Who do you think you are?

Sunday Herald Life - - MIND & BODY - Martin Ste­pek

W E live with a strong im­age of our­selves in our mind. We can pic­ture our face, what it looks like, and we have an idea of what our personality is. Ac­cord­ing to re­searchers how­ever we usu­ally see as our true self the best ver­sion of how we be­have, what we think, how we com­mu­ni­cate. Those times when we’re tetchy, ir­ri­tated, worried, prej­u­diced … they’re all just off-mo­ments. In short, we ide­alise our­selves.

Yet what a whole plethora of re­search has found is that each of us is much less of a fixed, pos­i­tive personality than we think, in two ways. Firstly we’re not that rock solid at all. A bril­liant study by Har­vard Univer­sity showed that our minds wan­der to day­dreams, con­cerns, past re­grets, bit­ter­ness, and fan­tasies dur­ing al­most half of our wak­ing mo­ments. So far from be­ing “me” we are more like the tick­er­tape of head­lines that runs along the bot­tom of the news chan­nels, ex­cept than in our case there’s no main story run­ning at the same time. Who we are is the tick­er­tape of dis­trac­tions.

Se­condly, given that our mind wan­ders so fre­quently, and we know that we get ir­ri­tated and an­noyed in mi­nor ways sev­eral times a day, the ver­sion that we imag­ine to be our true self, the one where all our neg­a­tive men­tal habits are air­brushed out of the pic­ture, is fake. What we ac­tu­ally are, is a flick­er­ing, ever-shift­ing set of re­sponses that ex­ist any­where on a spec­trum that runs from saintly to hor­rif­i­cally self-cen­tred or hate­ful. Imag­ine that on your pass­port un­der the head­ing: Defin­ing Char­ac­ter­is­tics.

More­over most of us consider our­selves to be of a na­tional iden­tity. I think I’m Scottish. Granted my dad was Pol­ish. Oh, and all of my mother’s an­tecedents were Ir­ish through and through go­ing back to the famines of the 1840s when Daniel Mur­phy came over to Scot­land with his young wife and family. So al­though born in Cam­bus­lang and speak­ing with a La­nark­shire ac­cent, there’s not a drop of Scottish blood in me.

Does that mat­ter? Not now, not ac­cord­ing to main­stream thought any­way. If you’re here you’re Scottish, say the Scottish Gov­ern­ment and all the main po­lit­i­cal par­ties. But what does it mean any­way, to say I’m Scottish? And if you the reader consider yourself Scottish, can you say in what way? To what ex­tent? I have no eth­nic Scot­tish­ness in me, but then the peo­ple called Scots came from Ire­land in the first place, so if I go back far enough do I be­come de facto Scottish?

Note that this has noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics, the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, the Union, even Brexit. And yet, it does. How we see our­selves, in terms of na­tional iden­tity, and how we see “others” in terms of their na­tional iden­tity, and how we per­ceive the re­la­tion­ship be­tween “us” and those “others”, all af­fect how we think “our” coun­try should be de­fined and gov­erned. See how com­plex it be­comes? I’ve had to put so many quo­ta­tion marks over those words “us” and “others” be­cause each of us might have a dif­fer­ent def­i­ni­tion of who we mean by those terms.

It’s all fake. There is no us and them ex­cept in our minds. There is no land – real land, the solid bit of the sur­face of the Earth – called Scot­land, or the United King­dom, or the Euro­pean Union or even Europe. There are seven or eight ma­jor solid parts of the Earth’s crust, called tec­tonic plates, with many more mi­nor ones. The one Scot­land is on is not only part of the same bit of what we’d call land as the rest of the UK, but also all of Europe, much of Asia, and half of the land un­der the At­lantic Ocean. It’s called the Eurasian Plate. How we split it up into con­ti­nents, coun­tries, re­gions, and so on is just history, or what AJP Tay­lor called “one damned thing after an­other”.

Mind­ful­ness is all about notic­ing. In this in­stance we can learn to no­tice our pre­con­ceived ideas of our­selves, our dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties including our na­tional ones, and how th­ese things con­di­tion our think­ing po­lit­i­cally one way or an­other. It’s ab­so­lutely fine to have dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal aims and to have a view of our­selves as who we are, but it is hugely help­ful in our lives if we can see the de­gree to which we’ve been pro­grammed and to rid our­selves of those pro­grammes and try to see the com­plex­ity of life in a clearer less blink­ered way. Mind­ful­ness will help you do this. Martin Ste­pek is founder of Ten for Zen, of­fer­ing guided mind­ful­ness ses­sions in handy, 10 min­utes a day, au­dio cour­ses. Au­thor of four books, he is fre­quently asked to speak on mind­ful­ness, his re­mark­able family her­itage, and on busi­ness. See ten­forzen.co.uk and www.mar­tin­ste­pek.co.uk or email martin@ten­forzen.co.uk

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