I saw a quick video presentation about some type of meditation, the name of which I can’t recall, but it had to do with observing how stimulus affects our bodily sensations, to become aware of the sensations, that we react in stress not to the stimulus itself but to the sensations that it causes in our body. Interesting. As someone who has moderate to severe physical reactions to or manifestations of anxiety, this was immediately compelling. If I can observe and “control” my bodily sensations, can I react less stressfully to what I witness and experience?
The idea is to observe ourselves. That, I do plenty, but somehow, even after at least 36 years of intense self-awareness, (and self judgment, sometimes good sometimes bad), it appears that there are layers I am still uncovering, ever new insights, or deeper continuations of previous ones, or ones that are tangentially connected to previous ones, and I have much to learn still about myself, or at least put into action. This is both daunting and rewarding, rewarding because that means there is still hope for improvement, and daunting because I feel so far from my goal of inner-balance, and with ever-less time to achieve it. The problem isn’t just my reaction to external stress-causing stimulus. The problem is inner conflict.
A lot of what I’m observing has to do with fluctuating self-esteem, or perhaps self-love versus self-loathing. I am almost always aware of myself and though this has benefits, it is also somehow exhausting, because it is always awareness that comes with judgment, or at least self-doubt. When I hear myself speak, see myself move, my loveableness, for lack of a better term, seems to always be in a state of question. I never last too long in a state of self-admiration without it quickly being usurped or at least overlapped by shame, shame for the self-admiration. When I am excited about my accomplishments, or have a surge of confidence, there is some kind of fear involved in it, as if I am catching myself talking too loudly, or that I know it’s not going to last very long. And when I’m not in a state of self-admiration, then I’m feeling the shame of low self worth. And then I am both ashamed of my low worth, and ashamed of feeling unworthy because rationally I know I am not and therefore either side, worthy or unworthy, is self-indulgent. What I would like to be, for the most part, is neutral.
I think this is where the word detachment comes in, though in the video about meditation it had more to do with detachment from external stimulus, moving through life remembering it is possible to be less affected. But what concerns me equally, is not just detachment from disturbing (and I suppose, in turn, pleasing) stimulus, but also from judgment. I doubt the possibility of this, since I am so concerned with ethics. How can we be good if we can’t judge ourselves (and others) in the quest to determine what is good? How can we be both detached and good? How can we be both detached and meaningful, effective, inspiring? Is detachment just a space we have to visit in between bouts of meaning?
Today I had a memory of receiving a doll for what must have been my fourth birthday. It was a plastic baby, with curly golden synthetic hair, eyes with eyelids that closed when the doll was horizontal, and opened when it was upright, and when a button, the only button on it, was pressed, it would make the following sound: “Mama. Mama. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah. Mama.” The “Aaaaaaaaah” rose in pitch until it peaked in the middle of its duration and then lowered again, almost an arpeggio, but plastic, nasal, muffled, and with the creepiness of all sound-producing mechanical toys, though the creepiness I am only attaching in retrospect. In the moment, I loved it. I was astounded by it. I couldn’t believe I got a baby that actually cried for my birthday. I loved babies, I loved pretending I was a Mama, and I loved babies that cried because I loved soothing them. Even by four years old I was told I was good with babies. Real ones. But to have my own, a plastic one would have to suffice, so the more “realistic” the better.
I remember turning the doll over and lifting the shirt to examine the back, wanting to figure out how it made sound. I discovered the battery hatch, and tried opening it. It blew my little-kid mind that this thing could make noise. It felt like magic but I knew it wasn’t and I was determined to understand the mechanism.
And I distinctly remember that as I gazed down with intent at the plastic back, I heard my father remark to my mother with pride and a smile you could discern from hearing, that wasn’t it amazing how curious I was, and look how concentrated my expression was, and isn’t it neat the way I like to figure stuff out. I can distinctly remember swelling with a kind of pride at the compliment, and staying an extra few minutes longer on fiddling with the mechanism because now I knew that doing so made me appear smart, and good somehow. I have shame over the pride I felt back then, or if shame is too strong a word, a definite discomfort in the sensations that the awareness of praise made me feel. I had done something naturally, but now, it having been praised, it could no longer ever be purely natural. This is of definite current interest to me as it may well pertain to the surges of discomfort I have developed as a performer after receiving very positive public reviews. What was naturally good about me now had to be maintained and began to feel fraudulent, though it wasn’t. Is this imposter syndrome?
Perhaps that is my first distinct memory of being observed, noticed, and praised. This was different than being told the picture I drew was nice, or that I sang a song well, or said something smart. This was an overhearing. Maybe the point I was digesting was that even when I’m not told I’m good, I might still be observed and commented upon. Others whose judgment mattered to me might talk about me. Again, as a public performer, this has now become a known fact. They do.
I can honestly say that pretty much since then, four years old examining a talking doll, when I am not alone, or just with a friend I can lose myself with, when there are others present, I have conducted myself with a keen sense that I am making an impression on whoever sees or hears me, and I always want it to be good. I suspect that we are all like that. We are all keenly aware that our gestures and utterances, our appearance and actions are being observed, possibly commented on, and judged. And if I am uncomfortable when I think I have made a clumsy impression, I have to confess that I am equally uncomfortable when I think I have been good or special and it has gone unnoticed.
This seems bottomless. No matter how many times I have “proven” that I am smart, beautiful, and kind, or talented, I want to keep making that impression, because I am never sure for long that it’s true and there are other, countering, nagging notions of self that either tell me the opposite, or perhaps even worse, tell me that none of it matters anyway.
This is ego. This is self esteem coupled with existential angst. This is learning to accept that others’ judgments are a legitimate factor to it because it is others’ values that shape our own sense of what kind of self we want to be, and that, therefore, caring what other people think is not a character flaw. I do not have to feel ashamed about caring about others’ opinions of me. We are constantly told not to be bothered with what other people think, but what other people think is a major contributor, the most significant contributor to our sense of self and what’s good, bad, right and wrong. Therefore, it is discerning whose judgments are worthy and of interest to us that is perhaps where the emphasis should lie. And in order to discern this, we must, paradoxically almost, make up our own set of values by picking and choosing the values around us that resonate with us the most. For this, perhaps, temporary, periodic detachment is necessary.
It is easier said than done. Even when we know and repeatedly articulate our moral and functional and aesthetic aspirations, which we have gradually narrowed down from all the voices that society hoists on us, it is never fully possibly to shake off the voices we already know we don’t agree with. They cause us doubt. They cause us inner-conflict. Maybe some people have more certainty than I do, and maybe I have more than I think, as it is obvious by my life actions and decisions that certain values don’t actually interest me, (materialism, fashionableness, keeping up with technology, for example,) and there is some traceable line of behaviour that could dictate a reasonable biography of my moral, functional and aesthetic existence that maybe on the outside doesn’t look as chaotic as it feels on the inside.
Alignment, is what I seek. Consistency of character. Consistency of behaviour that is in line, aligned with my moral and aesthetic articulations and aspirations. I want to be the person I want to be. (That there are conflicting notions within me about what that looks like has certainly been a consistent challenge). And I would like to at least shed the sense of shame I feel in the moments of pride when I have accomplished exactly this. And I would like to hold on to my knowing for longer than I seem to be able to before casting everything into doubt again and weighing it against countering voices. Moral vigilance through constant questioning is, I think, a virtue. But being in tune with a knowing self, an intuitive centre, and a bold and brave pursuer of action based on this knowing is also a virtue.
Whose voices are within me that make me cower or feel guilt over being good? Is there a force, outside or within me, that is making me less than I can be because it is making me afraid of self actualisation? Was it former bullies or abusive partnerships that cut me down when I did well? And whose standards of perfection am I striving for? I am not at my full potential, that much I know. But am I actually good? And can I find a balance between accepting with humble and unashamed pride that I am good and worthy, and still identify my shortcomings so that I can aspire to do and be better? And where does detachment fit into this? Is it simply the giving myself breaks from concern over my worth? Is neutrality of existence possible, and is it even something to strive for when the world needs and begs for righteousness? Does one have to choose when and from what to be detached, and when and to what to be attached to, (knowing of course, we are mortal beings and it all ends in dust).
I looked up the word perfectionism yesterday and found two totally different streams. One was from philosophy, the other, psychology. The psychology is only of interest (to me) in as far as it points out the reasons for neurotic and somatic (bodily) discomfort that such a state-of-being might produce. The philosophy is, of course, more exciting to read about and identify with. The philosophy of perfectionism doesn’t have a down-side. It only differentiates between the various definitions of perfection and whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic.
So where to from here?
Perfectionism and Detachment. Is it like trying to figure out what you want but not caring if you get it? Is detachment passive and perfectionism active? Is it trying to succeed in life based on the inherited and gradually selected standards of others, but not caring if they perceive your success, or about what you and “they” might think if you fail to achieve it?
Have I articulated my moral, aesthetic and functional wants, hopes, dreams, and needs? How close have I come to achieving those which I have articulated? Where have I failed, and how, and why? How much was in my control? Who are the people whose judgment matters to me, and why? Perhaps these are the key questions I must venture to answer, for these are the questions and answers of carving and pursuing DIRECTION. And though I fully understand that one’s intended direction is more linear than the path that ends up being traveled, (mostly because of obstacles, internal and external, or surprises that tweak or change the goal,) perhaps it is still important to answer those questions, check in with them from time to time. For even though one could trace a path with moral, aesthetic and functional markers of personal consistency, I have been feeling rather haphazard, conflicted, and aimless. It feels like most of what I have accomplished has been equal part my own work and some external force, like inspiration and fate.
How do I feel about who I am, who I have become, what I have said and done? How close have I come to my original goals of selfhood and what are my goals now? Are my goals now based on my genuine value-selection or are they still cluttered with the wrong people’s expectations? Whose approval do I seek, what does it matter if I get it or don’t get it, and what processes have I put in place or still need to, in order to come closer to actualise my intended self?
Surely, neutrality is not a preferred state of being, for I do not believe in asceticism and detachment as a goal within itself – how can we contribute to the world around us from such a state? But we need to seek neutrality still, as a space we need to have within our reach, a sphere of silence, so that we can shake loose the confusion of the wrong voices around and within us, and re-emerge not neutral at all, but with the life-force of our authentic selves, reaching, aspiring, in action.