- Mental Health
Stranger in the Mirror
The Two Selves
Those folks who are deeply into different schools of spirituality would probably tell us their story about several "dimensions of selves" that exist in each one of us, some of them even enveloping our body's space. My mention of only two is not opposing to their beliefs, but I need only certain two aspects of ourselves in the context of this article. By the way, they are also less esoteric and mysterious, and as such more believable, since everyone can easily identify with them.
At my very essence I see myself as this awareness of simply "being", before anything gets attached to it. My other self could be defined as all that what may follow after I say "I am...", consisting of my name, my social image, gender, my life roles, citizenship, profession...etc. Also, It would contain all my intimate reality with my emotions, memories, attitudes, beliefs... and so on.
We normally identify with this second one, as that's the one from which all our life is generated. That first, "face-less" sense that we simply "are", that we exist regardless of the quality of all our experiencing life - is only the level of our identity that we meet with during our meditation, but it will also play a part in this article, as a basis for many latent, alternative "second"- selves.
Brainwashed into an Identity
In order for me to make a certain point here, I have to play with some hypotheticals. Let us suppose that my parents were Joe and Jane, a couple of factory workers, not particularly educated folks, also a bit nervous and neurotic, and prone to projecting their own inadequacies onto their kid, that would be me.
In short, not someone with developed parental skills, however, not to be blamed, because their parents were not excelling at those skills either. So, all through my hypothetical childhood I only hear about my being "lazy, clumsy cry-baby prone to lying, not smart like other kids in the neighborhood", with repeated predictions about "someone like me never to make anything of himself in life".
Now, we don't have to be psychologists to figure how such a kid is bound to succumb in his development to all that ridicule, criticism, and even physical punishment. Since kids are not born with something like a "thick skin" - they are actually very impressionable and vulnerable - you could freely say that hypothetical-me was brainwashed into becoming all that which had been repeatedly drilled into my young brain as the "truth" about myself.
However, let's explore the possibilities of that story ending up with a much happier outcome.
Many Latent "Personalities"
Still playing our little hypothetical game, now let's imagine that Joes and Jane, my biological parents happened to have a fatal car accident, and I got adopted by Fred and Lucy, a fine couple of intellectuals who could not have any kids of their own. So they give me a lots of love, attention, encouragement, praise; maybe even a private school, piano lessons...hey, can I also have a black belt in karate before my teenage years?
What happens with me in this variant of life? That basic awareness of me, that essence of who I am stays the same as in the first case with my life in the home of Joe and Jane. All my innate qualities, my looks included, are the same - and yet, I am different. My personality is different now.
But wait a second; we are not two different personalities when we drive our car and when we make love, right? So what do we have here when we are talking about different "personalities"? Isn't that just a bunch of different mindsets at work - and one that's mostly "practiced" and so leading in our intimate reality?
If you looked at me now, you would never believe that this easy going, calm and laid back guy used to be a drill sergeant in an army. What would be left of this "calm" guy if someone physically attacked one of my family? Really, we are not just talking about "different mental functions" being mobilized in different situations, but altogether different people.
Indeed, just because me-the step-son of Fred and Lucy has such and such characteristics, doesn't exclude all those many possible "selves". Back in seventies I was reading a lot about "self-image psychology", notably works of dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who noticed how people's negative self image didn't disappear after a face improvement.
Then he would step beyond his specialty and work with such folks on changing that image that was holding them back in life. Those many success stories got me into this belief that we are potentially many different people.
So who is really that stranger looking back at me from the mirror, if he could be a son of Joe and Jane, Fred and Lucy, and so many other primary caretakers in my childhood, modeling me into someone different?
Neuroplasticity - or, Nothing Is "Carved" in Our Brains
If in this meantime since the seventies I ever decided to junk all that about "self-image psychology", these days I would reinstate its value after reading all that about so called neuroplasticity.
As neuroscientists are telling us, brain is changeable - not only by its mental contents but also physically. Depending on our use of that organ, neurons are growing new dendrites, or "hands" for touching other neurons and creating new neural pathways that can result with a different personality traits.
So, some of us don't really have to feel sad that we didn't have a Fred and a Lucy for parents - we can remodel our personality into something that our basic, essential, intuitive, spiritual self finds more rewarding.
Since I have done quite some of that work on myself through decades of my life, it often happens to me while I am deeply into some thoughts that I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and for just that instant I don't identify myself with that person I see in there. It's like a total stranger is looking back at me.
In those instances, so aware of my inner freedom to change my mindsets, my moods, my emotions, even my basic beliefs at will - I may get a silly question crossing my mind, like: "What are those white hairs doing there on the sides of my head?"
I can't identify anything in me with them; and even though I do my mental exercises of intensely letting my body know that I love it and appreciate its serving me so well - its image in mirror often fails to "describe me". That inner "freedom to be" just can't be contained within physical limits, or a fixed self-image.
Our Body's Incredible Fluidity
We tend to experience our body as a solid mass of flesh and bones, but seen in bio-chemical terms it's in a constant state of change. New cells get born by millions each second replacing the old ones. Your body is not the same of the last year, it's "2016 model".
As we would go even deeper to those tiniest particles, atoms, they are almost completely new from the last year. Your skin cells have completely changed about a dozen times in a year time, and your skeleton is the fourth one during that year. Some cells change even faster, like those of stomach lining every four days, and the part getting in touch with food every 5 minutes.
Now, you may be wondering, like I was at first, how come that with all these new cells we don't look brand new. For, even some daring biologists are telling us how there is no conclusive explanation why we have to age at all, considering how body is healing and maintaining itself.
To me, the answer could be hidden somewhere behind those examples of some people turning grey almost overnight after experiencing a big emotional trauma. At the other extreme would be those who look physically refreshed after returning from a vacation filled with fun. So, forget about that new vitamin serum or that facial cream - just book a vacation in Hawaii.
Keeping in mind this fluidity of our bodies, is it only my memory that's giving me the illusion of my looking at the "same me" that last year's me was also calling "me"? If "I" am that teenager that I remember, and this 72 year young dude - which one is the "real" me?
And if all those psycho-physical models of the past-me are equally myself, then I don't have to be "loyal" in my mind to a "constant-me" which doesn't exist, but could choose my personality traits, my emotions, thoughts, beliefs. Since I have been changing them anyway during the process of my maturation and personal evolvement - why be stuck with anything that doesn't feel right in my intimate reality now?
These are the kind of thoughts that allowed me to liberate myself from that mirror image which kept suggesting my inescapable inner sameness. And that's why every look in the mirror may give another chosen interpretation of who I am - an eternal stranger, discovering more and more of possibilities of being "me".
Therefore, to any person willing to work on their unexplored potential, all this may add to their optimism. Indeed, there is so much more to ourselves than our mirror reflection is revealing about ourselves. That eternal sense of I-amness always stays with us unchanged, no matter what self-image and its expressions we may choose for ourselves.
Bit by bit it's worth discovering what else we can be like, with our capacity for happiness, our health, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, worldviews - who knows, maybe even with some aspects of our aging.