[Personality]

Dear Donagh,

Something you wrote about personality has stayed in my mind because I found it hard to take on board.  You seemed to think we would be better off without it.  But my question is - wouldn’t life be completely impersonal if we eliminated personality? And completely boring.  We wouldn’t have any stories to tell each other.  I must be getting it wrong because you tell a lot of stories yourself and your writing is hardly ever impersonal. What did you mean…? Leo

Dear Leo,

I can't remember where I was moaning about personality.  It was probably in the context of meditation and trying to live beyond the ego’s stranglehold. 

I wouldn’t be in favour of eliminating anything that makes our life deeper, more human, more interesting, more loving…. I'm just looking carefully at words, which are (sort of) packages containing things that are not always clearly marked—and sometimes not marked at all—on the labels.  The word ‘personality’ is a beautiful word that gets a free pass everywhere. So we get a bit suspicious. 

My suspicion is that the word ‘personality’, is in some contexts a cover for lots of things that would be better classified under ‘ego’.  I'm not suggesting we should drop the word altogether, but only that we should keep an eye on it.   

Nor is everything evil that is classified under ‘ego’.  There could be things that are (as Arte Johnson might put it) “very interesting, but stupid.”  Or very interesting (to oneself), but tediously repetitive.  A friend told me about a 90-year-old relative who would have been much better off in a nursing home, but the family were reluctant to suggest it to him.  All his life he loved to be the centre of attention, and a nursing home would take that away from him.  But at last there was no alternative.  To their great relief he loved being there – because now he had a captive audience all day long, every day of the week.  Good for him - but for everyone else… not so much.    

How can we keep up the same tune for 90 years or more?  It is because we are creatures of habit, letting our lives run in ruts.  This isn't always bad, but it is unconscious.  Our personalities are the sum total of our habits.  These form a ‘whole’ only because they’ve been together so long, and they sustain one another. 

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates at the end of his life.  He was being put to death by people who believed that such statements were likely to corrupt youth.  They would rather youths lived out their lives in their appointed ruts. 

Meditation is an attempt to move (even a little) out of our ruts, to break that cluster of habits that we call our personality.  Meditation is said to be ‘one-pointed’.  In other words, it leaves no space for our stories to unfold.  A story takes time to tell, but meditation is always immersed in the present moment.  We are waiting in meditation for our ego and its stories to fall apart.  It’s a boring wait: we have to go through the boredom barrier.  But the alternative is to spend our whole lives boring other people. 

How to do that ‘one-pointed’ thing?  Look at everything (whether a physical or a mental object) so closely that it is no longer part of a pattern.  That's the trick.  It’s the only way to protect our future companions in the nursing home from our ‘personality’. 

Donagh


 


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