Friday, March 23, 2007

Frozen images

I took this picture in Italy in 2001. It is a bust of a Roman woman, probably close to 2000 years old. I have always liked this bust because the woman displays so much character. The image has a vitality that sternly bespeaks our carnal nature, while still managing to convey a sympathy for the subject. The bust does not seem idealized; it seems pithy and close to the earth to me.

So here is this woman; frozen in marble, staring at us down through time. This stone represents a real human being, someone who led a life, probably loved a man, had children, raised a family. She is long gone, and this stone is not even an organic trace of who she was, but it represents the idea of her. In this sense her life has had an impact that has lasted for 2000 years, even though her name is totally forgotten and no one can ever know who she was.

We all carry frozen images of ourselves within us that get in the way of seeing what we actually are. As Gurdjieff put it, we crystallize. It's only too true: our inner parts are crystalline: even our DNA itself is a crystalline structure. And it's true not just physically, but also psychologically.

We do not know what we are; what we think we know about ourselves is a huge mass of lifeless assumptions--a marble bust. It looks like us, but the resemblance stops there. What we are lies buried deep inside where it cannot be touched by our ordinary mind. That's probably not a bad thing, either; our ordinary minds have a sad way of damaging a great deal of what they come into contact with, be it planets or people.

In almost every case, when our crystalline sugar-coating of assumptions gets tested, it turns out that as soon as the surface is scraped, unexpected things appear. Often they are shocking to us; this is why all of us develop protective devices to help us to avoid seeing ourselves. In the case of pathological conditions such as alcoholism, the mechanisms are powerful and visible. In cases like this we call them "denial."

What I don't think we see is that denial functions on all levels of life, in everyone, everywhere. There is hardly a person alive who is not in denial about some aspect of themselves or another. More often than not, it is an aspect which is blatantly obvious to everyone around them. And if anyone points this out to them, the emotional reactions are immediate and severe.

I certainly know this, because I am this way. It constantly surprises me to see how many parts of me I know nothing whatsoever about. This happens a lot to me in business; I am a senior executive in a large privately owned company, and I frequently find myself under intense kinds of pressure that are unexpected and bewildering, even for someone with the many years of professional experience I carry. The pressure arises not only from business situations, but also from the characters of the people around me.

Let's face it. People don't get jobs like mine by being mellow. My superiors are intense, driven, type A personalities. I share some, all although perhaps not all, of those characteristics. It is certainly true that I am highly competitive. In any event, here I am in this environment, which is a pressure cooker. The people I work with are unbelievably intelligent, excellent business people, and share many fine characteristics. I do not say this sarcastically. The caliber of people at the company I work at is exceptionally good. Nonetheless, every single one of them has personal aspects that can be very difficult to deal with. The emotional volatility that arises when business pressures intensify can be difficult to manage.

It is in precisely these difficult conditions that I see aspects of myself that I am in denial about. Above all, I constantly come up against my emotional reactions, which are frequently negative and despairing, at least in an inner sense. I am an expert at multitasking, and used to handling vast amounts of data, yet at this moment in my work I am repeatedly meeting situations which seem to be overwhelming. Actually, they are not -- there are ways of managing these things. Nonetheless, parts of me which are identified with the situation continue to insist that I am facing the impossible.

Somehow, I manage to stand up and soldier on in the face of these imaginary adversities. In the background lurks a part that is not attached, but it is relatively weak. I am left with questions about just how much I know about myself, who I am, what I am capable of, and what this whole mess is about.

Objectively, I am constantly dealing with situations where most of the problems are being invented. If we pared away the things that do not absolutely need to be done, if we took the "Dilbert" out of the situation, we could focus far better on the essential tasks we have to accomplish. But of course that isn't possible. The world is the way it is. If I want to succeed in this job, I have to confront the realities and meet every situation with a yes, even the ones that I completely disagree with. There are many moments where I have to consciously swallow both my pride and my ego and accept comments and sometimes quite unreasonable criticism which I do not really want to have to participate in. In these cases I train myself to agree and say yes, no matter what my inner reaction is. This is not easy; it is good work for me, because I have to continually go against myself. On top of that I have to maintain a positive, cheerful outer attitude.

All of this has to be considered in the context of the fact that the job I have is really a very good job, and I am usually happy in it. The reality is that I want everything to be perpetually comfortable, and life is not perpetually comfortable. I am in denial about that.

There is only one way to overcome denial, and that is to see what is true. Seeing what is true need not be painful; it takes intestinal fortitude, perhaps, but it can be done. I remember one of my teachers (God rest his soul) , who many years ago remarked how he saw a man he was working with, and saw how that man was better than he was at what they were doing together. It was just true; he realized that he would never be as good as this other man even though he wished he were.

He saw what was true and accepted it. Even though it went against what he believed about himself.

Just seeing what is true is a big deal. It trumps denial quite handily. If we were more willing to do what I did over 25 years ago when, as an alcoholic, I looked in the mirror one morning and said to myself "you are going to die if you keep doing this," we would make more progress. But first we have to be willing to look in the mirror and admit to ourselves that we do not know what we are doing, and that we are mortal.

Over the years, a lot of my images of myself seem to have dissolved. The biggest lie I ever constructed was the lie of Lee as "the artist." The fact that I managed to construct a truth out of this lie is immaterial. How many other constructions I carry around me are invalid? I can only know this by constantly testing who I am, where I am, and what I am doing, with the famous question, "what is the truth of this moment?"

Okay, once again I have gone on quite long enough. We will leave it till tomorrow, one together we can embark on another set of musings.

Try, today, to stop in the middle of life once or twice and see who you are. Who are you, really? Do you know?

Do any of us?

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