Lucianna Chixaro Ramos
About two years ago I was lucky enough to make a wrong turn. While looking for a grocery store less crowded than the one near my apartment, I drove down the wrong two lane road in the south part of Orlando. The suburban landscape clogged with strip malls quickly gave way to a semi-rural stretch populated by sod companies and houses whose lots can be measured in quantities greater than quarter acres. Across from an unassuming RV park and boat storage I spotted the curved roofs of what I would later know as Guang Ming Temple, a Buddhist shrine that stemmed from a secluded monastery in the mountains of Taiwan.
In the weeks following that first encounter, I became increasingly interested in what Buddhism and eastern thought had to offer me as a writer. I participated in the temple’s meditation sessions, attended their lectures, and watched curiously as visitors interacted with teachers and permanent residents. I spent hours listening to podcasts, reading informal news articles and peer-reviewed papers, and related ancient texts like the Dhammapada and its predecessor, the Tao Te Ching. What I found was a focus on inclusivity, process instead of result, the proposition that the effacement of the self leads to greater happiness, a healthier mind, and most intriguingly, increased productivity.
One night during a post-meditation lecture, I witnessed an exchange between a long-time student and a teacher. The man asked the teacher, “What if I never become fully convinced about the existence of reincarnation?”
And this was the simple response: “You don’t need to be convinced.”
This question expresses the struggle to achieve the delicate balance of accommodating new lines of thought into our existing conceptual frameworks. Some of us struggle with any new information presented to us; others take a step back to reassess how new knowledge can improve existing patterns of behavior and thought. In writing, we are faced with the same battle every time we enter the arena of the workshop. We’ve labored over our manuscripts: we’ve researched backstories, pondered the viability of countless metaphors, wrestled with narration, diction, and tone—we are the experts on our subjects and loyal servants to our work. And here we are confronted with people eager to provide input on work on which, generally speaking, they have spent at most a few hours of their time.
It’s not so much that the spiritual teacher was progressive enough to remain calm in the face of such a question or that the student was brash enough to ask it—what is remarkable about their interaction is that neither party was surprised. Neither teacher nor student were clutching onto a false stoicism to hide turbulence inside. Their acceptance of the other was ingrained so deeply that it revealed the curiosity and exploration in the inquiry as just that—without projecting ego and morality. When we allow the self to dissolve—however briefly—we open the door to learning that which we would not otherwise allow ourselves to experience. These are the moments when creativity soars.
Though most of us who are serious about improving our craft are able to suspend attachment to our work for a few brief moments of advice from our peers, few are able to actually divorce a rigid conceptualization of self in the body of their work. That is because getting rid of the self seems at first to be an impossible exercise in the denial of existence. In reality, it is the simple acceptance of the multiplicity of selves contained within us. As Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese the poet known for his use of heteronyms puts it: “Sê plural como o universo,” or, “Be plural like the universe.”
Pessoa, in the act of inhabiting his multiple selves, created in effect a literature in which the self is limitless, boundless. He allowed his identity to become fluid and in doing so created a body of work in which the self no longer defines the constraints of a narrative. Pessoa doesn’t just write in a myriad voices—he erases the boundaries between self, narrator, other. He occupies the universe not as a spectator or as an actor, but as a formless being, shifting into another consciousness as needed.
In “The Several Names of Fernando Pessoa,” Eduoard Roditi proposes that it is Pessoa’s bilingualism that necessitates this need to create multiple heteronyms. “Denied any Wordsworthian spontaneity of expression because always forced to choose whether to express himself in English or Portuguese,” writes Roditi, “Pessoa thus made a virtue of the self-alienation imposed upon him by his having to hesitate between either of two languages that remained…” The result is poet who, instead of eschewing one culture over another, accepts the multiple selves that his life has conspired to create. In fact, Pessoa’s embrace of his own multiplicity mirrors the discovery and acceptance that students of Buddhism and eastern thought experience upon learning of anatta or no-self (sometimes translated as soullessness).
Pessoa’s multicultural childhood spent between Portugal and South Africa is indeed his first foray into the awareness of multiple selves. In recent years, there has been research which shows that the self is language-specific and changes in “accordance with the language the bilingual speaks at any given point in time.”1 Pessoa’s first division of self happened when, at the age of eight, he was plucked from his native Portugal and placed in a radically different environment with a dissimilar language, traditions, and social norms.
As writers in a polarized twenty-first century we are faced with unresolved racial and cultural tensions and bigotry, thousands of daily acts of outrage and cruelty, both large and small. We are left to mediate these disparate influences through our craft, to somehow draw connections between dissimilar ideas and accurately express them in a way which engages the largest audience possible. If we are to succeed, it is necessary to contribute our own experiences and expertise while taking in those of others without judgement. Doing so means we must shift focus to inclusivity instead of exclusivity, that we learn to harness the power of facing every situation as a wisdom-gaining experience, no matter how contrary to our own beliefs the new information we are receiving is. What better way to achieve this than by letting go of our perceived self and taking the time to inhabit another for a while?
- Ali Salmani Nodoushan, M., & Garcia Laborda, J. (2014). The Bilingual Self or Selves? International Journal of Language Studies, 107-116.
Lucianna Chixaro Ramos is a Brazilian born and Florida raised poet. She currently splits her time between writing and promoting literacy and English language acquisition. She enjoys living in a multilingual universe and answering her toddler’s questions about how the world works. You can find her work in the journal New South.