BY AMY MROTEK
When Alan Watts proposed the idea that “one’s self” is nothing more than indoctrinated hallucination, he whipped out an identity frenzy, one part metaphysics and another part Matrix. The essence of his beliefs rests in a similarly packaged dichotomy: culture conditions us to compartmentalize our being, to see ourselves as an “I”-centered ego separate from all external surroundings rather than in relation to or in harmony with them. Such isolation breeds discontent. When you’re cut off from everything, and, furthermore, when you glorify it, you can’t sincerely know anything–including yourself. That’s when the real chaos begins.
And while I can’t colorfully interlace Zen Buddhist principles sipped with profound purpose folded up inside a universal road map to complete inner harmony, I can chew on this crunchy notion of the self. So much so that as I sit and write, it becomes apparent that this one, tiny, monosyllabic word riddles my core with the utmost anxiety.
Now I don’t mean anxiety in the vanilla sense. My palms don’t break in spontaneous sweat when considering my own wants and desires, my uncertainties, my preferences, even the star-spangled stupidities behind conditions I don’t and cannot ever know. No, it’s something baser than that, a whispered secret, a knot in your lower back you can’t quite relax. This self-anxious paradox mediated by Mr. Watts tells me not so much that I’m one with everything but something quite disarmingly opposite.
I’m, in fact, a battered Polaroid reel, an undone puzzle sitting idle in the corner twiddling my toes and watching Netflix, avoiding any effort it would take to put myself together, piece by jarring piece. I am so many “selves” that I can’t possibly put words or sensations to them all. The Amy who doodles in the margins of her notebooks is not the one who goes to coffee with friends on Sunday mornings, and that’s certainly not the one who sits on her balcony at 1 a.m. listening to The National, feeling at once so full and fixated and cosmically indefinite I could quite possibly combust.
In these K-cup sized moments, the anxiety of the self wears your glasses, peers in the bathroom mirror and neurologically recognizes the visage that stares back. Yet she doesn’t know what makes that image smile or frown, not really. She possibly never will.
From such an untethered vantage point, the surface of everything suddenly reads inherently defeating. At our deepest conjectural level, we have no basis to connect the dots. If we can’t “know” ourselves, if we are unable to construct an ego and strain every micro kernel of the stimuli-soaked world through it, then how the dickens can we go about making any kind of decision? How do we interact with others? How do we nurture ourselves? How can we even get out of bed in the morn? Who the hell really are we?
This is the flavor of anxiety the real “self” naturally courts. It also happens to be the strain that, once allowed to run its course, invariably procures a cure.
We’re mental wobblers existing in a toothpaste tube of understanding, one where only the teeniest of blobs can ever be squeezed out. In this world, you can’t make mistakes. Your very nature dictates otherwise. You are a bundle of insurmountable everythings, a hyperaware humanoid, a skin-and-bone sack of contradictions able to contemplate the most inarticulate twangs of eternal oblivions. And why? Because you yourself are that oblivion.
Most importantly, we must strive to hold this putty in mind especially in the context of others. If we ourselves are under a continual bubble of evolution, of discovery and sentience and growth, then so is every particular person you pass on your way to Boyle. None of us are finished products with scannable bar codes. There is no end line we’re all meant to sprint toward. The self dabbles in its own void, dances from point to point along a wheel of choice, consequence and adaptation. And if that dance makes you uncomfortable, all the better.