Sunday 11 December 2016

Well being... An inside job

Self-enquiry is the antidote to self-deception

Published 11/08/2015 | 02:30

In meditation circles, self-enquiry focuses on the question Who Am I?
In meditation circles, self-enquiry focuses on the question Who Am I?

The human capacity for self-deception never fails to fascinate me. The delusions we create; the diversions we contrive...

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Plato said the unexamined life is not worth living, but sometimes I'd prefer to stay in the land of make-believe than ask myself the cold hard questions about the boyfriend I didn't love and the job I didn't like.

Do we ever know our own ulterior motives before distance has given us a sense of perspective? How can we be sure that our beliefs are grounded in reality and our decisions are really in our best interest? Why do we pack our gym bag before work in the morning when deep down we know that we'll be spending the evening in front of Netflix?

In the months before I gave up drinking, a well-intentioned friend very gently suggested that I might want to, you know, consider taking it a bit easier. Another friend would discretely pass a glass of water to me while I was downing shots at the bar.

These incidents forced me to go away and reflect. After thinking about it for approximately three minutes, I came to my conclusion: I needed to make some new friends because these gals were boring.

Textbook self-deception, which might be better described as a defense mechanism that allows us to avoid pain. In the short term, anyway. These days I'm much more mindful of the levers and pulleys controlling my actions, or at least I try to be.

Self-enquiry is vital. In some yogic and meditation circles, self-enquiry focuses on the question Who Am I? Some say it's the road to enlightenment. I say it's the road to enlightenment via insanity. It should also be noted that this form of self-enquiry is a crudely abridged version of a much broader set of questions put forward by Sri Ramana Maharshi.

It's better to get into the habit of asking questions that explore your motivations and uncover the root cause of your emotions.

Feelings shouldn't be taken at face value. Underneath anger is pain; boredom is despair in disguise and "anxiety is the dizziness of freedom", according to Kierkegaard. Self-enquiry helps us peel away the layers. Or, to simplify matters, just ask yourself if this feeling is coming from fear or love.

This brings us to romantic relationships. It's wise to remember that we can confuse co-dependence and control issues with love and lust. Likewise, the more you find yourself second-guessing whether you're with the right person, the closer you get to your answer: you're not.

It's also a good idea to explore the phenomenon of 'normative idealisation', which is our tendency to idealise our own lifestyle. Researchers found that the more "stuck" a single person or married person felt in their current lifestyle, the more inclined they were to eulogise it.

I think of that one when I read articles by 30-something women talking about how much they love the single life...

Conversely, if you're in a relationship and you find yourself excessively critiquing the relationships of those around you, it might be time to examine your own one. In the words of Shannon L Alder: "Often those that criticise others reveal what he himself lacks".

Self-inquiry teaches us that relationships are the great mirror. It's all a reflection of the relationship you have with yourself, or as the saying goes: "If you meet more than three assholes in one day, there's a good chance that you're the asshole".

Self-deception is also rife in the workplace - whatever gets you through the day. Still, it's important to ask yourself if your job is leading you towards or away from your grand purpose or consuming passion. It's also deceptive to derive your self-worth from something as transient as a job title.

Are your opinions of your colleagues well-founded? In The Self Enquiry Process: Powerful Questions to Awaken Self-awareness, integrative psychotherapist Linda Brierty reminds us to check our self-esteem if people "who 'have it made' threaten or intimidate you".

She also suggests that we examine our worldview from time to time. Those that relentlessly support the underdog or the oppressed, she explains, may have unconscious feelings of inadequacy.

Decisions should be closely examined too. Are you moving country to see the world or to escape from your current situation? Are you studying for a PhD to further your opportunities or because you've become institutionalised by academia? Are you a workaholic because you don't want to go home?

If you're starting a daily self-inquiry practice, consider the questions: If not now, then when? Am I really listening, or just hearing what I want to hear? What hurdles am I putting in my own way?

I'll give the last word to satirical essayist Tim Kreider, who unwittingly created a form of self-enquiry that is just as probing as Maharshi's. It's called the Soul Toupee.

"The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us," he writes.

The question here is not so much Who Am I? as Who Am I Not? And that's a good place to start.

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