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the strategic self

Throughout the dharma, the Buddha made clear that the search for a permanent, fxied identity, or "atta," is a waste of time, creating needless speculation. Why? What we construct self from—thoughts, feelings, body sensations, perceptions, sensory consciousness—are constantly changing, a ceaseless flow that doesn't solidify into something we can contain into a solid entitity. We are in flux.

Yet the Buddha did talk about 'taking care of one's self' (in the dhammapada and elsewhere). He makes it clear that a sense of self needs to exist on a moment by moment basis, as we all need to have a sense of identity to interact with others and achieve goals. And so we let of conceiving our identity not as something that lasts, or consider our core personality 'pre-established;' there is no true self to 'find.' Self is something we skillfully construct from our natural, harmless, beneficial impulses. What follows is a reflection on this topic; it will probably only be of interest to a few.


The Buddha taught that our self is constructed from complex array of fleeting mental and physical states: the flow of body sensations, gut feelings, perceptions, moods, thoughts and sensory impressions that occur in each moment of life, often below conscious awareness.  There are many shifting elements are at play. N0w, noting impermanence plays an essential role in insight meditation, in fact it is foundational in developing detachment from experience to which we latch onto and cling resolutely—views and opinions, habits, addictive pleasures.

However, noting impermanence is not entirely useful in navigating our responsibilities in the world; the degree of change unfolding in internal experience, if given constant attention, can diminish our ability to function in the world, as the lack of inner stability is distracting to say the least. And so, to maintain coherence in work and other roles, the mind creates a 'core identity' that it threads through each moment, stitching together all the different experiences into a coherent single self-narrative, creating a reassuring sense of inner order and stability. Identity allows us to interact skillfully with others from a sure footing: we have an idea of who we are, and what role we play in the world.

Its important to note here that the Buddha rightly maintained—in many highly regarded teachings, such as the Anatta Lakhanna—that our sense of having a core self, or 'atta,' is an entirely fictitious overlay or fabrication, it cannot actually be found in our experience, which is in a constant state of flux. The degree of change occurring beneath our conscious awareness is such that maintaining a constant awareness of the impermanence can be disorienting at the very least; some become so demoralized by this awareness that a 'dark night of the soul' is experienced, for the fleetingness of conditions and mental states, without proper guidance, will deprive a practitioner of surety and confidence in finding a lasting meaning for life.

So the role of the worldly practitioner is construct out of dizzying cluster of inner experience a 'strategic sense of self;' this identity relies on an astute sense of our capabilities and weaknesses, as we are dependent on our sense of identity to navigate through life in a meaningful way, integrating our goals and desires with what is realistically available, reducing conflict with others, carving an efficient route to safety in the world. This strategic self is skillfully carved from our actual experience, authentic (as opposed to performative or contrived) inclinations;it integrates self images and desires in a manner that empowers us; it is not a naive or false construction created to win acceptance by or approval from others, nor is it an attempt to avoid difficult emotional states. In life we will all know sadness, despair, loneliness, no matter how skillfully we weave together a 'personality view.'

For example, one might consider oneself a 'buddhist' as a strategic way to establish intentions for behavior, but one is not always a 'buddhist,' as there are times our inclinations and reactions will not fit the story. And so we learn to construct a self without clinging to it too tightly; we where our stories of 'who am I?' like a loose fitting garment.

In contrast with our strategic sense of self is a sense of identity established in earlier stages of life, amidst the dynamics of familial and other socializing experience. In infancy we are vulnerable, and rejection experiences can feel akin to annihilation, and so we adapt and create ourselves in the hopes of winning acceptance, showing little allegiance to authentic impulses and behaviors. And so we create what could be described as a distorted self (what Winnicott called a 'false self'), which is concocted by infantile defense strategies against emotional discomfort or interpersonal rejection. If caretakers reward independence, we'll perform self-confidence and self-reliance, while concealing our need for support and comfort.

A distorted, 'approval seeking' self is inherently regressive, as it contains unauthentic behaviors, naive aspirations, even false body images (note the prevalence of body dysmorphia). Alas, the distorted self is cannot be integrated into a coherent personality, as it requires constant justification, manipulation and fantasy to keep running; it is not based on spontaneous, natural experience, but is in fact a performance. This unskillful sense of character leaves us off balance, desperately in search of someone or something to 'fix us' and make us feel complete; for example, the narcissist craves his or her audience to complete the story of ideal perfection; the borderline (personality disorder) seeks any form of attention to ward off abandonment fears, even sex masquerading as intimacy.

To conclude, the strategic self constructs itself from the dazzling parade of authentic, spontaneous behavior, impulses and self-stories that naturally arise; it is not a desperate act for tolerance and love. The shifting feelings, thoughts, moods from which we build this self are invariably in flux, so our strategic self is not lasting, merely a skillful construction that allows us to achieve goals and find peace, both internal and interpersonal, in the world. The question of life, therefore, is not "Who am I?" but rather "Who can I be right now without being ungenuine?" With the help of a strategic self, we can locate our intentions as they emerge over the years, and carve out a place for ourselves in the world where harmony with self and others is not strewn with conflict or victimization.

—josh korda, 6/23/14


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