I have to be careful with this post because it risks getting technical and I want to keep things accessible; so bear with me as I lay some groundwork. Now, the main insight of this post is really just the application of a developmental principle I call "provisionality". Keep reading if you're interested.
At heart, "provisionality" is a fancy word for "training wheels", though it can also mean "band-aid" or even "supports". Provisionality means that there are aspects of our journey that are inherently provisional, temporary, or otherwise intended to serve us for a time before launching us into something else. Having already mentioned training wheels it isn't hard to see where I'm going with this. Training wheels help us learn to ride a bike, but once this is accomplished the security they provide eventually hinders our advancement as cyclists. After all, one does not Tour de France with training wheels! The same principle applies to how we do relationships, trauma, and the coping mechanisms we carry forward from our past that complicate our lives today. So much of what shaped us in the past must eventually give way to new ways of being.1
It's how we grow into our humanity.
Anyway, while so much of this is obvious for therapists and intuitively true for the rest of us, what I wanted to share this week is that provisionality extends far beyond the common sense things I've mentioned above. For instance, did you know that knowledge itself is provisional? Even your answer to the question, "Who am I?" is a provision intended to help you through a stage before ushering you into something new. Except, there's a problem...
You see, humans have short memories, add in the fact that we're astonishingly short-sighted and tend toward belligerence when confronted with these characteristics and it's no wonder we're so blind! Enmeshed as we are in the cultures of the information age, these characteristics mean we remain convinced that knowledge is an end-in-itself and that who we are is something static to seek out amidst the noise of life. Frankly, it's easy to see why we get offended and confused when the great mystical traditions tell us to forget it all! Here's one of my favourite Zen Koans:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," said the master, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
Even Jesus suggests a kind of "forgetting" or "emptying" as prerequisite to spiritual maturity:
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 18:2-4)
And Hafiz, the great Sufi master waxes poetic in his poem "I Saw Two Birds":
Forget about all your desires for truth,
We have gone far beyond that,
For now it is just-
Here it is: there is no aspect of your "self" that isn't up for interpretation. Seriously! These days, advances in neuroscience, the study of consciousness and how we construct an "autobiographical self" show us that who we think we are is constructed and gets reconstructed in every stage in life.2 Therefore, the selves you and I think we are, are not who we really are. Therefore, this brings us to the ultimate question:
Who are you?
This is called "Include and Transcend" - something that will come up a lot as it is the fundamental mechanism of growth, development and transformation. If you get this, then there is nothing left for me to teach you. ↩
Anil Ananthaswamy wrote a book called "The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self" which is worth checking out. National Geographic did an interview with him. Also, here are some other essays on the "autobiographical self" for further study. ↩