WHO’S WHO IN AMERICA
August  2008
[This essay of Art Rosengarten was first published in The MetaArts Magazine, 2003]
The Great Mystery
In discussing the conditions for enduring psychological transformation (individually, societally, and globally), I noted that Buddhists believe the core difficulty stems from the fact that we don’t really know who we are. The argument goes something like this: We know ‘what’ we are, in terms of roles, preferences, and beliefs; we know ‘what’ we’re supposed to be, in terms of familial, religious, and cultural expectations and assumptions; we may even know ‘what’ we’d really like to be, in view of all these things plus a little imagination as well. Yet despite our prodigious capacity to self-assess along these lines, we don’t know who we are. We confuse the ‘what’ for the ‘who’ and at the end of the day we don’t have a clue.
The “what we are” refers to our content, the“who” to the carrier, agent, or driver of that content. Simply stated, the ‘who’ is the guy that’s minding the store (not the stuff on the shelves), in some cases, it exists before the store has even been built (but we will take up the illusion of Time in another article). The who says: “Let’s open early today…don’t forget to call the tax guy after ten…Wow, who is she? Nice ass…” You might think: “All that silent conversation and mind chatter.. who’s doing it?” The answer is we don’t really know. We’re more focused on collecting and expanding our stuff, the whats, than on solving the whos. People would rather know “what’s” for lunch than who’s eating it?
Those In The Know
Not long ago, I put this very question to some 46 senators in the American Congress—that is, while day-dreaming on a slow Saturday afternoon. “Senator, could you tell me, in your own words, who you really are?” Below I’ve listed a sampling of their responses:
A person of conviction and compassion
The son of a twice-decorated war hero from Alabama
A man who cares for the children of America
A woman who understands the less fortunate
A guy who believes in fiscal responsibility and common sense
A proud son of the grand state of Louisiana
The man standing before you, who else?
Just a citizen with a vision for the American people
(And so forth…)
Obviously, American senators have no idea who they really are by this survey. Fortunately for them, they are no different than 99.99% of the world’s population. Unfortunately for us, they wield considerable influence over the future course on this planet and beyond. This got me to wondering: Except for a few intriguing possibilities from the emergent sciences, the out-of-the-park home run that is the Internet, and perhaps Sushi Bars, the world seems as ignorant today as it’s ever been, and arguably worse. Not to say that we are bad or just plain dumb people, because we’re not bad or dumb people; by and large, human beings are a fairly bright and decent lot, we don’t go around spitting on each other, lopping off heads, or throwing bombs in open marketplaces (well..let’s say, MOST human beings are a decent lot and leave it at that); people pretty much do the best they can with what they’ve got to work with. It’s simply unfortunate that they don’t know who they are.
Inmates Running The Asylum
Here’s what I see today in America, circa today: As Earth reaches critical depletions in ecosystems and the global population continues to soar, America pretends to know who it really is (but is otherwise clueless). To a certain degree, America knows “what” it is, and “where” it’s going, or at least pretends to know. America’s political agenda is driven foremost by the myth of superiority–energy, information, weapons, and wealth, the four fabled components of power dominance. Its real and perceived threats of terrorism have provided a certain moral/primal justification to accelerate and extend this power agenda. Simultaneously, its economic and social institutions are clogged from decades of attrition having been stylized by a meritocracy that gets its blood-draw entirely from the imagination-deficient “reality thing” (see “Reality” essays in IDEAS).
America’s poor no longer have political representation in the Bush Administration and are viewed as annoyances, like mosquitoes. Its entrepreneurial movers and shakers hustle like “valley boys” for new slice-and-dice designer technologies, and its idea-starved “identity culture,” (see The New Gurus, IDEAS), is agog in the narcissism of consumer culture, or else thumps its chest out in the hubris of going backwards in time. The Arts stumble over tired replays of unreal reality, and The Sciences have made a new religion out of the deification of reification (Thingism), meaning we see god in our ability to recreate god. But given this troubling assessment of the state of the union, is it not odd that almost nobody in America is concerned about who they really are? And perhaps more concerning, who’s minding the store of America?
The emergent sciences (by which I mean forward-looking empirical theories and technologies) such as microelectronics, biotechnology, neuropsychiatry, and artificial intelligence would seem to offer the best hope in solving this puzzle. They point to impressive gains in the information marathon, like the fact that human knowledge is doubling every ten years, and that in the past decade, more scientific knowledge has been created than previously in all of human history. That the number of DNA sequences we can analyze is doubling every two years. That computer power is doubling every eighteen months, and that the Internet is doubling every year. Curiously, despite such rapid doublings in scientific knowledge and application, even the vast majority of scientists themselves have no verifiable idea of “who” they really are. What time do they have to work on it? Even the field of Psychology–which with Freud and Jung and their many wise disciples–once prided itself as the science of self-knowledge (“who-ness”) NOW has joined the march of hard science towards what-ness. One must wonder, therefore, what will the emergent sciences do with all this rapid-fire new information?
Once again it’s the same rather hairy situation of the inmates running the asylum. The plain truth is that neither the valley boys, the scientists, the politicos, the fundamentalists, the identity projects, the poor, the normaloids, the Good Ol’ Boys, or the children have the foggiest idea who they really are. Nothing new under the sun here. Hmm. Like certified mental disorders all differentially diagnosed, each strain of personhood actually functions quite coherently within its own quirky parameters. From the Tabugian perspective (see The New Gurus, IDEAS), this is more than a tad bit disturbing! It’s sheer runaway humanity setting up shop like a chicken with its head cut off! If the Buddha was correct in his assertion– that the fundamental cause of human suffering is the fact that Man doesn’t really know “who” he is [and let’s assume for the moment that this transformed Indian prince knew experientially, in ultimate terms, exactly what he was talking about] THEN we definitely DO have a problem here. It’s what I call the “Who’s Who In America” problem.
Jung pointed (partially) to the problem in his writings:
Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them.
Who’s Who In America from the Jungian perspective is really a story about What’s What in America– perhaps with the subtitle: A Compendium Of What’s Taking Up Space On The Shelves Of My Store. As a mass collection of narcissistically-injured egos [we are a little self-absorbed in the wrong places, don’t you think?] in our lost perceptions of who we really are we tend to overcompensate either through being inappropriately proud (or else, gravely insecure) about “what” we are, and by extension, what America is; yet in the same breath, we are virtually disinterested in the more vexing problem of “who” we are. Is this really the 21st century?
Had one senator in my imaginary survey said simply “an observing center of awareness,” or “something that eludes me when I’m highly present in the moment,” or perhaps, “an unfolding, non-local, experiential field of biological, mental, karmic and environmental factors,” or even “Hell, son, I have no idea who I really am but I pretend I’ve got this thing figured out because it’s a lot easier to stay employed that way”—all Tabugians would rest easier.
Buddhist psychology takes Jung a giant step further on this matter. Beyond Jung’s static focus on “contents of the mind,” whether conscious or unconscious, Buddhist psychology recognizes “processes of mind” (modes of perception) under which resides a vast, content-less awareness called ‘sunyata.’ The word translates into English as ‘emptiness’ and it may be thought of as pure process blended with pure awareness. In contrast to the perceptual forms that characterize the conscious mind—thought, feeling, sense perception—or even those characterizing the unconscious mind—images, memories, complexes, archetypes, dreams, Buddhists believe the larger nature of consciousness has no shape, no form, no substance and no style at all. It is therefore described as emptiness. One wonders how such utter negation could give rise to a “who?”
In the classic ‘Heart Sutra’ the Buddha teaches that wisdom essence is the worldview based on direct knowledge of emptiness. Enlightenment is no other than the direct and stable perception of emptiness. This perception, from the Buddhist perspective, is perhaps the goal or ‘finality’ that our construct “who we really are” ultimately strives to connect us to, but eventually “it” too will be surrendered in the process.
Writes American Buddhist psychologist John Welwood:
If the contents of mind are like pails and buckets floating in a stream, and the mindstream is like the dynamic flowing of the water, pure awareness is like the water itself in its essential wetness. Sometimes the water is still, sometimes it is turbulent; yet it always remains as it is, wet, fluid, watery. In the same way, pure awareness is never confined or disrupted by any mind-state. Therefore, it is the source of liberation and true equanimity.
Who we are is basically “essential awareness,” that is, the process of awareness itself. We are not the contents of awareness, which more accurately point to the “whats.” Directing this insight to the attainment of deep wisdom is the job description of the bodhisattva. “Warrior saints, and Enlightened Beings seeking the perfection of wisdom,” spoke ‘the Conqueror’ (the Buddha) in The Heart Sutra, admonishing that one’s essential awareness must be directed to:
“The perception of emptiness by a person whose mind is filled with the Wish for enlightenment.”
Such is the Buddhist formulation for ultimate realization. At this level, bodies are no longer bodies and Tabugians are no longer Tabugians, they have decomposed into only ‘such’. As we can see, the Buddhist formula requires not only essential awareness but also ‘right intention’(choice) and ‘the Wish.’ We must take aim with our awareness, divining it in highest motivation.
To be continued…
(Note: This article has been translated into French, as well as Tagalog, under the titles, respectively: “Who’s Who In France,” and “Who’s Who In The Philippines.” Comments are appreciated.