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Watching The Play

In “As You Like It” William Shakespeare wrote the famous lines:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”

We all have multiple roles. We can at any time be for example, a father, a husband, a brother, a lawyer, a guitarist, a golfer, a gardener, a Rotarian, an Anglican, a believer in climate change, a neighbour, and so on. We move smoothly in and out of these identities choosing one for the immediate circumstances that confront us. We cloak ourselves in a particular identity but in s short while it might not be relevant at all. These are then relative identities being only “real” for the passing context that call them forth.

But of course this begs the question that if all these identities are in a sense only relative, what lies behind this changing façade that gives us a sense of continuity and stability? When we observe our minds at work, we see that behind all these identities is a state of awareness that incorporates them all but is able to rest behind them. This is the faculty that I have in previous essays called “The Witness”. If we are able to remain a little separated from these identities so that we don’t become totally immersed in them as we are often prone to do, we are able to play these roles without identifying exclusively with any. This gives us a certain freedom. We don’t have to be “this” or “that”. We are free simply to be.

You will have seen, I am sure, people who lock themselves into a role identification. This can be disastrous when that role is questioned or placed under threat. It is very noticeable, for example, when people identify with their employment role. If you identify yourself as a steel worker and the plant closes, you sense a loss of identity. What’s more if you’ve convinced yourself you’re a steel worker and have been so for many years and the only other steel works is on the other side of the country you find it difficult to imagine any other form of employment.

As you go through your daily life, being free to choose from your repertoire greatly increases your effectiveness. You might have been sitting at your desk playing out the role of manager when an employee tells you of her problems dealing with a sick child. You immediately jump into your parent role and empathise with her. When we move around our identities with fluidity and skill we engender a feeling of exhilaration. And, importantly, if we don’t invest ourselves too heavily in one role it helps us uncouple the unwanted shackles of self-image. As Shakespeare observed we are just actors who can play many roles on demand knowing that our true self is lodged in that faculty we have to watch the action without identifying with it.

But what if we were to dice the cheese another way? I could just as easily have defined the various identities not by the life role they took on, but the emotions they display. Thus each of us has the potential to play out the roles of happy person, sad person, angry person, compassionate person, jealous person, loving person, anxious person and so on. And just as from the standpoint of the Witness you are not essentially husband brother, lawyer etc, neither are you your emotions. To the extent that you can realise that you are not, for example, your anxieties, your anxieties then no longer threaten you. You are not now identifying with your anxiety but can stand back and observe it arising and know it is not essentially you. We know the ocean of life often has its surface whipped up into waves and when we are immersed in our lives at a superficial level these seem dramatic events. But the Witness is viewing life from the greatest of depths untroubled by the surface phenomena.

As you observe your life from the perspective of the Witness you begin to feel that what happens to your personal self – your wishes, hopes desires, hurts – is not a life and death matter anymore. As Ken Wilbur wrote, “…when the individual realizes that his mind and his body can be perceived objectively, he spontaneously realizes that they cannot constitute a real subjective self.”

It is often suggested that if we were to take such a detached view of life we would become a disinterested party and we would lose our ability to empathise with others. But really the opposite is true. When we are not distracted by our emotions and supposed threats to our self we are able to be in the moment and observe more objectively what is going on around us. When I am not distracted by my illusory hurts I can better see the distress of others.

Ram Dass and Paul Gorman in their delightful book “How Can I Help” make the following observation:

“If we persevere, our identification with the Witness grows while our attachment to being the doer seems to fall away. Quite remarkably moreover, we also notice we also notice that while our identification as the doer is falling away, much is still being accomplished. We’re still setting about our work, perhaps even more productively. It’s just that we’re not so personally identified with it any more. We see that in this state we’re less likely to be frustrated, to feel rejected, to doubt ourselves, to burn out.”

So then it is another of life’s paradoxes that when we are able to objectively view the world and disidentify with our place in it, the roles we play and the emotions we experience, we actually become more competent human beings and live more successful lives, lives filled with a greater sense of personal well-being.

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  1. 4 Comment(s)

  2.   By Phil Harker on Jul 3, 2011 | Reply

    Your quoted statement by Wilber — “…when the individual realizes that his mind and his body can be perceived objectively, he spontaneously realizes that they cannot constitute a real subjective self.” — is particularly cogent as he was astute enough to include “his mind” [I assume he means the ‘local’ or ‘egoic’ mind that is ‘observed’ by the observing, but Itself unobserved Witness Mind] as also an “object” within the Witnessing observing Mind.

    I wonder whether Wilber also understood this Witnessing Mind to be ‘unbounded’ — i.e., shared or even ‘Singular’ if viewed from a higher dimensional perspective that collapses the separation that occurs at the lower dimensional level? Also, that this Witness has one ‘seeming’ choice [a ‘choice’ that is implicit in the timeless undivided higher-dimensional Mind, but seeming to be made explicitly in various ‘times’ and ‘places’ within space/time by ‘many minds’ within this ‘slitting of Singularity’ that we presently refer to as the space/time Universe] — [a ‘choice’] to either ‘identify’ with Its ‘unseen’ but shared Mind/Self or ‘identify’ with its illusory transient temporal unshared or local egoic self — may be Its only ‘apparent’ freedom. I say ‘apparent’ because a ‘choice’ between the Real and an illusion of Reality (and recall Einstein’s statement “[this] reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”) can hardly be called a ‘Real Choice’! — but it could be the minimum ‘choice’ needed to at least have a ‘seemingly real’ sense of choice enabling the Witnessing Mind to ‘explicitly experience’ the consequences [from a place of safety – i.e., from the perspective of the timeless Witness] of what would happen if the ‘choice’ to split One Mind into ‘many’ were to be ‘realised’!! I.E., a vast Mind experiment!

    At the very practical level, ‘I’ can only ‘see’ and become aware of My true Self when I ‘see’ and become aware that ‘I’ share that same Self with All – without a single exception – however much my natural eye may tell me that we do not share a common Mind and that we are all the ‘victims’ of each other’s separated ‘freewill’ actions!

    I may be able to ‘deny’ my Real Shared Identity, but I cannot make my separated identity Real if it is constantly judged and changing. And if I truly become aware that I share my ‘I’dentity with You why would I doubt You or be afraid of You?

    Perhaps the future of true Leadership will simply come from those who recognise that only shared Minds are Real and able to work together in harmony without the constant and artful manipulation of ‘fear’ by one apparently separated egoic mind over another. And, furthermore, it may be that illusory egoic minds only have ‘power’ when they are ‘recognised’ by another egoic mind that ‘sees’ it as such and ’empowers’ it through that recognition [the egoic mind is recognised in another when it is feared by another or viewed as a personal ‘resource’ with separated interests by another egoic mind] and, perhaps, when an egoic mind is simply not recognised by a Mind that ‘sees’ only their Shared Mind the egoic mind may well become dis-empowered – bit like the relationship between ‘light’ and ‘darkness’. If everyone has two ‘minds’ – one that is Shared (and having ‘one degree of freedom’) and one that separates (the egoic mind only has an illusion of freedom, but is actually controlled absolutely by the inherent potential in its unchosen history interpreted through its egoic ‘boundary defending’ motive of ‘fear’) could the ‘collective morality’ in any location simply be defined as the ratio of minds that recognise their ‘shared Identity’ to those that deny their ‘shared Identity’?

    Could insanity be more simply defined as the attempt to defend the viability of an illusion of a vulnerable separated identity in an arena of consciousness within which all others identities are ‘seen’ and interpreted as attempting to do the same?

  3.   By Greg Brown on Jul 3, 2011 | Reply

    In my life I am very aware of the different roles I play. In the past 10 years or so though I have started to wonder which one of the roles is really me. This has come about probably because some of the roles (professional in particular) were not natural to me at first. They were a genuine act (fake) although now the acts are becoming natural to me, yet I still feel that none are the real me. I felt I knew who I was as a child but now I can’t remember. An observation about this as well. It seems that some roles, the ones less natural to me, take more energy from me and can be very tiring.

    Now you have complicated it further Ted by saying, I think, that the real me is the part that is observing all the acts and perhaps even chooses which one is currently on. The observer is never a player though so looking for the real me is futile. How can I find the that which is doing the searching? I still wonder though why I have the feeling that I can’t remember who I am.

  4.   By Phil Harker on Jul 5, 2011 | Reply

    Greg, you ask “I still wonder though why I have the feeling that I can’t remember who I am.”

    Firstly, in the the sentences immediately preceding this question you clearly indicate a distinction between the ‘I’ and the “real” ‘me’ being looked for amongst the various roles you play. But then you indicate that you are looking for which ‘I’ is the authentic one amongst all these various ‘me’s. Could I suggest that you are looking for the ‘I’dentity of ‘I’ amongst the objects/ideas in the very arena of consciousness that is itself ‘within’ that ‘I’ and hence the very place within which you will never find it! Moreover, if ‘I’ is Mind and all objects are ideas (even thou appearing to have independent existence) with Mind, why would ‘I’ be anything even remotely like the ideas it contains (and, because ‘I’ could never make an object of itself)?

    Now, this brings me to your question in your final sentence ” I still wonder though why I have the feeling that I can’t remember who I am.” Perhaps the answer is because you are attempting to “remember” some ‘form’ like the ones ‘perceived’ as ideas within ‘I’s arena of consciousness? Perhaps the ‘memory’ of ‘I’ is retained and remembered in a very different manner almost like some sort of ‘background ecco’ akin to a formless sense of connection with all other ‘I’s and ‘remembered’ only when recognized as such when the egoic illusion of separation is ‘forgotten’?

  5.   By tedscott on Jul 5, 2011 | Reply

    Thanks Greg. I will allow Phil’s response to you to stand without further comment.

    Phil, as for your first comment and your question about Wilber, it is quite clear from Wilber’s writings that he does indeed endorse the notion that there is in fact only one “Mind”. I would reference his books “The Spectrum of Consciousness” but more particularly “One Taste” and “No Boundary” in support of this.

    I would have to say that Wilber’s “The Spectrum of Consciousness” was more influential on my thinking than anything other than my discussions with you. Wilber also wrote a very poignant book, “Grace and Grit” which was the story of his relationship with the woman he married. Very soon after their marriage she was diagnosed with cancer which eventually killed her. I often give copies of this book to those in a similar situation – it is very inspiring.

    But I can’t say I can answer your second question, about whether Wilber has come to the conclusion there is only one choice facing human beings? But I suspect you need to be a little charitable here. How many times have you encountered someone who agreed with half your ideas?

    Thanks for your contribution. I knew there would be a big gap to fill this week since Father Robin has departed for Africa!

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