One of the most common errors in our society is to attribute our behavior to intention and innate qualities of character. This view assumes that we are reliably who we are.
Impartial observation of self exposes the view that we have multiple identities and that each of them is activated by a specific stimulus, or lack of stimulus, in the immediate environment. I revert to my good-boy role or my angry parent role depending upon the circumstances. The situation I am in evokes the identity that habitually reacts to that situation. As a human biological machine, I play out the accumulated conditioning of a lifetime.
Is the aim therefore to observe our identities?
Yes and no. Identities are compound constructions. It is tempting to make them conceptual and then the capacity for observation is much diminished.
The best starting point is to observe that certain circumstances cause specific sensations in me and these sensations trigger a set of observable behaviors…primarily gestures and postures but also more subtle reactions such as thought loops and self-images. Over time, as I see the repeated connection between my environment and my reactions, I become more able to see and sense a complete pattern which I can then characterize as an identity.
It is very important to avoid what some psychologist call the Fundamental Attribution Error which means attributing behavior to the person and not the circumstances in which the behavior occurs. This error leads to theorizing about the person and pre-judging their behavior. Let’s suppose you see someone expressing anger in a forceful way. The error is to say he is an angry person. The truth is to observe that certain specific circumstances trigger expressions of anger. The same is true of supposed virtues such as honesty and humility. Every one of us is capable of nearly any behavior depending upon the circumstances.
To observe self is to see the connections between your reactions and the time, place, people and other circumstances where those reactions arise, and to see these connections impartially and in real time.
How does this effort connect to the establishment of safe places where reactions are not triggered?
In our work, we wish to see our habitual reactions. Work on self requires that I know myself, my identities and their relationship to my life as it is actually happening. A work place is a safe place for having and observing my reactions which are triggered, thoughtfully or otherwise, by my work mates. This is not a comfortable process nor is it meant to be. Engineering a place without triggers is anti-work. It ensures the complete subjugation of my possibilities as a human being to my conditioning. To protect myself from my reactions is to be a slave to them.