A few years ago, while in Indonesia, I found a book under the strangest of circumstances.
I was in Ubud, Bali, in desperate need of reading material. I had three to trade and was told at the secondhand shop that I could take two. I looked and looked (I’m highly selective), but after taking The Life of Pi I couldn’t find anything else that was even remotely satisfying.
Out of desperation, I started poking through the dusty area behind the back of the books and found a book lodged there: Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s Our Many Selves: Practical Yogic Psychology.
I’d never heard of these authors at the time (that’s changed!), but I was intrigued by the idea of many selves; I’ve always liked mind explorations. I took the book.
Later, in a popular restaurant for foreigners, I showed the book to a friend of a friend whom was shocked and asked me where I’d found this book because if it was in Ubud he would have snatched it up long ago. I offered it to him because he seemed to really want it, but he shook his head and told me the book found me and I should read it.
It was dense, to say the least. And at the time I had deliberately stopped reading as a bid to get out of my head and into the world, but I couldn’t put the book down. It described how there was no cohesive self, and that until we could understand our many selves and have them all understand each other (because they need to rotate along one axis), we couldn’t progress further, mentally or spiritually.
This was how I interpreted it anyway, and suddenly, I was filled with an uncontrollable urge to forage into the depths of my innumerable aspects.
I was then two months into a six month lone-travel-odyssey and had found nothing resembling real footing. I had also recently been bitten by a rabid dog (necessitating a month of vaccine shots in Thailand which caused my whole “plan” to go awry). I was convinced that the incident was invested with metaphysical import; here I was attracting canine madness mixed with sadness and suffering; my own madness—sadness and suffering included—now confirmed, etched in the tiny wound on my leg.
But now I was infused with a sense of purpose.
Instead of asking, “Who the f*** am I?”, a question I have asked many times before to little effect, I was now consumed with the question of who my selves were.
I imagined a little (nonviolent) army of souls duking it out for supremacy in Tammyland. (This already presupposes a self-existent “Tammy” that is made up of so many personalities, but we can’t hope for miracles here.)
Over the next three and a half months, I visited Buddhist/Hindu theme parks consisting of gargantuan deities (idled in hammocks watching life go by in the late afternoon sunlight), met great people, photographed endless food stalls, downed noodles and walked along various streets and dusty roads all over Laos and Thailand. And every day, I wrote.
I called my new journal, “My Little Selves” (for some reason I liked them better little), and I wrote about each in the third person. I had a couple of guiding questions to get me going: What motivates her? What is she scared of? Each day I discovered or uncovered a new personality, and each entry was a page to two pages, depending on various factors, among them how much I resisted these qualities or found myself surprised by their existence or strength. Here’s a sample:
Little Melancholy is at odds with Little Thinker, who has also been such a powerful force. She feels, a lot, and is full of fear. She fears the world as a happy place. I have allowed myself to be absorbed by a self that fears the world as a happy place.
For 101 days (I just counted), I mercilessly tried to sort through the different parts of me and find where the contradictions, fears and insecurities lie. Sometimes I was utterly bored and couldn’t get beyond cursory observations, other times (thanks to Little Analyzer) graphs and lists flew around and I was shocked by new revelations.
This journal came to be a vital component of my trip (I couldn’t recommend this process more!). I’m convinced that if I hadn’t written it I never would have been ready to meet my partner (he entered the picture around the same time the journal ended, a couple of weeks before what turned out to be a temporary visit back home).
Of course, a rather huge elephant refused to leave the room—what to do with this little, mostly nonviolent army of me? What would happen if I could actually wrest myself from my conditioning and juggle the pieces around, favouring some selves over others in the name of healing and growth?
What would happen to “me” then?
Somewhere in the middle of all this I read a book by Paolo Coelho (I don’t remember which one right now, I’m sorry to say); used copies litter guesthouse coffee tables on the travel circuit. Something he wrote made a deep impression on me.
The book was about a man who was trying to get the love of his life back and find out who he really was. He asked a wise person for advice and was told, as I remember it, to forget his biography and just be. The thought panicked him, “How can I be myself if I forget all that I was?” He asked. And he was told, “The important stuff stays.”
The important stuff stays.
Sometimes we hold on too much—to pain, guilt, negativity, doubtful feelings. But how does one get rid of that stuff without losing, well, the good parts?
When I read that the important stuff stays, it seemed so absolutely sensible. Nothing of value will ever be forgotten because there’s no malevolent force out there that wants us to suffer.
We make ourselves suffer. And we do it over and over even though we know better.
If we can tear through this cycle of suffering, there might well be a treasure full of stuff—including ourselves, one and all—there to discover.
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Asistant Editor: Laura Ashworth/ Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives