Self is a Concept

How One Opens Up

One Opens Up is a pop/rock album I wrote and recorded between 2002 and 2006.  To some degree, the project did double duty, allowing me to pursue two long term goals, one musical and the other philosophical. Bet you didn’t see that philosophical thing coming, huh?

From a musical standpoint, I’d been involved in a number of different projects, both independent and as a major label artist, but never managed to make a set of recordings that really hit the mark for me.  My favorite production and performances had always been trapped in demos done on limited formats that sounded just ratty enough to disqualify them for serious release.  I wanted to make an album with a sound that matched my intentions, and arrangements that weren’t the product of unsatisfying compromises.  So in 2001 I started building a home studio that would make reaching those goals as likely as possible.

I didn’t set out to record a “concept album,” but that’s what One Opens Up turned out to be.  The writing process was a vehicle for assimilating ideas I was exploring at the time regarding identity and the nature of experience- what we are, what we are not, and how growth, development and meaning manifest in us as human beings, so those themes appear throughout the material.  After releasing the CD, I realized that the tracks were arranged like a roadmap of psychological growth detailing a variety of experiences and changes that generally constitute a transition from a personal/conventional worldview to one that’s more transpersonal/post-conventional.  All the best stuff happens by accident.

As a chronicle of my moving interests and self-study, the album satisfied a significant part of an artistic yearning that had driven my desire to create for a very long time.  This is the main reason I still haven’t released more material of this type.  Pop and rock music with lyrics has always been a vehicle for me, a kind of modeling where I could assemble concepts and questions, then look for insight, and find answers where they were available, or understanding where they weren’t.   Since releasing One Opens Up, I so far haven’t felt the need or desire to explore topics lyrically, so my musical attention has shifted to ambient work, a pursuit that serves a different purpose for me.

One Opens UpI’d like to write more about the conceptual arc of One Opens Up in upcoming posts, but for now, a good starting place may be the cover.  Whether or not it was a good idea for a 43 year old guy to pose shirtless on the front of his first (and possibly only) solo CD is a fair question, but the point of the photo is the hand drawn hole (which incidentally spares people at least a few square inches of visual discomfort, you’re welcome).  I’ve been offered a few different interpretations of it over the years, ranging from a symbolic representation of how heartless men can be, to a uniquely installed hamster wheel, but a surprising number of serious impressions have leaned toward the negative.

I think such darker interpretations reveal our innate fear of emptiness.  Nature may abhor a vacuum, but people typically dread it, especially when its implications collide with the anchor of our identity, our body.  But the hole motif in this case isn’t intended to represent loss or absence, but rather a window, a route to expanded consideration beyond conventional assumptions.  It’s ironic that the biggest impediment to understanding things as they are is that which we think we understand by default, the self.  But conventional identities tend to be loaded with unexamined and invisible assumptions, vague, circular definitions and outright falsehoods, and it’s from this launching pad that we then attempt to make sense of experience and the world around us.  No wonder so many people are confused and depressed.  I contend that far and away the biggest issue facing the planet is a “wisdom crisis”, and that very good, unambiguous, direct advice about human nature, advice that isn’t blunted in poetry, platitudes or cultural camouflage, is in increasingly critical short supply.  That being the case, embarking on a serious, effective investigation of the self becomes ever more unlikely for young people today, and increasingly more important.

The process of examining experience, and dismissing  ideas and assumptions that inadequately represent what is verifiably true is the only path of growth available to us.  When your desire for firsthand knowledge surpasses your fear of losing the security of conventional validation, you’ll be on that path.  This is how one opens up.

Get (un)Real

I’m an advocate for self-invention, and I think everyone who’s 40 or older should maintain at least one, full-fledged alter ego. I’m not kidding- make up an identity and use it, play with it, see what happens.  It’s one of the most valuable things you can do.

As a target, age 40 is only slightly arbitrary.  It’s an age by which your average human being has had ample opportunities for both fuck ups and hard knocks.  In four decades, most of us will have encountered one or more heart-incinerating, hope-shattering hairpin turns in our life path, and would have no trouble populating a decent do-over list with “if only” fantasies to fulfill if given the chance.

Fabricating an alter ego won’t get us exactly that, but it can deliver something that’s potentially even better: an instant adjustment to perspective that makes it almost impossible to take yourself too seriously, and it is this overplaying of life’s seriousness that causes us to look too far back with regret, or too far forward for escape.  Every moment spent stuck in a distorted past or unrealistic future is one where we miss most of what’s actually going on around us, the way it actually is.  If we don’t know the real features of the present we’re living in, how can we possibly expect to make adequate decisions, let alone effective ones?

Most people I mention this idea to think I’m joking- they don’t take it seriously, like it’s not allowed.  They have a point where legalities are concerned, but that’s not what this is about.  There’s a fundamental assumption that your default identity is psychologically “official”, as if it’s handed down by an authority greater than yourself.  It’s not, you’re just used to it, and it operates largely invisibly with attention rarely turned to it, but fused to it instead.  Fused attention is like a fountain of money you don’t know you have, already spent on stuff you’ll never see.

Genetics enter into identity of course, and they do endow (or saddle) us with predispositions to certain attitudes and behaviors, but we don’t have to endorse or act on those hard-wired impulses.  To a large degree, we have choices, and we need to exercise the ones we can.  But as long as attention is fused to identity, recognizing our choices becomes difficult if not impossible.  Putting on the corrective lens of a constructed alter ego makes it easier to see how constructed our “real” identities actually are.  Then we can start identifying and separating ideas, interpretations and attitudes from the impersonal facts and features of experience, and the world around us.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized that at least for me, the first and most important goal beyond surviving is to determine the difference between what I think and feel, and what actually is, and a large part of that involves exposing assumptions and clarifying understanding.  Assumptions can be useful, but only in a very limited and general way.  It’s seriously unwise to take them on board wholesale because they’re always wrong to some variable degree, and the most fundamental assumption any of us make is about who or what we are! Our first and biggest mistakes in understanding are woven tightly around the core of our own identities, so what better place to begin unravelling ideas and attitudes?  To do that, we need perspective- somewhere else to stand other than the center of our own personal storm so we can look at our ideas about ourselves and see them with some relative clarity.  That’s what an alter-ego can be, that’s why it’s invaluable.

Life is an exercise in creativity whether you consider yourself to be creative or not, and that creativity doesn’t just extend to your identity.  It starts there, and so should you.