Heat was a profound puzzle in the early 19th century. Everyone intuitively knew that a hot object cooled to its surroundings and a cool object likewise warmed up. But a comprehensive theory of how heat really worked eluded scientists, as it had to explain some weird happenings. Hot things expanded; cold things contracted. Motion could disappear into heat. Heat could spark motion. When certain metals were heated, they gained weight, therefore, heat had weight. Early explorers into heat had no idea that they were investigating temperature, calories, friction, work efficiency, energy, and entropy—all terms they were to invent later.1
And so it is today with explorers who are attempting to come to grips with the elusive self-conscious “I”—to provide some insight into just what exactly goes into the nature of being human. From fields of philosophy, brain science, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, etc., people are actively investigating, inventing, and picking through strands of disparate evidence. For most of us, “I” is positional (“you” are there and “I” am here), a location in time and space, a point of view that accumulates all previous experiences and points of view. Does this “I” presume a substantial entity located inside our bodies, or is it located in our minds, our families, job titles, Facebook profiles, bank accounts—those trappings that help us maintain the meanings and understandings that we have up ’til now considered ourselves to be?
Theories abound. Sherlock Holmes was said to sometimes look for the logic of human behavior in plumes of pipe smoke; Shakespeare thought people became themselves through action and dialogue; Darwin saw human activity related to that of apes, albeit slightly more clever; Freud attributed the development of self to a cauldron of drives and motives of which we are largely unconscious. The Bhagavad Gita attributed human behavior to our attachments to our false or temporal selves in our material world. Philosophers Heidegger, Sartre, and Husserl thought the self’s way of existing to be a function of their involvement in worldly activities—physical, social, and historical. Biologists have tipped their hats to the genetic code (a matter of molecules); brain scientists to neural activity.
While theories and explanations are useful, also of enormous value is having direct, hands-on access to who we are as human beings—to being able to actually impact our actions, to change course should we so desire, to be the authors of our own lives. The single biggest stop to having this kind of access is one of identity (the “who” it is that we consider ourselves to be), coupled with the impulse we have to cling to and defend whatever notion of ourselves we already have. How we “arrive” at our identity is mostly inadvertent—essentially built from a series of what we see (consciously or not) as failures to do or be something. When these “apparent” failures arise, we make decisions about how to compensate for, respond to, and accommodate ourselves to them. So whether it is one or 10 or even 40 years later, when something inconsistent with how we see ourselves occurs, we still hold on to that with which we’ve identified— leaving us no powerful way to be with whatever is going on.
The degree to which our behavior is filtered by our identity goes unrecognized—the default filters then set our values; bestow meaning; determine the aims, limitations, and purpose of our daily life. They become “us,” they are “us,” and we only get what they allow—obscuring access to ourselves and to what’s really possible in being human. Unless the identity factor is addressed, the answer to the question, what does it mean to be human, gets looked at only through that lens. But stepping outside of our identity isn’t so easy—as it’s achieved a certain density throughout our lives—it is all we know of ourselves. The idea that another whole idea of self is available can be disconcerting, invalidating. In setting aside “all the usual things that gave us an ‘identity’—the accident of our time and place of birth, the accident of being a human being rather than a dog or a fish—we become aware that this so-called self is as arbitrary as our name. It’s like standing over an abyss, recognizing that ‘I,’ as we know it is not an absolute.”2 But it is here, with this recognition, where transformation occurs.
Transformation does not merely change our actions, it uncovers the structures of being and interpretation on which we are grounded. This revealing of our selves to ourselves occurs in a profound way that can alter the very possibility of what it means to be human. And while transformation is not an event, there is a definite before/after quality to it. Transformative learning gives us an awareness of the basic structures within which we know, think, and act in the world. This shift does not rid us of old contexts, it simply stops defining who we are. That is the single most powerful attribute of Landmark’s work.
“I am” is the language of identity. “I occur,” on the other hand, kind of jolts that perspective, orientation, and notion of ourselves. Each moment’s meaning happens inside of the background of understanding against which it occurs. The phenomenon of occurring begins to reveal and dismantle what we might normally have attributed to a “cause-and-effect” model or a just “the way things are” model of thought. But we don’t act out of what is there or what we know, or a cause-and-effect model—we act out of what “occurs”—our actions are directly correlated to how the world occurs for us.
For example, if the world “occurs” to us that it’s important to win, we take a lot of risks (we can’t win if we don’t); if the world occurs for us that it is important to avoid losing, we take very few risks (as we can only lose by taking risks). How the world occurs gives two totally different kinds of lives. Renowned physicist Richard Feynman wrote that two mathematically equivalent formulations can “occur” unequal. People investing their money who are told they’re likely to lose money every 30 years, invest differently than if they’re told they have a 3.3% chance of losing a certain amount each year.3 Same math, but occurring differently.
Another great example of this, as we sometimes demonstrate in our programs, is when we ask somebody who considers themselves very uncoordinated to play a game of catch. We throw them the ball, and as expected, they don’t catch it. When we change the game and ask them to just call out which way it’s spinning, they think of themselves as fully able to make the call accurately, and at the same time they (inadvertently) catch each ball. Changing the game alters the way it “occurs” for the player.
In each of these examples, what people are saying to themselves (how the world “occurs” for them) results in two totally different outcomes. Occurring is a phenomenon that arises in language. Language is far more than just a tool that describes or represents reality. To know the power of language, other than mere words, essentially requires a transformation from knowing ourselves as who we have considered ourselves to be (our identities), to knowing ourselves through language. We shift in the way we define ourselves—not merely in the way we think about our definition of self, nor merely in the way we believe our self to be, but in the actual experience of who we are as the one who defines who we are. Who we are is fundamentally a conversation—a phenomenon of language, created by our words—by our saying.
When identity stops being something that is fixed, real, or just the way it is, there is this ability to generate possibility. It’s worth seeing the difference in what an identity gives versus what possibility gives. Identity gives a “condition” in which life occurs. Possibility is a “clearing” in which life occurs. Possibilities are generated; conditions are by default. When we recognize that we are not our identities, and the space of nothing becomes available, who we are can show up as itself. It is from nothing that we have the space in which to create. From nothing, we can create something we know we created, so we don’t get stuck with what we create, because we can again create something else. Transformation leaves us with the presence of choice—no more, no less. The actual choosing remains of our own making.
1 Adapted from Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, p. 404.
2 Adapted from Colin Wilson, The Mind Parasites, Oneiric Pr, 1990 (orig. pub. 1967).
3 Adapted from Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel G. Goldstein, and Mark W. Spitznagel, “The Six Mistakes Executives Make in Risk Management,” Harvard Business Review, 10/09.