Is your personality real or is it just a memory?
How to become a banana
We all have a story and we’re all great story tellers. You might consider yours a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ story, you might say it’s been mostly joyful or tragic. You might feel it’s been exciting and eventful or maybe not so much… nevertheless you have one, and you identify with it. You think this is your ‘identity’; that who you are is the accumulation of these tales you tell yourself and others. You recreate them in your imagination to organise a logical connection in time between your past and present circumstances. Each moment, you automatically and unconsciously connect to memories to make choices and decisions based on ‘who you are’. But what if this person in your mind was in fact not real? What if it was just a dead image, a memory, based on and therefore limited by your past self-perception of what you were until yesterday or even a moment ago? What if you were actually a living, dynamic, constantly shifting and moving, unlimited consciousness able to choose who or how to be right now, in this moment?
Have you ever looked at a childhood or baby photo of yours and felt like you were looking at a stranger? You look at the image, and your mind registers it as ‘you’, but you can’t quite identify with this little person, apart from through that story connecting between the two of you through time, whether you fully remember the actual events or just remember the fact they’ve happened. But is it really ‘you’? Physically, that child has long gone. Your cells in your entire body have already died and renewed themselves several times over. And what about the one occupying that body, looking through those eyes? Can you recognise that person inside you now, or is she / he more like a distant dream, a tale you recreate over and over to explain the link between you?
Now think again of any other baby or very young child. Do they seem freer and more limitless to you than yourself at this point in time? Looking more closely, is it really because of time, because they’ll potentially outlive you by a number of years? Or could it be because they haven’t collected enough stories yet to limit their views and beliefs? Is it perhaps because they haven’t yet defined their so called personality and identity according to memories, closing off other possibilities in the process?
“My worst enemy is my memory” ~ Unknown
Memories in themselves are also pretty warped, twisted and subjective, based on your own perception of events, which in turn is also based on more previous stories…and so on… So in effect, you’re basing your whole concept of identity and of what you can or can’t do on these imaginary narratives! Of course, stories and experiences you’ve been through have shaped your thinking, feelings and therefore behaviour patterns. You’ve been ‘programmed’ from day one; given a shape and form, influenced by all the wonderful and shitty things that have happened to you and in the environment around you. Neurologically, your brain automatically resorts to past stored input; information and responses (regardless of whether they were objective, correct, accurate or even useful) in the form of neural connections that have been made before. It then continues repeating them over and over, reinforcing them as ‘short cuts’ – so that it can save time, energy and effort. It’s a super-machine; it just loves being efficient like that. So you end up being an automatic programme most of the time.
So what if you lost your memory in some freak accident, who would you be without it? What would be stopping you from being anything different to how you perceive yourself right now? Taking this even further, imagine you lost your memory and were then fed a made-up story about you; a fictional character that embodies everything you’d currently love to be? ‘Knowing’ that’s who you were, you would start acting out that character! What this implies is that we don’t really have a set-in-stone or limited personality at all. What we do have is a set of habits which we continue to embody as we believe that who we are is who we remember we were… and the longer you’ve been identifying with the memory, the more attached you are to it. See if you can think of it as blowing soap bubbles. One bubble might be small. Another might be MASSIVE, as you’ve been blowing it bigger and bigger throughout your life; adding on another experience and another belief. But does it matter how tiny or how huge it is? It would still take that same, one little pop – and it’s gone! You realize that actually, it was just a bubble, it never had any real substance to it. If you truly and fully understood this idea, it would have profound effects on the way you live, bringing in freedom and choice.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one” ~ Albert Einstein
So if you’re simply a creature of habit; collections of energy-efficient neural connections, what’s standing in your way of rewiring these networks by simply turning off the automatic?
You feel your limiting stories give you value
You like to take pride in your stories and in the shape you’ve taken on for better or worse. It’s obvious why you’re proud of and like to identify with stuff that’s been great or that makes you look good, but somehow you also enjoy your misery you’re supposedly unhappy with. This is because it still makes you feel special and gives you a sense of importance. You might also like to share your tragedies or complaints with others, trying to gain sympathy and approval.
Your limiting beliefs and wanting to be ‘right’
You think it’s too late to change because you’ve been this person for too long by now; your character is ‘too deeply engrained’…as if you were a pile of dried up play-dough. You continue behaving according to those old patterns, thinking and saying “This is just who I am”. “I’ve been like this for 20 years, I’m not gonna change now”. My favourite statement I’ve heard so far has been “A mango doesn’t suddenly become a banana”. Your mind also absolutely loves being right, so then it filters things through these beliefs so that they ‘fit’. So you might be triumphantly affirming your ‘success’ in predicting your failings: “See, I told you I couldn’t do it” / “I was always rubbish at it” / “It’s just not for people like me” / etc. Another case scenario is that you’ve reached a point where you feel you do want to improve or change, and you think there’s some vague possibility, but believe that because ‘this is who you are’, it will take too much time or hard work. So you can’t really be bothered; you continue watching another TED talk instead, helping you feel inspired for a moment or as if you’ve been productive in learning something new.
Fear – you’re comfortable with your limitations
Your mind, as a creature of habit, perceives breaking them as a threat to its efficient functioning, simply as it’s an unknown and requires following a new (neurological) path, which interrupts the flow of the familiar short-cuts. Even if a habitual response isn’t serving you in a way, at least you’re comfortable in the knowing of what to expect. If you weren’t able to predict the future in this way, you’d lose that sense of safety and control you crave over things. So being unconsciously stuck in your ways, paradoxically gives you an illusory sense of empowerment because you ‘know’ what’s going on, what’s likely to happen, and feel in control and more secure as a result. But what’s actually happening is the opposite – it’s dis-empowering you; keeping you stuck in a place of perceived lack of choice; ‘it’s just the way you are’. In this way you have no real control over yourself as it’s simply governed by habit.
So you’re quite comfortable with this personality you think you know. Being open to the idea that you’re personality-free, that you can embody whatever you choose and believe in can be pretty overwhelming. It’s like you’ve got all these alternative lives available to you and you get to choose moment to moment…and this is on top of making all the ‘normal’ life choices like where to live, if and where to study, which job to go for, who to get together with or what to do at the weekend… eek, so much to think about and what about all the other paths you could’ve taken?!
So what can you do?
I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should, or even could, forget your stories and memories. They’re what makes life go round and perhaps what makes life at all…what you can do though, is no longer be attached or identify with them, but instead recognize them as the tales they are. This way you can be free to create new stories more in line with what you want. Being more present in the moment, you’ll be able to take what’s useful to you, and let go of what isn’t. You’ll be able to identify with choice, over and over again. How about making a habit out of that!
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world” ~ Philip Pullman