Capable Capable
Capable Capable

Don't fit in? Get the whole picture and understand why.
Arnold Siegel —August 5, 2019

We know that the brains of lizards are hard-wired. Virtually all of their brain cells are programmed to a particular purpose. In the main, lizards can’t learn how to behave differently or make wiser choices. The same is not true of humans. We can learn. Our brains contain billions of cells that are plastic or malleable. We know that our brains aren’t blank slates, though. We come into the world with biology and neural circuitry set without our knowledge or consent.

In addition, we are born into a civilization well underway. Before we have any recognition of what’s going on, we’re here, now, seeing, hearing, sensing, absorbing and, before too long, even “egoing.” And then what? Well, we find ourselves with problems that can be attributed to our enculturation. We have involuntarily and uncontrollably acquired what turns out to be the disorders of dispossession (we’re not in possession of ourselves) and psychologism (we conceive of our ego as a fixed but metaphysical thing).

Amidst such problematic awareness, self-possession would be a significant stretch. If it weren’t for these disorders, our living system (the naked animal) would play well with the regulated environment into which we’ve been inserted. When they don’t complement one another, we suffer for it. That we don’t fit in easily is a problem born of dysfunctional ego behavior or psychologism. We’ve absorbed a misguided “logic” that our ego is not just one of our adaptive faculties in need of regulation and oversight. Instead we think of it as a lofty supernatural core, the essence of who we are, and we focus the lion’s share of our attention on its satisfaction and protection.

This mistaken natural and supernatural dualistic sense of ourselves produces a wrong-sized sense of who we are. We don’t think of ourselves objectively based on our actual abilities. Rather we think of ourselves in terms of the imagined powers of a super-sized ego. As a result, we experience great difficulty with impulse control, rational deliberation, balance, harmony and other forms of behaving responsibly when conversing with or working alongside of others.

Still, America insists that we own our lives because of our natural capacity to be in possession of ourselves. However, this ability is not simply a naturally emerging one. The subjective processing of what constitutes individual freedom and regulative virtue (in the largest sense, an ability to mind the dos and don’ts of America’s behavioral forms) is a developed faculty. It helps us to channel the energy of our immediacy into civilized pursuits such as responsibility, reliability, competence and resilience. Without such skill, our experience is one of agitation, awkwardness and uncertainty. Worse, we look for relief from this instability and misfit in the wrong places.

For example, we’ve been conditioned by the Scoreboard to look to its “wisdom” about the importance of status—who we are in the eyes of others—and to our ego satisfaction. Of course, the Scoreboard is not a thing, but the message is everywhere and it becomes an anxious sense that permeates our thinking, listening and speaking.  A high Scoreboard standing makes us think that our psychologism is good at taking an honest and objective look at ourselves and at our circumstances so we can make excellent judgments, decisions and choices.  However, such belief only worsens our misguided dysfunctional ego behavior. It is actually counterproductive, lopsidedly subjective and makes our anxiety permanent.

Autonomy and life asks us to place our efforts to be in control of our life subject to our efforts to be in possession of ourselves. We do this by learning to responsibly order our ego-function. Then we’ll no longer be easily destabilized by insult, embarrassment, novelty, competitive losses, disaster, everyday bad news, disappointment and the like. Please recall that I titled my most recent post, Confidence through the thick and thin of circumstance. 

Of course, we're never fully in control. What we can do is improve the conscious guidance of our response to each biological or social stimulus. Such executive mastery (actually, a probability) requires a stand on the entire collection of behavior, communication and performance that comprise how it’s done. Unfortunately, when we’re embedded in psychologism and place the whole of our sense of self in our dysfunctional ego, we can’t and won’t identify with or stand on the integrity of our responsibility for our autonomy.

By contrast, the discipline of Autonomy and Life is a philosophy of unity and identity. It helps us to embody the collection of behavioral forms we term the autonomous subject. These forms shape the self-possession of the naked animal. To honestly engage in our consciously realized design and oversight, we must stop resisting the American experiment in individual freedom whose promise hangs on our regulative virtue. I mean that it is crucial that we know what we must have and how we must act in order to be in possession of ourselves. Please note that the sum of these behaviors does not add up to a fixed inner ego. They’re the various faculties we collect to create and sustain our autonomy. 

Then there is the bending of the rules that comes so easily to the dysfunctional ego whose primary goals are its own satisfaction and protection.

Yes, adhering to regulation is a cost when we feel as if the only guarantee of ego satisfaction means that we must bend the rules that shape what it means to be one of us.  However, there is a bigger cost to us when we bend the rules. That cost is an inability to know, accept and not least, be who we are. 

To live out our lives without being who we are is an extraordinary price to pay for bending the rules of autonomy. No matter what we have gained, we are alienated and frightened when we are bent. On the other hand, consistently minding the rules helps us to create a space wherein we experience belonging and safety. Certainly, no small reward.

Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its
Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.