Over the last several years I have been reading a lot of Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan (the former, Lynn, is the ex of Carl Sagan and the mother of the latter). This mother-son writing duo – to my estimation – is one of the key think-tanks on this planet at the present time. Lynn is a fearless iconoclast brilliantly redefining our understanding of life. But this post isn’t about “life,” in its biochemical or cosmic sense. This post is about inner life and maintenance thereof.
As some of the readers of my blog know, I recently published a book called “Lotus Effect” which is a program of the identity detox designed to help you “shed suffering” and “rediscover your (so-called) essential self.” What I want to show you in this post is the interplay between biology and psychology, namely, the interplay between the two fundamental questions: “What is life?” and “Who am I?”
In their book “What is Life?” Margulis and Sagan write of life as “islands of order in an ocean of chaos.” This isn’t just a poetic stance, this is a kind of thermodynamic proclamation of independence. You see, according to the second law of thermodynamics entropy (i.e. chaos, disorder) increases “in any moving or energy-using [i.e. living, i.e. existing] system.” In other words, everything tends to fall apart. But life – while it exists – resists this tendency for disorder through self-maintenance.
Here’s Margulis & Son on this point:
“Body concentrates order. It continuously self-repairs. Every five days you get a new stomach lining. You get a new liver every two months. Your skin replaces itself every six weeks. Every year, 98 percent of the atoms of your body are replaced. This non-stop chemical replacement, metabolism, is a sure sign of life.”
This process of self-repair is called “autopoiesis” which is Greek for “self-making.”
Margulis & Son again:
“Without autopoietic behavior, organic beings do not self-maintain – they are not alive.”
So, where am I going with all this? To the notion of psychological autopoiesis, to what an early 20th century Armenian mystic Gurdjieff used to call “self-remembering,” to what I call “identity detox,” i.e. to the work of psychological self-maintenance. When I say "psychological self-maintenance," I am not talking about emotional self-regulation (mood management). I am talking – literally – about identity-regulation, Self-maintenance, identity hygiene.
When you ask yourself “Who am I?” you, in a sense, begin the process of shedding the outdated psychological skin and replacing it with a renewed sense of self. You see, psychologically speaking, we are mired in informational misrepresentations of who/what we are. We keep confusing ourselves with what we do, with what we have, with what we feel and think, with the roles with play, with our history. This informational confusion is the entropy of identity, a continuous loss of self. We simply disappear behind all these words of self-descriptions and self-definitions.
The task of psychological self-maintenance is the same as that of biological self-maintenance: it is autopoiesis, it is a job of self-making. Instead of being made (programmed) into “this” or “that,” we have to continuously de-program. We have to keep asking ourselves this basic identity-detoxing question “Who am I – who am I at my core, at my foundation, who am I when I shed my roles, when I dis-identify from all that’s fleeting and transient in my life, who am I when go beyond my self-descriptions, – who am I in essence, rather than in form?”
As you see, the “Who am I?” question isn’t just a superficial inquiry. It is a depth-psychology probe. It is an invitation to drill down through the informational calluses that weigh us down. It is an informational detox, a detox of identity, an informational strip-down, a process of remembering that you are not any information about you but that which is in the process of formation.
I know it sounds heady and confusing. And it is: you have to use your head and you have to tolerate the initial confusion that comes with this kind of self-work, before you finally begin to know what/who you are by being clear about what/who you are not.
Each day you are actively involved in life-supporting metabolic self-maintenance: you eat, you excrete, you repeat this cycle. The same goes for psychological self-maintenance, but in reverse: first, you excrete (shed) the ego-dirt, the informational dust that gets in your mind’s eye, the suffering of identification with what you are not; and, then, you “feed” yourself – through meditation and contemplation – with a sense of self, with a sense of “am-ness.”
This kind of daily “identity detox” is no more complicated or time-consuming than brushing your teeth. It is part of psychological hygiene, not a chore but an enjoyable task of self-remembering. There are many different experiential ways of accomplishing this. Just like with biological self-maintenance, you have a choice of any breakfast of consciousness you wish. It so happens that I, myself, like Dzogchen-style “sky-gazing meditation” for my “am-ness cereal.” That doesn’t make me a Buddhist. If you want to go with the Biblical “bagel-and-ham” of “I am that I am” to start and/or finish your day, you don’t have to be a Christian to do so. Any psychologically-autopoietic identity-detox method would do!
Enough rambling. Time to load up on “am-ness” calories! Lotus-eating time!
Read anything written by Margulis & Son! It’s complex but scientifically and existentially brave. I particularly recommend “What Is Life?” and “Microcosmos.”
Now, just for fun, here’s a 1985 hit by the Austrian band Opus, "Life is Life" (when I was a Soviet youth, I heard this tautological anthem from every open dorm window; the song has strange grammar and a definite feel-good message, with an unexpected third-stanza assertion that "every minute of the future is a memory of the past" – an intriguing Zen-like cautionary point). Enjoy!
Resources: Lotus Effect