“One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas”, wrote the French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet. However, this internal, personal and profound knowledge can become the work of a lifetime, especially if we consider that the world constantly tries to tell us who we are and who we should become, a world that, according to E.E. Cummings “Strives, day and night, to make you equal to the others”.
We are social beings and, therefore, our “ego” is porous to the values of the people around us, people who can become very myopic when it comes to detecting what gives us security and makes us happy, people who often aspire to achieve the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Adapting to your expectations can be a colossal mistake, the biggest mistake of our life.
A rewarding journey that few dare to undertake
In 1926, Marion Milner, a British psychoanalyst and writer, forerunner of the introspective diaries, conducted an experiment on herself that lasted seven years, with the aim of discovering what was the pulsating core of genuine happiness and unveiling all the bad decisions we make driven by our chronic addiction to satisfaction, understood as the search for social acceptance, prestige and popularity.
Throughout her trip planted with “doubts, delays and expeditions on false paths”, as Milner herself described it, she kept a diary with the rigor of scientific observation. She came to the conclusion that we are profoundly different people compared to what we think we are, and that the things we pursue with the greatest frenzy are those that bring less joy and lasting satisfaction.
In the preface to the original edition, Milner warns us:
“Let no one think it is an easy way because it is concerned with moments of happiness rather than with stern duty or high moral endeavour. For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values. And finally, let no one undertake such an experiment who is not prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought.”
This warning is very enlightening because reveals to us that the search for happiness and one’s “ego” can be a tortuous path, because it involves getting rid of all the preconceived ideas that gave us security, or at least an illusion of security to which to cling. We can only rebuild when we are capable of destroying everything that does not serve us. And that process can be very hard for many people. In fact, later the psychoanalyst reflects on the feeling of extreme alienation and the fear of getting lost that she felt when the experiment began:
“Although I could not have told about it at the time, I can now remember the feeling of being cut off from other people, separate, shut away from whatever might be real in living. I was so dependent on other people’s opinion of me that I lived in a constant dread of offending, and if it occurred to me that something I had done was not approved of I was full of uneasiness until I had put it right. I always seemed to be looking for something, always a little distracted because there was something more important to be attended to just ahead of the moment.”
Her keen eye allowed her notice the deep dependence that we can develop from the opinions of the others, also highlighting the distance that occurs when you begin to move away from the expectations that the closest people have placed on you.
Milner also explains what was one of her main motivations to undertake this peculiar journey, a journey of personal deconstruction that we should all undertake at some point:
“I felt that my life was a boring mediocrity, I had the feeling that real and vital things were happening around the corner, in the streets, in the lives of other people. This is because I only caught the surface waves of everything that happened to me, when in reality events of vital importance were taking place for me, not in a place far from me, but just below the quiet surface of my mind. Although some of these discoveries were not entirely pleasant, bringing with it echoes of terror and despair, at least they gave me the sensation of being alive.”
What psychological tools do we need to undertake this journey?
The practice of introspection requires re-calibrating our conditioned perception. Milner set in motion her critical thinking and began to doubt her deepest beliefs about what made her happy. However, to decipher it not only she set in motion reason but also her senses. She wrote:
“As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy.
“Blind thinking… could make me pretend I was being true to myself when really I was only being true to an infantile fear and confusion of situations; and the more confused it was the more it would call to its aid a sense of conviction.”
This new perspective inevitably takes us to the Taoist philosophy, which encourages us to use reason to discover limiting beliefs inoculated socially but then urges us to trust more in the senses as a way to discover oneself and the world. It is a change of perspective that is very difficult to achieve since we are not used to it and spent a lifetime silencing our senses and praising reason.
Milner discovered that it was a matter of recalibrating her habits of perception, it was not about looking directly at an object with attention, but about developing a more complete image with a diffuse awareness, a sensory experience, not logical. Therefore, she asked herself:
“If just looking could be so satisfying, why was I always striving to have things or to get things done? Certainly I had never suspected that the key to my private reality might lie in so apparently simple a skill as the ability to let the senses roam unfettered by purposes.
“I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always… So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know. I wrote: “It will mean walking in a fog for a bit, but it’s the only way which is not a presumption, forcing the self into a theory.”
Milner refers to the need to embark on that path, abandoning all the initial goals, with the necessary mental openness to discover other goals along the way, goals that will probably be more in tune with your “ego” and that will respond less to social expectations.
The key to this trip lies in learning to flow, as Milner discovered:
“I did not know that I could only get the most out of life by giving myself up to it. Here then was a deadlock. I wanted to get the most out of life, but the more I tried to grasp, the more I felt that I was ever outside, missing things. At that time I could not understand at all that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.”
I have always believed that the trip that Milner undertook is a journey that we must all undertake, as soon as possible, to avoid life passing before our eyes without living it. Once we have plunged ourselves into the core of the society, we must take the reverse path towards individualization, the authentic one.