Walking Together Alone – Searching For the Self

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

There is an important difference between Coaching and Mentoring. Coaching tends to deal with the finishing details while mentoring focuses on foundational questions. I value the work done by Coaches and have done a considerable amount of it myself but, over the years, I have gravitated towards Mentoring because it tends to involve Transformational Journeys and the remaking of a life. Helping a person make that journey successfully is a source of great joy and satisfaction for me.

My decision to focus on the Mentoring is as much a reflection of who I am as it is of the problems and challenges that attract my interest. I can say confidently that every lesson learned, every mentoring session I have been involved in and every challenge faced by a person I am working with yields benefits both to they and me. For me, Mentoring is a win-win undertaking.

The fundamental question that Mentoring focuses on is “Who am I and what should I be doing with my life?” Most people who seek me out are dealing with this question in one form or another. Some have had extensive and often very successful careers but have arrived at the point where they are questioning whether what they are doing with their life is what they should be doing with it. Others have been experiencing an increasing dissatisfaction with their life and are seeking an alternative path. In a fundamental way, it makes no difference the path they have followed; the need is the same. There is an old Zen saying – “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. My experience has been that when the student is ready they begin to seek out a Mentor who can help them discover the answers to these very basic questions.

You Are What Eats You

A friend recently suggested that people are defined by those things that bother them the most. I think there is something to be gained from this perspective. Here’s a suggestion; eavesdrop on a group of close friends talking in a relaxed setting. Inevitably the conversation becomes colored by their apprehensions, phobias, maladies and discomforts. If you listen closely you’ll also notice that certain individuals seem to be avoiding certain topics.

If you couple this with the idea that every individual must face the same demon over and over again until they finally slay it, you might begin to see people as stuck within a certain cycle – only breaking the cycle when the circle is opened and it becomes a spiral. The gatekeepers that persist in maintaining these ‘vicious cycles’ are those very same un-slain demons. So to paraphrase the theme song from the original movie version of the Thomas Crown Affair, life may not be a ‘circle in a spiral’ but a circle which, once broken, becomes a spiral which inevitably establishes itself as a new, and hopefully wider circle. In any case the idea of the ‘windmills of your mind’ may seem useful when thinking this way.

A Dangerous Experiment

Here is an experiment you can do during a quiet time. It will take a bit of courage and the comfort that you will not be interrupted – that nobody will be looking over your shoulder. Make a list of those things which distress, frighten, offend or cause you unease. It will be important to be honest about this list for, if you’re not, you will end up thinking about some mythical individual who you have constructed in order to keep others (and you) from meeting your true self – you will end up criticizing the mask rather than getting to know the maker who has felt the need to construct such a thing.

Now connect items on the list with parts of who you are or who you are becoming. In other words, try to connect items on the list with behaviors that you see as part of you as a person. A simple example might be “I do not travel because I’m afraid of flying”. Still another might be “I avoid heights because I suffer from vertigo” or “I do not swim in the ocean because I’ve seen the movie Jaws”. A more serious example might be “I avoid intimate relationships because I do not trust myself in them”. (I refer to this as the ‘list of the lost’ – the idea is to convert it into a ‘bucket list’ – things you are going to do or experience while you still can – before you ‘kick the bucket’.)

Finally connect the behaviors with the costs that they bring. “I have always wanted to tour Europe but it will never happen because I’m afraid to fly or I am uncomfortable in countries where English is not the primary language.” Or “I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon but I’m afraid that I couldn’t get close enough to the edge to really experience it – so I don’t go.” “My life is lonely and I crave intimacy with a special person, but I will never experience it because I fear the exposure.” (I am reminded of a wonderful short story by Truman Capote – I believe it is in his collection Music for Chameleons – in which he asked an elderly lady what she had learned during her decades of life. To paraphrase, she said “I’ve learned that I don’t have to be afraid to eat lobster. I don’t like it, but I’m not afraid to eat it anymore.” Overcoming may simply substitute a real aversion for a virtual one – I leave you to decide which one is better had.)

If you take this exercise seriously, you will be on your way to discovering something very important about your self.

Wherever You Go There You Are

Where it comes to self knowledge, there is no avoiding your self – the only choice is to avoid the process altogether. (As the old saying goes, “if you don’t want to hear the answer, avoid the question”. But then, why live at all?) To begin the process – to shake your own hand in greeting – is an electric event. Coming in contact with your self for the first time can bring on severe vertigo. Once the virtual distance is erased, there is nothing but the self as self – alone, isolated but sufficient unto itself. But, before real contact can possibly occur, the dance must end – a dance which can go on for decades – unproductive and self-deceiving until the very end. It becomes a matter of how close you allow yourself to your own self.

Life is Simple and Natural. We Make It Complicated and Unnatural

This complex idea may take some time and careful reflection before you come to see precisely what it implies. The idea of maintaining a discreet distance from your self – perhaps as a result of guilt, shame or a feeling of inadequacy – is presumptuous in that it ‘presumes’ that you can be divided into a true self and that which prevents close contact with that self. But, in fact, the two are one in the same. The distance is virtual (imagined) and is assumed as a convenience rising out of a decision to avoid self knowledge.

The Ancient Greeks Understood What We Tend To Forget

Wherever you are is the only place which you can be at the time. The ancient idea of noema is Greek for the meaning of something. It is the mental equivalent of a schema or schematic of something. It is the “representation” of an experience of a meaning based system through its own self-referential process. It could also be considered as the projection of one’s own experience onto oneself. Something noetic has to do with something involving intellectual activity (from the Greek nous, “mind”). One can speak of the noetic faculty as the “intellect proper.” Another Greek word for mind is novhma (noema), which translates as mental thought or perception: that which thinks of an idea. There is a noema corresponding to every act of memory, expectation, and representation. This is based on the assumption that the ‘meaning’ is separate from ‘being’ – that the implications of ‘being’ are it’s ‘meaning’.

But All Understanding is Contextual

Although this may be useful for things outside of the self, it has some insidious implications if allowed to pollute self-reflection. Self reflection is a special category – where the concept of noema is a non-sequitur. The idea of bringing the ‘self’ to the self is only viable if that self has been artificially divided into self and ‘self’ – self and ‘mask’. The tendency towards virtual distancing is, if anything, stronger when the self reflects on itself – but it is a trap – a road to nowhere – and the tendency towards convenient self-deceptions more compelling once it is sprung. It induces an addiction to unknowingly not knowing.

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