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Cracking Open the Sugar-Coated Self


Human beings are pack animals and not meant to live in isolation. We associate for security; our ability to bond with others is essential to our very survival. While on one level this is achieved through conscious communication through language (the realm of the brain's left hemisphere), we also achieve this through unconscious signals known as emotions (the domain of the right hemisphere). Just behind the field of awareness we're constantly sending and receiving messages about our state of being through tone of voice, locking glances, facial expressions, body language, posture and movements. How well our emotions are received help us regulate our emotional states; also, early interpersonal attempts at bonding, with caretakers, set our expectations as to how deeply and reliably others will connect with us.

In the buddha's teachings, becoming, or bhāva in the original pali, marks the establishment of an identity we believe will spare us from the inevitable discomforts of life. In essence we mold ourselves, what we present to the world, in a desperate search for a palatable and invulnerable identity—the story we tell of our journeys in life). For our greatest feelings of vulnerability and sadness arise from sudden disruptions in our interpersonal connections: caretakers withhold acceptance and support in our childhood years; our early attempts at connecting with others can be met with rejection or shame; popular cliques and factions may turn against us. And so we learn to suppress and repress our unappetizing emotions, a strategy that takes a terrible cost: we live in edgy, compartmentalized minds; a sense of emptiness arises, born of shunting aside our unpalatable experiences; anxiety and panic make their presence known, due to the destabilizing energies of repressed despair, swirling just below the surface of awareness.

The desire to create an identity free of any possibility of rjection can give rise to a Sugar-Coated Self, a performance in which we present to the world the most palatable versions of our human experience. After a series of interpersonal disappointments, we chose the safest route to approval, via the presentation of achievements and accomplishments, our 'winning dispositions' and the like: they make life easy with parents, relatives, school guidance counselors, the like. Perhaps they may get us into college, or help us land jobs, we may feel more confident during awkward 'hook ups' and social networking. The Instagram 'Selfie' is the sad, inevitable visual culmination of the 'Sugar-Coated Self.'

This performance isn’t a natural impulse to connect with others, it’s also motivated by the anxiety of 'there's something unpleasant about me that no one could possibly love.' When we're caught up in this campaign for praise and attention, our interactions with others aren't risky or deep; rather they're performative and emotionally void. The Sugar-Coated Self is largely disconnected from any awareness of the body, where the residues of the shadow energies of anxiety and abandonment separations are felt. Eventually accomplishment seems the only dependable way to get what we want—real connection.

It’s easy to understand why ambitions then are so important, as they feel like tickets to secure connections with the pack, which substitutes for real, deep interpersonal acceptance. While they don’t address our deepest needs—for unconditional love and emotional tolerance—they fill us up with fleeting, pleasant sensations. Work becomes a substitute means for trying to win admittance to the pack as well. What we do might be a hollow exercise in the fields of 21st Century capitalism, yet still can attach cravings for acceptance and recognition for our performance on the job. And so attainments—which are dutifully reported on Facebook—only offer a replacement for true intimacy and connection, diversions that keep us from feeling the edgy sensations of loss, the fears of being unloved. Achievement temporarily makes us feel part of the pack, yet underneath the Sugar-Coated Self, a history of abandonment, disappointments and shunted emotions roam, and so too instability. A couple of slips of the tongue and we're out in the cold.

Eventually a full emotional experience of life is lost in the search for achievement; we forget the fact that a title, degree, certification, gallery opening or publishing deal will never satiate our deepest needs. Luckily, when I give talks at buddhist communities or write articles about spiritual practice, I remind myself to acknowledge my darkest experiences—a childhood of fear at the hands of rage filled alcoholic, feelings of isolation in school, early awkward attempts at sex, the hopelessness of my alcoholism and addictions—and try to share them openly. I will never accept a title for what I do, and I strive to present my real, often awkward experience; I'm not by any stretch of the imagination fully "healed" or "recovered," nor am I remotely close to 'awakened.' I try to offer instead the fullness myself into my teaching, for its only in doing so that life offers me any chance of deep, true self-acceptance, from my heart, or the hearts of others.

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