The System of Self

Here’s a checkpoint for Archeology of Self, a marker of where I’ve been, and a sense of where I am going.

Best I can tell, my Self is a complex adaptive system. There does not seem to be a central authority or a clear method to how my Self operates. It’s a marvel of emergent behaviors, spurred by independent agents of forces. It’s not to say that there’s nobody home, but I am just not seeing a degree of order or organization that I would typically attribute to a logic-driven device. My Self looks more like weather than a computer.

In this system of Self, I can discern four forces. In examining how I am in the world, from feelings to actions, I inevitably end up finding these four forces at the root. I call these forces the Fundamental Needs, since they seem to be at the core of all of my Self. These four Fundamental Needs are:

  • The need for Integration, to be part of a larger whole, in harmony with others, to feel a sense of belonging.
  • The need for Differentiation, to be my own unique self who is apart from others, to feel a sense of agency.
  • The need for Safety, to feel comfortable, safe, at ease. I use the phrase feeling at home as a handy moniker for when this need is satisfied.
  • The need for Fulfillment, to self-realize and fulfill my potential, to feel a sense of life lived with a purpose.

These needs are in pairwise, orthogonal tensions. The Integration is in tension with Differentiation, and the Fulfillment is in tension with Safety.

A diagram showing two orthogonal (in a shape of a cross) Fundamental Polarities. Vertically: Fulfillment and Safety. Horizontally: Differentiation and Integration

These pairwise tensions form the Fundamental Polarities. As far as I can see, the entirety of my Self is the outcome of the incremental learning process to manage these Fundamental Polarities. What I consider “Self” is a product of participating in this beautiful paradox, the Riddle of Existence. Though outside the scope of this exploration, my intuition is that this riddle is not unique to my Self. I see glimpses of it in the writings of Csikszentmihalyi, Hollis, Kegan, Wilber, and others. Wilber sketches out something very similar at the beginning of the Brief History of Everything.

I also notice that there are agents that emerged as a result of these forces being applied to the system of Self. These agents embody each Need. The way I understand it today, the incremental nature of learning led these agents to be rooted in the unconscious mind, using fear as a signalling mechanism. Each agent acts as a defender of the Need and perceives a threat when its Need is not being satisfied. Since the Needs are indeed always in tension, these agents perceive the Fundamental Polarities as an unresolvable conflict, a constant threat to my existence.

Thus, I call these agents the Existential Fears, one for each Need. Each Fear catastrophizes the outcome of the Need not being satisfied, as a brute-force method to exert the influence in the system. Each Fear has a go-to response that is embodied by the unconscious mind:

  • The fear of Annihilation, coming from me perceiving my need for Integration under threat from my need for Differentiation. The catastrophic outcome is that of becoming a completely disconnected, invisible to others, and thus removed from existence. The go-to response for Annihilation is to conform.
  • The fear of Dissolution, perceiving my need for Differentiation under threat from Integration. As the catastrophic outcome, it is about losing my own sense of self and ceasing to exist through dissolving into the shapeless mass of others. Dissolution’s go-to response is to stand out.
  • The fear of Destruction, perceiving Safety under threat from Fulfillment. The catastrophic outcome is me being physically destroyed. The go-to response for Destruction is to hide.
  • A fear of Decay, perceiving Fulfillment under threat from Decay. The catastrophic outcome here is rotting alive, gradually decomposing. Decay’s response is to act. It’s my DO SOMETHING! agent.

Existential Fears form the same pairwise polarities, the Existential Struggles,  laid over the corresponding Fundamental Needs:

A diagram showing two orthogonal Existential Struggles. Vertically: Fear of Decay (Act) and Fear of Destruction (Hide). Horizontally: Fear of Dissolution (Stand out) and Fear of Annihilation (Conform).

These agents are the origin of my suffering. Because they are so radical (the outcome they predict is the literal ceasing of existence), embodied (operating in the unconscious mind), and in conflict with each other, the struggle appears as hopeless and impossible to ever resolve. Each agent operates on a mission to satisfy a fundamental Need, which is difficult to argue with. However, each is independent and doesn’t consider the larger system at play, and is unaware of the Fundamental Polarities.

The Fears constantly compete for attention, and the center of conflict is always in motion, in an unending tug-of-war: first, the Decay is predicting that I will rot alive if I don’t act now, then Destruction immediately pipes in with certainty of doom if I do act now, then Decay gets in a “nuh-uh”, and the melee continues. There is an intense, internal conflict that goes on among the agents. Without the ability to see this conflict, my consciousness only captures a tiny fraction of the full perspective, showing up as boredom, anger, depression, anxiety, shame, etc.

This suffering is nearly constant, fluctuating from big upheavals where I am conscious of it–like actively feeling angry–to unconscious micro-suffering where I don’t even realize it’s happening, manifesting as unease or tension. In this system, the moments of peace are rare and unlikely.

One of my intentions for self-work is to influence the system of Self by discerning more signs of suffering and providing more evidence to the unconscious mind about the nature of polarity. Because the Fears are so well-entrenched, it’s been challenging. But I am already seeing signs that the system is pliable. I recently realized that I no longer find myself suffering consciously. When I detect a micro-suffering, I am able to eventually not believe the Fears and get back to center. And I know that every one of those exercises evolves my system of Self. I am curious to see how.

My Self-work Routine

I started intentionally working on myself a year ago today, writing my first journal entry. Since then, I’ve iterated  to the point where I am settling down into a bit of a routine.

When I began,  I made the commitment to invest at least 30 minutes on self-work every day. The way it looks today is a nightly four-part exercise, taking about that much time. In addition to this practice, I read and talk to wise people. I’ve learned that many, many people have traveled along this path. I use their insights as path markers, holding them lightly. It was their path. I have my own to find.

I usually begin with journaling what I am currently feeling, listening to my body, looking for signs of somatic responses to stress. At first, this was a dubious activity (“uhm… feeling… fine?”), but I soon recognized that I have a few consistent somatic patterns, whether it’s a tension in shoulders or a knot in my stomach. I then trace these back to the emotions that caused them.

This leads to the second part, the archaeology of self. Here, I focus on understanding why I am experiencing these emotions. My goal is to surface the underlying wrinkle, the “thing that creates the suffering”. I’d found that looking for cognitive distortion patterns helps me as a good first pass. Sometimes it takes a few days (or weeks), but I usually arrive at some key assumption that was hiding in plain sight. I’ve grown to rely on David Burns’ vertical development and on Kegan/Lahey’s immunity to change techniques. This is also where I document what I learned in my experiments and design new safe-to-fail experiments to try.

Next, I move to the third part, letting my Purpose find me. I shift my focus from where I’ve been to where I am going. In the beginning, I struggled quite a bit with even discerning the pull of the Purpose. I was really trapped in “duty”, “supposed to”, and “have to”. Seeking clarity, I ask myself what I actually want out of life and whether my actions lead to that. I study how I instinctively frame my actions and whether the framing or the actions themselves need to change. Through this process, I keep sketching and refining the bigger resonant whole, the thing that moves my spirit, the larger Purpose.

I conclude my day with the riverbank. Early this year, I was introduced to meditation and it has been a gift. Thank you, Search Inside Yourself and folks who taught it as a class. Meditation serves as my closure for the day, putting back all the pieces that I may have dislodged, making me whole. It’s a blissful touch of serenity, a glimpse of what’s possible, however brief.

I am not sharing my routine because I believe that you should follow it or that it is somehow a solution that works for everyone. I can’t even guarantee that it works for me. YMMV.

I am sharing it here because if you feel overwhelmed, lonely, and lost, I hope to spur your curiosity to give intentional self-work at try and maybe come up with the routine of your own. I am but a data point, a tiny bit of evidence of making tiny steps toward inner peace and seeing my own Self more fully and embracing its beauty.

Letting My Purpose Find Me

In my own clock, I spoke metaphorically about learning to listen to my own Self, learning to discern what I want from what I believe I am supposed to want. As this process continues, I am becoming more aware of the distinction between the two. In exploring this distinction, an interesting question arises: what is it that I actually want?

I am realizing that my desire to answer to this question is animated by a force that is much like gravity: subtle, yet unyielding. Like gravity, it manifests whether I want it or not. Like gravity, I can only pretend to ignore it. I’ve come to see it as the fundamental need for Fulfillment, the need to do something more than just surviving and living out my life.

I’ve also begun recognizing that this need for Fulfillment, this force is directed. There’s a definite sense of “more-of-that” and “less-of-that” when I make my own choices. And when there’s a direction, there’s a destination. There is a Purpose, my own sense of meaning that is clearly there, present within me.

I am neither used to looking for it, nor it is easy to see. With other forces pulling in their own directions, it’s easy for me to get distracted and disoriented. Did I act in a certain way because I was stumbling toward my Purpose, or was because I was trying to protect myself in some way?

I’d found that the direction is most easily seen when I sit down at the end of the day and spend a few minutes reflecting on what is happening within me, and how the day felt as a whole. This does not need to take a long time: I usually just set my fingertips to the keyboard and let them go. More often than not, exhaustion and angst of the day gives way to curiosity and wonder. That’s when I start seeing a bit more. I start tracing outlines of what is meaningful to me, what’s important, what’s purposeful.

It’s almost like my Purpose is always there. I am just blocking with the whirlwind of the mundane. In the moments when I can stop and let go, I am able to let it find me.

A Classroom for Humanity

Why is it that some people are unable to see a different perspective? Why is it that when I try to introduce them to that perspective, I get an angry, hateful response, and often, trigger them holding more firmly onto their current perspective? What is happening here?

To gain more insights around these questions, I’ve been looking into the constructive-developmental theories, and they open some very intriguing possibilities.

They posit that we all have a meaning-making device, something that helps us take external inputs from the world and turn it into meaning, constructing a coherent reality in our minds. Through grounded theory methodology, they’ve found that our meaning-making devices are in the process of continuous evolution, rapidly and massively transformative in the young age, eventually slowing down, becoming more rare and far in-between for adults. Unlike children, who upgrade their meaning-making device every few years, we grown-ups are typically stuck with the one we acquired as young adults.

They also identified distinct stages of these transformations, the plateaus where people situate. According to the research, the current center of gravity for adults in our world seems to be in the Socialized Mind stage. (As an aside, different theories assign different names for the stages and I will use the ones from Kegan’s work.) When my meaning-making device is at the Socialized Mind plateau, my sense of rightness and wrongness is defined by those around me. I seek the principles and values from my leaders, and good and bad is what everyone in my “tribe” says it is. I tend to strongly identify with my tribe, and thus experience severe injured identity pain when I perceive that this identity is threatened. When I encounter ideas or perspectives that aren’t aligned with those of my tribe, I unconsciously feel the fear of the abyss and also react to it as a threat.

It is not a huge leap from here to see that the frictionless global interconnectedness of the modern world would leave a Socialized Mind reeling, feeling as if it’s under constant attack from the overwhelming, unbearable threat of the entire meaning to come undone, made incoherent. If I am constructing my reality using a Socialized Mind, I see it as the world coming apart, with The End fast-approaching. I am not having a good time, prone to polarization, further entrenchment in the ideology of my tribe, and blame, pointing fingers at others. And in doing so, along with others in the same state, I am acting out the fulfillment of my own prophecy. Trapped in this vicious cycle, we appear to be doomed.

The constructive-developmentalists suggest that there is another perspective. They reframe the bleak picture as a developmental environment, a classroom of sorts. This struggle of the Socialized Mind is actually a challenge, a tough assignment that is presented to the humanity in that classroom. And the goal of this assignment is transformational learning, the evolution of our meaning-making devices to the next plateau, the Self-authoring Mind. This next plateau offers me the capacity to hold my own perspective, seeing it as one of many, no longer viewing others’ differences as threats to core identity. Thus, the graduation looks like shifting humanity’s center of gravity toward to the Self-authoring Mind.

This learning continues. A graduation is just a milestone in this classroom of humanity. The next plateau over, the Self-transforming Mind is even more equipped to thrive in the modern world: with this meaning-making device, I learn to appreciate and cherish the multitude of perspectives, holding mine lightly.

Just like in any effective classroom, the challenge in itself is not sufficient to foster transformational learning. The support, the sense of safety and grounding is a fundamental part of the process. My best teachers weren’t those who took it easy on me. They were those who, while presenting a seemingly impossible challenge, made it clear that they were with me, empathetic and steady, supporting me as I flailed and struggled. They weren’t paternalistic or over-protective, but they coached me, and guided me back to the path when I was going in circles. They created an environment where I learned to thrive.

This framing creates a fairly clear–and frankly, more positive–way to view humanity’s current predicament. Shifting away from apocalyptic lamentations, I can now focus on exploring this question: what would it take to create an effective developmental learning environment for humanity?

Fear of the abyss

I’ve been thinking about how I experience the fear of the unknown in the context of constructive-developmental theory, this fear of what’s beyond the edge of my current capacity to make meaning, the fear of the abyss.

This fear pops up when I am experiencing something that is incongruent with the reality I construct, something that I can’t reconcile and make coherent according to my current understanding of the world. I may experience it as something that is grabbing at me, trying to “get me”, something to be feared.

The subject-object shift in constructive-developmental theory refers to a developmental transformation of how I make meaning, where invisible is made visible. I see this shift as me improving my capacity to make meaning, to see an ever-increasing context. With each jump to a larger context, I start seeing things that were driving me, invisibly influencing me, being part of me, or part of the unknown become things that I see and have the capacity to hold apart, things about which I can reason. 

For example, let’s suppose that I am subject to some principle and value-making device. That is, I accept my principles and values as “things that are”, rather than something I can author. When I see that someone else has different principles and values, I experience the fear of the abyss: how can it be that someone else has different “things that are?”. In that moment, I may also be subject to the fear itself, and thus be subject to cognitive distortions (I am guessing those are an outcome of being subject to fear),  experiencing anxiety, shame, depression, anger, etc.

Once my meaning-making capacity grows to see a principle and value-authoring device in myself, I am no longer seeing principles and values as “things that are”, but rather things that people have. I can see how they can be different across people and the fear of the abyss no longer overcomes me when I encounter someone with a different set of principles and values. With the subject-object shift, the fear of the abyss has moved on to the next frontier of my meaning-making.

On the Riverbank

I am on the riverbank. In front of me, a river of my thoughts, feelings, emotions. Not a peaceful river. It’s loud and turbulent, twisting in its bed, mesmerizing. A moment later — and I am caught by the current. Attracted by a random thought, I become part of the river. I become my emotions and feelings. I am struggling with the rest of the river, fighting. Fighting something. Fruitlessly. Hopelessly. Was there ever a riverbank? Was that just an illusion?

This metaphor of the river and the riverbank is helpful in describing my cognitive processes. I habitually live in the past or in the future, beating myself up about something I’d done or fretting about something that may happen. It takes effort to be in the present.

It took me a while to see that “being in the present” does not mean forcefully ignoring the past or the future. It’s about being apart from them, just on the side, on the riverbank. When I am on the riverbank, I can hold my emotions lightly, without getting entangled in them. I can sense my feelings as reactions to emotions. I can see my thoughts arise and let go of them. An observer, not an actor. There’s so much clarity and crisp understanding in these moments, in such contrast to the murky, unruly river.

I am realizing that I spend most of my life in the river. After a stressful day, I often marvel at the sheer power of the river’s pull and how closely it held me, had me nearly forget about the existence of the riverbank. I can go days and weeks trying, and failing to find it.

But I’ve felt the beauty and peace of the riverbank. I want to practice, and develop new habits to find my way to it more often. In the harshest tempest of my emotions, I want to learn how to stand on the riverbank and make my choices, rather than having the choices make me.

Archaeology of Self

Every experience I have is a new lesson in life, a new addition to things that I’ve already learned. This process of learning happens whether I am aware of it or not. With every lesson, I also learn how to learn. That is, I continuously increase my capacity to learn.

Depending on the depth of my capacity to learn, the nature of the lesson shifts. When I was a child, my learning capacity was still nascent, and the lessons I learned were simple. Things were high-contrast: bad or good, sad or happy, dangerous or safe.

As I grew up, my capacity to learn deepened. I started seeing a more subtle and complex world and that this growing complexity is not the change in the world itself, but rather a change in how I make meaning of it. As my capacity to learn deepened, new dimensions of complexity opened up, with new opportunities to learn.

Thus far, the learning happened in the context of my previous learning. What I learned in the past shaped how I would learn in the future. The stark nature of the early childhood lessons created sharp edges in the foundation of my continuous construction of meaning.

I am now recognizing that these sharp edges limit the extent of my capacity to learn. They are these unseen forces that collapse my choices, blind me to alternatives, especially in challenging situations. David Burns called them “cognitive distortions”. James Hollis gave them a more dramatic name of “woundings”. Brené Brown talks of armor. All these are different takes on the same thing: the natural outcome of learning when my learning capacity is a work-in-progress itself.

Thus, the deepening of my capacity to learn now includes re-examining the lessons from the past. Through careful archaeology of Self, I am challenged to understand the nature of my assumptions and beliefs, the context of meaning-making in which I learned those lessons, and learning different lessons with my current understanding of the world.