The Twin Fears that Shape our Identity

As a kid I spent a lot of time thinking there was something wrong with me. I was totally convinced that my lowly opinion of myself was true, and there were plenty of so-called facts I could use to back up my claim. I wasn’t a happy bunny. It was only when I discovered psychology and Buddhism that I began to deconstruct the ideas that were making me miserable.

For a while I blamed my upbringing for my woes. And then I blamed society and the culture I grew up in. Then finally I realised that the culprit was closer to home – it was inside my head. I suppose you could blame it on human nature if you had to pin it on something, but we’re all wired for delusion. Thankfully, there’s a way out.

Fall from Grace

We all end up with a sense of being wrong or that we lack something, regardless of what our parents do or don’t do. This feeling of lack is what happens when you move from a state of unity where your needs seem to be met magically – which is how we are in the womb and for a little while after we’re born – to the realisation that life doesn’t actually work like that.

One way or another you become aware that you’re a separate person. It’s the classic fall from grace and can’t be avoided. It creates a split in the mind and this is what causes all our woes. The mind polarises into subject and object – me in here versus the world out there – which means we can’t see ourselves clearly. This creates blind spots because you can’t see everything at once, so you end up feeling incomplete, defective, uncertain, anxious, and self-conscious.

Uncertainty is scary, especially when you’re small, and we try to find ways to avoid it whenever possible. Nobody wants to feel insecure or insubstantial. You want to know yourself with certainty but you can’t, so you pretend. You try to become as complete and certain as you can. You recoil from what you see as weakness, failure and inadequacy. You smile through your teeth and say brightly, “I’m fine!” when anyone asks. But underneath you feel unreal, unsure, uneasy – exiled from yourself.

But self-consciousness feeds on itself. When you turn yourself into an object in awareness every thought becomes self-referential. You can’t see yourself clearly because you’re caught in a hall of mirrors, searching for the truth in reflections of reflections of reflections of reflections…


Twin Fears

We’re caught between two fears that are reflections of each other: Fear of life and fear of death.

Fear of life is when we fear separation and want to hang on to that early sense of unity with the whole. We don’t want to feel isolated so we avoid becoming ourselves, which leads to conformity and going along with the crowd.

Fear of death is when we fear the loss of our individuality once we’ve finally attained it. We don’t want to give up our independence or self-sufficiency, which makes us want to be in control.

Most of the time we wobble back and forth between these extremes – frightened to hold on and frightened to let go.

“From the very beginning, the human infant is vulnerable to an unfathomable anxiety that survives in the adult as a sense of futility or as a feeling of unreality. Hovering between the two opposing fears – one of isolation and the other of dissolution or merger – we are never certain of where we stand.” – Thoughts Without A Thinker, Mark Epstein

This ‘unfathomable anxiety’ is the fundamental uncertainty at the heart of human nature. To deal with it we try to make ourselves more solid or real. We literalise the sense of self. In other words, we confuse ourselves with ‘something’, with an object.

This is the cause of more or less every problem a human being has ever had. It means we split everything into dualities – for and against, black or white, right or wrong. Rather than seeing reality as complex and messy, we simplify it and seek absolutes.

Because everything constantly changes, and we feel so small and unable to deal with it, we try to pin things down, to make them more solid and enduring. We want pleasurable things to stay and painful things to stay away. Although going with the flow means being free, we fear freedom because it undermines our sense of solidity and control. When things aren’t perfect we get anxious and want life to conform to our wishes. Like overgrown toddlers, we get cross and rage at life, “it’s all gone wrong, it’s not fair!

This need to have everything go the way you want – to have certainty – is what makes us see ourselves and others as solid, fixed and permanent. And the desire for certainty, security, and perfection is just another way of trying to get back to that primary state of unity.

Identifying yourself with ‘something’ is one way to gain certainty, but it can also be achieved through identifying with ‘nothing’ – the death wish. If you know you’re nothing then there’s no doubt and no change. And no uncertainty.

Overcoming Uncertainty

Fear of death leads to a desire for certain existence, while fear of life leads to a desire for certain non-existence. On the one hand we cling to life which makes us grandiose, and on the other we deny life which makes us nihilistic. We either pump ourselves up with self-inflation and aggrandisement, or we denigrate ourselves with self-hatred and destructiveness.

Our beliefs about life reflect our fears and can cause even more confusion. Belief in an eternal, meaningful existence – such as God, heaven, or a True Self – is just as problematic and misleading as belief in the meaningless random futility of the material world.

If you think there’s a true self, unchanging and idealised, then you fall into grandiosity. If you think there’s no self, you fall into alienation and despair.

We either idealise or deny ourselves, but we’re deluded.

There is neither self nor no-self.

Concepts like Universal Mind, Absolute Reality, True Self, cosmic consciousness, void or emptiness, are still subtle versions of the idea of the self, i.e. something, or nothing, with which to identify.

When my mind stopped in satori it felt more like an absence. There was no presence of any ‘thing’ to which I could have got attached. But as soon as my mind kicked back in, thoughts arose searching about for something to hold on to, a way to make sense of it and make the experience substantial and pin it down. Because our minds work by conceptualising it’s very hard to avoid that tendency to concretise experience. It’s what the mind does.

Even writing this perpetuates the problem and I should stop, but first…

Light at the end of the tunnel
The light at the end of the tunnel

The Cave of Delusion

The solution isn’t about not thinking. It’s not a call to return to the trees and regress to our animal instincts. We don’t have any choice about that – we have to think. But it’s only us humans who think we have to be in control and end up getting stuck in our heads driven half mad by our own wilful blindness to reality.

The solution is to see through your thinking. The mind confuses and confounds itself, but it can also see through or transcend itself. Enlightenment, awakening or satori involve seeing through the self, which brings unconditional freedom, compassion and joy.

Don’t stop thinking, just don’t take what you think so personally.

The twin fears that circle each other in our minds help us to create a sense of self through which we face the world. But our vision is obscured from the start. In reality Plato’s cave of shadows doesn’t exist, we just think it does. I’ll leave the last word to Zoe Popper, summarised from Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic:

“We create these stories about ourselves. Stuff happens and you weave it into a narrative, a grand drama with you at the centre of the action. And as you tell your story, you create yourself. The problem is you think your story defines you. You tell yourself tales and then believe your own bullshit. You build yourself a cage then lock yourself in. Why? Because you think, I’m so small and the world is so big, I’ll be safer locked in my cage, I’ll be safer if I’m in control.

You think you’re trapped. There you are, you think, shackled in a cave watching shadows on the wall, shadows you take to be reality, because everybody else does too. But reality is outside the cave. You need to come outside, feel the sun on your face and listen to the birds sing. You shake your head at me and rattle your chains. No, you cry, I’m happy here, I’m safe here, you’re crazy, there’s no such thing as sun and birds, sit down and stop making such a fuss.

But here’s the tragic, glorious truth: You’re already outside. There is no cave, no shadows and no shackles. You’re outside in the sunshine telling yourself there is no sun and that you can’t hear the birds, even though there’s a blackbird sitting on your shoulder singing its heart out right into your ear.

We forget we’re not what we think. We build traps for ourselves in our minds. We feel caged, exiled, but it’s all in the mind. You’re only trapped because you think you are. In reality, you’re already free.”

>Find out more about Addled here.
>More on the Evolution of Consciousness

Image: Shadows



4 thoughts on “The Twin Fears that Shape our Identity

  1. Funny, I just made an extended comment on the blog of a friend who is wrestling with self-judgementalism that was along much the same lines. Unfortunately I included too many hyperlinks and it went through to her spam queue. Hopefully she’ll fish it out soon.

    Where I fundamentally agree is that the problem has its roots in dysfunctional dualism. When you think about it, judging yourself is a very odd thing. How can you stand outside yourself as judge unless you think yourself both separate to and somehow superior to yourself? Even if you imagine you’re applying an externalised measure why would you think your application of it is correct? If you’re superior you don’t need it. If you’re inferior you’ll probably mess it up anyway.

    I guess I disagree somewhat that it centres around life/death dualism, except inasmuch as that’s a powerful symbol for all forms of dualism. I think that by rejecting anything as part of yourself – be it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in your judgement – you’re implicitly making its opposite part of you. Likewise, accepting anything as part of yourself is to externalise its opposite. The value you attach to the incorporated half of the dualism inevitably becomes a value you attach to yourself.

    The reason the quote I put at the top of ‘Pretend you’re dead’ appealed to me so much is because at 16 years old Max Edwards was able to see that even the cancer that was killing him was part of what he was. Because he accepted what he was he could accept his death.

    Really what you are is your entire universe. Everything that interacts with you and that you interact with goes into making you you. There’s no ‘things’, just your relationships with them. That includes the ‘things’ that are other people and the ‘thing’ you imagine is you.

    So any boundary you draw between yourself and anything else is gonna be arbitrary. The only answers that are at least internally consistent are “I am everything” or “I am nothing”. But either of those makes a nonsense of interactions and relationships too. With no boundaries there is no ‘something else’ to interact with. So stuff doesn’t happen to you and you don’t do stuff. It’s all just HU. The breath of the cosmos.

    That doesn’t mean dualism ain’t real. We live in a universe made of the dynamic interactions of opposites. It just means that your place in it is up to you. I guess you can be all transcendent in a permanent non-dual samadhi. But hey, you’re at the cinema. Why not catch the show?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Really what you are is your entire universe. Everything that interacts with you and that you interact with goes into making you you. There’s no ‘things’, just your relationships with them.”

      Yes – it’s all about relationships, interdependence. Thanks for the great comment, cabrogal.



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