To Me or Not to Me?
If there is a single force that generates inequality, violence and war throughout the world, other than the Central Bank, I vote for the self-image we create gazing up for assurance and approval as infants. At this early stage of development what emerges from that glance is not a fixed image, rather feelings: of acceptance, of care, welcoming, understanding, empathy, encouragement or their opposites; rejection, anger, frustration, neglect and the various forms of abuse.
Over time the repetition of these feelings coalesce, merge and form predictable patterns and these in turn create the scaffolding upon which our social identity is formed. Belonging means survival. Rejection could mean death. So we began to judge our worth and value based on the emotional reactions we experience in the mirror of our primary relationship.
Being accepted and maintaining the bond or attachment with mother extends to father, siblings, extended family, tribe and village. Instead of glances our value is based on comparison; our score, grade point average, nationality, race, profession, political party, social status, cast, club, gang, and religion. Our identity and self-worth are sculpted by the selfish needs of these social groups and within each sub-group is a pecking order forged by comparison, allegiance, obedience and conformity. Conflict, greed and war are implicit in this structure and this structure is based on mental-emotional images that forge our identity.
We are told that it is human nature to form such images, to justify and defend as we do the institutions and social structures we identify with, our nations, religions, our politics and beliefs. These too are images, thought-forms, ideas. It is a startling discovery, at least it was for me; the source of the outer culture and our deep inner identity are the same. Both are images.
Renowned theoretical physicists David Bohm, in private conversations and in his publication, Thought as a System, described the origins of our self-image and why it is so powerful.
The problem with the self, is that there is an assumption or concept which, if it were real, it would be extremely important. It would be the highest value. Just think of the word Self. Its basic meaning is the quintessence, the essence of all essences and that would, of course, have supreme value. If we assume there is a self, this stirs up the whole mind and brain inside so it feels, just from that assumption, that something is going on inside and gives it an apparent reality. Once it has been assumed that this self is real and not merely an image, it then takes first priority and everything else comes second. So everything becomes distorted… and this distortion becomes universal.
Because this image of the self, the concept of the self, is assumed to be so all-important, the brain starts to develop a defense mechanism to ‘defend this image against perception of its falseness or illusory character.’
You can see this very easily that if somebody says, ‘You are an idiot,’ immediately there is a response to say, ‘I’m not an idiot.’ It’s painful to have an image of yourself as an idiot, therefore you’ll say, ‘You’re wrong.’ And you may start adopting all sorts of explanations to show that you are OK and the other person is the idiot.
This is a minor point compared with the tremendous energy that comes in when the very existence of this image is apparently threatened by some evidence that it is only an image, only an illusion. Then, the entire brain starts to be disrupted, the brain and nervous system. As a result a defense mechanism comes in just to block it or to wipe it out or to turn attention somewhere else, simply to make it almost impossible to go any further into this question. Forget about it and you find yourself doing something else.
The major form of defense is simply concealment of what’s going on, because if we could see what’s going on it would be obvious it’s an illusion; it’s like seeing through the trick of the magician. Therefore, we are not conscious, certainly of the defense mechanism, because this process of concealment itself has to be concealed in order to make it effective. The major part of defense consists in making the whole process unconscious.
This conditioning around the self-centered thought is really an enslavement to absurdity, to destruction, to unhappiness, sorrow, and no other kind of freedom means anything unless we are free from that. I think he felt that once man was free from that then the way would be open to creative unfoldment in all sorts of directions.
David Bohm, interview with Michael Mendizza
David went on to describe how all of our major beliefs morph into and become embedded in our personal self-image, such as ‘I am an American, a Catholic, a Republican, a member of this group or that. If someone challenges the image we have being a Catholic, or German, we take it personally, as if our individual identity was being attacked. Soccer riots, gang violence and world wars all simmer inside our personal image of self. Media and politicians exploit this well-known fact to do their bidding, at our expense. We fall for it time and time again, because we think we are that image, but we are not.
Look closely at what it means to be a Frenchman, a Hindu or Democrat and we discover that these group identities are made up of images. Good Baptists do it this way, not that. This and that are images. When a child is born into an image based culture and all cultures are based on images, right and wrong, these images are what they see reflected in the mirror of their primary relationships. To the child being good or bad, accepted and praised or rejected and punished is measured in terms of how well their behavior conforms to cultural norms and values. And this, in turn, sews the seeds that sprout into our social identity. What is so obvious but never seen, is that our inner identity is a mirror of the outer culture. They are, in fact, the same structure.
The way our social image grows is really quite simple. Nine times out of ten when little Johnny or Suzie does something new an adult steps in and tells them no. Don’t do that. Do it this way, not that. The child, being the most intelligent organism on the planet, picks up the pattern. Sooner than we would like to believe, the child anticipates the repeated prohibition and violent adult outbursts. Anticipation translates into self-censoring. Their inner voice mimics that of the adult. ‘I better not. No. Don’t. Bad boy.’ Once this anticipation reflex is established the adult (and the culture the adult represents) doesn’t need to be present. Guilt, shame, punishment and their twins – praise and reward, enforce codes of behavior and taboos. And this process nurtures what we come to believe, falsely, is who and what we are, our social image.
Another way to understand the origins and function of this powerful image-of-self is to see it as a coping pattern. In psychology coping is a repeated effort made to manage external and/or internal demands that we interpret to be stressful or to avoid conflict. Whenever the child anticipates stress or conflict his or her inner voice, which has become personified as an image, is switched on. When completely safe, meaning there is no threat present, complete attention is invested in the optimal learning state children call play. When a threat is felt or imagined, the child’s attention is split between self-defense, which has now coalesced into a self-image, and learning, which is the state and function of authentic play. Original or authentic play is nature’s agenda for optimal learning and performance at any age or stage of development from kindergarten to Einstein. Recall, imagination, which is a specific, powerful and highly evolved form of play, as Einstein said, is more important than knowledge.
The greater or more chronic the threat, the less growth and learning takes place. Multiply this pattern during the early, most formative stages of body and brain development and it is easy to see why so many children do so poorly. Culture and its minions, parents, teachers, adult organized childhood athletics (which is really boot camp, glorified obedience conditioning) steps in and replaces original play with its comparison and punishments masked as rewards stunting real growth and development every day, 24/7.
Imagine a completely different way. When that infant gazes up it meets, not a social-ego, an adult image being justified and defended, but rather compassion, kindness, a deep understanding that human beings are one species, brothers and sisters each and every one experiencing the same sensations, emotions, needs and hopes. Imagine this infant not being compared to others, not graded, not categorized, standardized, but respected and appreciated for the miracle that he and she is.
That infant would not develop a tribal, national or religious self-image. They would identify with all humanity. He or she would understand that animals feel the same as we, very similar feelings, sensations and emotions. Growing up this new human being would relate to the birds as cousins, with wonder, appreciation and care. Racism would not be part of this young person’s identity. When they see another they would see themselves, life, expressing in all things.
Is this possible? How can it be done? First, we must realize that, being born into an image-based culture, it is impossible not to have images. The question is, what kind of images does the culture evoke? This question is a profound game changer. We all assume, having been judged, compared, punished and so called rewarded that conditioned and controlling images this experience generates in a new human being is normal, and it is the norm. But this norm can change. Create a different environment, one not based on comparison and conformity, and the nature of the inner image of self-changes too. The inner and outer are reciprocal, a mirror to mirror relationship.
Symbolic and metaphoric language is image based. When the brain converts the symbol into a mental image, bling, there is understanding, meaning. If the brain fails to convert the symbol into a mental image, there is no meaning, just a bunch of squiggles on a page. The important insight is to realize that we can use language without identifying with it. Suzie spills the milk and looks up. ‘Oh no, look what you have done!’ This response etches and reinforces negative feelings, and feelings are mental images, deeply in her developing brain and psyche. Take two: Suzie spills the milk and looks up. ‘Oh no, look at the milk, how it moves like a river over the table. Wow, look how it splashes on the floor! Listen to how it drips.’
In take one, the object of our attention and strong, mostly negative feelings, is the child. Look what YOU have done. How many times do I have to tell YOU? In take two, the object of our interest is the milk. Our body, voice and attention draw the child into our experience. We share the amazement of this world together and this shared meaning strengthens the trust, respect and the bond we share. Trust, respect and bonding are the source of inner imagery, not YOU. Do this throughout childhood, share attention, feelings and meaning rather than making the child into an object by our criticisms and frustration, and watch how she grows, safe in her expanding world as nature intended. Try it. Your inner image will change too. It’s never too late.