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January 23rd, 2019
Everyone with the capacity to understand this sentence has at one point been so engaged in attention that they completely lose a sense of self.
The most accessible example of this phenomenon is watching a movie. Generally, we as people are fairly poor in our ability to all sit silently facing the same direction. We are more likely to turn and engage with one another. But in a movie theatre, something magical seems to happen, and for 90 or so minutes we seem to forget everything other than the fantasy of light on the wall. Who we are seems to become a lost concept as we identify with the characters, the plot, and the narrative as a whole.
Only the burgeoning annoyance of needing to use the restroom or stuff more salty or sugared food into our face seems to break the spell. In fact, we enjoy this loss of self so much that if another person near us fails to properly lose themselves in the story and talk, we scowl and even pester such a person so as not to interrupt our focused attention.
Where exactly are we during such a phenomenon of attention? Is our identity somehow on hold? Or does this phenomenon present both answer and evidence for the Identity Danger as discussed in Episode 17 of Tinkered Thinking?
The concept of identity becomes more flimsy the more we attempt to zero in on it. The word itself is an excellent example of how people of a culture can latch on to concept without even really understanding what it is. The etymology of the word ‘identity’ arises from the Latin ‘idem’ meaning same.
Same as what?
Same as this person, or that group or concept? This is how we generally seem to be using the word, in a way that groups and categorizes people who are sort of the same. But doing so glosses over the details, which is potentially dangerous, and indicative of a culture characterized by so much disagreement.
What happens to the word identity if we localize it to the max, meaning: What if our identity is fluid and changes instant by instant depending on what our attention is focused on?
This makes sense with regards to the phenomenon of watching a movie. This is how we can come to find ourselves sympathizing with both the good and bad guys in a story. The juxtaposition of contradictory feelings is perhaps a discomfort that we innately know is important, as evidenced by the fact that we seek it out in dramas, tragedies and all manner of story, but something that we are less likely to entertain without the convenient road map some author or director has constructed for us.
When focusing on a problem, it’s tempting to get wrapped up in the confusion of not seeing the solution. If we pick apart this all-too-familiar situation though, we can see that the confusion becomes the thing we are focusing on. By focusing on the emotion of frustration that is often produced by confusion, we cease to focus on the actual problem. To lose focus here is to actually lose sight of it. But something is always in sight: in this case it’s the physical sensations of frustration and confusion.
In this moment, we are identifying with the physical sensations of the body instead of the details of the actual problem.
This leads to a strange-sounding restatement: If we refocus on the problem, we then identify with the details of the problem. The way we usually phrase this is: By refocusing we pay attention to the details of the problem. But in terms of the experience of consciousness, they are one in the same. Just as our focus on a movie in a movie theatre invokes an identification with the characters we are paying attention to.
We can even ask the odd question: is the concept of who I am even a useful area of thought to wonder about?
Maybe not, for the simple reason that it means that we lose focus of everything outside of our self. We lose focus of the world and we begin to exist in an echo-chamber.
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