This illusion, this “I,” is nothing except motion. To take a cup of water from a river is to lose its essence. You cannot capture the motion. Likewise, when we hold a mirror to our own souls, we do not see ourselves. We are doing something much more complicated.
Adjectives constrain the way we think. We create sentences such as, “I see a red book,” or “I met an honest person.” A person, though, isn’t honest in the same way a book is red. In fact, can we really call a person honest? We like to think that people have fundamental traits. There are honest people and dishonest people. In reality, this kind of thinking can be described as the “fundamental attribution error.” Our actions are often affected by contingencies, by the outside circumstances. Instead of taking these circumstances into account, we say that the person is honest or dishonest, liberal or miserly.
I do want to take this a step further and say that a person isn’t fundamentally honest. What constitutes an honest person? One who always says the truth? One who generally tells the truth? One who tells the truth when it matters? To the first, there is no such person. To the second, what percentage? To the third, lots of little lies to add up. Is, then, an honest person someone you can trust? But put that person in a certain environment, perhaps one where she’s under the sway of an authority, the crowd, or where she has absolute power, and she will become corrupt. There exists no pure property of honesty that one can find in the mind.
All such traits don’t exist within ourselves. They exist for moments. They exist in the actions. We do something dishonest, and that’s when we are dishonest.
But then, we see patterns. A person constantly does things which are considered dishonest, and then acquires the reputation for being dishonest. Thus, these traits are not properties, but patterns.
These patterns have a curious property, though. By labelling ourselves a certain way, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think I am dishonest, so I do more actions which are dishonest. This reinforces the pattern, causing me to think I am dishonest. What we think is a fundamental personality trait is actually a pattern in motion, engaged in positive feedback.
So what to make of introspection? What do I see when I hold that mirror to my soul, if my conception of traits is correct? I don’t know, exactly. The mirror creates, distorts, destroys. When I look at the pattern of my behavior, I begin to create who I am. I see these things and say that I am this type of person. I may think I am “realizing” it, but I am creating it. Then again, this creation isn’t truth. It distorts who I am. It attributes properties to myself, which may not be correct. The mirror sees patterns, not truth. It makes an educated guess about who I am. There’s also an aspect of destruction. It locks me into a pattern, taking away possibilities. Yes, it creates me, but it may not be creating the right me; it may be destroying who I really want to be. By assigning myself a trait, I also destroy the nuances of my actions and the contingencies which led to them.
This aspect of destruction really fascinates me. When I say, “I can’t,” then I can’t. When I say, “I’m not this type of person,” then I’m not. It locks me in to a pattern.
You can avoid locking yourself into a particular pattern, but you can’t avoid the act of destruction. By simply doing something else, by acting, I create new patterns. When I commit to being a positive person, I become that positive person. However, I’m still engaged in the act of destroying complexities, destroying parts of who I am. I’m still assigning traits, but this time I’m choosing ones I decide are better. Yet I haven’t avoided the act of destruction.
Furthermore, I believe that we constantly engage in this creation and destruction. Based on our distorted perceptions of the patterns in our lives, we become who we are. Sometimes we reject these assumptions, and sometimes we accept them. We can’t avoid creating our identity.
Without introspection, we have no identity. But when we introspect, we change who we are.
I like to imagine the mind as consisting of water sloshing around. When we introspect, we dip our hands into the water, and create new ripples.