It never occurred to me that the personal-growth-related phenomena I have spent so much time learning and writing about here on The Used Life may, in fact, have part of their origins in perception (of all things). Indeed, it wasn’t until I began reading Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being, only late last week, that I saw the connections between vision, creativity, and self-development. Aesthetic perception. The ability to, at once, see an object (or a person) and its essence. A fusion of the concrete and the abstract. A kind of holistic vision. And, one that I imagine must necessarily involve the imagination. A one-two. Until now, I had no idea Maslow’s thinking on self-actualization and peak experiences was so deeply rooted in perception. (As a thinker, he is a great deal more interesting and wonderful than I had previously imagined. To my mind, he is right about a lot of things.) Or how heavily influenced he was by existentialism. Maslow and May really aren’t all that different. And, peak experiences aren’t very different at all from the trait, openness to experience. Perhaps, the latter is a prerequisite for the former. And, apparently, studies show that those who are high in the trait, openness to experience, also perceive visual stimuli differently, more holistically, than others. No kidding. The more I immerse myself in the writings of these social scientists and philosophers, the more alike they all become. But, I digress.
What interests me here, in this post, is not the process of self-development or actualization. And, it is not the mechanics of vision or the links between perception, creativity, and/or various personality traits. All stuff that’s best left to someone working in a laboratory somewhere. What interests me is the inner experience of aesthetic perception. Of the ability to see ourselves both concretely and as a kind of essence. As objects that we ourselves can design, mold, integrate. Of the ability that many of us develop, as we mature (or self-actualize or individuate), to be able to see ourselves—to stand apart from ourselves, to become separate, and yet, more highly integrated (the Jungian Self and ego consciousness, a confluence of the Freudian ego, superego, and reality principle?). To regulate and shape our habits, our responses, to know and even design the minutiae of our feelings, and other interior aspects of our identity to conform to aesthetic values. To the aesthetics of the self that we sense. An essence—in some cases, a rough visualization—but always an aesthetic, to be sure. To be at once art and artist in the process of our own self-creation. The one and the two. A kind of double vision. Of course, the most appropriate way I can think of to present this discussion on what I see within myself as the one-two nature of aesthetic self-perception—because that is what it feels like—is to continue speaking in terms of feeling.
If you were to ask me to describe, in a word, what it means to me to grow into myself—to mature, to become increasingly reliant on my own inner impulses for guidance and satisfaction—as both a woman and a creative-type intellectual, I would describe the process as one of incorporation. The more I grow into myself, the more I actively I engage with new ideas, the more consciously I use those ideas to mold myself and my environment, and the more consciously I allow myself to simply be myself. The process, to me, feels at once like one of incorporation, absorption, and opening. An expansion of being. What I take into my being—be it poetry, art, music, philosophy, psychology, travel, or some other form of adventure—I take into my whole being. And, that which speaks to my soul I permit to change me. I’d also be lying if I said my imagination wasn’t actively involved. While the most profound aspects of these changes seem to just happen over time, smaller-scale rituals and adjustments, like designing my feelings, are, of course, efforts of which I am quite conscious and represent a kind of intentional self-manipulation and self-play.
The whole process, as far as I am concerned, is inherently thrilling. And, not simply because I am fostering my own growth or acquiring knowledge, themselves rather one-dimensional (albeit noble) pursuits. But, because of what I sense I can become. I am engulfed by a sense of my own possibility. That’s the lure. The seduction of the process of becoming. It is the potential to morph. It is knowing that I can transform myself into another kind of being.
I view myself as malleable. I am raw material for the exercise of my own creative will. Not part of me, but all of me. In moments in which I sense this very keenly, I feel larger than myself (perhaps another manifestation of openness?). I feel as if I exist in my own potential. One and two. I can see it. Almost. Surely, this kind of visualization is an exercise of the imagination. But, how could I possibly be forward-looking without my imagination? I desire desperately to conform to that sense. Barely a creative vision. A totalizing feeling.
I set out to combine myself creatively most often out of a spirit of playfulness. To be sure, I haven’t set a deadline by which I must fully self-actualize, individuate, or otherwise reach the ceiling of my potential (although I hope I don’t have to wait too long). But, growing is exciting. Growing is playful. And, it is even more intensely playful when I know that I am at once the self who is discovering and the thing discovered. One-two. I look upon myself as other creative projects, but generally with a greater degree of excitement, asking, What can I make? I am eager, emboldened, fresh, and alive. Compelled to make as an artist would.
There is a part of me that acts like an anchor. A sense of rootedness. A sense of self that never morphs, rarely budges, and is sometimes rigid. This exists parallel to the sense that I may constantly be remade. Even completely. I suspect one sense balances the other. I suspect were it not for a too-strong sense of self, I would not feel driven to refashion that which I would like to see improved. I have to ask myself if the ability to sense oneself as existing in a state of possibility is not a function of creativity. There are moments in which I view myself—internal and external selves—literally, as I would view a painting. I am enthralled with the way I go together. I am attracted by form. What I visualize, when I visualize myself, is always something beautiful, or near beautiful. It’s a kind of awe. And a kind of lust for that which is just beyond my grasp. I am not talking about my physical features here. I am, rather, speaking of the way my entire being jives. The patterns. The interrelationships between internal and external realities. Conscious. Unconscious. Bodily. Of the achievement of harmony. Balance. Simplicity. Even a little strangeness. With a tinge of chaos and a few tattoos thrown in for good measure.
Indeed, I never, ever refashion myself according to a cold-hard goal. It needs to be something I can feel. It’s got to be beautiful. When I was younger, I used to try to make myself over according to external standards. I am now guided by my sensibilities. By what feels most natural and most beautiful. As if what I am chasing—as if the ultimate in being—is the achievement of my own, unique aesthetic. That includes my habits. The balance between that which is good for me, okay for me in moderation, and not at all beneficial. I don’t care to go too far in any one direction. I don’t seek a great deal of abstinence. I don’t care much for negative virtues. Balance is a challenge I very much enjoy, itself a form of amusement. Of experimentation. Of artistic expression. Indeed, if, by my own carefully cultivated behavior, I can create a pattern of beauty, symmetry, and, most of all, elegance, then I am content. At least, until that pattern is outworn and it is time to evolve again. I ask myself if this way of perceiving oneself aesthetically—in one’s potential, moving toward beauty—is valuable. I also ask myself if it can be learned. If it is, in fact, rooted in perception (in a bodily sense) or imagination. Or, all of the above and then some (the likeliest answer). I must ask, too, if this is a means of interrogating—or forcing one to choose—one’s own values. I think so. I think this is what I meant by self-fashioning from the first time that enigmatic term came into my mind, now many months ago. Creating a stronger sense of self. Using one’s imagination to shape one’s future by feeling. By cultivating one’s interior vision. There you have it. One. Two. Case closed.