New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti
As reported in a recent New Yorker article, the popular trans model Hari Nef was asked for her “mantra to live by”, and her response was “Take what is yours.”
When I read this, I wondered how I’d respond if I were asked what my mantra was. The term ‘mantra’ is a bit hairy and ambiguous, but let’s assume what we’re looking for is a core or fundamental belief, something succinct that underlies our other beliefs and is less doubted or tenuous than other beliefs. It’s an interesting exercise in the power of constraints to try to hone your belief set down to a single statement.
Over the past dozen years or so, I’ve had many mantras. What I’ve called Pollard’s Laws* are probably the ones that have endured the longest. I no longer believe in them quite so strongly and absolutely, though they still seem to describe what appears to happen in the world, and in that sense they are, I think, still interesting and perhaps useful (which is all you can really ask of a theory or credo).
Likewise a variety of additional ‘Miniature Truths’** I’ve written about over the years since coining my two “laws”: Interesting and perhaps useful, but they are necessarily oversimplifications, and inherently dualistic — they presume we have free will and choice to act on what we know. Sometimes, however, it seems to be helpful to be aware of things we cannot do anything about, and understand why we cannot do anything about them; this seems to offer some clarity, some peace of mind, and some equanimity.
I’ve asked myself the alternative question, about identity rather than belief: “What is the name that is big enough to hold your life?” (and answered, tentatively “I’m the one who helps others imagine possibilities”. That’s a mantra of sorts, I guess.
Last spring, I essentially recanted much of what I’ve believed and espoused over the years, summarizing my Story of Me as follows:
My whole life I have been bewildered, unable to really make sense of anything, just muddling my way through, and I have often been quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. I have put great effort into many things but have nothing much to show for it. I’ve had some interesting insights, but nothing that’s of much practical use to anyone. I have been generous, but only when I could easily afford to be. I’ve been very lucky. I have become more joyful and fun-loving, but more pessimistic, more curious, and more skeptical about everything, even whether we as separate ‘selves’ actually exist.
This statement would seem to rule out any mantra other than one of inherent doubt and tenuousness about everything.
Going through all the candidates, I’m reduced to just four possible mantras:
- Trust your instincts.
- We are all doing our best.
- Nobody knows anything.
- You are not your ‘self’ (and there is no ‘you’).
What makes these four mantras ‘better’ than Pollard’s 2 laws, 14 miniature truths and 1 big-enough name? For one thing, I think they hold up better to non-dual scrutiny. If the idea of the separate ‘self’ was an accident of evolution, an enhanced (and ultimately maladaptive) version of survival instinct, and the self’s sense of free will, choice and control are all illusory (and hence the source of all suffering), how can a statement about separate, individual selves be useful or meaningful? It can, of course, be helpful in understanding what is (apparently) happening, and what is not happening. That’s why I still find my laws, miniature truths and big-enough name useful — radical non-dualists would say that such understanding makes the prison of the illusory, separate self more comfortable.
My ‘final four’ mantras, on the other hand, while they all contain pronouns, can be reconciled with the view that the separate self with free will and choice is illusory and maladaptive. Let’s look at them one at a time:
- Trust your instincts. My sense, from ‘glimpses’ I’ve had of ‘self-less-ness’, is that what we perceive of as our instincts lie beyond and before our ‘selves’. If our illusory selves fall away, instincts will remain — the apparent character that is completely un-self-aware will jump out of the way of the runaway bus; there is no separate self needed to direct that evolutionarily adaptive (apparent) behaviour. Perhaps instincts are the way ‘all-that-is’ works around the confounding veil of the afflicted self — for no reason. Maybe we can’t ‘choose’ to trust them, or even listen to them, or not, but if they’re heard, it seems, there’s a connection somehow to some profound and seemingly wise mystery beyond the self.
- We are all doing our best. If we are all doing the only thing we can possibly do (since ‘we’ have no free will or choice in the matter), then no ‘one’ is to blame for anything, and no one ‘should’ have done or should or could do otherwise. To accept this seems to me the ultimate statement of equanimity (even if the pronouns are inappropriate). From a dualistic perspective it is generous, forgiving and appreciative, and as long as the ‘self’ is stuck in the dual world that seems an ideal perspective to have. Intuitively it just feels right, even when considering seemingly
- Nobody knows anything. The cartoon above is absolutely right in this ‘self’-effacing declaration, in both the dual and non-dual sense. Complexity and ‘real’ reality beyond the veil of the self are unknowable, and beyond the self, all-there-is cannot ‘know’ anything, since to know something is to know something apart from all-there-is, which is inseparable. What we perceive or conceive is an infinitesimally small and utterly imprecise fragment of what really is — close enough to nothing.
- You are not your ‘self’. This seems cleverer and easier to swallow than the more radical corollary There is no ‘you’. But that’s too easy. The harder truth that there is no ‘you’ forces abandonment of seeking for some deeper, wiser ‘you’, and requires acknowledging the impossibility of ‘self’ improvement. And without having had a glimpse of self-less-ness, that’s pretty much impossible to buy. So perhaps, for now, You are not your ‘self’ is enough.
Winnowing the four down to one is too tough, especially for a verbose writer like me infatuated with epigram. Best I can do is this concatenation:
Nobody knows anything, and we’re all doing our best. So trust your instincts and be forgiving: You are not your ‘self’.
*Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important.
Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.
** Here are the ones that still resonate for me, paraphrased:
(1) There is no meaning, learning or joy without passion, curiosity, appreciation, partnership and generosity.
(2) Community is born of necessity (Joe Bageant).
(3) Show, don’t tell.
(4) Fight to be nobody-but-yourself (E E Cummings).
(5) Our civilization is inevitably in its final century.
(6) We are all healing; our culture imprisons us and makes us ill, disconnected and inauthentic.
(7) We’re so arrogant we loathe ‘unknowable’ complexity and the implication that no one is in control.
(8) What we see as ‘individuals’ are complicities of their component creatures and the environments of which they are a part (Stewart & Cohen).
(9) Personal ‘property’ is a fiction that exists only because of power inequality and the threat of violence (Matt Bruenig).
(10) We domesticated, infantilized humans live in a world of unprecedented ignorance, helplessness and imaginative poverty.
(11) Frames trump facts, and stories persuade better than data (George Lakoff).
(12) In our ‘learned helplessness’ we fear all the wrong things (Malcolm Gladwell).
(13) The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred (variously cited).
(14) Change occurs as generations with old ideas die off, not from people changing their minds (Max Planck).