Being and Becoming

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This March I was in the audience for a conversation between my favorite Podcast host, Krista Tippett of On Being, and my favorite poet, David Whyte. Tippett was on tour for her new book, Becoming Wise, and Whyte was drawing her out on some of the themes of the book, as well as sharing his poetry. When it came time for the audience Q & A, I got in line to ask, what has become one of my seminal guiding questions. I prefaced my question by saying, that I’d recently turned 30, and that in looking back on myself at age 20, it was hard to imagine I was really the same person, but that when I flipped back through diaries I kept at age 13, I was shocked to realize, that perhaps I hadn’t really changed at all. So, I said, “Your program is called On Being, your book is called Becoming Wise…and I’m curious about the interplay of being and becoming.”

Tippett, is one of the thinkers I admirer most, and she’s spent years marinating in the wisdom of other great hearts and minds, so I had hope that her answer would be elucidating. It was. In essence she said, there is no soundbite reply to such a big question. She said, “The ‘becoming’ word is just as important as the ‘wise’ word (in relation to her book title Becoming Wise).” She went on to say, “and it’s [wisdom] not a destination. It’s a lifelong process and adventure….This phrase ‘old and wise’ fails us. There’s a wisdom that a four-year-old has, and there’s a wisdom that a 21-year-old has: this impatience and this ability to see the world as it should be, and this desire to throw oneself at it. That is a wisdom that the world needs, and that we need to accompany. So I think wisdom is something that is possible at every age, and that we cultivate, but it is absolutely a matter of becoming, not being.” For matters of wisdom, the idea that it is a process of becoming, resonates. But what about the interplay of being and becoming on the level of who a person really is?

When I created this website, I very intentionally chose human-becomings as the domain name. The capacity to become is one of the most hopeful, affirming possibilities in the world. It is what breathes life into my former profession of teaching, and the vocation I’m currently working towards of mental health counseling. That we can become kinder, wiser, more patient, more loving, or any other host of qualities provides a sense of agency and direction that can be life-saving. And this possibility, which has long been recognized by ancient traditions, is now being supported by the science of neuroplasticity that has shown that the human brain can grow and adapt throughout the life-span. An old dog, can in fact, learn new tricks.

If so much can change, the question then becomes, does anything stay the same? Is there any thread of constancy that binds together a human life, and substantiates the claim that we are human beings as well as human becomings? Invisibilia Podcast hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, examine this question in the episode “The Personality Myth.” They start the show outside of the Superior Court of Washington D.C. on a June day, talking to couples who have just tied the knot—committing to lifelong partnership. When asked about their new spouse’s personality, partners are quick to list off the immutable qualities that make their partner just right for them. The general sentiments of the happy newlyweds were perhaps summarized best by Unidentified Man # 5, “Your personality is your core…that’s who you are.”

The Podcast, of course, calls this notion of a core personality into question. The clips of the joyful newlyweds are counterbalanced by a clip of a joyful divorcee, exiting the same Courthouse, calling out “Free at last!” And then the story turns to a group of inmates, incarcerated for atrocious crimes, who put on a TEDx Event inside the prison that includes ballet, poetry, singing, and talks—graceful, touching, sentimental performances that seem incongruous with the notion of their criminality.

After anecdotally challenging the notion of a constant core personality, the Podcast turns to Walter Mischel, the psychologist who gave us the well-known “Marshmallow Experiment,” which looks at children’s capacity to delay gratification—to not gobble down a marshmallow that they’ve been given right away, but to be patient and to wait for the promise of a future reward of a second marshmallow on down the line. Spigel says, “Over the last two decades, the marshmallow test has become a kind of poster child for the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.” Only Walter Mischel, the psychologist who created and ran the experiment, says, this is a wild misinterpretation of the experiment. Contrary to popular interpretation, Mischel says, “your future is NOT in a marshmallow.”

The way the Marshmallow Experiment has been framed is in fact inimical to the real learning Mischel discovered from the process. “What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human being to not be the victims of their biographies—not their biological biographies, not their social biographies—and to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.” He explains that the part of the Marshmallow Experiment that never airs, is the part where you tell the child who is tempted to eat the marshmallow right away, to simply imagine that the marshmallow isn’t really there, and this simple cognitive reframing, allows most children who wouldn’t have delayed gratification, to be able to do so. Mischel says that your mind is the gateway that allows you to mold the same basic raw material into different shapes and forms. The mind allows for ever expanding permutations and expressions of a basic personality, caught in a specific social construct.

For most people it is not too much of a leap to say that our “being” doesn’t live in our physical body. We know that our cells, our basic physical building blocks, are quite literally different every seven years. We see the ways our bodies grow and change and fall apart and morph in a very tangible way. Many would say, our seat of “being,” lives in our minds. That are minds represent the thread of constancy. Others would say that our seat of “being,” lives in our hearts…a core of emotional constancy. But emotions and thoughts, if examined even for just a short amount of time, are anything but constant. They are racing, rushing, changing entities.

I spent a month at a Sivananda Ashram this summer, and each morning and evening as part of Satsang (a Sanskrit word that means, “gathering together for the truth”), we would sing various mantras, songs, and chants. One chant, called the “Song of Will” answered the question of being and becoming from the yogic perspective. It starts out by listing all the things we are NOT, which per the Sivananda Yoga tradition includes: body, mind, intellect, emotion, energy, and ego. These things are not immutable; they shift and change. The core, per this tradition is: “satcitananda,” which is Sanskrit for “existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute.” Satchitananda transcends a limited human experience—it describes the divinity that is everything, when the limiting factors are stripped away.

Each tradition—be it religious or scientific or cultural—has its own answers for being and becoming. Outside of the philosophical realm, this question has plagued me on a far more granular level. As someone who feels at home in so many disparate contexts, I wonder if I am adaptable or just disingenuous. I wonder if I have honed my capacity to become, at the expense of my capacity to be. Each year, nominally for work, but mostly for my own sanity, I go into the mountains for a month. This extended time away from such a high velocity of inputs and pushes and pulls gives me the chance to just be. This summer, out in the most exquisite field of wildflowers I’ve ever seen, I made my peace with my understanding of being and becoming. It’s unsubstantiated by science, and unbacked by religion or philosophy, but it is shaped by all of these. For me, the highest truth has always lived in poetry, and so that’s where my answer to this question lives too: “A Chameleon with a Core.” My nod to the interplay between being and becoming--a dance made graceful by the interaction of the sweeping, beautiful movements and the quiet, stillness that punctuates them.