The Stuff of Who We Are

In this so-called yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed
that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of
earthly life, but that the ordinary person only rejects it because it is too difficult.
– George Orwell
In every moment, our surroundings are quietly creating us.
– Peggy La Cerra

Many years ago, as I sought a more balanced perspective and practice in my spiritual life than I previously had acquired through my Christian upbringing, I turned to the Taoist tradition for additional insights. It was my first foray into Eastern spirituality. Eventually, it helped me to gain a further appreciation of the Christian mystical tradition. I earlier had been invited in that direction through the writings of Thomas Merton, James Finley, William Johnston, and others.

A concept in this mystical thought and practice with which I still struggle is the notion of asceticism, or “letting go of self” implied in much of these writings. Anyone who knows me, knows I certainly could not be described as someone who practices austerity and self-denial. I have to admit, over the course of my life I have collected an extensive variety of “stuff.”

I admit I have difficulty throwing anything out because “some day I might need this.” I have been aware, though, that for many items my reason for keeping them goes way beyond the practical, and extends to a deep emotional connection. By that I mean there are many things I cannot part with because I have an emotional attachment to them. You may call this sentimentality, but I have felt that many of these items are a tangible expression of the best experiences that helped to shape me into who I am today.

For example, I have on my desk at work the first souvenir I ever purchased on a family trip to Lake George, NY. It is a tiny slice of lacquered tree trunk, atop which stand two small ceramic, black bear cubs. I bought it as a souvenir of our family’s stays at one of my favorite vacation spots. I have a sense, though, that I have kept it all these years not only as a memento of our trips to the lake, but because it is for me an expression and reminder of my love of nature and the creatures who inhabit it. It says back to me at times as I sit in my office on the 16th floor of a building in the center of Chicago’s concrete canyons, that a lover of nature and wild things is who I am.

Over the years, those two little bears have been joined by dolphins, squirrels, an otter, several giraffes, a hippo, a gazelle, a clown fish, an elephant, and many others; all creatures with whom I have had the privilege of personal encounters in my travels through the years. They decorate my office and my home, along with as many green plants as I can reasonably fit (and keep alive), and with photographs on the walls of my favorite natural places.

In this post, I want to explore this tension between the spiritual practice of “letting go” into the “no self” advised by some of the mystics and my own intuitive sense of honoring the unique “self” that is me – and that emerged from a unique set of experiences. Are there lessons from the new science that can help us negotiate this tension?

As I thought about this question, I remembered reading in Jill Bolte Taylor’s (2006) book, My Stroke of Insight, about how our experiences in life create the neural pathways in our brain. Ever since reading that, I have begun to think more deliberately about which neural pathways already are present in my brain, and what pathways I want to create or reinforce through new experiences. The pathways in large part make up who I am, as Jill found out when she had a stroke that damaged large sections of her brain and left her not knowing who she was or what she had done in her life.

For example, I think about those neurons that are firing in my brain every time I eat a green grape. Those neurons, stimulated by the grape’s texture and taste, take me back to the times as a child I sat eating grapes I had picked from the vines growing on the trellis in my grandmother’s backyard. Together, the grapes and the neurons hold important reminders for me of from whom and where I came. For me, my menagerie of stuffed, wooden and ceramic wild friends seems to do some of the same.

Today, however, I am excited to discover that science is now telling us that this process in our brains goes even further, not only connecting us to our past but also helping create who we are in the present moment.

Peggy La Cerra (2010), quoted above, is one of my favorite contributors to the magazine, Spirituality & Health. In her column in the May/June 2010 edition, she explains the energy connection between our bodies and what is in the environment around us.  Everything in our environment emits some form of physical energy, and that energy interacts with the receptor cells in our sense organs. La Cerra explains what happens next:

When these impulses reach your brain, they light up a set of neural networks – a selection from your brain’s archives of your experiences (and those of your ancestors, which are inherent in the system itself). As one set of networks (the one stimulated by your previous environment) begins to enter a state of quiescence, this new set of networks is activated, and a new you emerges.

La Cerra goes on to make the connection between what happens to the neural networks in our brain and my intuitive sense of the importance of having the right “stuff” in my office and home.

We all know this on some level. Most of us decorate our home and office environments in ways that stimulate these kinds of energetic effects in our intelligence system. The most traditional adornments feed our most basic human desires – beautiful flowers and plants instill in us a sense of life’s abundance, photos of loved ones invoke a sense of belonging, and mementos of special occasions “re-mind” us of the joy that we are capable of feeling…anything that directly reflects the qualities we’re aiming to instill in ourselves – can yield significant, immediate effects (p. 14).

The point I draw from these insights by La Cerra, is that if I have to spend the day in the heart of the city, where much is present that does not evoke my best self, it helps to have the things around me that do evoke that person. It also helps when I come home, to have an environment present that will help me let go of the active person I was during the day and move into being the more relaxed and relational person I want to be at home.

La Cerra does make one more point, which I may have to take into consideration during these days in the Midwest when we traditionally engage in the ritual known as “Spring cleaning.”  She notes that the self-altering boost that we get from our home and office adornments can diminish if nothing in our environment changes.  Our brain quickly accommodates to routine and factors out everything in our world that is unchanging (that’s one of the reasons why it always seems to take longer to drive to an unfamiliar place than it does to make the return trip).  To accommodate for this quality of our brains, says La Cerra, we need to keep making adjustments to our environment. “As our environment and experiences grow us, it’s a good idea to rejuvenate them to reflect who we are becoming.”

That last bit of advice might just help me distinguish between the stuff that I am holding onto purely for sentimental reasons, and the stuff that I want to hold onto because it helps me be really me.

Bolte Taylor, J. (2006) My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. New York, NY: Viking.

La Cerra, P. (2010). The energy of change. In Spirituality & Health, May/June. (p. 14).

Orwell, G. (2009). Reflections on Gandhi. From the Partisan Review in 1949, reprinted in Hearing the Call Across Traditions Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths.

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