The Delicacy of Identity

Previously on our quest for the Secrets to Eternal Joy and Never Ending Splendor (SEJNES) we’ve come across the concept of ‘Identity’ on a number of occasions.  We’ve talked about how influential they are and how delicate they are to try and deal with or examine closely.  We also talked about how inescapable they are and how vulnerable they make us (read ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini). They are something everyone has and everyone probably needs to consider a little closer.

What is an ‘Identity’ anyways?

Our “Identity” (worldview/Weltanschauung) is our psychological attempt to create a wedge, a steady state of consciousness for our center of being to exist within in the midst of an unimaginably large ocean of infinite and constantly changing information.  This is so that each of us can relate to and function in the world, in society, in relationships.  Nothing in nature is truly static.  Everything is dynamic and changing all the time, but the human mind needs to etch out a safe space to consider, observe, and evaluate the world from.  Our “Identities” are those stable spaces, even if that stability is somewhat of a convenient illusion.

When we are young, we are decidedly more open to influence because we have not “hardened” our identities and beliefs yet.  When we are young we haven’t accumulated as many experiences, and our view of the world and how we believe it functions is still being significantly shaped, formed, and molded on a daily basis.   Our identities are like mosaics that we piece together, somewhat haphazardly, based on our environment, our genetics, our role models, and our traumas.  We go through life bumping into whatever notrandomly flows our way, and each time we do we keep a little of the experience, and we reject a lot of the experience.  Some parts stick to us and become absorbed into our identity, and some parts are discarded.  Who decides which is which?  Where in you are those value judgements being made from?  With the conscious, or the unconscious part of the mind?

As we get older, the tendency for many is to become rigid about their beliefs and attach their ego’s to a static snapshot of who they think they are (identity) while only being dimly aware of where all these likes and dislikes, beliefs and disbeliefs even came from.  We become very attached to an identity that we only had minimal control over the creation of when you really think about it.  Many of our preferences come from “random” experiences we had when we were young that wound up sticking to us for one reason or another.  We don't even know what those reasons were, do we?

Because the world is a wild and crazy place it makes total that sense from an evolutionary standpoint that our psychological drive is to try and create stability amidst the chaos of nature.  However, we must be careful.

Once we have solidified and reinforced what we perceive to be our “identity” through repeated confirmation bias and experience, it can become rather difficult to open up to new insights, new information, new growth.  As our identities harden and we try to carve out that illusory static wedge in the spacetime continuum called “I” where we can try to hold still, we attempt to become a closed off system.  Our filters for what sticks and what doesn’t stick, between our experiences to our identity, becomes much more narrow and selective.  In this day and age we are bombarded by literally thousands of messages every day, each one trying to get our attention long enough to “influence” us to buy this product, vote for this person, or think this way about this issue, etc.

We act on what we remember.  The first step to influencing a person is to get them to remember you.  When you remember someone, or something, it means they've become stuck to your identity somehow.  Out of all the thousands of messages that bombarded you today, the only ones that have the potential to influence you are the ones you remember.  Even if you hate it, you still remembered it, and it may be worming its way through you right now, trying to influence you.

And what exactly is influence?  Influence is what affects our behavior. Influence is what causes you to act one way instead of another.  As we grow we become aware of the fact that most of these messages trying to shape our behavior, do not have our best intentions in mind.  Not only are they trying to influence us, they are trying to manipulate us for someone else's benefit. The lines start to get pretty fuzzy.

How do we tell which messages are true and which ones are articulated lies?

Because of this, each of us tend to develop certain “mental callouses” so to speak, a psychological “thick skin” of defensive filtering to sort out all the thousands of messages bombarding us, and shut out the ones that don’t resonate with our identities.  The ones that don't stick.  If we were influenced by every message that bounced off us, we would be completely incapacitated.  But if we aren’t influenced by any messages, we become fundamentalists, irritable, and stop moving forward.  And remember, Nature is dynamic, there is no getting around the realities of constant change. What is needed then, is a balance.

But how do we achieve such a balance?  How do we groom our identity to only accept for consideration the good messages, and shut out the bad ones? After all what is good, and what is not good, need we ask anyone these things? How about truth and falsehood?  How do we tell which messages are true and which ones are articulated lies?   This is the billion dollar question. 

Quite understandably, when a person comes across a new idea or new information that threatens to destabilize their “identity,” their protected (albeit illusory) stable inner space, the ego’s radar goes up and gets very, very sensitive.  A person’s identity is their sum total understanding of who they think they are and how they function and relate to the world.  It is very emotional.  To protect itself there is a natural psychological defense mechanism that kicks in when anything comes close to disrupting that special illusory safe-zone from threatening new information.  Even if our “identity” is just a fallible idea, we are hardwired to protect it irrationally, with our emotions, to the death. 

On our quest to discover the Secrets to Eternal Joy and Never Ending Splendor, we must learn to discern.  How do we influence the part of our self that pre-filters our thoughts before they reach our conscious mind?  How do we learn to control what controls what sticks and what doesn't?

One of the dangers of becoming too attached to a fixed notion of our “identity” is that we become susceptible to manipulation.  When our identities are fixed and rigid, our behaviors become much more predictable, and when our reactions to certain things are predictable, we become programmable.  The greatest limitation of the human mind is its incapacity to tell Truth from Falsehood unfortunately, and this evolutionary defect can be traced to just about every large scale human blunder in history I would imagine.

Assuming we don’t suddenly and instantly know everything there is to know when we hit a certain age, how can we keep learning?  How can we keep gaining knowledge and wisdom?  How do we get around our own mental callouses and keep having new insights and keep making new discoveries?

The challenge comes later in life after our identities start to harden.  If we’re lucky and have enough good influences, we can actually notice this calcification of beliefs happening, and choose instead to wake up and begin our search for the Secrets to Eternal Joy and Never Ending Splendor in earnest, consciously, not randomly. 

How do we develop our identity to remain supple, nimble, lubricated and open to lifelong learning and growth? How do we avoid trying to become a closed off system, rejecting the unfamiliar, and still remain susceptible to positive influence? At the same time, how do we not become so susceptible to influence that we look like a sucker to advertisers and politicians and let their tricky manipulations get through our semi-conscious defenses?  This, again, is the billion dollar question. Who adjusts the filter?

For our purposes here in the Helping Friendly Book Club, let us consider how we discuss new, potentially paradigm shifting truths with each other without inadvertently triggering those reflexive, unconscious defense mechanisms. 

Perhaps now would be a good time to look more closely at what exactly these defense mechanisms are and how they work.

What tends to happen when a potentially paradigm shifting piece of new information is considered by a person with a rigid and fixed identity, something that threatens their foundation assumptions, on top of which their entire understanding of themselves and the universe is built, is that it triggers an emotional response that eliminates the capacity for rational thought.  You can think of it along the same lines as the ‘fight or flight response’.

When a new idea threatens to destabilize a person's worldview, if they are not conscious and aware enough to watch this happening, a “click,whirr” emotional response kicks in. The new information is labeled malignant almost instantly and any rational attempt to test the idea using one’s God given powers of reason is lost.  Perhaps the best example of this would be the “taboo”. 

When a topic is considered “taboo” by Mother Culture, that means that every time it comes up it triggers an immediate emotional response that removes the possibility for measured and reflective consideration of the facts.  This is how information is buried in society, it is made to be taboo, and that label is reinforced again and again through media and history books.  (Need an example?  Let’s talk about World Trade Center Building number 7 that collapsed after 5 PM on 9/11/01, or about the size of the hole in the Pentagon which is too small for a 757 and the fact that they never recovered a single piece of any of the airplanes. See? Did you feel that? Some of you just felt the emotional defense trigger kick in.  I just use that as an example.)  This is also how our rigid identities and predictable behaviors leave us open to manipulation and control without the person even being aware of it.

So what does this all mean? 

It means that when people have too strong of a connection to their “identity” they actually become much more susceptible to manipulation by outside forces. They actually lose some their free will.  Their responses to certain subjects become predictable and so do their behaviors, and this makes them rather easy to herd in one direction or another.  (This is basically “nationalism” in a nutshell.)

Knowing all this, it stands to reason that the truly great teachers of the world also know this.  Great teachers must be very aware of the way the mind and the identity works, and they must know how to tiptoe and negotiate around all those psychological defense trigger landmines in there.  If the great teachers have messages of Higher Truth to share (and I believe they do), what method do they use to share it?  How do they frame and present their message in such a way that it lands and sticks to the inner core of their audience?

How do great teachers teach paradigm shifting truths without triggering the shutdown button in their students?

And with that question we arrive at “Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit” by Daniel Quinn.  Join the Helping Friendly Book Club Wednesday September 14th at The Kennedy Room in Dallas at 8:30PM where we will begin our conversation by taking a look at what teaching method Ishmael uses to reach the narrator. 

What is Ishmael’s style?  Why does he do it that way?  What can we learn from it?


RANDOM SEJNES:  Wet things don't pop bubbles.  Only dry things do.

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