Self is a construct, an illusion, a delusion. Depending on who you ask or what you’re looking for. No matter what we label this thing that we feel so strongly about, that is itself only a label for another collection of labels, it is certainly not a fixed, unchanged, or independent thing.
Not trying to get into the question whether there is a soul, some real and permanent core, just staying on and near the surface, the appearance.
When I was a kid there was a period when I collected license plate numbers. In Berlin (West) back in those days, that wasn’t the most exciting thing to collect. I don’t think I even noted the car make or model or color, just wrote down the license plate numbers. B-M234, B-HJ3483, and so on. For a short while that was one of the most important aspects of my life. I ‘was’ this boy who had this many license plate numbers in his notebooks.
Only a few years later I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing something that dreary and boring, not to mention weird. I ‘was’ this boy who did other things. Who liked other things. Who believed other things.
The self I perceive today is rather completely different from most I could describe throughout my life. And tomorrow it will be different again.
Similarly, when interacting with different people, I ‘am’ different. Different roles, different attitudes, different interests, etc.. Which at least partially determines behavior. And definitely self-perception.
Part of why we cling to the notion of a fixed self is that we constantly create a narrative, both internally and externally, that ties yesterday’s labels to today’s and tomorrow’s, that creates a compelling story connecting the changing and shifting labels that arise in interaction with others, and that story is quite easy to confuse with something real, especially since we give rise to everything else in our world by the very same process, so if this table is real, I must be real, too.
Having said all that (was that really necessary?), here is the thing.
I ‘am’ (with all the caveats above) at any given time at least half a dozen people that surface depending on context, and that each have a narrative that allows me to perceive them as ‘self’ over time. And since I’ve long established the habit to keep most interactions with others kind of, ah, vertical (no, not what you think), i.e., focused around a particular aspect and part of it all, all of those personas seem to have quite distinct features. And some of these features seem to contradict each other.
As an entrepreneur in Berlin in the late nineties, when interacting with anyone connected with that aspect of my life, I didn’t share much about my Buddhist views and practice. Similarly, when in the context of that practice, I wouldn’t talk much about my business or work. That division only got more pronounced when I went into management consulting a few years later. When I started writing in earnest in the mid-aughties (and that is true until this very day, and the very reason I’m writing all this down) it felt so vulnerable that I automatically protected it by sharing nothing about it with almost everyone in both of the main spheres of my life.
As time passed (or appeared to pass, but let’s not go there, now), this compartmentalization grew more and more pronounced.
In the Buddhist world you receive a new name when you first enter the Path (and as you can enter again and again in different contexts, some of us have a rather large collections of these names), and I got more and more used to using that instead of my given name. To the point where I ‘became’ Jinpa.
In the world of my writing (and other creative endeavors) I used the nickname ‘monky’ that I had created in response to a common misperception that I was a monk, alluding at the fact that I was inclined in that direction but way too crazy to have actually gone there. (Or too cowardly, but that’s a different discussion, of course.) I even created a website for all my output, using that very nickname. In the context of my writing and arts, I ‘became’ monky.
All the while of course the name in my passport and all other legal documents and papers says ‘Kai’ and in a large part of my life I was and still ‘am’ Kai. And in the context of that identity I still sometimes engage in nefarious activities like consulting or business, and other, much less so, like making Dharma-related websites and serving as secretary), all of which I currently like to summarize as ‘minionizing,’ as it is too much lung-tung-linh-tinh (all over the place, neither here nor there, sometimes this, sometimes the opposite, etc.,) as the Vietnamese call it.
As I am getting more serious about my writing, of course I want to make sure to use a name that works. And ‘monky’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it. Too cute, too timid, too too. But publishing stuff under my civil name, especially my full name, felt like a terrible idea, too. And of course ‘Jinpa’ was reserved for Dharma.
What to do?
So I looked around for a pseudonym that might work, that would allow me to keep that inner segregation going. And I remembered I persona I had created a few years back in a playful attempt to see how far you can get creating a new identity from scratch purely online. (I got quite far and with a little more criminal inclination might have been able to go all the way, but that, again is another story.) And I had kind of liked the name I had created for that: Enmempin Midelobo. Exotic, unique, mystical. Great. An imaginary artist.
Went and prepared to launch a new website around that persona. Wrote up ‘about’ blurbs for him. Felt good about it.
Then I asked one of my two best friends, someone so close that in Asia they’d assign the label ‘sister.’ And noticed that even trying to explain it, to give the name, was difficult, awkward, not at all what I had hoped to achieve by using the persona in the first place.
Oops. I was still trying to hide my vulnerable artist’s self.
She advised me to cut the crap and come out of the closet: ’Hi, I’m Kai, I’m a writer.’
And since she knows a lot more than I do about a lot of things, and I value her views a lot, I couldn’t just dismiss it. Especially since it really resonated with that awkwardness when I tried to tell her about Enmempin.
Looking at the whole picture, though (as illusory as it may be, and as biased about it as I may be), I know I’m still at least three guys depending on context.
So today I announce, with shaking knees and cracking voice, ‘Hi, I am Kai. I’m many, but the most important are the writer and the yogi. Since old habits die hard especially if they’re collective habits, the third Kai, variously thought of as the minion, the entrepreneur, the consultant, is still very much alive and kicking.
You can find my activities in first two capacities on EmptyThreads (in collaboration with the imaginary and imaginative Enmempin Midelobo), on gom.fi (where you may come across the differently but no less imaginary Jinpa Chöphel), Dharma-eLearning.net, and Dharma.online. The third Kai is preparing actual companies for all of this and more, but until they’re online properly, take a look around, and at a fascinating project he recently joined, berlinHistory.app.
If you’ve made it this far and are still interested in more, feel free to contact any of Kai using the link in the footer.
© 2010-20 by Kai.
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