Tag Archives: identity

The Vexed Man and The Game of Life

Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt [German, 1736 - 1783], J.Paul Getty Museum

Sculpture by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt [German, 1736 – 1783], J.Paul Getty

I bumped into the above piece of art by F.X. Messerchmidt as I was browsing the collections of J.Paul Getty’s Museum in the Internet. When I saw the Vexed Man’s face I felt immediate affinity with it.

I have been annoyed and frustrated recently. I’ve been working on a task such as I’ve never done before, and it has required that I see myself in a totally new role, using skills that – so I’ve thought – I don’t have.

The details of the task are not so important or even interesting. I’ve simply been filling an application that has demanded a lot of thinking and providing detailed information and calculations. If you’ve been reading my blog, you already know that my brain is most probably that of an artist of some sort. My brain does not function well within the sphere of numbers and logical thinking – so filling the application has been laborious, and at times really annoying and frustrating.

Anyway, in the end I humbled myself and managed to plough through the long application form. – I had to, because there is a chance that my application will be approved!

But I tell you – I first felt huge resistance. At some point I almost gave up.

Then I had a good conversation with my husband. He helped me to look at the situation from a different point of view. As a result, I noticed myself saying – you know, finally, in my rather advanced age: “Ok, world, I consent to your demands. I accept to play by your rules.” (Or, in fact this is what I meant: “Ok, world, I accept to play by your rules – but don’t think I’m going to take this game too seriously.”

Please note the word seriously. Because it is the seriousness with which people throw themselves into various roles in the drama of life that has always surprised me. No, I am not saying that life is not a serious matter. I am not saying that you should not take seriously your role as a mother or father, spouse, lover, a professional, or whatever you do. What I am saying is that most of us take these roles TOO seriously. We lose ourselves into these roles so that we forget what life is really about.

Think about it a little. Imagine that you are an actor, and you have a role that requires the use of a certain costume. Of course you take off the costume after the performance and leave it at the theatre when you go home.

Or think of a child playing. Children can be totally absorbed in an activity that they enjoy. They play their games very, very seriously. But there is also lightness in their seriousness. When the game is over, they forget it. My little 4-year old grandson can be completely immersed in building a big lego airplane, but when the work is done, he can knock down the structure and put the legos back into a box. Without blinking an eye. He does not get attached to the results of his effort. He does not cling to his role as a “building contractor”.

I think a major part of the suffering that we adults experience in life is a result of total identification with the roles that we play. Somewhere along the road we lose the joyfulness of a playing child, and we get attached to our roles and our role costumes. So much so that they become our second skin. The costume becomes a rigid and heavy armor that we always wear, and it prevents us from experiencing life flexibly.

Quite often the role costume is related to our work. We become our work. We define ourselves through our work. We give value to ourselves according to how successful we consider us to be in our work.

Or sometimes it can also be the opposite. In my case it has been like that. I have resisted the games that people play in the society. I have seen – and I think quite correctly – what happens when someone totally identifies with a certain work role, be it the role of a suffering and misunderstood artist or a successful banker. (At worst the total identification leads to becoming a sort of walking role costume, inside which there is very little space for a living human being.)

I used nearly two weeks filling that long application. The process gave me some important new insights. I realized that now that I already have a full life behind me I can finally be less serious about not taking part in the games of the world. I can afford to play a little, and I can even enjoy the games of the world – because I know that it is a game, and because I know that internally I can still remain free. Life is a tango of seriousness and playfulness. Enjoy the dance!

What We See of Things

It is a day like any other day. I sit in my room, surrounded by familiar objects which I can see as I always see them. Or can I? Can I really trust what my senses tell me?

Let me tell you about an interesting experience I once had.

At the time we were living in Mozambique. I was in my room that was furnished with a bookshelf, an armchair, a painting on the wall and a small bamboo table with a green flower vase on it. I sat in the armchair and slowly gazed at the objects of the room.

Looking at the bamboo table I cast my mind back to Vietnam, where I had bought the table and from where we had left for Africa. Looking at the painting I thought of the time when I had hung it on the wall, and of all those things that I was going through in my life at that time. Looking at the bookshelf I remembered Hanoi and a busy street where I had purchased the shelf, and the man who sold it to me, and the way I transported it home. The little green flower vase made me think of Finland and leaving from there.

Lootuksenkukkia

Every item in the room carried a story or an association with it. I really did not see the mere objects, but equally I saw my own thoughts, feelings and memories.

Then I made a small experiment. I tried to look at every item purely, without all the ”mental labels” that I had attached on their surfaces. I tried, one at a time, to peel off the stories and feelings that had settled on every piece of furniture in that room.

And suddenly I experienced something very liberating.

For a moment I was able to see the objects naked and stripped-down, without memories and experiences. Unlike one might imagine, the fact that they were revealed to me void of all meaning did not feel at all unpleasant or scary.

The border between my environment and myself dissolved for a moment.

Only the bright present moment, without past or future, was left; an existence that felt benevolent. And it wasn’t even important that it was I who was there, because even I became part of the surrounding reality, and the reality seemed to look back at me from the objects.

I think the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa speaks of a similar fleeting moment in his poem:

At times, on days of perfect and exact light,
When things have all the reality they can,
I ask myself slowly
Why I even attribute
Beauty to things.

Does a flower somehow have beauty?
Somehow a fruit has beauty?
No: they have color and form
And existence only.
Beauty is the name of something that doesn’t exist
I give to things in exchange for the delight they give me.
It means nothing.
Then why do I say, “Things are beautiful”?

Yes, even I, who live only to live,
Invisible, they come to meet me,
Men’s lies in the face of things,
In the face of things that simply exist.

How difficult to be yourself and see only what you can!

As I see it, Pessoa speaks in his poem of a brief moment of now that reveals us how imprisoned we are by our own experiences, even in the way we perceive ordinary objects that surround us.

We look at the world through our concepts – for example, that of beauty in the poem, and these concepts interpose themselves between the observer and the observed. As a result we lose something precious: a pure sense perception that happens in the present moment, the power of now.

Pessoa’s poem forces me to ask the following: If it is so difficult to perceive simple everyday objects without various interfering associations and given meanings, then how much more blurred must our perceptions be of other people and ourselves by our earlier life experiences?

Of course, when we are more or less aware of our personal problems, and hence without many unresolved issues in our life, our life experiences can also deepen our understanding of other people. Perhaps we could call this accurate mental eyesight.

Unfortunately, though, quite many of us avoid reflecting upon those aspects of life that blur the art of accurate mental eyesight. As a consequence we lose our ability to live completely in the present moment.

One can but join in the sigh of Pessoa: How difficult to be yourself and see only what you can! (The translation from Portuguese to English is not maybe the best possible. The more precise idea is how difficult to be yourself and to see only what there is to be seen.)

It is difficult but not impossible. So how can you be yourself and how can you see only what there is?

Above all else we have to want to understand ourselves on a deeper level. We need to ask the right questions.

True changes begin to happen in our life when for example we start to question our reactions to other people and the situations that we encounter. ”Is my reaction to this person and this situation truly relevant, or am I reacting to something in me? Is my behaviour caused by something inside my mind?”

The next question is: ”Who am I really?” This question leads us beyond usual definitions of identity, beyond those mental ”labels” that life has attached upon us. It helps us to reconnect to our authentic Self that has been there all the time, though buried under all secondary identities.

It is this space in us, this authentic Self, this level of true Being, Awareness  – whatever word you prefer – that is capable of seeing our internal conflicts and our suffering just as they are, with full acceptance and compassion. And when acceptance of one’s own life is reached, it expands to include other people, too.

You begin to be yourself and see only what there is to be seen.

More about Fernando Pessoa’s poetry and his eccentric personality in Wikipedia The original poem in Portuguese can be found at: http://arquivopessoa.net/textos/1182, the English translation at: http://alberto-caeiro.blogspot.fi