Self as a Construct

The Self is a reoccurring theme that I commonly cite, reflect upon and emphasize. I have found that the end result of my travels and personal challenges is the feeling of a permanent change in Self, rather than just the storage of a profound memory. The act of  interrupting routines and habits encourages a shift in how I see the world and as a result, a type of transformation takes place.

So what essentially do I mean when I refer to Self?

In one context, “Self” is a term that is almost synonymous with Ego (the psychological force which acts on personal drives), especially  when the it is used to describe an individual as Selfish or Selfless. In this setting, Self is that which establishes one’s personality and behavior as distinct from others. It is a concrete boundary that refers to one’s uniqueness and separateness. Selfish concerns are those that are only focused on pursuing desires, but at a basic level, it is related to survival and continuation of one’s life.

A further elaboration of Self relates to the essential characteristics of a person. In this case it overlaps with the concept of authenticity. For example, in a fit of rage, a person can hurt someone else and the next day apologize, claiming, “I was not acting like my Self.” Here, Self describes a set of values placed on intentions. Those values describe one’s identity, a sense of “Me-ness,” that coincides with an ideal set of behaviors that one wants to represent into the world.

To examine this term from another cultural lens, Buddhist philosophy describes the Self as Anatta, which can actually be translated as “not-self.” In this perspective, the belief that one is distinct and autonomous is illusory. It is a distraction from the true interconnectedness that binds all beings. The Self is a hollow vessel and recognizing this gives freedom from attachment and resentment.

In my conceptual framework, I incorporate elements from these definitions, but I do not think of Self as a noun or a quality of a person. Instead, I view Self as a verb, in particular a type of a process.

Self is that psychic process that integrates personality, behavior, impulses and ideology. It is wholly a construct and can be altered by experiences, thoughts, emotions and biology.

The Self does not determine one’s individuality, but it influences one’s belief in separateness and unity. For example, let’s consider two events where I prioritize the needs of others first. In one scenario, on a walk home from dinner on a cold night, I cover my wife with my jacket and decide to shiver the rest of the way. In another situation, I elect to stay late in the hospital to care for a sick patient. The activity of the Self combines the behavior with my consciousness. On the surface, I am acting “selflessly,” but the true influence of Self is the inner mental life that surrounds these behaviors. With these altruistic actions, I may have separate motives. In the first scenario, I may prioritize the needs of my wife as greater than mine and truly want to suppress my inner desires to support her.  In the other, my decision to work late is made not because I internally have a devotion to care for another, but because it builds the perception that I am a hard working, dedicated doctor.

From the outside, no one can determine my intentions. In both cases the actions achieve a similar aim, which is prioritizing the needs of others. From a practical standpoint, the inner consciousness does not matter when it comes to human interaction.

The Self is not subject to judgement or outside evaluation. It is a process and deeply personal. It influences how one conceptualizes their sense of ME and how it relates to others and the cosmos at large.

The process of the Self is an internalized reflection. It is subject to a set of ideals and values and as a result, one can have a distorted view of Self, which oftentimes is a source of adjustment and personality problems. Other times it is a source of frustration and low Self-esteem.

By impacting Self, one is altering the activity of the inner world and as a consequence influencing interaction with the outer world.  The sense that one is living a good life or reaching happiness is a process of Self and this is a continual state of Becoming.

Self is a construct. It is never fixed and changes according to life experiences, health and ideas.

Many religions and philosophies would like to determine the BEST way to pursue Self-Actualization, however, dogma is only a crutch. Only YOUR journey through life effects its form. The commitment to cultivate Self is a declaration of total freedom and only YOU have the power to control and alter your inner life.

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What are you masking?

For the past several years, I have developed a great interest in traditional masks made by indigenous cultures. I started collecting a mask from each of my trips and over time, the significance has evolved. I no longer consider my keepsakes as souvenirs, but an important metaphor.

As a young physician just coming to terms with my new profession, it has required some adjustment to truly process this social role that I have assumed. On one hand, I am the same person prior to medical school, but now that I am given the trust by patients, I have to project myself as something else. As Dr. Grodofsky, I assume an identity that does not project from my personal being, but is a type of social artifice. It is as if by becoming a doctor, I am placing on a type of costume to assume this role. It is sort of like I am wearing a mask.2013-10-02 09.08.37

The mask is an artifice, both literally and metaphorically. The traditional mask is art as a form of embodiment. By itself, the object is a decorative motif, but it becomes animated when it is part of a ritual or performance as it is placed over the actor’s face. At the same time the actor yields his or her identity to assume a new one, the mask gains life and accesses corporeal existence. It is the infusion of Self from the actor that processes this embodiment, but in this case it is not a personal Self, but a universal, mythical Self that is shared by all humankind.

The process of embodiment is a series of beliefs, activities and perceptions that define a material as Self and not-Self. It should be noted that this is not an inherent aspect of a thing in itself.

The transformative action of the mask comes through construction, excitement and then dissolution.

The construction is the mask creation.  The ritual object derives as an external projection to the world that often results from internal struggles of the artist.

The excitement is the ceremony and the embodiment of the mask. It occurs when both audience and actor participate in the myth and suspend pretenses that bring the ritual to life. At this point, egos and defenses have been set to the side, which allows ultimate freedom of the spirit and life is explored at its animal being. It is an invitation to carnality, as a ritual carnival.

2013-10-02 09.08.43 Dissolution occurs upon the realization that the referred (the myth) and the referral (mask) are separate. It is the awareness that the power is not in the mask, but from Self. The mask is a symbol, a consciously and communally defined structure created by the power of Self, but is not Self. This brings the realization that Self can only enter the world of thought and perception through artifices.

We all wear masks in our daily lives. They are our professional identities and are vital to a healthy community and family, but we are not confined by them. The symbol of the mask is a veneration of this construct. It brings the simultaneous celebration of the external beauty and reference to the internal combustion of Self that animates and at the same time derives power from the mythology of the mask.

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Find Your Inner Moses

This essay is inspired by my run into the desert:

Moses was herding sheep in the desert when, likely as a result of malnutrition and dehydration, he had a vision of a burning bush. This was a hallucination, but it speaks to a reality like any archetypal metaphor, symbol or myth. The burning bush was a proof of the sacred- the benevolent flame kindling on the inside- and acted as motivation to dedicate Self to this presence. When Moses survived and his story spread in the historical tradition, he was deemed a prophet, a chosen vessel to dictate divine lessons to the masses. The masses are now his flock, encouraged to take his vision and message as law, because it is assumed that the patriarch carries greater clarity than the discoveries derived from Self.

In various Native American traditions (Navajo, Hopi), there is a juxtaposition of this philosophy. There are many Moses figures and he is not a patriarch, but an example to take a personal desert journey. The crucial rite of passage into maturity is the self-guided vision quest.  This occurs when a young man or woman enters into the isolation of the wilderness and is forced into a period of self deprivation with the intent on bringing about a personalized epiphany. If a transformative moment is reached, the vision quest is a success. In this tradition everyone is Moses, not just the destined selected prophets. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the masses are Hebrews, followers of an unquestioned tract, just like the flock of sheep. We are encouraged to avoid the wilderness, engage in commerce and focus on civility.

For many, there is really not too much wrong with that.

Cultural traditions are based on cultural structures: a nomadic tribe will need strong individuals while a populated city requires a slightly diminished sense of Self to allow for an easier controlled community. Yet, we still have the biological make up of nomads. Even though we wear clothes, there are naked processes influencing our behavior and health. As a result, modern human holds the capacity to grow from the vision quest. This should not be a lost ritual in crowded times and it is important to find one’s inner Moses on the journey for self-actualization.