Thursday, January 16, 2014

Spinning a Web of Self

I am digitizing the text of the metaphysics my husband Arthur and I wrote twenty years ago, The Game of God, in preparation for publishing it as an ebook. It’s been many years since I read it, so it’s an interesting experience.
As I typed in the chapter on the evolution of human consciousness, I was reminded of Daniel Dennett’s book, Consciousness Explained [which I quoted in an earlier post, Intelligent Plants], which was published about the same time as our book. In particular I was struck by a similarity in the discussion of the self: both books asserted that the self is constructed as a survival strategy.
This has made me realize that I have been taking the self (ego) way too seriously. That is, I’ve thought of the self as some entity that is as real and solid as my physical body that I am stuck with. Maybe I can exercise it and keep it toned, but the basic elements are cast in stone. The confusing advice of many spiritual teachers and books (including my own, The Game of God) is we’re ego-dominated and we need to escape it (somehow). It’s a formidable opponent that we have to battle.
But the concept of self as survival strategy has shifted my perspective in a way I find liberating.

As a little context for the passage I will quote from The Game Of God, Arthur and I discussed how humans, early in our history, began to question the world and attempt to explain phenomena such as volcanoes. We imagined a tribe who believed there was a God named Woo who lived in the nearby volcano, and when Woo was angry the volcano erupted. The people of the tribe invented rituals to appease Woo such as sacrifices and offerings. 
Humans began to question not only the nature of their environment, but the nature of themselves as well. 
cartoon by Arthur Hancock
We needed to understand the mystery of ourselves as much as the villagers needed to understand the mystery of the volcano, and we invented ourselves in the same way that the villagers invented the volcano god. 
What we came to believe was “us,” was a primary survival identity called the “ego” or “personality.” 
Remember that the primary survival identity of a form is defined as the essential structure which dictates survival behavior. In a human being, this essential structure (who the human being most believes him/herself to be) is the personality—what we call the ego-identity.
[In The Game of God, every page of text has a cartoon on the facing page; this is the cartoon that accompanies this text]

 Dennett postulates that our sense of self is a narrative, spun from words, that we use as a survival tool:
Each normal individual of this species [humans] makes a self. Out of its brain it spins a web of words and deeds, and, like the other creatures, it doesn’t have to know what it’s doing; it just does it. This web protects it, just like the snail’s shell, and provides it a livelihood, just like the spider’s web, and advances its prospects for sex, just like the bowerbird’s bower. 
We are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves—in language and gesture, external and internal...Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words. These words are potent elements of our environment that we readily incorporate, ingesting and extruding them, weaving them like spiderwebs into self-protective strings of narrative...Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams [he mentioned beavers earlier], but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others—and ourselves—about who we are.
I found this idea of the self freeing—if “Kathleen Brugger” is just a protective web I’m spinning, that means I can change it. It’s not some intrinsic part of me that I’m stuck with. If I realize that some aspects of my web aren’t working, I can try something new.
In fact I already have. I’ve always been shy and it’s difficult for me to reach out to strangers and start a conversation. Last night I went to a Qigong introductory class and, with this “spin a new web” idea in mind, struck up a conversation with someone before the class started.
My story is not written in concrete; it’s ephemeral; it’s constantly being spun. It’s a dance, a performance art. Time to try some new steps.

1 comment:

  1. It has been my experience that when you battle the ego it only empowers it. We can only surrender it to a higher power, whatever we perceive that to be. It serves us, but when we become its servant that’s when the insanity and obsession with survival ensues. But you know that all too well and have written about it eloquently in your books. I love your imagery of the weaver and the web. I also believe that there is a web that has no weaver as described by Chinese medicine. This metaphysics that emphasizes the perception of patterns is basic to Chinese thinking, which altogether lacks the idea of a creator, and whose concern is insight into the web phenomena, not the weaver. For the Chinese, that web has no weaver, no creator; in the West the final concern is always the creator or cause and the phenomena is merely its reflection. In the Chinese view the truth is imminent; in the Western, truth is transcendent. Knowledge within the Chinese framework is the desire to understand the interrelationships of patterns within that web. And as you say, “It’s a dance…” I wonder where those new steps will take you.