I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
In a blog on the self, I would not want to neglect the philosophical and cultural position that there is no such thing as the self — the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self. In this post I relate the story of my initial encounter with Buddhism.
In the early 1980s I worked for a magazine publisher in New York City. I was the assistant to the Vice President, which meant next to nothing. Since this particular VP didn’t want anyone to learn how to do her job, I was kept busy with routine, uninteresting tasks.
One day on a lunch break, I was browsing in a midtown bookstore (I worked at Sixth Avenue and 50th). I don’t know how I found my way to this particular book — it was one of those it-fell-off-the-shelf-into-my-lap experiences. The title, Skillful Means, meant nothing to me at the time, so there was no reason to select it. The author was a Tibetan lama called Tarthang Tulku (pictured above at Dharma Publishing). The book was about being mindful while doing one’s work, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time. Read more
It seems that the best way for me to figure out what I actually think about something is to write about it. This is true not just for personal matters, but for almost anything. Thoughts alone are too ephemeral and ill-behaved. This is the sense in which, for me, writing is research on the self.
This post contains a history of my relationship to writing. There’s probably more personal information in this post than will ever appear anywhere else in this blog. This is a blog on the self, not a blog about my self. Although, of course, indirectly and unavoidably, it is.
Invasions of privacy
When I was eleven, my mother read my diary. Not only did she read it. She read it out loud to the neighbors, apparently featuring the passages she found most amusing.
I found out about this when I was teased by a neighbor girl about something she could only have learned from my diary. She was the youngest of those neighbors who regularly lounged on the lawn of our apartment complex (and apparently not old enough to realize she should have been more discrete). I subsequently wrote nothing except assigned school papers until I left home, when it felt safe enough to write in a journal. Read more
The name of this blog, Basic research on the self, comes from an essay by Phillip Lopate. The essay is an introduction to his edited collection of essays, The Art of the Personal Essay.
A number of qualities characterize the personal essay, according to Lopate. These include the author’s willingness to write in the first person and to speak directly to the reader, allowing the reader to identify with what the author reveals. The personal essayist conducts a dialogue with herself in which she drops her psychic defenses, reaches a deeper level of honesty, and – ideally — arrives at a tentative truth.
There is something heroic in the essayist’s gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found. One would like to think that the personal essay represents a kind of basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy. … [T]he writing of personal essays not only monitors the self but helps it gel. The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self. [emphasis added]
Are blog posts personal essays? Occasionally, but not usually (certainly not when following the advice of Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post). When they are, however, they can have an impact on the author’s ongoing self-understanding. Read more
I have been preoccupied with my Chinese horoscope for over a decade. One of its revelations touched on something I instinctively felt was true, but to this day I continue to resist believing it. Why is that?
The story starts with my sense of being a little different, odd, abnormal (I so dislike that last word). I assume many people feel this way, but since it’s not the first thing they’ll tell you about themselves, we’re left to wonder just how relatively peculiar we are. In my case – as I wrote earlier – it was undoubtedly this feeling that attracted me to the idea that I have a choice about how I see myself. Society may label me odd, but if I see society’s values as temporary and highly contingent, then the problem is society’s, not mine.
But am I really free to choose? I was born and raised in a modern, Western, rational, scientific culture. My ability to think about rationality and the autonomous individual is embedded in the very language I use to think. So ingrained, for example, is my desire to appear rational that, before talking about my Chinese horoscope, I feel a need to defend, justify, or otherwise absolve myself from appearing otherwise. Read more
As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.
I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.
The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.
Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more