Rescuing Aspects of the Personality.
In the last Musings article, we brought awareness to the possibility of egocentric karmic conditioning /self-hate’s masquerading as the Mentor, using practice language, and even coming to workshops and retreats. In this issue, we attempt to clarify one of the five processes that are the foundation of our awareness practice: subpersonalities, or aspects of the personality. It seems that conditioning has co-opted this awareness tool to create suffering and capture the attention. (The other four processes are projection, beliefs and assumptions, disidentification and centering.)
A subpersonality is an adaptation to social conditioning. It is a childhood survival strategy that arises when a basic impulse encounters a conditioned standard and is forced to adapt to the standard. A child that is teased too much might develop a Protector or Defender subpersonality. If a child is not given enough attention, a Rebel might emerge, or a Loner without needs. (There are many possibilities.) Every rejected need, every belief and assumption created as a result, and every defense mechanism put in place to compensate becomes a subpersonality, an “aspect of the personality.” In this way, the illusion of an “I” or “me” comes into being. But we are not the monolithic “I” we believe we are. Indeed, we are each a wide array of identities.
The Buddha taught that each person is made up of these aggregates, and that a constant, unchanging self is an illusion. When we mistakenly believe we are the personality, which is “an ever-changing blend of ingredients or skandas—form, sensation, perception, conditioned desires and self-consciousness,” we live in ignorance of our true nature and we suffer as a result. Our spiritual practice is to transcend the illusory “self” and recognize conscious compassionate awareness as our authentic nature.
But if there is no “self,” finding compassion for aspects of the personality as a way to end suffering can seem like a contradiction. However, when we first come to Awareness Practice, patiently teasing out subpersonalities is a remarkably helpful way to cultivate awareness . Along the way, we practice embracing all aspects of the personality in the wisdom, love, and compassion of the Mentor, as we stop taking personally the condemning, judging, and rejecting voices of self-hate. We practice moving attention from the process of personality to the process of compassion. Instead of reacting as a “someone” stuck in an out-of-date survival system, we spot subpersonalities as they are triggered, and we allow conscious compassionate awareness to respond spontaneously to Life arising.
So how has conditioning taken over this enlightening, liberating awareness tool?
Conditioning appropriates the process of identifying subpersonalities and uses it to author a narrative in which the “child” that was injured in the “process of social conditioning” becomes the inconsolable focus of attention. It creates a “someone” to whom something “wrong” has happened, and then it tells and retells the “story” as if it were “true.”
We hear practitioners referring to “young” parts of themselves that are wounded, afraid, anxious and unable to meet the responsibilities of an adult life. No matter how much mentoring is offered, these aspects of “me” remain immune to unconditional love, continuing to act out, hide out, and indulge their conditioned behaviors. The focus of practice becomes a process of offering “compassion” to “little people,” who aren’t little people at all. The practitioner is bamboozled into believing that because the “self” claims to be young, vulnerable, helpless and victimized, it is a “genuine little child” that needs to be rescued. With this clever, dexterous deception, the survival system has managed to redirect the attention from transcending the illusion of a self to maintaining it.
Once this is pointed out, conditioned mind wants to go on a campaign to banish subpersonalities, to remove “aspects of the personality” from the vocabulary of practice, to strategize how to avoid talking about “parts of me,” while spending time trying to figure out “what is ego, what is authenticity, and how do we tell the difference.”
The point of practice is not to “know” but to be aware. We use the framework of a practice structure such as subpersonalities to encounter and transcend what we’ve been tricked into believing we “know.” In the words of Wei Wu Wei, “One must know that one is not in order to be able to understand that we are.”
To beat ego at its own game, we use every opportunity where a “sub” digs in its heels and refuses to be embraced in conscious compassionate awareness to let go yet another way conditioning creates and maintains suffering. Once we recognize ego maintenance in action, we can redirect attention away from the story of the “young part of me/I” to thisherenow and an experience of authentic nature.
This movement does require us to grow-up! As we choose to let go a survival system that no longer serves us, we step into an orientation of living life instead of surviving it. We practice realizing we no longer are dependent or needy but completely adequate to our Lives.
Wei Wu Wei poetically describes this.
A myriad bubbles were floating on the surface of a stream.
“What are you?” I cried to them as they drifted by.
“I am a bubble, of course” nearly a myriad bubbles answered,
and there was surprise and indignation in their voices as they passed.
But, here and there, a lonely bubble answered,
“We are this stream,” and there was neither surprise nor indignation in their voices, but just a quiet certitude.
In cultures across the world, gods and goddesses represent the different energies of existence--as in the god of thunder and the goddess of compassion. Divinity animates us. Is there a spark of the divine trapped in a survival system that can be brought into the light of conscious compassionate awareness? Pay attention to conditioned behaviors and see if the Mentor can access and liberate an aspect of the personality that is serving ego instead of being freely available to Life.