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, unchanging, 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, say, 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 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 to the fact that I was inclined in that direction (and shaving my head) 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 a domain derived from that very nickname. In the context of my writing and arts, I ‘became’ monky. And after moving to Berlin, in 2019 I created a company from that same domain name, too.
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 to a Tibetan teacher), all of which I — for a while — liked to summarize as ‘minionizing,’ as it felt like 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) and it definitely wasn’t important, was it.
‘Returning’ to Berlin brought with it another shift that is still ongoing. The minion gave birth to ‘Ogminio’ (a registered non-profit corporation, now humbly running Dharma-eLearning and Dharma.online, among other things) with Buddhist persona Jinpa Chöphel in the driver seat and extruded plain old Kai Roloff back into the world of business, joining berlinHistory and of course launching a bunch of other projects still too hush-hush to even be mentioned here.
The creative me is still very much alive, though, and with the dawn of NFTs and some other developments has recently decided to have another go at getting out there. The visual art (PS01dZ by imaginary artist Enmempin N. Midelobo) is showcased on psoid.art, the writing (by no less imaginary Kai A. M.) is once again on emptythreads.com, with visual decoration courtesy of Enmempin.
As I said in the beginning tomorrow Kai will be different again and I’m greatly looking forward to meeting all the new Kai to come, as imaginary or illusory they may be.
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.
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