The 99th Monkey

One man's spiritual quest—and his continuous and utter failure to find the answers.

Virtual Grief

Mourning the loss of an online identity.


George Gurdjieff, the inscrutable Armenian mystic of early last century, insisted that we humans are constantly bearing false witness against ourselves, by glibly using the pronoun "I" to refer to who we are. Rather, he pointed out that careful scrutiny would reveal that this presumably singular person we call "I" is in fact a constantly changing persona simply sharing the same name.  An easy example: the "I" that firmly commits to a rigorous diet and exercise regime is a completely different person than the "I" who chooses to spend the following day lying on the couch watching back-to-back episodes of My Mother the Car while binging on Doritos and Milk Duds.  
Similarly, the "I" who resolves to awaken at 4:30 a.m. to meditate is not the same person that hits the snooze alarm the next morning and rolls over. 

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One of the vital steps in Gurdjieff's work, therefore, is to become aware of this stream of ever-shifting identities posing as us, trying to pass themselves off as a single unified being, when in fact our lives are being run by an embattled inner committee with no chairperson! Years ago I performed as an actor in Gabrielle Roth's Mirrors Theatre Troupe in New York, and she had us literally name all of these fickle inner characters. In my case, while Danny Depresso often took center stage, he was often overshadowed by Larry Look-at-me, who in turn could easily be supplanted by Wally Worthless. My friend Jay frequently embodied Captain Control, and attempted to order the rest of us about, while Judy Judge stood smugly off to one side of the stage making critical comments about the rest of the cast. Gladys Gorge devoured a box of cookies in under two minutes, and Connie Cling literally climbed up my body and held on for dear life. Through dramatizing all of these inner ego characters, the performers as well as the audience began to recognize and understand the mirage of a central, unchanging "I."

But this was all before the revolution of information technology. Now, in addition to the mass epidemic of Multiple Personality Disorder, we are further burdened with a whole slew of new, virtual "I"s. In addition to my three email accounts, I also have a Skype name, an IChat identity, a land line and cell number, a Facebook page, a primary website, a book website for The 99th Monkey, a personal blog, this Psychology Today blog, and, as an instructor of Gabrielle's 5 RhythmsTM movement practice, there is a page on her website about me as well, containing a completely different bio!

I used to lead a workshop in which I had participants tell their autobiographies in ninety seconds. I always took a turn as well, so over the years I did the exercise dozens of times, and I noticed that my autobiography was never even remotely the same. Of all the events that actually occur in a lifetime, there are those particular ones that, for whatever reason, we still remember. Of those, there is the relative accuracy of our memories, and from that pool there is the additional process of selecting what we actually choose to relate. So our autobiographies are only one version of partially accurate accounts of selective memories of actual events. In other words, a complete fiction!

Likewise, each of my virtual "I"s has a slightly different flavor. My Facebook page, for example, speaks to a wide range of "Friends," ranging from my wife, Shari, and some of my closest, actual friends, to people who I simply can't quite place or remember. Or in some cases, perhaps we met once, or they read one of my books  

and "friended" me. This obviously colors how and what I present on that page. My personal, "Mostly Silent" blog (named that because I try to say as little as possible as infrequently as possible, so as not to contribute to the great word glut of our times) reveals a somewhat more intimate and confessional "I," whereas this Psychology Today page is strictly for "the public," whoever that is. (If you're reading this, I'm guessing that would be you.)

In any event, I accidentally hit the Delete button on my laptop recently, and lost an entire email account, which included all the correspondence I had deemed important enough to save over the last several years, including extremely important notes to myself, reminding me of vital things that, no surprise, I can now no longer recall at all. In a similar vein, my friend Alisun wrote me about her husband last week: "I'm not sure if you know this, but Marty has taken to calling himself throughout the day. I'll be working at my desk, his phone will ring, the machine will pick up and I will hear Marty's voice saying things like, ‘Measure the tub' or ‘Check Brian Wilson album.' Sometimes when I'm feeling playful, I will call his machine after one of these messages and say, "Kiss your wife' or ‘Sweep the kitchen.' The real hoot is that sometimes he can't understand what he's saying and he'll call me in to listen to HIM on his machine and figure out if he's saying ‘Get coffee' or ‘Eat hot wings.' As a result of this he now speaks v*e*r*y clearly and enunciates all his syllables, as in, ‘G-e-t pa-per to-wel-s.'" (And my friend Eddie, who was living with his girlfriend at the time, once called in to hear his messages, and went into a jealous rage when he heard a man's voice speaking inappropriate intimacies to his partner, bordering on lewd. Yes, it was a message he himself had left a few days earlier.)

When I realized my entire email account was lost, I went through Elizabeth Kubler Ross's well-known Five Stages of Grief, mourning the loss of one of my virtual "I"s. Stage One is "Denial"; I was certain I'd be able to "undo" the deletion, and retrieve all my mail. It couldn't possibly, really, all be gone, could it? Nah. Yes, it could, and it was. I moved into Stage Two, "Anger": I began to hyperventilate and it required all my strength to resist hurling my computer onto the floor and smashing it into bits and bytes. Then "Bargaining": in the ordinary grief process, one bargains with God; in my case, I began devising schemes involving supervisors in Apple Tech Support in Bangalore, then imagined myself pathetically begging at the Genius Bar in the local Apple Store, and finally, composed elaborate missives in my mind to Mr. Jobs himself. I eventually landed in Stage Four, "Depression," facing and feeling the reality and gravity of the loss, and then mercifully, finally relaxed into "Acceptance," and said my good-byes to that particular "I" forever.

There is an old Hasidic tale which I will surely butcher, but you'll get the idea: A man feels crowded in his tiny home, and when he asks his Rebbe for advice, the Rebbe tells him to bring a donkey into the house.  

The following week he is even more beside himself, feeling like he can hardly breathe or move in his own home, and the Rebbe instructs him to bring seven goats in. The following week it's half a dozen
chickens, then two sheep. Finally, at the end of his rope, the man pleads with the Rebbe for a solution to his intolerable situation, and the Rebbe suggests that he get rid of all the animals. He does so, and instantly feels a luxurious excess of room and space. He can relax and breathe free at last.

It is the same with our Virtual "I"s. On a recent vacation in Mexico, Shari and I opted to leave our cell phones and computers behind, and as we boarded the plane, in less than a millisecond, I felt a huge release and an exquisite sense of inner spaciousness, a nearly mystical experience of immense freedom in my mind and soul. I had thrown all the chickens and goats of my virtual "I"s out the door, and my spiritual house was, for the moment, blissfully empty. Even Gurdjieff would have been impressed.

 

 

Eliezer Sobel is an author, musician, and retreat leader.

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