Happy Full Moon in Scorpio! One of the bigger moons of the year, it’ll be bringing up problems we might’ve been ignoring, issues of suffocating or out-dated self-concepts, and bits of our lives where we’re stuck in inflexible stasis.
My offering to you today is in tune with this. I’m working on shifting what ‘I am’ and what ‘I do’ at the moment, inspired, as usual, by the landscape of my creative life. I watched the wonderful Daniel Kahneman speak recently on the divide between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’, the remembering self being the one who forms our identities and ideas about ourselves. Aptly it was a memory that first got me thinking about the importance of what we do versus what we think we ‘are’.
I left school at 12 with depression, anxiety and social phobia, returning for ‘sixth-form’ (which to readers who aren’t English is non-compulsory education), at 16. Not long after my return a PhD candidate from Cambridge University asked if she could interview me about my experience of being out of education. By then I’d thrown myself into the world with the passion (and terror) that you can imagine a socially isolated, mentally ill teenager would, and I was pretty proud of it. Her research was on how to get out-of-school kids back into education. I hoped my account could help her help kids like me, and honestly someone listening to me felt good. She asked me why I couldn’t go to school in the first place, then “what was it that finally persuaded you go back?” I had a solid answer for that one, because when I chose to go back it was as unequivocal an insight as I’ve ever had; I realised if I didn’t go back to school I may as well kill myself.
I’d been in that suicidal place for years where you’d really like to be dead but you’re not going to put your own hand to it anytime soon. I guess the choice to go back was active where I had previously been just passively suicidal, so to choose to remain at home was as close as I’d ever come to asking myself if I really wanted to die. I didn’t really want to go back to school or to live, but I didn’t want the existence I had, and I didn’t want to die from it. As depressed and afraid and lonely and totally, totally feral as I was, the fear of reentering society was better. I chose life.
The PhD student sent me a copy of her thesis after it was finished. The dedication page reads ‘For Cathy.’
This has been going over in my mind lately as I’m faced with smaller but similar-flavoured challenges in my artwork. I’m struggling with what Brene Brown is referring to here in ‘Daring Greatly’:
“Once you realise that your self-worth is hitched to what you’ve produced or created, it’s unlikely that you’ll share it, or if you do, you’ll strip away a layer or two of the juiciest creativity and innovation to make the revealing less risky.”
I’m trying hard to push out work that is juicy-creative, and it’s scary. I’m sure this is a common struggle in lots of situations; shrinking ourselves to ‘make the revealing less risky.’ It brought me back to teenage Cathy, risking going back to school, and ‘if I don’t do this, I might as well be dead.’
Seems a bit intense – “if I don’t do this artwork I might as well be dead,” sod the beloved companions, the future bestselling memoir. It’s hyperbole, of course, although it wasn’t back then. Exaggeration draws attention to the ordinary things being described, though – not making the art, not speaking out, avoiding the stuff I’m scared to do, are all stopping a piece of me from living. Curating oneself for the sake of fitting in, climbing someone else’s ladder, people-pleasing, are living a degree or two dead.
I spend a lot of my time trying to know things. I’m pretty into looking for knowledge that can be acted upon, that can have some positive effect on my life (“O Allah, I seek refuge in You from knowledge which does not benefit…”), so today I’ll share some knowledge I’ve collected, found beneficial, and began acting upon.
I’ve been reading ‘Immunity to Change’ by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey this week. (I’ve just discovered the slightly embarrassing joy of audiobooks on 1.5x speed. Honestly you should be worried because it’s only giving me more things to write long, odious letters about.)
Anyway, Robert Kegan is a Harvard therapist and developmental psychologist. This is his latest and most accessible book, focusing on personal development rather than deep theory. The authors describe five ‘levels’ or stages of development through increasingly complex (not necessarily better) thought. We’re at different ‘levels’ of thought in different areas of life, or with different people, or in different situations, although we’ll have a kinda overall level. And people almost always think they’re on a higher level than they are.
The first two ‘levels’ concern kids, and since I’m pretty sure I would’ve bored the knickers off anyone under about seventy already I’ll skip straight to Level 3.
(Level 3) The Socialised Mind.
Someone acting out of ‘the Socialised mind’ does stuff because it’ll get them what they want or it’ll help them fit in. According to ‘Immunity to Change,’ the Socialised mind is concerned with getting invited into the family car, not actually driving it. It won’t filter information from society critically, only work on adhering to it. It’s a bargaining mind – “If I wear this, you’ll welcome me into your group because you think I’m cool.” “If I make this picture, you’ll make me feel loved by telling me it’s good.” “If I cook dinner you’ll like me more.” “If I meet you after work you’ll like me more.” “If I pretend I like you more, you’ll like me more.” Relations to the world are in transactional terms.
Kegan and Lahey have 58% of adults operating predominantly from the Socialised mind, but I’m sure plenty of us operate out of it more than we’d like to admit.
(Level 4) The Self-Authoring Mind.
‘The Self-Authoring mind’ has personal values and principles and bases actions upon these rather than other people. This is the mind that is true to itself, the one driving that car the Socialised mind was worried about getting into. It values independence and personal responsibility for emotional states, opinions and actions. It knows what it wants, what it likes, and what matters.
Part of this requires the Self-Authoring mind to have a strong filter. Here is where the Self-Authoring mind is clearly better than the Socialised one; it has the ability to sort useful information from the useless stuff to move forward in adherence to it’s values, where the Socialised mind lacks any such direction. A filter by any other name is a bias, though – the Self Authoring mind prioritises information that confirms what it already believes or is seeking to find. It also prioritises information that’s relevant to it’s agenda, plan or stance, ignoring other information. If the Self-Authoring mind’s plan or agenda is flawed, or the playing field changes so that a good plan isn’t effective anymore, that powerful filter makes it impossible for the Self Authoring mind to change when it really ought to.
Kegan and Lahey have 35% of the adult population operating mostly at this level.
(Level 5) The Self Transforming Mind.
The Self Transforming mind has a filter like the Self Authoring mind, but is not ‘fused with it.’ The ability to step back and question frameworks and agendas, especially one’s own, is the crux of this stage. The Self-Transforming mind understands the power of a single agenda, plan, framework, stance, or analysis, but is also distrustful of them. The Self Transforming mind recognises that ‘any one design inevitably leaves something out.’
The Self Transforming mind gets everything the Self Authoring mind’s filter provides, the ability to sort wheat from chaff and to plan within a framework, but has the advantage of being able to also question the framework itself. The Self Transforming mind highly values information that will alert it to flaws within the current framework. This is the ability to question both ourselves as well as others, to be constantly fluid, take authority from inside and outside, allow beliefs, ideologies and roles to materialise and de-materialise as experience requires and to embrace paradox.
The Self-Transforming mind has identities and ideologies, but it isn’t an identity or ideology. Kegan and Lahey only have 1% of the adult population operating as Self Transforming.
I had an ugly ‘aha!’ moment with this book when I realised I’m often in ‘Socialised mind’ when thinking about my artwork. My choices about what I make are still affected by the opinions of others. I sometimes go directly after external validation and/or put a lot of onus on what other people will think of what I do. I share my work expecting the world to keep it’s side of the bargain – my art in exchange for love, self-esteem, confidence.
Here I found some knowledge that could be acted upon – can I change my thoughts around my artwork into something Self Authoring, even Self Transforming? The Self Transforming mind interests me especially as it connects with developments in my spiritual practise, as well as my view of the world-at-large.
Part of my regular spiritual practise is dedicated to Mercury, or Hermes, Wotan, whatever you like. The Mercurian archetype is intellect, communication, eloquence, business, speed, interpretation of information, with a ‘quicksilver’ nature that is fast to adapt and is ‘neutral’ and takes on the qualities of whatever touches it. Mercury is the messenger of the gods, Hermes is the psychopomp travelling between worlds to guide the dead. Mercury is also a trickster, playful and cunning, but in ‘shadow’ aspects dishonest or manipulative.
“Marcus Manilius described Mercury as an inconstant, vivacious and curious planet.”
Shout out to inconsistency.
I relate Mercury to the Self Transforming mind because both resist identifying with any one ‘way’, they change depending on what is learnt and what is needed. The quicksilver nature of Mercury mirrors the unattached, fluid nature of the Self Transforming mind.
But after having worked for my bits of Self Authoring mind, I’ve recently become conscious of an inner revolt against them. I had all these ‘I Am’s’ that I figured out and enjoyed ‘being’ (I’m an artist, a queer, a trauma survivor, a wife, a mystic etc) but if I fuse with these identities they become static, even suffocating. The more ‘I Am’s’ I drop, the easier I’m finding it to grow.
To flow farther into this I’m working on shifting from ‘I Am’ (Self Authoring) to ‘I Have’ and ‘I Do’ instead (Self Transforming). The former are concepts of self we can’t detach from – like ‘I am a conservative’, ‘I am a Buddhist’, ‘I am a football player’. The latter, though, are concepts that we can detach from, because they’re things we have or do rather than things we are – ‘I have conservative political views’, ‘I have Buddhist religious beliefs’, ‘I play football’. We give ourselves room to be critical and, if necessary, release beliefs and ideologies completely.
I’m not advocating abandoning ‘I Am’ totally, though. Like everything else I don’t have a simple ‘this is the way,’ but instead a ‘you could use this with more discernment.’ The world is complex. This is why I’m no good at Twitter, I’m no good at simple.
The first time someone told me that I was a dancer I was overwhelmed. When the predominant identifiers you use to speak about yourself are ‘I am shit’, ‘I am useless’, ‘I am stupid’ or ‘I am a monster’, having someone tell you that no, you’re wrong – you’re a dancer, an artist! is wonderful. Gifts of new, fertile identities are important for getting bigger. I couldn’t write stuff like this, then show it to people I like and admire, while still believing that ‘I am stupid.’ For this to be possible I needed to find and believe in better identities. (Still, we all have our days. I still often disassociate as I press ‘publish’.)
Identifiers and ‘I Am’s’ are also useful in a group. If I tell people ‘I’m a mystic’ it’s imprecise, but helps people with similar interests find me. Shared identifiers can build communities.
I’ve spent a while figuring out if ‘I am bi,’ or ‘I am pan’ or maybe ‘I am queer,’ and really haven’t gotten any closer to a label that fits just right. I switch between bisexual and queer, partially because being bi and visible is a political act in both the gay and straight communities. I prefer no label at all, which is kinda easy because my sexuality isn’t really topic of discussion numero uno ever.
People with ‘identities’ that are more visible than my sexuality or spirituality, like trans humans, non-able-bodied humans, visibly non-binary humans, people of colour, etc, don’t get the privilege of being able to avoid a label like I’m doing with my sexuality. Not all identifiers are chosen like this. Often ‘you are’s’ are forced on us from the outside. The world tells us what we are and decides to treat us in line with how it treats other people with the same ‘identity’. Generally this sucks. How can we self-author when someone else has decided what we are, and then boiled our wholeness down to that one totally arbitrary identifier?
But identity politics has made visible things that we need to see and pay attention to, like the horrifically high murder rate of trans women of colour, for instance. We need to be able to name oppression so we can fight it. ‘#Me too’ is the same – with naming injustice we make it visible, and when something is visible it’s possible to combat.
What went wrong for the five hot minutes I curated my own list of ‘identities’ was that I identified fully with them; like being in the Self Authoring mind, I couldn’t detach from my own point of view. My identities, not me, dictated what I should be interested in, what I should not be interested in, what I should fight for and who I should fight against. Or, rather, they dictated the ‘identity-fragments’ (Maria Popova’s beautiful term) I should fight against, ignoring that there were whole human beings behind them.
From John O’Donohue :
“One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts.”
We miss whole swathes of humanity because they have different identity-fragments to us, and we judge entire humans on their composite parts. We get farther away from what we have in common, and in-group/out-group tensions rise. Criteria to be ‘in-group’ get tighter and we exclude people and shut ourselves off (but this isn’t the same as building a necessary and quite lovely ‘safe space’). Eventually I worry we’ll totally forget how to talk to anyone who is different to us.
I know, I know, ‘but what about Nazis?’ I don’t necessarily think bridge-building or humanising is the right way to go about all of the healing with all of the people all of the time. It’s easy to say “we should see the other side as equals and build empathy” but it’s also easy to interpret that ‘we’ to mean ‘everybody on the planet’ and then to imagine ‘should’ to imply ‘should all of the time in every situation.’ This isn’t the way. There’s no one-size-fixes-all. I haven’t met any Nazi’s yet, so I’m focusing on situations before Nazis, pre-Nazi, low-level Nazi if you’re unlucky, where we could converse, maybe even have compassion. I trust everyone to be able to discern for themselves which situations suit which reactions.
Take someone who likes to hunt. I think hunting is a peculiar way to pass the time. Thing about that is it’s my bias – I grew up in a city, I still live in a city, I like animals alive a lot, and I don’t like hurting things that are weaker than me. Generally I want to protect stuff from getting shot just for funsies, you know? But do I have to conflate ‘I don’t like this person’s course of action’ with ‘this person is errant, wrong, and has nothing good to offer me or the world’? When did ‘I don’t like hunting’ become ‘I don’t like hunters’?
This is a big ask, I know. I don’t get it all of the time, it’s complex and we’re all human. We can go another level up and talk about making pals with people who vote against our interests and livelihoods, or black-listing and no-platforming people. It’s not that I think being BFF with humans who support other humans’ oppression is what we should all be doing. It’s that I don’t know how far we can go forward if our path is blind hate, blocking people out, shutting people down and putting our fingers in our ears by blanketing those who disagree with us as bad or stupid. I just can’t see the end of this being super great. Even if various courses of action are extremely disagreeable, damaging or even dangerous, belittling and berating people doesn’t change minds, it just doesn’t work.
Coming back from the public sphere, we should be wary of over-identifying with our identity-fragments simply for our own sakes. Identity politics can rob us of the ability to see where our agendas or frameworks are holding back our growth or just not useful for us anymore. Beware of a bastard mix of the Self Authoring minds’ powerful bias and the Socialised mind’s hunger to fit in somewhere.
Megan Phelps-Roper, former of the Westboro Baptist Church, gave this TED talk on how she was changed by people who disagreed with her and reached out to her via Twitter. The whole talk is magnificent, a beautiful example of the fire that kindness can kindle if we let go of judgment:
“A man named David…ran a blog called ‘Jewlicious’, and after several months of heated but friendly arguments online, he came out to see me at a picket in New Orleans. He brought me a Middle Eastern dessert, from Jerusalem, where he lives. I brought him Kosher chocolate and held a ‘God hates Jews’ sign. There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred. We’d started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another. It took time, but eventually the conversations planted seeds of doubt in me…the truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe.”
And she speaks, way more eloquently than I can, on where we are today:
“We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our rhetorical bunkers long enough to lob grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites, or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponents. Compromise is anathema. We even target the people on our own side if they dare to question the party line. This path has brought us cruel sniping, deepening polarisation and even outbreaks of violence.”
I’m reminded of the ‘culture of lack’; the fear that there isn’t enough for all of us, that if one group or person gets something that immediately, obviously, means that the rest of us lose out because there can’t possibly be enough to go around. I don’t believe in this, especially when the resource in question is compassion. What I’ve found instead is that the more I offer compassion the more compassion flows from the well, not just replenishing but overflowing. The more love I give, the more love I have to give.
Anyway, back in my lane, to art.
After finding my ‘I am an artist’ last year, and having had my work empowered by it, I don’t feel so good about it anymore. My discomfort now is less because I think I’m not an artist, but more because I’ve realised I don’t understand what it means to ‘be’ an artist, as identity, as an ‘I Am’. Perhaps I’m an artist sometimes, or some bit of me is an artist. It’s too imprecise to describe all of what ‘I am’, and I find it limiting if I get too close to it, which I obviously tend to do. So I go back to ‘I make art’ instead, back to the ‘I have’ and the ‘I do.’
I like this because it gives me freedom of identity, fluidity and flexibility you get from Mercury, from the Self Transforming Mind, but it also holds me accountable for walking my talk! What is ‘I am courageous’ without actually committing courageous acts? What is the point of telling everyone ‘I’m an artist,’ and employing all the surface trappings, the silly clothes and curated Instagram, if I am not committed, dedicated and actually making art? The silly clothes and Instagram aren’t even the fun bit!
I think this is a little better for one’s self esteem, too. Worried about not being a ‘real’ artist? Poppycock! Do you make art? That’s enough then! Once I’m as far as making, or writing, or doing whatever, I don’t really care if about fancy identity badges. I don’t want to ‘be’ anything, really. I love doing these things, they make my life better and they make other lives better too. That badge I’ve been so upset about being allowed to wear doesn’t help anyone, except maybe my Instagram stats. You do get an awful lot more views with a good identifying #hashtag
So anyway. I’m making comics right now. Shitty comics, I’m sure, because I’m new and wobbly. If I don’t start now, though, I’ll never get past being new and wobbly, and I’d rather be wobbly in my work now than wobbly in my work years later when my knees will be wobbly as well.
Here’s to letting the old die almost-gracefully, beloveds, and imagining something bigger and better for ourselves!
Blessed be, angels. Be gentle with yourselves, I love you.
P.S – I’d love to hear your thoughts, any feedback at all on the ideas here. Did I miss something? Can you help move my thinking forward? Do you just have some input? It would be so appreciated if you took the time to help me out, I’d love to know other things on this topic.