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Why do we experience self-conflict?

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Have you ever experienced conflict within yourself? Such as not being able to decide between having a vanilla ice-cream or a chocolate ice-cream? Perhaps you might even be conflicted about wanting an ice-cream, but resisting it because you are watching your weight. Or you might be conflicted about which career path to take. Why do we experience self conflicts?

If you have ever experienced self-conflicts, we are in the same boat. I don’t know if I am the only one who has this experience but I have noticed times when I had dialogues with myself such as, “Let’s get out of here”, to “We have to go now”. Every time I catch this inner-dialogue I would stop. Who is this “we” that I am referring to? Am I not the only person here? I don’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder for sure, but why are there two people in my inner dialogue? This inner dialogue reminds me of Eckhart Tolle, the author of ‘The Power of Now’. In the book, he shared his life experience of awakening when one day, on the brink of suicide he said to himself, “I couldn’t live with myself anymore.” This led to the question, “Who is this I who cannot live with the self? What is the self?” It turned out to be a life-transforming question. The next day, Eckhart woke up in total bliss, without the burden of having to carry a ‘self’.

Daniel Kahneman, a Noble-prize winning psychologist, and economist, known for his work in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, said that there are 2 living selves within us – the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’. He said that there is a common assumption that we are able to give accurate answers to our feelings such as, “How was your vacation?” to “How are you feeling today?” We fail to notice a key distinction between the two questions. Our answer to the first question on the vacation is based on the remembering self and not the experiencing self. It is this remembering self that evaluates, keeps score and maintains a record, not the experiencing self. Unlike the experiencing self, the remembering self is relatively permanent and stable. Memories, according to Kahneman, is the only perspectives we can adopt as we think about our lives.

However, this remembering self does not give an accurate perspective of our experiences. Kahneman gives an example of a music lover absorbed in the experience of listening to symphony music on a disc that is scratched near the end, producing a shocking sound. He said that such incidents are often described by the statement that the bad ending ‘ruined the whole experience’. However, the experience wasn’t ruined, but only the memory of it.

It is unimaginable for the remembering self, with its expectations and biases to be able to remember all of the experiences of having lived. This is because our life experiences are measured in moments – 3 seconds each moment to be exact. We have about 20,000 moments in a waking day to 500 million moments in a 70-year life to live. What happened to all these moments we have lived? Kahneman answered that these moments have simply disappeared. The experiencing self hardly has time to exist. This made me recall Nick Nolte’s quote in the ‘Way of the Peaceful Warrior, a film I saw recently on youtube, “The sad thing about life is not that we are going to die, the sad thing about life is we have never lived.”

Although Kahneman mentioned that there hasn’t been enough research into the experiencing self in his paper ‘Living and Thinking about it: Two Perspectives on Life’, but that has changed with the advent of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation where we learn to befriend ourselves. But most importantly mindfulness is a practice of recalling the mind back to the present moment to fully experience all the moments so we are always aware of making peaceful choices for ourselves and others.

Each moment consists of many dimensions – from touch, taste, sound, seeing, smell, feelings to thoughts. It is from feelings and thoughts we are driven to an action supported by the other sense bases. It is in the action which we have chosen that decides our next momentarily experience – whether it is one of agitation or ease. One questions oneself in observing this multi-dimensional experience, “Who is the self doing this experiencing?” Our immediate answer would usually come from the remembering self, but mindfulness practice asks this question from the experiencing self in the present moment.

While teaching a class of teenage students in Eastern psychology, I asked if their 4-year old self is the same as their 14-year-old self? Their immediate answer was yes. I furthered the inquiry and asked if their 4-year-old body, thoughts, and feelings are the same as their 14-year-old self? Their response was no. From their answers, the teenagers saw the conflict.

One of them said, ‘It is the self but is changing.’ I asked if the self is changing, can it be considered a self? He said because it is under his control (body, feelings, etc), therefore it is a self. I further inquired if, he were to fall ill, suffering from bodily pains and feelings, would he have control over what he deems a self?

He paused for a while before shaking his head. I then asked, what happens when we try to control what we cannot control? He answered, ‘suffering’.

The last inquiry I made to them was why do we, in our present body, thought and feelings, that are obviously not the same as when we were 4-year-old, insist and tell others that we are the kid in our 4-year-old photo? They reflected for a while before one of the students answered, “It is our memory.” The self is made up of selective memories from momentary experiences.

The lack of mindfulness training prevents us from looking inwards deeply and asking introspective questions to understand why we feel a certain way and take certain actions contributing to our life experiences.

It also prevents us from fully living and making choices that contribute to ease and calm for ourselves and others. The most common thing the majority of us do is to air our opinions at work or at home. We normally express ourselves before considering if the other person can accept what we are going to say, or if they will suffer if we were to say what we feel is truth, without watching the tone of our speech and words. I have been guilty of this for most of my life and I have been trying to improve on it. The truth of the matter is, others’ happiness is more important than our opinions* because even if we were to disappear from the face of the earth, the world would still go on – a fact we seldom remember in our daily activities.

*Opinions are not the same as truths, which help another get out of a dangerous or painful situation

Mindful Breath

Mindful Breath is committed to sharing the systematic training of mindfulness with anyone who is keen and open to exploring their relationship with their inner experience for better health and caring relationships towards a gentler and friendlier society.

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