It’s official: I’m an ex-psychologist. My license to practice expired last month. It’s been a long time coming.
I first aspired to become a psychologist forty-three years ago.
Becoming and then being a psychologist was an important part of my life. I gave up practice over four years ago but hung onto my license. Maybe I’d come to regret giving it up. Maybe I’d need to return to work. Letting go of the “maybes” was a slow process.
When I started college I planned to become a biochemist. It turned out I was more interested in Civil Rights and the Vietnam War than equilibration constants and soon switched majors to political science. When I became disillusioned with improving the world through political action I turned to saving it one-life-at-a-time through psychology. It was a slow way of fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vow to liberate all beings, but, hey, it was a start.
Preparing for my preliminary exams stressed me out so much I was developing an ulcer. My wife asked “what would be so terrible if you failed the exams?” “Then I’d never be a psychologist!” I whined. “Poor you!” she replied with benign sarcasm. “Then you’d just be like the other five billion people on earth who aren’t psychologists.”
I’ve finally joined the five billion. Only now it’s nearly seven billion.
Letting go of my license isn’t the end of it, though. Like everything else in life, it’s a process. Yesterday I was in the garage looking through piles of old lecture notes, publication drafts, correspondence with editors, and xeroxed copies of articles I’d used for teaching. Was I ready to put them in the trash? And what about the hundreds of books taking up valuable real estate on my bookshelves? I’ll probably never read them again. Am I ready to donate them? Will anyone have them?
Let go. Don’t hang on. Be ready for what’s next.
A friend of mine, the son of an African chief, had a mother who sang a Praise Song to him every morning while growing up. The song was sung at his wedding and one day will be sung at his funeral. The song existed long before he was born, but when he was born a new verse was added specifically for him. The song defines him. It tells how his ancestors came to the valley to become warriors and chiefs. It tells what his qualities are, what his duties are to family and tribe, what he will one day accomplish.
The song is a powerful metaphor for identity: the narrative we create and reinforce about ourselves. We can allow that narrative to define us. We can treat it as real, as if it had totemic power — or we can see it transparently as story, aware of how it fails to define and constrain our complex, elusive, ever-changing selves.
Life is never static, but flows like a river. It’s essence is change. We shed identities and try new ones on for size like snakes shed their skins. Last month I was a psychologist. Who am I now?
Already a new narrative takes its place — grandfather, writer, piano student, cancer survivor, diabetic, social activist, Buddhist — a new set of identifiers.
When I’m on the cushion, though — who is it that sits?
“Eno said, ‘Do not think good, do not think evil. Now, what is your real self?’
Myo asked, ‘Beyond these secret words is there a secret deeper still?’
Eno said, ‘I have told you nothing secret. See your true face, it is all there.’”
– From the Mumonkan, Case 23