trying to understand your inner experience in a precise way, it is useful to pay attention to the gap between the words we use to capture our thoughts and the actual underlying experience that led to those thoughts.
Sergey Bubka trained in gymnastics when he was young. He also participated in events like long jump and 100 meter dash. But at some point he was drawn to pole vaulting. From his training as a gymnast, he understood balance in an entirely new level. He was not fast enough to be the sprinting champion of the world, but he was almost as fast. He was not strong enough to be the weightlifting champion either, but he was strong and could carry a pole much heavier than his rivals. Had he not switched to pole-vaulting, we would not have known one of the most dominating athletes in the history of the sport. He went on to set 35 world records and broke the 6-meter barrier, and his current record (6.14) remains unbroken as of this day after almost a decade. Precision is key.
There are people who are terrible at what they do for 10 years before making any kind of impact. The ones who stick with it, what keeps them going? People stick with things because they feel like it; if you don’t feel like it you should not be doing it.
What if you push through for a decade only to discover that you are not cut out for it? Even as we fail, we refine our intuitions by pushing it hard against reality. When you are done with one such iteration, you do it again. Most of modern engineering calculations use numerical methods that closely resemble this iterative process. At each step of the process, we do not say the solution is wrong, instead we qualify it as having a certain level of precision. If that level of precision is useful you start using it. But the answer is always imperfect, always heading towards perfection.
 Ira Glass of “This American Life” has an interesting take on having good taste.
 What is not so simple is making a habit out of this awareness. Being ashamed can be deeply ingrained and habitual. In such cases it might take considerable time and effort to train your self out of it as well.
 Some details on how the analysis was carried out can be found here.