Understanding the Complicity That is You: An Existential Exercise

Dialogue Map Unanswered Questions

I‘m doing an offline writing exercise, self-invented, to try to get a better understanding of my sense of continued self-dissatisfaction. It was inspired by a set of questions from Oriah:

What if instead of asking why I am so infrequently the person I really want to be, I instead asked why I so infrequently want to be the person I really am? What if who I essentially am right now is who I am always going to be? What if the task is simply to become — to ‘realize’ — who I already am?

Nothing terribly new in these questions, but they strike at the root of our (and our society’s) insistence on always becoming, doing, and being ‘better’ — personal ‘growth’, ‘self-improvement’ and ‘self-help’. The implication of this insistence is that we’re not good enough, and somehow flawed, and ‘need’ to work to become something other than who we ‘are’ now. There’s much discussion about who’s to ‘blame’ for us being so flawed, damaged, imperfect. But what if we’re not, and have never been, and can never be, anything but who we essentially are? Not flawed, not perfect, just ‘who we are’.

So the exercise is this:

Write what you really know about yourself by completing these seven sentences:

    1. The animal in me loves _____:  List your passions, obsessions, lifestyle choices and orientations, the things you know you really care about, love to do, think about a lot or are deeply emotionally engaged about
    2. The animal in me needs _____: List your wants and longings and needs, the things you know you are missing or which are in too short supply in your life
    3. The animal in me craves _____: List the things you are addicted to, that you can’t get enough of or do enough
    4. I have become fearful of _____: List your triggers and fears, the things that you know set you off or inhibit you
    5. I have learned to become _____: List your acquired adaptive positive traits and abilities and inhibitors — positives about your physical and emotional condition and positive personality attributes, qualities that have come to define you
    6. I have become _____: List your acquired adaptive negative traits and inhibitors — negatives about your physical and emotional condition and negative personality attributes, qualities that have come to undermine you
    7. Your unanswered questions — Identify the things about yourself you’ve been unable to understand or which seem paradoxical

Don’t write about your intentions, plans, wishes, dreams, behaviours, past, self-judgments, others’ judgements of you, or your physical attributes (unless they’re really extraordinary). These things are not who you are.

You may appreciate that your fears and triggers are unwarranted, even foolish, but that doesn’t make them less real or ‘not you’.

Write about the complicity that is you. Know that you are plural, a collaboration of trillions of cells, and that what you think of as your ‘mind’ is just their pattern-detection, information-processing and motility-management system. Your mind is not you. Think about that as you write about ‘your’ passions, needs, addictions etc. The first three sets of attributes are about the ‘animal’ you — attributes that would probably be on your list no matter when, how or where you lived. The next three sets of attributes are about the ‘acculturated’ you — attributes that became part of you as you adapted to life in the cultures you have lived in.

Now review each item in your answer to each question above, and think about what are the qualities that are behind or underlie it. How and why are each of these qualities ‘yours’ and ‘you’ exactly? This is the real ‘trick’ in this exercise, and the hardest part of doing it. What does it really mean to say you are this? Does this really ‘define’ you; is this really who ‘you’ are? Or is it just a description of your perception of yourself relative to other people, or an oversimplification that you use to explain yourself to others, or something about your situation rather than really about you at all? Group items in your list that have the same underlying quality or are aspects of the same quality.

In my case for example (i) several of the things I love doing are all essentially ‘creative’ activities; (ii) many of my fears have underlying them a fear of suffering (my own or the suffering of those I care about); (iii) my ‘need’ to be free and my ‘fear’ of being in a situation of feeling trapped are manifestations of the same thing; and (iv) my ‘love’ of falling in love, and of some games, are all manifestations of my addiction to the ‘feel-good’ chemicals (dopamine etc.) that such events/activities produce. In this way my long initial list of loves, needs etc. got grouped into a surprisingly short one-sentence answer to each of the first 6 questions. And some of the attributes on my initial list (e.g. generosity) got deleted entirely, as, after thinking about them, I realized they weren’t ‘me’ at all.

If you’re not sure, if you don’t really know, cross it off or leave it out.

 Review your answers to the seventh question the same way. Ask yourself how this lack of understanding or seeming paradox relates to who you really are. My resolution of four aspects of the real ‘me’ that lay behind three of my unanswered questions about myself are illustrated in the Dialogue Map at the top of this post (read more about Dialogue Maps, if you’re interested, in the note at the end of this post). Add the insights you get from this analysis to the applicable answers to the first 6 questions.

Now re-read this six-statement portrait of the essential ‘you’ and go back and consider Oriah’s three questions, with this ‘real you’ in mind.

That’s it. That’s the exercise.

I found it like looking in a mirror. Until you hold it up and look, you don’t really know what you look like. Until I did this exercise, for all my ruminations and self-analyses, I couldn’t really see who I really was. The end-product was astonishing: as much as I ‘knew’ these qualities to be parts of me, to see this pared-down summation of who I am — my animal self and who I’ve ‘become’ — is like seeing myself for the first time, and realizing this ‘stranger’ is me. I keep rereading it, almost like a newly-sighted person keeps looking at his own reflection, with wonder.

Until you can ‘see’ yourself, you can’t be yourself. Or perhaps more accurately, once you can ‘see’ yourself, you can’t any longer be somebody else, the person you’ve pretended to be, that you thought you were, that others want you to be, somebody you’re not.

I’m not going to post what I wrote about myself (six short sentences with some reminder notes on how I arrived at some of my answers) — it’s too personal and would need a ton of contextual explanation to be intelligible to others. It’s been enough just to do it. If you try it, let me know how it goes for you.


The chart above is an example of a Dialogue Map, a form of Mind Map (these are both terrible, official terms for something that might better be called Deliberation Maps) — a way of rigorously thinking about and documenting any deliberative thought/discussion process. Software for both Mind Maps and Dialogue Maps is free online, and you can do them by hand too (great for planning and documenting meetings). I found the Dialogue Maps, which start with a question (blue ? symbol), proceed to possible answers, relevant consideration points (yellow lightbulb symbol), and decisions/insights (gold handshake symbol) and are supported by persuasive (green + symbol) and contraindicating (red – symbol) data/arguments, very useful in doing this Exercise. I asked the seven questions above and developed a Dialogue Map for each. The chart above is part of my seventh (i.e. unanswered questions) Map, and the four insights I received from this particular map about my true self (that I am undisciplined, grateful and happy to be so fortunate, afraid of failure, and grieving for the state of the world) are shown below the handshake symbols. 

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6 Responses to Understanding the Complicity That is You: An Existential Exercise

  1. Nick Smith says:

    Self enquiry is a good thing, provided that it cuts to the core, otherwise it turns self-referential (‘self’ with a little ‘s’, or ‘me’) and just reinforces whatever malaise we appear to be stuck in.

    If the fundamental question at the heart of Self enquiry — ‘who am I?’** — is left unanswered, what occupies our sense of being is a perception that we are living our own little ‘separate’ life. The automatic and inevitable consequence of this erroneous perspective is that, a) we conclude that we are relatively un-influential, b) we are therefore prey to circumstances beyond our sphere of influence, and c) our mind must be constantly vigilant and defensive against ‘outside threats’. This is the basis of all fear. And it is the effects of these fear based thoughts, emanating from this false self-perception, that we try so desperately to make sense of.

    More insidious still, if the fundamental question has been asked and we have then allowed our intellect to answer that question for us (instead of allowing ourselves to actually experience the answer directly) then, believing the intellect/ego’s conclusions, the fear appears so inescapable that our life is continuously coloured by some degree of despair. Now we waste our days in vain efforts to mitigate that horrible feeling the best way we can. This is hell.

    So, by giving attention and importance to the fear based thoughts like this, we actually believe them into existence and then suffer their impact on us, while leaving the basis of fear un-addressed. All our life we are trying so hard to change and improve something which we think is real, but which is really only the reflection of our unfounded neurosis. But something inside is totally untouched by all this, and a sweet remembering can wash this entire struggle away. This is really the beauty of Self-remembering — you are reminded of what you already know, of what you already Are. And in that remembering, all of your doubts, all your confusion, and your troubles, disappear. What flows from Love can only reflect it’s source, and there is nothing about the real You that is not wholly constituted of that.

    ** Here’s a clue: Anything appearing in your perception cannot be You… not flesh, not blood, not thought, not emotion, not body, not Universe. How could they be, when You are the One that is witnessing these? Similarly ‘consciousness’ is just another phenomena that appears *to* you. When you are really sleepy, or if you experience a major traumatic shock, you are aware of losing consciousness, and in that awareness *you* can choose to resist losing consciousness (or maybe choose instead to pull over at the road side and sleep a little while). So if we are to tell ourselves the truth, consciousness also cannot be who we are. We must be, instead, This that is aware of consciousness, the same This that is witness to any phenomena appearing in the concious state, and also the unconscious state – otherwise we could not recall the contents of a sleeping dream upon waking up in the morning.

    If you allow yourself to experience what you are directly, you know for sure that fear has no basis whatsoever in your life, because there is nothing ‘out there’ to fear. In fact there is no ‘out there’ out there, because there is no ‘in here’ in here, because you have allowed the imaginary wall that we believed separated the two to come down. Now you know that there is nowhere that you are not, and nowhere that the Love that you now experience does not reach. There is nothing and no-one that now comes to you that can remain untouched by this freedom. The whole Universe bends towards you in gratitude and support for this gift that you bring. Dave, it is here that your perfect safety lies. This is heaven.

  2. bart raguso says:

    Dear Dave et al,
    perhaps the focus should be less on ourselves, on the individual person each of us is, and more on the whole thing we all belong to.
    You, as an individual, are prone to all the foibles of what it is to be a human; our hopes, our fears, our ambitions, our doubts.
    When we start to think about “me” too much, we bind ourselves up in the little thoughts (and little feelings) of our minds. When we keep our vantage point on our connections to the greater truth and larger whole of our identity with our joined human family and all life on the planet, we start to see with our hearts. It is a bit of a Paradox, but I think that frees us to be who we really are: sentient beings witnessing a world we did not create. Our world and life is a miracle really, isn’t it?
    Making a valence change in the terms we use to define ourselves creates a different mindset in our attitudes. A narcisscist is someone who cannot see all their true connections to the rest of life. As infants, we are all total narcissists. As we become adults and more conscious beings, we begin to realize more and more, it is all not just about us.
    If we make the irrational mental leap of faith, (probably more of an emotional and heartfelt leap), we have to come to terms with our limits and eventual mortality as individuals. We may start to appreciate that we have no real understanding and that every day is a blessing of sorts. We tend to worry less about our own selves. We start to take real pleasure in observing the simple miracles of everyday living.
    I am not trying to make light of many of your very accurate observations about the end of civilization as we have defined it. I appreciate that the world is busy going to hell, due in large part to the rappaciousness of our corporate orientation, but I wonder that to be free as individuals, we must craft a different sense of appreciation for what our true nature is and what the true nature of the planet is.
    We are not omnipotent and what we think does not determine what happens in the universe or the multiverse or whatever you choose to call reality. I do not want to become fatalistic, but isn’t human history always about assuming we are more important than we are? When we stop defining everything from only our anthropomorphic point of view, we will just begin our journey as emotionally mature members of the community of all life.

  3. Oh dear,Dave. I really thought you were beginning to get somewhere. Your last few posts have been really great, inciteful reading. But it seems that you are now regressing into, or indulging in, that silly and needless internal self-examination thing again. Just be happy with who you are and don’t stress about it.

    If you need any ‘chips’ knocking off you, life will arrange for that to happen, at the appropriate time. You are a well educated, caring, resourceful individual with what I would say is a rare clarity of vision as to what is going on around you and a unique ability to express that to others. Stop with this self-flagellation already. If someone has been getting in your ear about this, tell them to go whisper in ears elsewhere.

    ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment’.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments. I knew that the suggestion that my fears are part of me would strike some as defeatist or just ill-conceived. I found this exercise very positive, not self-critical at all. The ‘animal in me’ elements are delightful, and the ‘I have become’ elements are understandable consequences of having lived six decades in a very unhealthy and stressful culture. Looking at my six sentences it is probably correct to say ‘I’ am really none of these things, in a purely existential sense — they are my patterns, footprints that my molecules leave in the universal stardust, not really ‘me’. A portrait, after all, is not the person portrayed, merely a ‘likeness’. Nevertheless, these sentences comprise an amazing self-portrait, one that has brought me useful self-recognition and insights I never had before.

    Bart’s suggestion of focusing more on the collective and our a-part-hood is interesting — I’m wondering if I could repeat the exercise and produce a portrait of the collective all-life-on-Earth?

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