In this personal account, the author takes a long, hard look at the person
he believes himself to be. The chapters within chronicle his findings from
2008 to 2018. Most of these "chapters" are the emails he wrote for a fellow
Backing up his conclusions with philosophy, psychology, science, and
life experiences, Mr. Branch found that acquiring self-knowledge is not a
matter of addition, but subtraction; that finding out who we truly are is not
about gain, but loss. Rick Branch
I used to fancy myself "a somebody."
Before even reaching my teens, I felt that way. I remember harboring the smugness of believing
I was a cut above the ordinary. This conviction of being somebody special stayed with me for
much of my life, that is, until I discovered the truth of my ordinariness or what I call my own
relative insignificance or nobodiness.
Don't we all have fancies of being somebody special? After all, didn't our parents tell us so?
Didn't our politicians instill in us the pride of living in the greatest country on Earth, of belonging
to a particularly savvy, hardy, free-thinking group of individuals? Likewise, didn't our religious
leaders convince us we were the chosen people of the one true God?
Didn't being raised with these ego-building beliefs and other such confabulations leave us with
an exaggerated sense of our own importance?
As Steven Pinker pointed out, "People overestimate their own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence, and luck." Is it any wonder we go out into the world feeling entitled, believing we are destined for and deserving of great things?
It's good to have high hopes and dreams, to 'reach for the stars', to 'be all that you can be'. There’s truth to that old saying, "Fortune favors the bold." However, when we have an unrealistic assessment of who we are, we set ourselves up for failure.
That's what happened to me. I overestimated my intelligence, talent, virtue, etc. Sure enough, I went out into the world to find, more often than not, frustration and disappointment. Life turned out to be much more difficult than I expected.
As I grappled with my unhappiness, I began to suspect my own accountability or blame in the matter. Seeing the need to carefully examine what was going on in this head of mine. I took what some call a path, the path to "Know Thyself." I finally came to understand my frustration/disappointment was the result of trying to be something I am not.
I understood that trying to be something you're not means not being who you are. And who are we, really? We are that which remains when all the inaccurate assumptions or pretenses of ourselves have been stripped away.
I understood that the role of the individual is "to see through and undo the web that the culture you were born into has wound around you" (The Madness of Crowds, p. 37).
When we know who we truly are, we have been freed from being a personage made up of ego-building beliefs, freed from what we have been unwittingly attached to and identified with. In other words, we have been freed from being what amounts to a make-believe or fictitious self. If we knew the extent to which this self of ours possesses and deceives us, we might grasp what Einstein said, "The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self."
Of course, the idea of being freed from our self seems ridiculous when we believe our self is all there is to us. "Who would I be," one might ask, "if I were to give up this self of mine? I’d be nobody! What a preposterous notion!"
However, if you have defined yourself with exaggerations or lies of which you are completely unaware, are you not whiling away your time on this planet being fooled?
Maybe it's better to be so fooled. I'm not sure about that. All I know is I can no longer be deceived in this way. Having exposed my thoughts and behavior to the light of reason, I've seen my self-delusions for what they are. I have nothing left to fool myself, nothing left to let me go on fancying myself "a somebody.”
This book is about my journey to find the truth of who I am. Though it's a path that turned out to be right for me, I am not proposing everybody should take a close and honest look at themself. There are logical and compelling arguments that we're better off not having an accurate perception of who we are, that we're better off not knowing the truth about ourselves.
So, if you're happy being the person you are, if you are satisfied or pleased with your self, you may not want to continue reading. To do so is to risk losing that complacence you have.
However, for those who are seeking truth at any cost, even if that means becoming nobody, perhaps this book will be helpful.
-Living unconsciously is like living underwater, and we like it there.
-What is self-examination but the study of one's thoughts. Noticing and examining one's inner dialogue is doing just that. What might most easily convince someone that they were in need of self-examination? Answer: If they actually listened to the conversation going on in their head.
-We chose this path. Like Neo in The Matrix, you might say we took the red pill. We suspected there's something unreal about our reality and were determined to find out what is real.
-Have you ever been cornered by someone who goes on and on about him or herself? Or perhaps you've had to spend an hour listening to a person pontificate on some goofball theory. If you have, you may have noticed that after a while, you stop hearing what they're saying. Instead, what you hear sounds more like a mindless jabbering or barking. And that's close to what you really hear when someone is spewing out self-serving mechanical speech: the sounds of an unconscious, somewhat inhuman, automaton or machine.
-Are you mowing the old lady's lawn across the street because you think it might get you an "in" with her attractive daughter? Are you steering your son toward a particular career path because it's what you want him to have? Are you attending church regularly because you're afraid of what people will think if you don't attend church regularly?.... There's nothing necessarily wrong with having selfish motives, but refusing to see such motives as selfish is one more way we maneuver around the truth about ourselves.
-My own Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Yankee culture started instilling its repressive ideas and affectations into me as soon as I was born. I was programmed or conditioned to think, speak, and act in a regimented way. By the time I hit my late teens, that spontaneous easiness, naturalness, or "soul" I had as a child was so deadened, I was….well, one way to explain it is I was ill, ill at ease.
-Our perception of ourselves is not shared by others the way we think it might be. When we assume others see us in the same positive light that we see ourselves, we would likely be shocked if we knew what they were actually thinking.
-Speaking of losing face or saving face: Of course we worry about losing face when that face represents the imposter we are presenting to the world. What's more, we find ourselves in danger of losing face quite literally. Do we not sometimes find ourselves in situations when we have to struggle to maintain a composed countenance; when we worry our face will "drop" the way it does when we're embarrassed or frightened? At such times, does not that discomfort we feel have to do with a fear of being exposed?
-What are people afraid of? Here's one way of saying it: People are afraid their lives are as insignificant and meaningless as the lives of so many others appear to be. Instead of confronting such fear, people distract themselves with notions that their life is some sort of special circumstance, that their life story is more important than it really is. Setting themselves up like this, as somebody special, makes for an excellent diversion from their fear that they are the same as everybody else.
-We may not be sure where we are on this journey, but know there's nothing to do of any importance other than plodding forward. The truth of our self-falsity has become so obvious, we can no longer go back to the comfort of pretending otherwise. As Jed McKenna and Stephen Davis say, once you start, you can't go back.
-With the loss of ourselves, there has been a corresponding severing of our ties to the conventional world. What we used to consider important isn't important anymore. This explains our apathy and indifference. It explains our disorientation and sense of alienation. We're turning into loners of a sort, feeling a bit aloof, but not due to a sense we are above it all or better than anybody else.
-Being a seeker was the only way I had left of being a person with meaning and purpose, and I now felt that person slipping away. As this last holdout of being Rick Branch left me, I think I had the experience of what has been called staring into the abyss.
-We found truth alright, but it was, as Jed put it, a sort of booby prize.
-Keeping your wits about you when verbally engaged not only helps you say the right thing, it also helps you know when it's best to keep your mouth shut. I have found such silence pays off in unexpected ways. As someone very aptly put it, "Hold your tongue and marvel at the results!"
-As convinced as Montaigne was that people are better off being aware of their inanity and nonsense, he admits he's not sure. He's saying maybe it's better to stick your head in the sand - you know, the whole "Ignorance is bliss" thing. For him to not claim to know what's best for others shows he understands the limits of his thinking. For me, this admission of uncertainty only adds more value to what he has to say.
-If I understand Jaynes correctly, a major step in transitioning from animal to human came when our brain became complex enough to produce an analog mind-space where metaphorical representations of real-life scenarios could be envisioned. This would have given early humans more successful ways of capturing prey and avoiding enemies because they could reflect upon such scenarios in their mind-space. As rudimentary as such introspection was, it could be said to have marked the beginning of self-determining, conscious thinking.
-Narratizing within one's mind-space is what divides one's attention in a way which allows a person to be in two places at once, their inner world and their outer world. When in our inner world, we can observe what we are doing in our outer world at the same time. This act of being both the observer and the observed can give us that unusual sense of doubleness we call, 'being aware of ourselves'. It is what gives us the ability to be self-aware, self-conscious, or conscious.
-A great irony is that, while humans' acquisition of selves made consciousness a reality, consciousness reveals the unreality of selves.
-What if we lost all the ways we define ourselves; if we had to abandon all the cherished beliefs we have of being special, outside-the-norm 'somebodies'? How would we live with such a sense of nothingness? Besides understanding that "Being free from the false is good in itself," there's another way to answer this question. Perhaps nothing isn't nothing after all.
-To call spiritual enlightenment what it more accurately is, Jed prefers 'truth realization', 'untruth unrealization', or 'abiding non-dual awareness'. Similarly, I like 'self-disillusionment', 'psychological awakening', or 'psychological transformation'. Sometimes I simply call it, "getting to the nitty-gritty of who you are."
-If we've listened to the Church, we're likely to feel sinful and guilty about our sexual proclivities. Science, on the other hand, makes it clear why there should be no such confusion or shame. We have evolved, not only psychologically, but physiologically, to do the deed.
-I was surprised and amused as I observed my own behavior at the beach the other day. I watched my unconscious self being bounced around like a marionette with its attempts to impress the good-looking females who were scattered about.
-Let's say you have a temper problem but can't help yourself. Certain things happen (impressions), and you 'fly off the handle' (associative response). A clue to gaining the control you seek (to know how to transform impressions) can be revealed when following that sage advice: "When angry, count to 10."
-Understanding dual-process theory facilitates the set-up of the two players necessary for self-examination. Self-examination cannot take place unless we recognize how we are of two minds.
-Though taking possession of what has been possessing us does not happen quickly, it's much like a coup or coup d'état. We remove our existing overlord from power, but we don't kill or exile "him" to another country. No, we keep him around for he is our self, which has certain useful functions to perform. At least initially, he must be watched and monitored, for he is not happy with his new, subordinate position.
-While I think I’m not ready to leave the cave (Plato's Cave), I'm also not convinced it makes sense to do so--a point Jed makes too. He compares being outside the cave to being alone on a desert island with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and stare at the waves. At least back in the cave, you can watch the show and play along if you want, being, perhaps, what Whitman meant when he wrote, "Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it."
-How were the angry and irrational among us getting away with such outrageous allegations? One reason is the more level-headed among us let them. You could say rational and open-minded people took post-modern "anything goes" relativism too far, making the error of believing every point of view is worthy of consideration. When it came to refuting the crazy ideas being spread about, Democrats/liberals were, and continue to be, much too quiet.
-After walking up to the podium, I was instructed to comment on the saying, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." I froze. I knew what it meant but just couldn’t come up with anything. They tried to coax me on. I hemmed and hawed a little bit, but still, I was speechless. As I stood there like a deer in headlights, I think something good happened. Of course, it felt like anything but good. They finally told me I could return to my seat.
-Life has a way of knocking us off our high horse. And when we hit the ground, we are broken; that is, our pretentious fictional self is broken. Not understanding the corrective event that has taken place, we quickly patch up our wounds and get right back up onto our lofty mount. We can spend our whole lives this way, getting knocked off our high horse and getting back up again without listening to what Life is trying to tell us.
-Part of what the existentialist resigns himself to is that his beliefs or interpretations of reality are no more valid than anybody else's, which is why he knows he should only be concerned with finding his own truth. With his sense that truth is relative, he agrees to 'live and let live'. But Nietzsche's brand of existentialism says otherwise, that one is capable of dictating what’s best for others, that certain special individuals can rise up and set humanity straight. It's understandable why Nietzsche's philosophy would appeal to the arrogant and self-righteous.
-Irrational notions of personal exceptionalism and entitlement are at the root of humanity's inability to get along with its own kind. It is when we become disillusioned of such egocentric notions, or enlightened, we will be freed from the very thing that pits us against others.
-Here in Florida, I still use the name Rick Branch, but only when I have to. You could say I no longer take some sort of pride or attention-grabbing strategy in trumpeting it out. And I don't hate it either…it's just a name-tag.