Tuesday, March 22, 2011


OK, I am about to suggest a rather unorthodox idea -- that I have multiple selves operating inside my head, and these selves are often at odds with each other.

I will understand if you want to stop reading right now, please feel free.

Meanwhile, for those of you who will see this through, I can tell you that I have a Yale psychologist involved in the debate.

And if you are sitting there going, wait, she is supposed to be writing Sister Renata's trial scene, you are absolutely right! I am diverging from attending to the Sister Mysteries blogga saga. Clearly I'm stalling for time writing the trial scene, and I know that and I do apologize.

But since I'm not making a dime on any of this writing, at least not right now, I figure I get to do exactly what I want to.

So here is a question for you, just to get us started: what exactly is the SELF?

No small question. But one that's clearly important to each and every one of us.

The issue of self has come up in the Happiness class that I am teaching this spring at the University at Albany, SUNY. We are reading a variety of fascinating texts that inquire into the nature of the self, particularly as it relates to human happiness.

One of the books -- called Flow -- is a classic text by one of the world's most famous psychologists, Hungarian Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (please don't even think about asking me to pronounce his name). He raises the issue of self in his discussion of what activities really make people happy.

Csikszentmihalyi contends that happiness lies in so-called "optimal" experiences, that is, in activities -- from rock climbing to singing to cooking to playing guitar to poetry-writing -- that immerse us body and mind into what we are doing. Flow experiences are those in which human beings lose themselves.

You sit down to play piano, and hours disappear. Or you begin painting a landscape, and the next thing you know it's sunset and you're still trying to get the horizon the right color.

These activities absorb us heart and soul. They involve a tremendous focus of attention, and in our absorption, we lose our "selves" as we enjoy them.

For those of us fortunate enough to have "flow" activities in our lives, we know the bliss of forgetting our "selves" and all our woes for long stretches of time. Csikszentmihalyi contends it is in these activities that people find true happiness. Of course he also acknowledges that the practice of yoga and meditation -- which also absorb our body, mind and attention -- can also lead to a kind of timelessness and the sensation that the self is immersed, or "lost" in an awareness of something larger, a divine universe, perhaps.

Other readings we've done in the happiness class also raise questions about the notion of self. In Sharon Begley's excellent book, Train the Mind, Change the Brain, she discusses an array of new research by neuroscientists and psychologists working in collaboration with Buddhist monks who are long-time practitioners of meditation.

The research emerging from this novel collaboration is rather startling: it shows that the brain is infinitely plastic or mutable and that focused mental activity like meditation or mindfulness can physically change the meat of the brain, making a person more focused, more compassionate, and perhaps, more happy.

It is a fascinating book, describing a fascinating line of research, and it raises an important question -- if the brain is in flux, changing in response to new input and activity, and if behavior is also changing, then what about the self? Where in the network of brain connections does the self -- or the soul -- reside? And when the neurons of the brain change, does the self also change?

Because much of the research that Begley discusses involves studies of Buddhist monks, that question is addressed within the context of the Buddhist tradition. And thus, not surprisingly, the answer is kind of... Buddhist!

Contrary to popular notions of a fixed "self" at the helm steering our personal "THIS IS WHO I AM" ships, the Buddhist notion of the self is one that is never really fixed. Like everything else in the universe, the Buddhist "self" is always in flux, an ever-changing concept.

Perhaps the reading that has really tossed the class up in the air the most over the nature of the self is a provocative article by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who suggests in The Atlantic magazine that the study of happiness is complicated not so much by what we know or don't know about being happy but by what we don't know about the nature of the "I."

It is Bloom who suggests that we are more than one self, and that each of our selves has its own agenda, and is devoted to finding its own route toward happiness.

So for example if you are a lover of chocolate cupcakes thick in icing, BUT you also love the idea of wearing a size 2 polka dot bikini to the beach, you are facing the classic problem that Bloom presents. The cupcake-loving self and the would-be bikini-wearing self are going to compete for your attention!

"...Within each brain," Bloom writes, "different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control -- bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another."

Bloom's article has got all of us in class thinking and asking the obvious. Is it really fair to ascribe a "self" to each and every desire that pops into our head? If I'm suddenly dying to wear studded leather jackets, and to put piercings and tatoos all over my body, does that add another self (or set of selves) to my existing myriad of selves?

It hardly makes sense. And yet, what his article gets us to ask is that question I started out with: what exactly is the SELF?

Is it simply the many impulses that pull us to act? Is each self an outgrowth of each of our ever-changing desires? Something tells me that this notion of the self is rather absurdly limited. There has to be more to the "self" than whatever it is we happen to find pleasurable at any given moment.

And even if we were to equate selves with individual desires, should we really consider all desires as being equal? Aren't some aspirations or impulses more worthy than others?

We can't possibly give equal weight to a "self" who aspires to be a brain surgeon and a "self" who gets drunk and drives his BMW into the side of a bridge?

Bloom himself suggests that certain "selves" must be, from time to time, "binded," that is, held back from expression. (Thank God!)

He explores the idea that people often engage in "self-binding" -- so that, for example, a dominant self -- the one, say, who gave up smoking and wants to remain healthy -- prevents a rascally other self from running out and buying a pack of cigarettes.

Bloom points out something else about multiple selves that at first surprised me. But then I thought about it. He wrote:

"The population of a single head is not fixed; we can add more selves. In fact, the capacity to spawn multiple selves is central to pleasure. After all, the most common leisure activity is not sex, eating, drinking, drug use, socializing, sports or being with the ones we love. It is by a long shot, participating in experiences we know are not real -- reading novels, watching movies and TV, daydreaming and so forth."

The sentence that follows implicates all readers in this idea of multiple selves. Bloom says: "Enjoying fiction requires a shift in selfhood. You give up your own identity and try on the identities of other people..." other fictional characters.

All of this resonates deeply with me (and my multiple selves.) Particularly my "self" who loves to read, and my other "self" who would if she could watch a new movie each night of the week. I am big into LOSING MY SELVES in film and books!

I am also big into writing fiction, and creating fictional selves.

Which brings me quite conveniently back to Sister Mysteries, and the reason I am writing this blog book.

As I said when I started this post, I have multiple selves in my head. In particular, I have Sister Renata occupying my brain. And I suppose, I also have Antonie, her lecherous cousin, inside me too (though I know I'm not as attached to him.)

I also have the old housekeeper, Señora Ramos, cooking and dusting and sweeping around in my brain somewhere. And I've got Renata's best friend at the convent, Sister Teresa, praying and laughing and thinning carrots in the garden. At times, Mother Yolla and Father Ruby are in the mix of madness in my head.

Ah, the many selves of a fiction writer.

Paul Bloom at Yale would probably have something to say about me. (But not necessarily something good.)

But I would be curious to know what he would say about writers who have in themselves a number of fictional selves, selves that are represented as images. As action. But primarily, I think, as voices. When I write Sister Renata, I am writing Sister Renata's voice.

Similarly, I write her lecherous cousin Antonie, in his voice. And on and on.

To me, a fictional self or character, is, simply, a voice. That character manifests herself as a voice that speaks to and through me. It tells me her story. Her "self" is a narrative."

Perhaps, in the end, all of us, all of our real selves, are similar. Maybe a "self" is just a narrating consciousness. It's the voice inside, the one that keeps reporting, relentlessly, from the inside, narrating what is happening, what is being observed and lived. That voice (or voices) tell the continuing story of our lives. That voice accumulates all of the details of that narration, an accumulation which adds up to a life story. A life story that is passed into short and long-term memory.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. My self is the voice (or voices) I hear in my head (some of which I'd like to send packing.)

It is the voices of characters speaking to and through me. it is the desires and observations making themselves apparent to me sometimes moment by moment.

When writers write, Sister Mysteries, they narrate the voices of their characters. They narrate their fictional selves.

Since Sister Renata is one of my selves, I've got her voice, her narrative in my head. The question about this fictional character has always been, is she my PAST SELF? Did I actually live in her body?

That is a question I cannot answer. I can say this much: I can feel the way Renata feels when she touches her rosary beads. I can feel the way she feels when the straw in her mattress scratches her back. I can feel the way she feels smelling the foul pail spilling over in her prison cell. I can feel the way she feels when she is lying beside Sister Teresa on the blanket looking up through the live oak trees into the blue sky.

All this has been true for a long time. Sister Renata has been a self in me, or me in her, for 16 years now. It's been such a long and close relationships that I don't want to let go of her.

And so, I know that the reason I'm having a little trouble writing the ending to her story (and why I've been stalling the last few weeks writing the trial scene) is that I feel like I'm getting closer to the denouement of her tale. And if that's true, and the book is going to end soon, then I have to deal with a rather disturbing question:

What will I do when I don't have Sister Renata to write anymore? How will I let go of this very important self?

I wish I could answer that question, but the honest answer is, I'm not sure.

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