Question of the day: HOW PREPARED ARE YOU TO NOT KNOW YOURSELF ANYMORE?
OK, so I've been reading and re-reading this interview in the Paris Review that my friend Paul Holdengraber did with the brilliant British psychologist and writer and teacher Adam Phillips.
The full interview is here, if you want to read it: https://bit.ly/1hB1cFO
(I think I only fully understood maybe 83% of it…but man, I gleaned a lot of beauty and wisdom and wonder out of that 83%)
I can't stop thinking about this one idea, so I wanted to talk about it today — to see if I can wrap my head and my words around it.
We are often told in life that we need to know and understand ourselves, in order to be happy and healthy…which seems perfectly reasonable. But Adam Phillips introduces this other idea, which I think is both radical and intriguing. He says that one of the purposes and benefits of the therapeutic process is to learn how to UN-know yourself. He suggest that therapy is a place where we can let go of our old preconceived notions about ourselves (notions which can become a kind of prison, a kind of pathology, and which can bring to us "symptoms" — like depression, anxiety, fear.)
Just think of some of the things you hear people say about themselves, and how rigid these declaratory statements can be."
"I'm not a very open person."
"I can't handle confrontation."
"I'm a workaholic."
"I'm a control freak."
"I don't do well in new situations."
"I'm not brave."
"I could never imagine leaving this town."
"I'm driven by ambition."
"I'm really tough."
"I need my privacy."
"I'm afraid of being alone."
"I can't let anyone in."
"I have abandonment issues."
"I need stability."
"I need freedom."
Those are all things I've actually heard people say recently — people whom I know and love dearly.
Simple, reasonable statements, all of them. Fair enough statements. I say stuff like this all the time about myself. (Most recently, you could overhear me saying to anyone who would listen: "I need to move houses every few years, or else I feel suffocated.")
We hear people make these sorts of declarations all the time, and we just nod, like, "Yeah, that sounds about right." Or we think, "That guy sure knows himself well." And it's good to know yourself well, right? It's good to know your needs, your issues, your limitations, your history, your habits…right?
Or is it? Is it really serving you? What if you un-knew it? What if you un-learned it? What if you were like, "I actually have no idea who I am right now. I don't need to know. I'm just ready to explore."
So maybe that's the magic that happens in therapy — when you feel safe enough to let go. Maybe that's why therapy has helped me so much over the years….by letting me un-learn my own rules. Maybe that's why I still go back to my therapist for tune-ups sometimes — not necessarily to know myself better, but to "know" myself LESS — to let go of the story that I am telling myself about myself right now (the story that has perhaps become a trap.)
I feel like "un-learning" is what can happen in meditation sometimes, too. Or in love. Or in creativity. Or in travel. Or in anything that jars us out of our narrow definition of ourselves, and gives us new eyes. New risks. New feelings.
In this interview, Adam Phillips remarks, "When people say, 'I'm the kind of person who,' my heart always sinks." Because that remark is so small, and the real world of our experience is so big, so diverse, so full of unpredictability. Phillips says that these sorts of limiting comments are like the captions under a painting — they tell us very little about what we are actually seeing. You can't walk through a museum (or life) just reading the captions. You have to look at the whole painting. You have to look up, look around, look within.
Would letting go of what you supposedly "know" about yourself free you up to — as Adam Phillips suggests — explore your appetites again? What would it mean for you to lose the captions? Would it help you to shake off your depression, your anxiety, your sense of being blocked, doomed, stuck, and bored? Would it help you open yourself to the new? Would it help you live more fully?
How do we go about this, dear ones?
What do you think?