It Isn’t What It Is

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Yay for distinctions! Here’s another one I love!

One of the things I was taught early on were the names for the things in my world. I was taught, “This is my bed”, “This is my foot”, “This is the door to my room”, and so on.

I was told what everything is. Each item given an identity within my personal reality map.

I was convinced that the names equaled the thing in question.

This lead to some funny, and confusing conclusions early on.

It was explained to me that the TV carried a signal coming from the filming of actors in a show that was then displayed on my screen. When it was on, the signal was displayed for my viewing pleasure. What wasn’t really explained was what happened when my TV was turned off. To my reality map, the TV being on was the signal for the shows to be displayed. That meant that they should not be going when the TV was turned off. For a couple of years I was presented with a mystery. I would watch some TV in the morning while getting ready for school. When I got home my shows would not be where I left them. When I asked my Mom who had been watching the TV when I was gone she had no answer. It was a couple of years of this before she got what I was asking. Then she had to explain recording and broadcasting and the idea that everyone was watching the same shows so they had to run in case anyone was watching.

I was laboring under what Alfred Korzybski call the “is of identity.” We human beings have a wonderful capacity for identification. This affords us a tremendous evolutionary advantage. The problem comes when we go from holding an identification for some thing, to assigning it an identity. In that way we give the thing a certain permanency. The trouble with that is that it’s not true. Nothing has that kind of permanency. No thing is identical to any thing else, nor is any thing identical to itself, moment to moment. So, any “is of identity” that we hold about things (either external objects and forces, or internal emotions, sensations, or thoughts) becomes inaccurate the moment after we assign it. We have a view on reality that becomes what Korzybski calls, “false to facts.”

Ancient Buddhism and Taoism, along with modern Physics, confirm the above assertion. No thing has an identity in the sense of a permanent set of characteristics or relations.

Living contrary to the ever changing reality we occupy does not seem a very skillful method at all.

The issue there stems from the deep roots such assigning of an “is of identity” has in us, in terms of our habitual language and thinking. The way out of this trap lies in the same way the trap was created; we can consciously grind in new habits that eliminate the “is of identity” from our thinking and language.

My spiritual uncle, Robert Anton Wilson, outlined a bunch of sample ways to restructure sentences that embrace this notion.

  • The photon is a wave.
    vs.
    The photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments.
  • The photon is a particle.
    vs.
    The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments.
  • John is unhappy and grouchy.
    vs.
    John appears unhappy and grouchy in the office.
  • John is bright and cheerful.
    vs.
    John appears bright and cheerful on holiday at the beach.
  • The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.
    vs.
    In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.
  • That is a fascist idea.
    vs.
    That seems like a fascist idea to me.
  • Beethoven is better than Mozart.
    vs.
    In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance Beethoven seems better than Mozart to me.
  • Lady Chatterly’s lover is a pornographic novel.
    vs.
    Lady Chatterly’s lover seems like a pornographic novel to me.
  • Grass is green.
    vs.
    Grass registers as green to most human eyes.
  • The first man stabbed the second man with a knife.
    vs.
    I think I saw the first man stab the second man with a knife.

By assiduously, and purposefully working these versions into our language (in writing and speaking) we can re-wire our linguistic habits so they become our norm. This, in turn, will re-wire our thinking. Eventually the “is of identity” can be totally removed from our processing of our realities.

Without the “is of identity” our life once again becomes a dance of change and possibility, no longer caged by certainty, or fixed labeling. Our words, and our view, goes from becoming “false to facts” to “true to facts.” We will always be working with abstractions of reality, but at least we will be using abstractions that a more in line with what is actually occurring.

As Uncle Bob has said, we find ourselves, “In a world where no two fingerprints appear identical, and no two brains appear identical, and an electron does not even seem identical to itself from one nanosecond to another…”