Cindy Sherman: Untitled (Various)

I’m writing today’s practice from an Airbnb in Austin, where I’ve been for the last few days to attend SXSW. Each morning is an early start, head downtown, and a nonstop barrage of panels, exhibitions, parties, and the occasional 5 minutes spent inhaling a taco. In a way, I thrive in this environment. In another way, as I find each night when I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow, it’s exhausting.

In Buddhism, we talk about “no self.” This means, in Jack Kornfield’s beautiful phrasing, that “any identity we can grasp is transient, tentative.” In Gestalt therapy, to which I also subscribe, Fritz Perls spoke about "the layers of the neurotic personality," which was what he observed to be the ways that people substitute "character" for the "fluid self." Where these two theories align is that the Buddhist “no-self” and the Gestalt “fluid self” both see identity as fluid, mutable, and destined to change over time. Character or the neurotic personality, for Perls, leads (in my mind) to the Buddhist notion of dukkha, or suffering.

The first of Perls’s neurotic layers is the Cliché Layer, a way of interacting with the world without revealing much personal information. It leads to the Games Layer, which is how we interact with the world when we see ourselves as a fixed self versus a dynamic self. I’ve mostly been in the Cliché Layer for the last few days, and I’m starting to feel the toll of being so much on the surface.

Meanwhile, today’s work of art is a Janus coin of no-self on one side and Games Layer on the other side. Cindy Sherman’s work, a series of Untitleds, all place her in different identities, borne out of a love for childhood dress-up and a sense of both shyness and curiosity towards her own identity. She explains: “For a long time the characters were to ask those same questions: maybe this is who I want to be?"

There are hundreds of Shermans to choose from, I’ve included 9 here to show the range of possibilities that exist in one self. Google Image Cindy’s work and you’ll see an even richer tapestry that shows a fluid self beneath the layers of cliche and games.

Today’s Contemplation: What facets of your identity are you ignoring to keep up surface talk? What aspects do you believe to be fixed? Take 10 minutes to look them in the eye and say “I see you.” What happens when you sit with both of these layers without judgment or a sense of trying to “fix” them? What happens if you tell them, “I love you”?