7. I’m A Different Person Now

Q: Your words about constant change hit home, Robert, although I am still grappling with some of it. What has sunk in after all that pain is that I am a different person now. No matter how much I don’t want to be different than I was, I just am. So, I understand that through life experiences we are new each day, and that was something I couldn’t accept before.

But I am still wondering about this. Without there being a “me,” how come the past affects us so much? Like for those of us who experience a trauma, I understand the event itself altered that person. But if “myself,” as you say, is this fluid organism that just experiences life as it flows, what causes us to cling? What role does the subconscious have? It is my understanding that the subconscious rules a lot of what we think and do. If that is the case, then is there a “me,” in the subconscious? As a psychologist, I am sure you did inner child work and explorations like that with people. But if now is all there is, is there still a place for that type of healing?

A: Well, that’s good. You have the important part. Everything is always changing, including myself. That is a powerful idea.

But saying that myself is always changing does not mean that myself is nonexistent, as some people like to imagine. Clearly “myself” exists in various ways, but does not have the permanence that many of us presume. The myself of yesterday, or even of the last instant, is gone and can never come back again. The arrow of time points in only one direction; there is no going back, no reversing time, except in fantasy or delusion.

Myself is like a river of thoughts and feelings that cannot be controlled, but keeps flowing, like it or not, where and as it must. No one can stop that flow. The myself of the last moment is gone forever—water over the dam. Even this moment—this present “myself”—slips away before we can begin to get a grip on it.

Don’t take my word for this. Look into it. Observe the stream of consciousness you call “myself”—not the content of consciousness, not the details of thoughts and feelings—but the stream itself. Notice how thoughts and feelings morph and change endlessly—one thought or feeling flowing into the next. That flow, I am saying, is “myself”—the only myself one will ever really know.

If memories of trauma arise, the apparent thinker of those thoughts calls itself “me,” and the trauma is seen as something that happened to me. From that point of view, the thinker appears to be a continuous, enduring, fixed “thing” to which things happen—events, thoughts, and feelings, one after another. But “myself” is not continuous. Each moment is a new moment, not necessarily connected to the previous moment in any way at all. Do not take this on my authority. Observe and you will see.

The seeming continuity of myself is an illusion that arises partly due to cultural indoctrination, but also because the apparent center of awareness always calls itself by the same name: “me.” That unvarying name suggests an identity which also does not change: me, the perceiver of perceptions, the feeler of feelings, and the thinker of thoughts. However, although the name never changes, that ostensibly unchanging center of awareness is flowing along with everything else, in no way separate from perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.

If locked into a point of view that sees oneself as the thinker of thoughts, it will never even occur to that myself that “myself” is also a thought, ephemeral and entirely transient like any other thought. Yes, there may be a thought in the next moment also called “me,” along with a presentation of feelings and thoughts about “me”, but it will not be the same “me” as the previous “me-thought.”

You have already recognized this—“We are new each day,” you wrote—but you have not yet seen it to the fullest. Yes, we are new each day, but actually we are new each second, and so your wish to be what you used to be merely fantasizes a “used to be” that never really existed in the first place, and now only seems to have existed.

That “used to be” is a story you tell yourself confected from memories and images of countless events, each of which happened to a different “me”, which now are blended together as if they all happened to one durable, but now bygone “me.” Adversity, you say, has brought a new “me” into existence which wishes it didn’t know now what the old “me” didn’t know then, while at the same time, paradoxically, you wish that the old “me” could have known back then how good she had it. That kind of “me” is a fantasy filled with regret.

An old uncle of mine loved to drink, and had a professional looking bar in the basement of his house. He had every kind of liquor you could imagine on the shelves of that bar, and his own beer tap below them. In the center of that wall of bottles was a sign in faux-Germanic font:

“We grow too soon Oldt, and too late Schmart.”

Now any one particular instant may exhibit aspects roughly similar, those of the previous moment. Picture the way one frame in a strip of movie film may differ only slightly from the one just previous to it. The movie is made up of thousands of separate still photographs which, when projected rapidly, produce an apparent continuity. Similarly, the apparent continuity of perceptions, thoughts and feelings from one instant to another may create the impression of a continuous “myself” that endures as time passes—a “myself” that survives intact and unchanged from one moment into the next. But when something abrupt, drastic, or shocking occurs, which is like a jump cut in the movie—a sudden accident, or unexpected bad news—we see immediately that the presumed persistence of selfhood is not truly the case, and we understand that it never was. Often this comes as a shock: “I’m a different person now.”

What you call your “grappling” with the idea of constant change is a kind of resistance to the fact of impermanence. I call impermanence a “fact,” because clearly and undeniably:

  1. there is no stopping the flow of events, and
  2. there are no guarantees whatsoever about what kind of event or feeling will arise next.

You asked, “What causes us to cling?” That is part of it. We are loathe to admit our lack of influence over feelings and events, any one of which might turn one’s entire world upside down in an instant.

But when you ask “What causes us to cling?” you are asking from a perspective that implies an “us” that does not, from my vantage, really exist. There is not a “you” separate from clinging. Clinging is not something that “myself” does. No one can decide to cling or choose not to cling. Let me give you an example from current events.

In my student days, American universities were cauldrons of free speech with students defying all attempts to limit their self-expression. Nowadays, many students clamor for the polar opposite. It is not the right of uncensored expression they are demanding, but the “right” to be kept safe from such expression—safe from having to even hear ideas they do not like. In this new version of what a university should be about, professors have been fired from their jobs because they used a “trigger word” in a lecture, or even because they put a “trigger book” on the syllabus. Eminent visitors with something to say have been debarred.

This new “right” consists of being guaranteed an environment in which nothing will occur that might be upsetting or conflict uncomfortably with whatever views are deemed politically correct. This, of course, is the very antithesis of what a real education involves, which is precisely to have all manner of ideas expressed, questioned, examined from various aspects, and thus clarified.

When asked to defend the notion that their schools, at the cost of the customary free speech rights of their peers and professors, should be emotional “safe zones,” these students resort to the language of post-traumatic stress disorder, asserting that because they are already traumatized by cultural injustice, they cannot tolerate even one more “micro-aggression.” Thus, they demand that everyone in the university milieu treat them as the walking wounded.

Walking wounded has become their identity, and they cling to it eagerly. We hear that eagerness in the phrase, “How do you identify?” which means, tell us your religion, your ethnicity, your sexuality, your skin color, your nationality, your gender, your so-called “race,” etc., because without knowing those details, we cannot trust you, and if they are the wrong details, we cannot trust you either.

But those details are only “myself” insofar as I think they are and act like it. Others may try to put me in a box, but there is, I say, a “myself” entirely outside that box—a “myself” independent of the categories of gender, ethnicity, etc.

Comprehending this does not require ignoring discriminatory societal arrangements or bigoted attitudes in the prevailing social consensus. Seeing “myself” as greater than such categories as gender, skin color, economic class, and nationality does not demand blindness to the inequities of economic, racial, and cultural privilege, not at all. Nor does it mean refraining from advocacy and dissent. One can see the ultimate falsity of cultural identification, but still work to oppose cultural injustice. It only means seeing that categories like race, gender, and the rest do not and cannot define “myself” in my own mind unless I cling to them as if I owned them.

So, one can be aware of those categories without clinging to them, while seeing that “myself,” in its most basic manifestation as choiceless awareness, remains forever undefined by any characterization at all beyond “I am; I exist.”

Some people really have been traumatized—traumatized by rape and other forms of violence, by exposure to horrifying events, by victimization of various kinds, and all the rest. I am not saying that such a person can simply stop “identifying” and thus “snap out of it.” This not a question of willing or deciding, but of healing.

Certainly, a person in the aftermath of traumatic stress needs trained help and a safe space in order to engage with the trauma. Nevertheless, the “trigger warning” people are barking up the wrong tree entirely. In the first place, the proper treatment for PTSD is not avoidance of triggers. Emotional avoidance is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it. Dodging triggers may seem to create a feeling of comfort and safety, but therapists know that behavioral avoidance most often leads to a worsening of symptoms, not a healing of them. Furthermore, physical safety on campus is one thing, but making a campus “safe” from ideas that might offend an already traumatized person is quite another.

Recovery from PTSD may require a period of enhanced safety, but that is the ethos of the consulting room, not the world at large, which is a big world with all kinds of minds in it. Moreover, lasting recovery from PTSD will involve—must involve, I say—coming to see that there exists in this very moment a “myself” who is not traumatized, just as there is a “myself” attending classes who is neither a woman nor a man, neither “cis-gendered” nor GLBTQ, not one race or another, nor actually part of any other subgroup one has learned to identify as. I mean a “myself” with no idea of who it is or even what it is, but only that it is.

Memories of events, even traumatic events, are not permanent recordings with an indelible character engraved in stone. Although based upon events, and consequently constituting one version of those events, memories are not the events themselves, nor are they a recurrence of those events, however much it might seem like that to a sufferer from PTSD.

Memories can be viewed from various angles, circumambulated, regarded freshly, re-visioned, and thus revised. This allows understanding to occur organically. The organic plasticity of memory provides the entrance point for psychotherapy aimed at trauma recovery. As for what style of therapy, an approach that works for one person might not be right for another. Much of the healing power, I have found, resides not in the specifics of technique, but in the relief of being seen, heard, and understood.

Returning to your specific question about what causes us to cling: we cling when we fear that without identifying with something or as something, “myself” will lack substance entirely, rendering ordinary life devoid of meaning. Even a glimmer of the possibility of emptiness and meaninglessness can feel terrifying—like glimpsing a bottomless void into which one might fall forever. And of course we fear death which, although many attempt to hold it at bay with religion and spirituality, will mean the end of the entire self-centered production called “my life.”

“Like a falling star, like a bubble in a stream, like a flame in the wind, like frost in the sun ... ” (Gautama, the Buddha)

Q: Your follow-up response was very helpful. I always thought that people were saying that “me” did not exist at all, and I have never been able to wrap my head around that. Your explanation made total sense to me. In reference to the river analogy, I have since been thinking of trauma almost like a toxic spill in a river.

The poison becomes part of the river in the same way that trauma becomes part of one’s life experience. This toxic spill can be felt, and possibly cleaned up some through therapy or whatever method one uses to heal. But I don’t know that it can ever fully be removed because you can’t undo an event. At least in my experience, once something comes into awareness, it doesn’t seem to want to leave.

Before I was looking for ways to make it seem like the trauma never happened, but now I get it. It happened, and I will be forever changed by it. There is no going back, period, no matter how hard I try.

I just have to say this. It may sound crazy, but we both know I have a touch of crazy. I just have an overwhelming urge to thank you. I so appreciate the listening you have done and the words you have shared. You don’t know me from Eve but you’ve made me feel comfortable enough to share my most buried thoughts and fears. Please just know you have helped so many and are deeply appreciated.

A: You are most welcome. There is nothing crazy about gratitude. I like your idea about the toxic spill in the river. That seems a useful way to view trauma and recovery.