The Self as Village

 

 

Improving the Inner Village

 

 The World Health Organization defines health as that state in which a person not only copes with problems but seeks them out. I think of health as the underlying condition that enables a person to live a life of unbroken concentration and absorption. In the well-known Zen parable, Master A says to Master B, “I tread so lightly in the world I can walk on eggs and never break a one. Also, I need only whisper and my disciples hear me from across the river. Oh yes, and I can fly.  What are your miracles?” Master B replies, “My miracle is that when I walk, I just walk. When I eat, I just eat.”

Conventional (Western) doctors typically define health as the absence of disease. Most “alternative health” systems define disease as the absence of health. By that definition, health has degrees. And when you think about it—of course it does.

When I lived in Portland, long ago, I devoted my life to creating and working within collectives and cooperative enterprises. These did not flourish into the way of the world, as I and my cohorts had hoped. But after I left Portland, I found that they had left me a useful legacy, after all. I discovered this when I began to think about reforming my dissipated lifestyle. Yes, it’s true, I ate too much, drank too much, smoked too much, and in fact over-did everything I enjoyed until it was something I didn’t enjoy and then kept doing it.  I was that guy Seinfeld jokes about who is actually two people, morning-guy and night-guy. Another martini will produce a hangover? Why should night-guy care? That’s morning-guy’s problem.

My brain and life were in a state of anarchy and disorder and all my energies were blocked. I knew that in order to gain clarity I had to restore my health. To do that, however, I had to acquire some self-discipline. That summer, I came up with a theory about how to do it. My theory was rooted in the idea that the self is not a single entity but a collection of voices, impulses, and personalities. So the same strategies that make a political process work might be usefully applied to the inner self.

I had long been haunted by the mystery of the inner and outer worlds, by the fact that the cosmos and microcosmos seem to mirror each other, by the striking way the universe of atomic and subatomic particles recapitulates somehow the macrocosmos of stars and galaxies. The state of one’s room invariably reflects

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the state of one’s head. The biological operations of the body—taking in food, converting it to energy, getting rid of waste—is exactly analogous to the social operations of a community, the tasks of production, consumption, and waste disposal.

I began to wonder about the possibility of applying the political analyses I had formulated during all those years of working on collectives to the problems of reforming the self. In the past, when I sought to impose a discipline on my life, the word “impose” stood out in boldface type. My life had been a see-saw between internal anarchy and internal fascism. When I sickened of dissolution, a law’and’order regime invariably took over, shut down the bars, arrested the dopers, clapped a curfew on the system, and generally came down nasty, reaaal nasty. Will power, you know.

Within a few weeks, inevitably, a popular revolt erupted. The masses within me stormed through the streets of my body, breaking cars and looting stores. Weeks of drunken rioting ensued, leaving me in a state of wrecked exhaustion. Conditions were now again ripe for a fascist coup.

And so I wondered if I could apply any of the lessons I learned from working in collectives all those years. Maybe I could get the many aspects and impulses within my Self to operate as a democratic collective. What I didn’t need was will power, an internal boss, an authoritarian power figure forcing me to follow some program. Maybe I could grow some self- discipline organically by giving heed to all my internal voices and getting them to come to a consensus, popular with all the elements within me.

It more or less worked, I’m happy to say. Not that I am any paragon of self-discipline. If I were I’d be fasting right now, and I’m not. But man, I’m a better man than I was, and I credit my theory of the self as a collective. Details at eleven.

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