This is the first of a four-part exploration of personality, how it relates, or not, to an underlying sense of individuality, and a bit about the path that leads from one to the other and back again. The four parts are as follows:
Part I: Most people have no true sense of self. Do you? Take a simple 3-question test!
Part II: The journey to individuality shortly encounters a battle with ‘The Dragon’.
Part III: If you manage to get past The Dragon, here are a few tips for continuing on the path.
Part IV: Questions and Answers.
The Personality versus the Self
PART I of IV – Anybody In There?
“Most people just have personalities.” My friend said this to me the other day and I’ve been mulling over what he meant by it. In his view, this is a shame because the world would be more colorful and full of life, even if not entirely Utopian, if more people had richly authentic ‘selves’ to draw upon.
Yet many people don’t seem to know who they are. They’re not vibrantly awake and living individuals. They are not consciously making choices to create the lives they want to live, using their God-given imaginations. They seem to behave more like well-rehearsed actors playing their scripted roles, doing the same things over and over again by habit—without much ongoing conscious reflection continually deepening their understandings.
They tend to live with automatic responses based on aphorisms, slogans, witty truisms and various dogma rather than on continuing alertness, reevaluation and maturing perspectives. Their identities are based on outer standards and societal expectations rather than inner knowings and personal convictions. They gain satisfaction from being part of a group rather than from coming to a unique sense of themselves and reaching their own conclusions based on their personal experiences.
Most people agree to go along with popular opinions, trends and pressures to conform with expectations, the normal, the status quo. Only the fact that most people conform to them makes them and keeps them so popular. Your individual perceptions, understandings and evolving views typically become squeezed into the background. Your identity becomes based on existing cultural norms, best-selling brands, popular lifestyles, the latest fashions, fads, trends and other commercially-driven images and styles. Typically, ‘who you believe you are’ is not based on personal experiences, preferences, decisions or the pursuit of deeply felt self-satisfaction.
These characterizations illustrate some of the ways people may have developed a functionally competent personality without any authentically living ‘self’ underlying it and animating it.
There’s a telling scene in the Monty Python movie called Life Of Brian that illustrates our common tendencies. The main character, Brian, in the role of the Great Teacher on the Mountain top who has all the answers, is preaching to his faithful followers who are hanging on his every word as if their eternal salvation depends on it, intently stretching their necks to catch every syllable. He makes a few truly wise-sounding declarations about life and living responsibly and then seems a bit frustrated that the throngs of people covering the mountainside below and around him, don’t seem to be fully getting his message.
His posture strengthens as he looks out upon the enraptured crowd, takes a deep breath, and with piercing intensity he emphatically proclaims, “You are all individuals!” This strident, ringing message hangs in the air for only a second or two before the entire crowd responds with a single entranced voice in perfect unison, “We Are All Individuals!”
For me this scene is both funny and true, or funny because it is true… This is too often our situation in Western society. We tend to define our individuality in terms of the group, organization, or company we feel we belong to.
Here’s a short test you can use to determine if you’re living mainly as a collectively-produced, largely automatic personality doing what you “should” do, or you spend most of your life living as a unique individual:
TEST QUESTION #1: Can you experience being joyfully, radiantly alive when you relax and calm yourself? If so, how often do you embrace this experience? Daily, weekly, monthly, annually? Once every decade or two? How often do you have the experience of being vitally alive?
TEST QUESTION #2: Is there anyone/anything/anyplace in your life that you have a deep, abiding reverence for? If so, how often do you experience this sense of reverence? Are there times and places when you have the rich experience of being in the presence of something deeply sacred?
TEST QUESTION #3: Do you believe that you are nothing more than an animal driven by primitive instincts or do you routinely act on the basis of values, principles and decisions that override your baser impulses?
Answer these questions for yourself. I believe the vivid experience of being alive, the reverence for something sacred, and the ability to base your behavior on values and principles you have decided are important to you, are present in everyone who has achieved a substantial degree of individuality. We’ll look at the quest of imagining and developing more experience as a uniquely individual human being in Part II…