Filed under: Happiness, Subjectivities | Tags: alternatives, freedom, happiness, letting go, Nikolas Rose, true self, truth
I have always found the idea of there being a true self in all of us simply awaiting realization problematic. We are encouraged to ‘peel back’ the layers of our identity to discover this truer sense of self. The very conceptualisation of the individual as possessing multiple layers, or being a psychologically complex individual, is a configuration of the human psyche brought about by the establishment of psychology as a discipline, the influence of psychoanalysis and the belief in therapy and counselling as a cure-all for all societal problems. What the proliferation of these discourses have caused is a belief that our lives and personalities are somehow lacking in authenticity and that it is our responsibility as autonomous individuals to pursue a more meaningful existence in the name of freedom.
Yet as social beings we are socialized into different norms, explanatory regimes – how could it be any other way? Even if I were born in a cave and lived in solitude in the wilderness, my life would still be constructed by discourse because it would be shaped by its absence (despite my ignorance of it). Instead of trying to demolish these constructions is it not best to first ask in what ways are we constructed? That is to say, to ask who do I take myself to be, rather than to ask who am I? To ask who am I is to presume on some level a whole identity (truth) underneath all the layers, whereas to ask who do I take myself to be, opens the question, it allows the opportunity to consider all the concepts, demands, authorities that impinge upon and claim our identity. In this way we need not ‘let go’ of everything but question which things to let go of and which to hold on to. For we are always tied to someone/something, is it not more a question of choosing to what we are tied as opposed to being freed from it all?
‘Letting go’ has become a modern obligation, an obligation that pressurizes and yet remains frustratingly vague on the practicalities of undergoing such an endeavour. Similarly when it comes to managing grief, the imperative is to recover, to get over it – and within acceptable time limits. Not recovering from grief, not being able to ‘let go’ of past traumas is considered pathological. To not recover is to submit to chaos, to reject the orderly demands on emotions. Perhaps this is why ‘letting go’ has become such a obligation – to the point of a staged process – we fear what lies within the chaos we are instructed to avoid. Now too our happiness, and measuring the levels of our happiness, is of political interest and we are constantly encouraged to be happy (and hug people). But being happy is at the expense of being unhappy – the freedom to be unhappy. The freedom to be unhappy is not advocating a politics of misery but surely part of what it means to be free, to be human.
It may feel sometimes that we (our self, our emotions) are in a fortress. We desire to shed these defences yet we must be wary of exchanging one fortress with another even if it looks grander and shinier. If we exchange the modern capitalist mindset for the mindset of the ancient yogi for example, we are still adhering to a set of norms. I think it is important to recognise that this is not necessarily a truer way of existence. Each side will claim their reality as truth and will defend it with their own array of evidence. Being here in India away from home people will say ‘Oh but this is not reality’, what a strange thing to say. Similarly it is false to claim life in Mysore is more closer to the truth than the life we know back home. Both are true but in different ways.
What yoga can do in this situation is open us to perceiving alternative ways of being. Yet we must be wary of how we interpret this alternative. The wave of protests the world has witnessed in the past year or more has brought this issue into the public consciousness in a much more visible way than ever before. And still we struggle with how to articulate this alternative in any meaningful way. This alternative must come from the acceptance that there is not one divine ultimate truth, one ultimate way to exist, but that life constantly evolves and dies; things fall apart, we come undone, we fall in love, we fail, and we try again. This is an alternative that must always allow for the possibility of change – a system in which other alternatives are never closed off.
If we install this concept into our individual minds, we can see that the adherence to one set of obligations is at the loss of the potential for a whole other way of being. This is of course the price we pay for the burden of choice. In our everyday lives we must make certain choices, but those choices do not have to become so that we forget the importance of chance, of the haphazard, which is surely the vitality of being human. To promise recovery from grief, to promise the idea of a divine truth, or to promise lasting happiness, can never be anything but a fraud. To make promises and obligations in definite terms seems almost contrary to human nature. We may feel propelled to explain everything – that which exceeds our capacity to explain frustrates as much as it beguiles us. But in this search to explain do we not destroy also, destroy the contingency of life which is in many ways the only thing that keeps us going – for if life becomes so ordered and monitored there would never be anything new or unexpected to experience. If we need to let go of anything then perhaps it is this.
Though if there is some form of true essence to an individual I feel more and more that it is to be found in the details. Why are we drawn to certain activities/places, what stimulates you, what drives you, who do we love? Even the most trivial details – e.g. why do I love Braeburn apples? – is not the truth of the self present in such minor details? Is there not something vital in these basic truths of taste and preference? (the vitality of these truths evidenced by our inability to justify them, we just do) And yet we are taught to be cautious about these irrational or illogical behaviours. Instinctual reactions are unsubstantiated; intuition is disregarded. But is it not in these fleeting moments of whimsy that lies a glimmer of what we could consider our true nature?
Could we not then pose the question….
…at least as an experiment for thought, the question of what an ethic of existence might be that did not refer to itself to that psy-shaped space which has been installed at the heart of each modern individual. Could one not imagine another kind of freedom, whose ethics were resolutely ‘superficial’? An ethics whose vectors did not run from outer to inner, and did not question appearances in the name of their hidden truth, but which ran across the outsides, between, among persons, where subjectivities were distributed, collective and orientated to action? An ethic, that is to say, that did not seek to problematize, to celebrate or to govern the soul? (Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul, 1989)
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