Becoming who we are: Personality as a process of learning

Miles Teller and J K Simmons in the film Whiplash
Miles Teller and J.K Simmons in the film, Whiplash

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

This is a re-write of a previous article originally posted in September 2022.

For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence; the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment than we think? And what would the implications of this be for someone’s ability to change? The above quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald views personality as a series of successful gestures, and psychologists seem to agree; defining personality as the characteristic patterns of thoughts, behaviours and emotions that mould individual difference.

Chicken and the egg

Whilst this definition is useful, it begs the question: What is the starting point of these patterns of thought, behaviour, and emotion? The anthropologist Helen Fisher, states that these characteristic patterns are shaped by two fundamental traits: one being temperament, the other being environment. Fisher quotes the Spanish Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset who said, “I am, plus my circumstances”, stating through this quote that temperament is the container that that our character and personality grows out from.

What this implies is that personality is more malleable than we realise. That as we learn from our environment we have the capacity for change, but not infinitely so. As F. Scott Fitzgerald shows in The Great Gatsby, there is great folly in thinking that you can turn yourself into anything, regardless of your past. There is no clean break or blank slate. The paradox of this is that we also have the freedom to imagine who we would like to become and with an open mind, can unlearn old patterns and learn new ones, changing in accordance with our ideal.  

The brilliant film Whiplash, riffs on this eternal chicken-or-the-egg like puzzle of nature versus nurture and of how much temperament and environment influence who we become. Toward the end of the film, the driven, yet by now traumatised jazz student played by Miles Teller confronts his tyrannical teacher, asking if the brutal environment he created may discourage the next jazz greats from emerging. His teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, states that no environment would ever discourage a great from being great, that if the person has the drive, then they will drive through anything, no matter how unpleasant, to get there. Talking about the jazz great Charlie Parker, Simmons character describes the hostile musical environment he grew up in (almost being decapitated by a symbol for messing up a set) as the catalyst for Charlie Parker becoming Charlie Parker.

What is interesting in J. K. Simmons view is that despite the harshness of his beliefs, he is effectively saying that Charlie Parker needed both the temperament and the tough environment to become who he was. He required a certain obstinacy which allowed him to be shaped, and not crushed, by the difficult environment he grew up in. The view of this character is that there was a speck of a great jazz musician already there, yet it was the cauldron his environment, that forged him into who he became.

An instructive way of approaching this question of how we become who we are is by looking at the views of Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th century psychology. Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner had antithetical and competing views to one another, however both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth. A marrying of their views can go a long way to explaining personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial implications for understanding a person’s potential for change.

B. F. Skinner and the ‘keys to human nature’

B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning (the monitoring of instinctive reactions). For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New WorldOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange. Skinner famously denied the concept of personality entirely, claiming that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from internal mental states, but from learning experiences in the environment. His influence is still felt across psychology and education today, most notably in the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is partly based on his theories.

Skinner was a seeker for the ‘mechanisms’ of human behaviour, believing that if this could be found, the keys to understanding (and predicting) human nature would be assured. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by the provision and withdrawal of rewards or punishments in the environment. According to this theory, administering a reward or removing a punishment would strengthen behaviour, whilst removing a reward or administering a punishment would weaken behaviour.

A simple illustration of this theory is the example of a child that has the desire and temperament to draw. If the child’s drawing is produced in an encouraging environment, then according to Skinner this will reward the behaviour of drawing. The child will learn from this, which then reinforces this behaviour into an important part of the child’s personality. An environment that doesn’t encourage drawing, or actively punishes it, would lead to a weakening and possible extinguishing of this behaviour, as the child is pushed into different behaviours.

Skinner would claim that the child’s desire and temperament has been shaped by an uncountable number of reinforcing experiences going all the way back to parental genetics. Whilst it may feel to the child that this desire to draw emanated from his personality, Skinner believed this was a delusion, claiming that this desire was shaped by the micro-learning experiences of the environment. Coming back to the Whiplash example, Skinner would say that Charlie Parker didn’t become who he was because of some essential, fateful drive; rather it was his environment that had shaped and determined who he became.

Carl Rogers, Free-Will and Potential

Carl Rogers is one of the most influential figures in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. He was one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Skinner in the 1960’s. As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Rogers observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. His view of learning as fundamental to personality development is encapsulated in his theory of Learner-Centred Teaching which emphasised an approach to learning that gave students more freedom to learn what was valuable to them. For Rogers, temperament would have been primary to how a person responded to their environment.

In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers. Rogers believed that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future that influenced how they responded to learning experiences in the present. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone, a guiding potential to which they were oriented. Popularising the term incongruence, his clinical experience demonstrated to him how an individual learnt from their personal experience of whether they were living up to their potential and adjusted accordingly.

For Rogers, it was this guiding, future-oriented-will that shaped the individuals responses to the environment. Rogers would have agreed with J. K. Simmons character from Whiplash, alluding to the fact that nothing would have stopped Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker; that his future-orientation to being a great jazz player was what allowed him to learn from his environment in the way he did. The feelings of shame and humiliation of not living up to his potential were what led him to hone his skills and become who he was. However, without the initial ideal, there would have been no guiding principle to guide his practice. Where he would disagree was in the way the environment had been structured. If Charlie Parker had had the freedom to learn how he had wished, would he have been even better?

These differing views of Skinner and Rogers view psychological agency or freedom very differently. Skinner’s view implies a lack of free-will, as though our personality was completely at the mercy of our environment. In contrast, Rogers viewed the fully functioning or self-actualised person as the type of person most likely to learn from environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised.

In a further deviation from Skinner’s determinism, Rogers believed that psychological freedom could only be achieved by learning to fully experience one’s own thoughts, behaviours and emotions. A famous quote of his states:

We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are. Until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about unnoticed.

This speaks directly to Roger’s experience that someone comes to accept themselves by learning to fully experience and reflect on who they are. If we are in the process of learning anything, there is a necessary phase of observation before we can take any action. We need to see what is being done, or how it is being done, before we take the necessary steps to do it ourselves or do it in a new way. For Rogers, his view of the importance of learning experiences leads to the conclusion that to change into something we desire, we need to be aware of what we are changing from.

Bringing it all together

Looking at learning as a key to change is an optimistic view. Firstly, it implies that personality is not as fixed as we think and that given the right circumstances, people can transform their lives. This is critical to the process of teaching, coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals. For both Rogers and Skinner, the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying and subsequently move toward a state of positive development.

On the surface, the differing views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be shaped by our learning experiences. By incorporating both views managers, teachers, coaches, and psychotherapists can bring a holistic understanding to how the process of learning and unlearning can help employees, students and clients achieve their potential.

The guiding embrace of presence

A candle floating in the dark
Image: Martin Davies

In so many ways, suffering – when allowed – looks like love. Our cry of suffering is the cry for reunion: it is the calling toward home and the awakening of our True Nature

Georgi Johnson, Nondual Therapy: The Psychology of Awakening

I have hidden myself through fear of rejection, fear of hurt. I hid myself through conformity, through alcohol, through performing, through self-deprecating humour. There had been no profit in standing out at the schools I attended, although some had the courage to do so. Looking back there is a sense of shame in this gradual conformity to the status quo that typified my adolescence and early adulthood. The desire to be popular and liked overpowered the desire to be creative and independent. That overpowered desire eventually became covered up by the shifting sands of my life.

There is a remembered feeling of fear arising out of the darkness, fear of the night. Acknowledging and feeling this fear unfolded that unpleasantness into an expanding light, an anticipation and vitality. The here-and-now memory of that creative and solitary child’ s surroundings brings me back to the place where that creative urge was first remembered. To an image that is no longer a memory, but a re-living, I am seeing everything again through that boys eyes and feel the beckoning arm of life. A life that has already been lived in one way, but stands to be lived by this boy again. Lived not as a recurrence but a re-imagined, reunited return to the guiding embrace of presence.

Echoes of a dream

Massimo Polelli Calligraphy
Artist: Massimo Polello

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand

W. H. Auden

I dreamt last night that I was on a large boat, a superyacht, with my father. We were standing on the top of the boat in a large dining/ballroom overlooking Sydney Harbour. It was dusk, almost night and the lights to the room were on. The room was panelled with polished wood, and carpeted in a royal red and blue plush with looping gold threads forming a Baroque pattern. It felt very luxurious. My father was complaining about customers who were renting the boat and saying that these overnight trips weren’t worth doing. He had a bottle of champagne that he was holding and he kept his glass full, forgetting to top up mine. He was moving around the boat in a distracted manner, belatedly moving to fill my glass whilst fumbling an apology, the dregs of the champagne hitting my empty glass.

When I woke from this dream my first thoughts were of the luxurious waterfront house we used to live in when I was a child. It was an obscene luxury. My expectation when I first sat to write about the dream was to be reminded of unhappy memories of that place, of nighttime fear and loneliness, of insomnia and sneaking down the stairs to watch rage at 4am, waiting for the dawn to banish my terrors. What unfolded instead was one of my most cherished childhood memories of my father. All of the family at the dinner table, in the dining room overlooking Sydney’s Middle Harbour, my father at the head of the table singing a silly song in a silly voice, laughter ringing out. This is one of my shining exemplars of ‘happy family memory’ and yet it was so long ago, maybe 1997, and in that expanse of time those happy memories, with dad in them, are sparsely dotted along that stretch of time.

I always thought and said to myself that I had a happy, ordinary childhood, but how true was that? There was such dissociation as a teenager: The TV, the playstation, the pornography. What was I trying to block out? Perhaps that is just how teenagers are, the changes and new drives in the body unbearable to wrestle with whilst trapped in the bonds of school and family. Maybe I just tell myself that I had a happy childhood because the opposite conclusion is unbearable. Whilst seeing a Psychoanalyst last year, I shared this belief of a happy childhood, in the guise of presenting a partial belief of having nothing to complain about in my upbringing, as though the comforts and privileges I was surrounded by removed any avenue for aggrievement. By removing this avenue I had frozen a cosmetic conception in place that felt like a betrayal to question or dislodge. Essentially I had erected a rigid taboo that stood as a critical judge against the psychological suffering that in the face of that taboo seemed inexplicable. It was only by questioning those assumptions that a crack appeared in the mask, allowing the beginning of some deeper insight to pour through.

Before my father left the family home, I never had any desire to leave Sydney. I had a deep love for the city all through high school and yearned to return whenever I was away on a family holiday or school trip. Coming back from a trip to a family friends farm and travelling north across the Harbour Bridge, I remember looking up at those iron arches and rivets thinking, ‘thank god we are home’. The desire to leave only came up at the start of Year 12, soon after Dad left. I remember coming home from school early one afternoon in Year 12, standing in the empty kitchen of a different, equally cavernous house and feeling a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness. At that moment, I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here,” and took a series of steps which wouldn’t see me properly settle back in Sydney again until my son was on the way fifteen years later.

What is interesting to note is the timing of this dream. I had a call from the head of a consultancy I applied to on Monday. Since finishing a terrible experience at a start-up in August last year, it has been the only role I have seen that interested me. I hadn’t expected a call back so soon and a part of me felt elated that they were interested in my application. I noticed two parts surface almost immediately: a somatically prominent tired part that felt drained and exhausted straight after the call, and an ‘excited/carried away part’, that ran off imagining grand possibilities and a return to some kind of status. A return to the world of performing, praise, recognition – of doing well! I wouldn’t have called it a polarisation at the time, probably because there was no wrestling internal dialogue, but in hindsight it clearly was. Exhaustion experienced somatically and excitement experienced imaginally; the former pulling down the latter up. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening I had an aching jaw. A deep ache, right at the back of my mandibles, in line with and just in front of my ear lobes.

I noted that the timing was interesting as the dream happened on the night following the phone call. I believe that my father in the dream represented the world of work and success in an imaginal or achetypal way. The luxury of the yacht, the view of the harbour, the pouring of the champagne, the apologies that he had nothing left for me. The waking flashback memory of the luxurious house, the image shifting as I wrote, to a rare imprint of a happy family memory with him front and centre. The dream woke me up at about the time they normally do, 430am, but there was no anger or sadness. Rather there was a sense of release and calm, an excitement and anticipation. Writing about the dream whilst my wife and son were still asleep, that happy image of dad, front and centre, fed into and was fed by the images and feelings from the dream. The memory I thought I was going to find when sitting to write (fear, emptiness, loneliness), wasn’t there, and instead I had the unexpected fortune of a cherished memory taking its place,

To come back to the champagne glasses, that image speaks to me as a symbol of my father saying in an apologetic way, “I gave you all I could. I am sorry that is all I had”. A wave of sadness came over me when writing that sentence and yet this is where the calm seems to emanate from. There was a recognition of a shift, an acceptance and forgiveness that says, “OK”, and says so in a non-begrudging way. Says it in a way that indicates that I have to live without his explicit guidance but that I have to hold the good of my father with me. The good that is represented in that image of him, front and centre, sitting at the head of the table, his back to the window, the harbour shrouded in dusk behind him and the sound of laughter ringing out.

Ordinary Wonder: Notes on a Zen Retreat

Image: “Awake All Night” by Brett Whiteley

Droplets falling, notes on a pond

Sesshin, “to touch the heart-mind”, is a period of intensive meditation usually performed in a Zen Monastery. My own experience of Sesshin was a six-day silent meditation retreat, held at an old Franciscan Monastery in a nature reserve near Stroud, New South Wales. I have been practicing with the Ordinary Mind Zen School since October 2020, and this was the first time that I felt ‘ready’ for my first retreat. I was very apprehensive as the retreat approached. There is a family history of psychosis on my father’s side of the family stretching back three generations and my old fear of being overwhelmed by ‘the shadow’ and succumbing to a psychotic break resurfaced. Going into Sesshin I realised how much this spectre has informed much of the nameless little fears that have shaped my life in countless unknowable ways. A recurring dream as a young child of a black shadow looming over the foot of my bed still holds an image in my consciousness, and I was anxious about the possibly of seeing this figure again. My apprehension had me prepared for a visit to the underworld, Dante’s “abandon hope all ye who enter”, flashing in my mind as a kind of steeling for a difficult emotional battle.

The liberation of silence

The aspect of the retreat that I was most worried about, the silence, in the end was the part I enjoyed the most. There is such liberation in silence amongst company! This silence removed all social hierarchy within the group. There were no cliques, no in or out groups, no one on top or bottom, no cool or not cool, even male or female felt irrelevant. This silence removed so much of the mental planning, analysis and rumination related to social interactions that fuels so much of our internal chatter. “Should I say this?”, “I can’t believe he said that”, “I don’t like that comment”, “His voice is annoying”, “That’s not what I meant”, “I wish I said it this way”, “I wonder if they like me?”

All this inane, back-and-forth, self-conscious chatter dissolved during the retreat. Interestingly, despite being no talking, there was a real sense of getting to know everyone just by being in presence with one another. Everything outside of the language realm took on much more significance. A small smile whilst crossing paths the hallway. The sound of a turning foot on the floorboards of the dojo. The way a person ate their soup. Through these observations it was interesting to watch how the judgemental and critical part of the mind, could still find the tiniest of social moments to latch onto and use as a way of separating itself from others. Comparing and competing over the tiniest differences in behaviour.

I had a truly wonderful, rich experience during this retreat. Moments of real joy, which were very unexpected. My experience was a privilege of being able to be present and witness the ordinary beauties of the flowing natural world and at times the equanimity and wholeness of my own essential self. Much of that sense of wholeness was experienced during the Samu or working periods, where my job was to wash up after lunch with two other people. I had noticed my impatience on the first day, which eventually dissolved or transformed by the third day. What was formed in its place was a deep sense of compassion and inter-relationship with the two others that I was working with. It was an unusual feeling in the sense that it was as though I had tuned into a sense of compassion rather than it being something I possessed or had cultivated. I had an intuition that whilst I could feel this compassion within, simultaneously it was a universal feeling, outside of me, available to everyone. Around the same time, I noticed that my inner critic and rumbling tremor of anxious internal chatter had also completely died down. I found it interesting that this died down in parallel with the quietening down of the judging mind that constantly monitors social interactions.

The musical flow of nature

With more than 8 hours of Zazen (sitting) during the day, there was so much… nothing happening. Much of the experience, particularly in the first couple of days was noticing the slow-moving lava lamp of discomfort throughout my back and shoulders whilst sat on the cushion. However this nothingness, compared to our everyday rush of stimulation, cleared me out to experience some infinitesimal, ordinary moments of pure wonder. The first, was sitting on a chair during a break with a cup of tea looking out the window. It was a warm, overcast, breezy afternoon and as I was sitting, there was a big gust of wind that led to the puff of a Dandelion dispersing in the breeze, whilst a rusty-red, rapidly rotating gum leaf fell through the expanding white mist. This moment must only have lasted a second, but it is seared in my memory like a painting. Another moment was standing on the bank of a lotus pond in the dusk of the final evening. Looking at the pink and blue lotus, my eyes were drawn to a lotus-free part of the pond, where ripples were emanating from some unseen disturbance. There must have been some unfelt or isolated sun shower that I couldn’t feel, with invisible falling droplets triggering rhythmic ripples that were like notes of music on the pond. I saw the music of the natural world in that moment standing next to the lotus pond and a feeling of melancholy came over me in realisation of how distracted and ignorant we have become of these everyday wonders.

The paradox of change and transformation

Our teacher, Geoff Dawson, gave a fantastic talk on the second day about the three Buddhist personality types, grasping, aversion and confusion. Which interestingly map onto the three Buddhist poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Realising my own grasping nature and how closely I matched the characteristics described by Geoff from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart provided a lot of clarity to past behaviours. At the same time, I noticed how I also grasped at the category of grasping, with a “Ah! That’s the problem!” making it feel like an infinite regress into the past, something inescapable. The nuance (and lesson) in Geoff’s talk that helped break out of this eternal recurrence was shifting the perspective from change, as though we could change into some other character, to one of transformation. Any change in ourselves comes not through a complete negation of who we are but rather an extension of our characteristics into something beneficial, which in the case of grasping is generosity. It is not about becoming someone else, but realising who we are and extending or transforming this pattern of personality into a different shape. In my case, the open palm of generosity, instead of the closed fist of grasping. Nothing about the hand has changed, except the way it is being used. This process of transformation isn’t about a Gatsby-like quest of changing yourself into someone else, a fool’s errand. Rather it is about extending beyond the fixed set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have stiffened through habit. A process that commences with mindfulness of these thoughts, feeling and behaviours. What was common across the transformative gestures for each personality type was the opening to others. Grasping transformed into generosity. Aversion into wisdom. Confusion into vulnerability.  

Return home

The most profound experiences of this retreat occurred once I returned home. Firstly, everything was incredibly vivid, even driving down the freeway back to Sydney, a drive I have done often and always write off as ugly and dull. Everything had a charge to it and a sense of spaciousness, as though everything had fallen into its rightful place. When I first saw my two-year old son, he didn’t look real, almost like he was shining as an angel. There was such a surreality to seeing him and a lightness to holding him, that it took a couple of minutes for his familiarity and weight to register. The following day, sitting at breakfast I could feel a sense of vibration throughout my whole body, gently pulsing up and down. Later that afternoon whilst I was lying in bed with my wife in the summer afternoon, my son napping, I felt a return to the feeling I used to have when we were first falling in love. It was such a rapid transformation to a feeling of another time, that suddenly the 13 years we had been together felt as though it had collapsed into an instant. It was as though, for that moment, there was an atemporality to my experience; 13 years and those early moments together in 2009 collapsing into one instant of feeling.

The difficulties of written reflection

Writing it all of this down performs a kind of reification of the experiences which isn’t my intention. The moments which have held their place in my consciousness from this week were fleeting, at most a couple of seconds. There is an impossibility in trying to pin down any kind of internal experience, even if that experience is nested in the everyday wonder of the world. The danger in writing a reflection like this is that you embellish and, in a sense, betray the nature of what happened. In this article I have tried to be as true to reflection as possible. The paradox lies in the fact that our words are re-presentation of all we experience, and at times a poor one. However, they are all we have to share our experiences with others. In this instance I have written about my experience for posterity, but also in case others see in these words a door they would like to walk through to explore zen meditation and mindfulness for themselves.

Limitations of notions

Artist: Fernando Sanchez

What moves, may also rise

Richard Pevear, Foreword to Notes From Underground

Through a fear of failing, we limit our reach as we feel that this will allow us to keep our balance, maintain our clean record, keep the fantasy of ourselves intact. Often we prefer to stew in what we know, deriding those who bumble on, but who bumble forward nonetheless as fools or failures. This is the enemy of progress because it restricts movement. Being cowed by an imagined ideal of excellence, creates an unwillingness to engage in new activities or to push yourself into difficult situations that may tarnish this ideal.

Nothingness, or no-thing-ness?

Artist: Cecil Touchon

If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder.

Carl Jung

How could anything meaningful grow out of nothingness? If nothingness is the grounds for nihilism, and nihilism is the rust gradually disintegrating society, then wouldn’t an encounter with nothingness lead to the hollowing out of meaning and value?

In Zen Buddhism, nothingness can be better understood by hyphenating between the conjunction of the two words, ‘no-thing’. The Zen tradition understands nothingness as an encounter with the absolute of emptiness, a dropping away of the self-referential concepts and thoughts that make up our sense of self, our usual conscious experience. Through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of the present moment, Zen practitioners can experience the dropping away of self-consciousness, an experience described as a vast nothingness or emptiness.

Self-consciousness, the ‘I’ in the drivers seat of how we experience the world is occupied from morning until night with the definition, categorisation and association between ‘things’ in the world and their meaning. We have evolved like this for the purpose of survival – to master our environment, as well as to map out and manipulate our social worlds. Most importantly we have turned this capacity inward, onto ourselves. We have become objects for reflection and assessment, as ‘things’ in the sense of ourselves being an “I”, an object that is perceived as having experience; a ‘me’ that is constant across time. This ‘me’ that we spend so long thinking about and referring to is a classification of our mind, a classification that has emerged from the intersubjective meanings we have attributed to relationships, objects and places that we encounter.

It can be reasonable to understand how an encounter with nothingness can lead to nihilism. These experiences can reinforce the emptiness of concepts and striving and as such the delusion of attributing any meaning or value to anything. If concepts and thoughts are empty constructs, ‘no-thing’, then a logical view would infer that any concepts and thought of meaning and value are also empty. This groundwork then sets the scene for a kind of cynical, spiritually destructive path for life. The famously cynical character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the famous line “everything is permitted” indicating a moral relativism. However, this world view may also express itself in a more insipid and pernicious way, leading to a general inertia and banality. A life that is unaware, distracted, uncritical, mindless – easily placated by the packaged entertainments, bullshit work and sedating pleasures of modern life.

Taking a purely logical view, this also seems to be a rational way to behave. If there is no meaning or value to be found in the nothingness, then why not just zone out and allow yourself, in the words of Kierkegaard, to be “tranquilised by the trivial?” This Philistinism, which is recognisable across any age, may grow out of this encounter with nothingness. No appreciation or interest in spirituality, the arts or culture, because of a view that none of it matters, or that none of it is real. So much of the science, business, media, and political mainstream implicitly or explicitly encourages or propagates this view. Selfish genes, the God delusion, the orthodoxy of utilitarian progress, the fashionable ideologies that attempt to replace religion with abstract frameworks of secular ‘shoulds’ are all in some way an expression of this.

These concepts are then set against each other in a never-ending ‘what-about-ism’ shouting match that serves as its own distraction and entertainment. This is now our daily experience and the vacuity some of us feel, arises out of there being no common ground to any of it. No common axiom, no Maypole to dance around. The implicit shared meaning of the village commons has been discarded as valueless and now everything needs to be made explicit. This explicitness, the minutiae of having to explain every grain of detail is the chaff that is clogging the mills of our society.

What is the alternative?

The Zen concept of nothingness refers not to a black hole of meaning and value, a wasteland of being, but rather as an absolute emptiness, a formlessness that is embedded in being itself. Freud referred to this state as oceanic consciousness, the conscious experience before thought and concepts. This sense of emptiness is experienced because our categorising, classifying, comparing ego (self) has dropped away. There is nothing there that can do the ‘thing-a-fying’ that carves our world into distinctions, creating a matrix of things and associations, which includes our own sense of self.

The feeling of no-thingness or emptiness that results in the dissolution of the concept bound self can be the grounds for a new concept of freedom. Without the subjective I, there is nothing to anchor the grasping, taxonomist nature of our self and what is experienced is the void of pure awareness, a black hole of concepts and associations. This can be a very anxiety producing condition, the Christian Faith refers to it as the ‘dark night of the soul’, the wilderness, the desert. As mentioned this experience of emptiness can be framed as nothingness, a field of absence, but it can also be viewed as a field of presence, the presence of the implicit value and meaning of life as it is.

The philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft talks about the active absence of encountering no-thingness, or the whole of awareness. Paradoxically he refers to the awareness of the whole becoming known through the complete attention of the subjective ‘I’ with all of the parts (or things) of awareness. This is the practice of mindfulness. A broad, all-encompassing awareness of the myriad parts within consciousness. A mindful, open concentration on all the parts of our awareness ultimately can overwhelm and dissolve the self-referential, egoistic part of our minds, revealing the whole of being. This inexhaustible fecundity of being, shows us that we and life itself are implicitly valuable and meaningful. The tone of a sunset, the enveloping sound of rustling leaves in a forest, the Kookaburra’s laugh in the rising dawn, all these experiences are all still happening, regardless of the machinations of our self-obsessed, re-presentational thought. They do not rely on our subjective concepts to be meaningful, they are inherently meaningful for their own sake and carry on without our self-obsessed thinking.

When we realise this, when we become attuned to it, we realise the value of all life as an end-in-itself, rather than as an instrument we can leverage for a purpose we have momentarily conceptualised. Far from being the empty hole that nihilism grows out of, nothingness can be thought of as a connection with the whole of being that refreshes us and, in a Copernicus-like revolution, de-seats our sense of self as being at the centre of our conscious universe. Encountering nothingness in this way shows the inexhaustible wholeness of being, of life itself.

Holding Time

Originally written August 2021

Holding my son is the physical embodiment of love. An inchoate agape. A grounding love as opposed to the all-consuming, erotic love that led to his conception. 

Holding him at times I feel a brief melancholy as I realise he won’t be a baby forever, that he will gradually carve himself away from me. I feel this despite every new phase, every new sound, noise, facial expression being my new favourite – superseding the last. 

I feel as though I am physically holding time – and that despite his reassuring weight, his smell, the rhythm of his breathing, that time is slipping through my fingers.

Beyond Randomness

Image: Shinchi Maruyama, Kusho #1 T, 2007; © Shinchi Maruyama, Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal, and yet if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable.

Friedrich Nietzsche

What people mean, when they say that life is meaningless, or has no purpose, is that there is no goal or final end point that we are progressing toward. Taking Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” notion as the reason for having a nihilistic worldview seems to lead people toward a view of the universe as somehow also dead. The belief of an ordained purpose (God) dissolving under the march of scientific progress has left many people believing that everything is determined by an infinite chain of causality. A world of randomly colliding matter, precluding any notion of free will, or purpose. Interestingly these views both fall within a deterministic paradigm. The medieval worldview held that everything was determined by God, and our increasingly modern worldview holds that everything is determined by the random machinations of dead matter. 

‘Life’ does not need to be progressing toward some final end goal in order to have meaning, or be meaningful to live. Life, moment-to-moment, is imbued with an inexhaustible well of meaning in our everyday experience. The transient apricot streaks of cloud during a spring sunset. The pattering feet of your happy child running down the hall to greet you. The feeling of warm rain, pleasantly drenching you in a summer downpour whilst you are going for a walk. This inexhaustibleness of life itself, life as it is, gives meaning to every moment of our lives and the lives of all living things around us. 

Our instinct, desire or perhaps expectation for some kind of teleological end point that we are working toward or can finally rest in, is the extension and projection of the subjective narratives that form the carapace of our ego. We are creatures driven by narrative. We are an organic creature that is born, lives, breathes and eventually dies, but we also experience life as a ‘self’, a self that spans through time with a capacity to reflect on and think about, it-self. Narratives are linear threads with a past, present and future and are by nature teleological, they are working toward an end. Narratives are a story, a collection of symbols i.e. language, that allows us to maintain a constant subjective identity of who we are. This self is intersubjectively dependent on our relationships through the various stages of our social development, an intersubjectivity mediated by the exchange of symbols, the exchange of language.

The projection of this purpose-driven narrative onto metaphysical assumptions, is the extension of our own ego development and anthropomorphism onto the cosmos. However, the opposing assumption that the universe is completely dead and we are all just subject to the random meaningless-ness of causality, appears to be just another projection of a modern kind. This modern view claims there is no intrinsic purpose whatsoever to life behind the propagation of life itself. The removal of an extrinsic purpose (a deity) has been met by the subsequent removal of all intrinsic purpose.

Behind the curtain of the ego is the emptiness that lies behind our subjectivity. The emptiness of the present moment. To gaze into the abyss of this nothingness is to have these conceptions of the ego (the narratives, symbols, language) fall away into nothingness. This is what is meant by the Buddhist term of ‘no-self’. It is not to say that you don’t experience yourself as a ‘self’ or that a ‘self’ isn’t valuable for living in the world, it is to say that the self is intersubjectively construed across time by concepts of the mind. The cultivation of the present moment is thus a way to see beyond the past, present and future narratives that sustain the self, making contact with the emptiness behind the self or ego. This emptiness can be met with despair, it can be misconstrued as ‘fact’ that there is meaningless in life. But it can also be the grounds for a reframing of meaning. A meaning beyond mental concepts and self-reflective story. A meaning grounded in the everyday experience of our being-in-the-world, implicit in life as it is.

Becoming who we are: Personality as a process of learning and un-learning

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Psychologist and personality theorist Hans Eysenck believed that personality was the fundamental enquiry of psychology1. Our personalities are the patterns of characteristic thoughts, behaviours and feelings that mould individual differences and the identities we cling to. For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence, the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment? And what would the implications of this mean for someone’s ability to change?

Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th Century Psychology with antithetical views to one another, both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth2. If we look at learning experiences as behaviour modification via interactions within a person’s environment3, we can begin to build a picture of personality as more malleable than commonly thought. This essay will argue that personality can be explained as the sum of a person’s learning experiences by exploring Roger’s and Skinner’s differing philosophical assumptions and how these informed their theories. It is argued that a marrying of their views can explain personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial applications for coaching, counselling, and psychotherapy.

B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning and remained predominant until the 1960’s. For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by reinforcers in the environment4. According to this theory, positive reinforcers (rewards) increased or strengthened a behaviour, whereas negative reinforcers (punishments) decreased or weakened a behaviour.

Skinner’s behaviourism rejected the rival Freudian view that subjective unconscious and conscious “minds” were the agents’ driving behaviour, and as a result dismissed the concept of personality entirely.  Skinner believed that all learning experiences were objective, and that the development of what others call personality, was in fact the culmination of a complex process of reinforcement that shaped behaviour. Skinner didn’t deny that we had thoughts and feelings or propose that people were indistinguishable. Instead, he claimed that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from subjective, internal states, but from learning experiences in the environment that shaped patterns of behaviour.

In contrast to Skinner, Carl Roger’s view of personality held that the subjective experiencing of an individual was basic and fundamental for their own understanding of who they were and how they should act. The warm, avuncular figure of Carl Rogers and his development of person-centred therapy stands in stark contrast to the lab-coat image portrayed of Skinner. Carl Rogers is one of the most influential people in psychology and psychotherapy and one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Behaviourism’s in the 1960’s.

As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Roger’s had observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone. This axiom implied that a person could achieve a congruence with this self, and drive personality change by learning from their subjective experiences of thought, feeling and emotion5.  This type of learning he referred to as ‘true subjectivity’ and he viewed his responsibility as therapist to facilitate the right conditions for this learning experience to take place and personality change to occur6.

What is important to consider here is that these two leaders of psychology both viewed learning experiences as being critical to personality development, looking at these processes on either side of the objective/subjective divide. By synthesising the views of both we land at a view of personality that incorporates both environmental determinants and the inner thoughts, feelings and emotions as learning experiences that shape personality development.

One of the key assumptions of Skinner’s Behaviourism is the notion of determinism; that every observable behaviour is determined by some preceding event7. Determinism is closely linked with the objectivity of the physical sciences, and so it should come as no surprise that Skinner viewed all human behaviour (and any notion of personality) as determined by prior experience. Skinner’s response to Roger’s view of the fully functioning person, would be that feelings of incongruence are a negative reinforcer, a kind of internalised punishment, which leads to changes in behaviour. This change in behaviour moves the individual to greater congruence with their true self, subsequently removing the negatively reinforcing feeling of incongruence. The individual then learns from this satisfying outcome, modifying behaviours accordingly and ultimately shaping personality through the accumulation of these behaviours.

Rogers viewed the fully functioning person as the type of individual most likely to learn and adapt to changing environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised8. In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers, believing that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future, which influenced how they responded to learning experiences. This future orientation was encapsulated in his notion of the ‘self-actualising tendency’ within each person, an innate drive toward the true potential of the ideal self or healthy personality.

Rogers suggested that this drive was based on learning experiences, with the innate, subjective processes associated with the self-actualising tendency evaluating and learning in accordance with what propelled a person toward this ideal. Rogers believed that this learning could only take place if the client had the psychological freedom to move in any direction, a freedom obtained by learning to fully experience their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

From either side of the determinism/free-will divide, Skinner and Rogers both emphasise that learning experiences are fundamental to understanding personality. The views of each, whilst diametrically opposed, complement each other by providing insight into how personality can be explained by the responses to learning experiences we can control and those that we can’t.

The view that personality can be explained by the sum of a person’s learning experiences has important implications in the field of coaching, counselling, and psychotherapy. Firstly, this is an optimistic view which implies that personality is not fixed and that given the right circumstances, people have the capacity to change. This is critical to the process of coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals9. Secondly, by investigating the views of Skinner and Rogers in how learning experiences shape personality, it has been shown that both objective observable behaviours and unobservable mental processes, along with the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their subjective states of thoughts, feelings and emotions, individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying, moving toward a state of positive development and wellbeing.

On the surface, the views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers in relation to how learning experiences shape personality, appear to have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be explained as the sum of a person’s learning experiences. By incorporating both views, coaches, psychotherapists, and counsellors can bring a holistic view to how conditions in therapy can be manipulated to maximise learning experiences and facilitate desired personality development for clients.

Time constraint

Artist: Étienne Gélinas

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst

William Penn

Sometimes when I am napping or day-dreaming, my mind creates little stories, similar to the kind of stories you inhale when reading a book. Visually they are a fuzzy representation of words on a page, as though I am reading and creating those words simultaneously, without any conscious control. The stories are stripped of any real colour or depth, they are more just vignettes of type and page, auto-dictating out into the dark edges of my semi-sleep. The dialogue in these stories, held by this twilight of consciousness, flows so effortlessly, but can never be caught when fully awake. Slipperier then a normal dream, these little scenes disperse as soon as my eyes open. 

These twilight moments between sleep and wake have been happening more recently, a factor of the amount of time I have on my hands, an abundance that will soon be at an end. When working we spend so long aching for time, aching for the thing we don’t have, so that we can invest in activities that reflect who we ‘truly are’. How many people say, “If only I had the time I would do X,” but they never take the steps to make the time for the thing they want, and when the time does present itself, often it is wasted; shredded into pieces of confetti by Instagram, Netflix, social obligations. 

I think the reason why people don’t take the action required to get what they say they want, is because time scares people. Time opens a window to the self-referential part of your mind, the part that likes to daydream, make little stories. Time allows this part of our mind to stomp around and peer over our shoulder, second-guessing every thought or action. Time provides the space for you to try something new, to make decisions and mistakes, mistakes which can foster learning, but can also diminish your own sense of competence and confidence. When time presents itself we try to fill it, as though its emptiness might let in some unknown horror, and by filling it, often we waste it. We talk of ‘doing time’ or ‘serving time’, we dread moments where our control of time is taken away from us. And so instead we scurry around in busyness, frittering away sequences of moments that could be used to cultivate a deeper sense of well-being.

I am one of those people who always preferred to be moving, busying myself as a way of deflecting a deeper psychological malaise that was illuminated by stillness. The last 12 months have been the first time where I really allowed myself to slow down, observe and smell the roses, and even then a significant part of me, that incessant voice at the back of the head, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this period of calm. It wasn’t really until I passed the halfway mark of this time away that I finally let go. 

My experience of time as a result has changed. My threshold for boredom has significantly lowered as my general state of arousal/excitement has also lowered. I feel healthier, whilst also being less stressed. However, I have noticed that despite my significantly reduced levels of stimulation, my overall, subjective experience of stress hasn’t fallen that much. This has been an interesting aspect of this period, that despite all of this time available to do whatever I wish to do, the subjective experience of day-to-day stress, whilst lower, is only slightly so. 

It has made me realise how much this stress reaction is just a part of me and that it requires a channel into some outward physical activity before it is redirected internally as rumination and worry. The fact that the level of stress hasn’t changed much and that it has essentially shifted its shape is a good lesson for future times of stress. That it is a part of me, that it needs to be managed by practicing techniques like mindfulness and that it isn’t going to go way by making big sweeping changes. I have also noticed at this time how being cut off from people, exacerbates this stress. My mind seems to think that it likes to be alone, which is true at times, but the truth is that I am almost always happier in and following (most) social engagements. This kind of misguided, short-term view of what I think I want, feels a bit like the reluctance of going to the gym, only to feel so much better once you have gone. 

I feel as though I have been on the run for the last twelve months or so. I can see now that part of the reason for my running was a fear of the success I had enjoyed at work; fear that this would lock me into who that successful person was forever. There was a sense of guilt about this success, as though it had come too easy. In truth it was a shallow kind of success built on a wobbly foundation of gritted teeth and a blinkered focus. Whatever it was, the time for self-sabotage is over and whatever happens next, there won’t be the same freedom of time to simply cast it away. Perhaps that is what is really needed, constraint of time, so that you are freed from the worst impulses of your own ego.