Do you want to change your life?
People paddling around in the pond of an inner-directed lifestyle give themselves permission to do some interesting things. One such thing, which is the subject of this week’s blog, is the tendency of self-authoring folk to change their names in an effort to create, reify, and actualize a new identity. I’ve come to the conclusion that this act of naming has profound social, economic, and intergenerational effects that may very well leave an imprint for centuries. It’s my bet that a huge number of us have changed our name in some way that claimed a new identity, and I’d love to know how it worked out for you, and if you have children, how its working out for them.
Is re-naming a Sacred Ritual?
I think the answer is a definite yes. Among the coolest of the Native Americans were the Nez Perce, and Lakota Sioux tribes that had traditions where a young person could go out alone with some sacred plants, fast, concentrate, and be given a vision. Out of that vision would come a new identity. They could go back to the tribe and say “My name is________”. It was then done. You were given the power to be an authority in your own identity. You didn’t have to be a Miller because your father ground flour, or a Butler because your father was a house servant. You didn’t have to take a slave-name if your father was a slave. Instead, you get a vision, name yourself, and live out the consequences. This idea has me at ‘hello.’
This Sacred re-naming ritual was what my clients were after when, as a young lawyer, I had a small but satisfying sub-business helping women go down to the courthouse and get a name change after their first divorce. Every one of those women saw themselves on a spiritual journey. Alright. I will confess that I was studying meditation at the time with the Aquarian Practitioners of Light Energy, and a good number of my clients came from that community. My sample group was probably just a bit tilted toward the hippie-post modern meme, so all of those new names had one thing in common.
Do more Vowels make you more Spiritual?
Without exception all of the new names were ‘spiritual’ names— and a particular brand of spiritual name heavy in the long vowel sounds. Sally became Sundara. Susan became Samadhi. Debbie became Drishti. Kathy became Karma. Vowels were in, consonants, out. Why?
It turns out that vowels are associated with certain state experiences, the experiences of the Para-sympathetic nervous system—the part of us that pumps out all of those lovely ‘feed and breed‘ relaxation chemicals: Serotinin, Oxytocin, Dopamine and the like. The long vowel sounds are associated with states of para-sympathetic pleasure: the Muuuuumm, Ohoooooh, Ahaaaa, OMG sounds of great sex and great food. Meditation uses the the para-sympathetic system, freeing us from the fight and flight cycle and it’s associated mental activity, which is seen as crazy-mind. Vowels trigger the para-sympathetic. Mediation words thus tend to be ‘Vowel Words.’ The primordial Om is a vowel-heavy relaxation sound, especially as it is drawn out and chanted Ahhh.. Ooooh.. Ummmm; as is the word Yoga, which has a remarkable 3:1 ratio of vowels to consonants in 4 short letters. I continue to encounter new Yoga teachers who are trying to push the ratio even further by eeee-loooongaaaaating all of their vowels, telling us to ex-haaaaale, and in-haaaaale. The more vowels, the more spiritual it seems.
So the meditative, state-centered spirituality that my clients and I were practicing back in the day was a vowel-y religion where states of ‘dropping in’ and ‘mindfulness’ were being pursued. These states were considered ‘higher.’ The new names reflected the intention to move upward on this higher path toward enlightenment.* It was and continues to be mostly a white, middle to upper class undertaking. Let’s face it. Despite the the egalitarian tendencies of the day, none of those ladies were naming themselves Hernandez.
*It’s interesting to note, that just a generation before, my ‘religious but not spiritual’ parents would not have considered rolling our eyes back in our heads and gazing at our third eye ‘spiritual.’ They would have considered it goofing off. Helping a poor family was spiritual. Going to Church was spiritual. Fulfilling one’s marital vows was spiritual. There was plenty of room for a whole bunch of consonants in all those activities.
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Is Re-Naming Always an Evolutionary Uptick?
My own data-free research tells me that well over half the people in the world will change their names at some point, usually at a time of transition to a higher status and to a (hopefully) a better life. One fascinating phenomenon of name-change is that it always reflects an intent to up-grade status, and never, ever, (not even once) a downgrade. Our name changes are like a gate in our upstream social swim that closes behind us, hopefully keeping us from floating back down. Here are some examples:
- Most married women will take all or part of their husband’s name, with the initial intention of keeping it for life. In traditional cultures, marriage was an upgrade in status, and there was something wrong if you weren’t married. Now, men and women may combine their names when they get the marital-status upgrade. (There are some remarkable stats on the positive economic consequences of marriage for women, which could be the subject of another blog).
- I consider titles like Hon., Dr., Rev., and Capt., all to be name changes—they become part of one’s name. Again, there is an upgrade in status that comes with the title. You now have a professional station, and are announcing it to the world. Loss of the name is a dishonor and a downgrade.
- Any syllable in any one of those long acronym strings after one’s name also count as name changes. And Sally Farmer does not put Sally Farmer, MSW,LCMT, LCPC, PHD(abd),CHt, ACT on her business card after her name because it reflects a downgrade. She wants to tell us that she’s an educated woman with a lot of skills, and probably not a farmer.
- Immigrants still Americanize their names when they come to this country. They come here with hopes for a better life, and their new Americanized names reflect that hope.
All of this name changing is upwardly-mobile, with no name-changing movement in the other direction. We don’t saddle people with name downgrades. If Sam Smith is a Registered Sex Offender, we don’t require him to say, Hi, I’m Sam Smith, RSO, (even if we might like to have that information). He stays Sam Smith.
What’s in a name?
Quite a bit as it turns out. As we post-modern’s change our names in ways that are sacred, upward focused and filled with more vowels, it’s worth a look at what the consequences of such behavior might be.
First off, the sound of the name itself might matter quite a bit. Hollywood knows this. Norma Jean Mortenson just does not sell as well as Marilyn Monroe. Franklin Jones just does not have the spiritual star power of Adi Da. Adolf Hitler’s Biological Father was named Alois Schicklgruber, until the man tried to change his name to Heidler that somehow got put down as Hitler. What a stroke of misfortune for humankind. Heil Schicklgruber! would probably not have made it out of the throats of the Nazi wolf pack. A name like Shanti Om probably increases your brand value as a yoga teacher, but diminishes your chance of a call-back if you are applying for a job at Bank of America.
This brings us to point number two. Names are a form of knowing. To name something is to know it. But any name is also limiting. No name can fully encompass the potential of a human being.
A fascinating study by Gregory Clark of The University of California-Davis, entitled The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility makes the case that one’s name can have consequences that last for centuries. One example was a trend among Swedes in the 17th and 18th century very much akin to our post-modern voweling. In those days, the fad among the scientific/technical elite was to latinize their names. This meant giving themselves a Roman name with an ‘us’ on the end. Think Gladiator : “Hail Claudius Maximus!” This resulted in names like Linnaeus (who is a father of modern ecology and invented the biological naming scheme of binomial nomenclature) and Celsius. That’s right. Celsius was the guy who invented the temperature scale.
It turns out that despite heavy Swedish efforts toward an egalitarian society, and despite the statistical tendency to return to the mean, and despite the passage of time, those Swedes that latinized themselves back in the day laid down a pulse. Those with Latin names in Sweden today have incomes 27% higher than those with the most common middle class name: Andersson. If the Latins are grouped in with those with names passed down from Swedish Nobility, they produce six times the number of lawyers than the general population, and six times the number of doctors. The chance of them writing a masters thesis is 60-80% higher than those with common surname prefixes like Lund and Berg.
It also turns out that if your name is Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp, Beaumont, or some-such, and your great- great grandaddy attended Oxford or Cambridge around 1800, your odds of getting into one of these institutions today is about 4 times higher than the average working-class person named Miller, Butler, Smith, Baker or Shepard. You even get a leg up if you happen to have an upperclass working name like Chamberlain, which was a position of high rank. What Gives?
Of course, there is what money and status brings. But money is hard to hold onto generation after generation if it’s not constantly replenished. And there has been a great leveling of status since the 1800‘s (though the class struggle may be on the way back with the rise of the 1%). There is something more at work. I think a great case can be made that name-changers lay down a pulse—a pulse of intention toward something that they consider better, higher and more—a pulse of values that are copied and handed down along with the name as memetic fields by force of contact generation upon generation as family traditions and family values. With the name comes the value memetic that the name reflects. And sometimes, the inheritor of that name just doesn’t want the value-baggage. This brings back to our own post-modern voweling.
What are we passing on?
The fad for us boomers has been to embrace the spiritual practices of the East, and the corresponding heavy association with traditions where thinking itself is seen as the problem, and states of no-mind and no-self are pursued. The ultimate spiritual voweling might just be the ‘O‘ ing of the Zen Buddhist tradition, that lays down a heavy monastic pulse with names like Junpo, Genpo, Musho,Taiso, Anjo, Kodo,Doyo, Fudo, Engo and Mondo all of whom are looking for Kensho. These names are given to those who are undertaking serious monastic training in a very prescribed and hierarchal spiritual tradition. They are given to folks who are becoming monks.
Being born in 1954, and coming of age when the big waves from the east were hitting this country, I had the pleasure of knowing some of these folks before they took the O-turn. My inner dialogue has been “Wow, my frat brother just got O’d. I wonder if it’s a fad.” My experience has been that it’s not a fad. Once the O-ing happens, you’re pretty much in it for life. You’re in the monk world now buddy-o, with all that comes with it. The same is true with the other voweling. It tends to stick and become a permanent identity, at least in this lifetime.
Monasticism is really not Family Friendly.
Monasticism in general is not a family activity. It’s just not. Long periods of seated, silent meditation are not designed to take care of babies, do homework, or bring home money for the mortgage. The monk value system pulses in a direction that is traditionally headed up and out of here. Monastic names are handed down within traditions as stations in the upward ascent, not within families. Even when the monk returns from her retreat to share enlightenment, it’s not usually not with kids in tow. Try to find a kid in the 10 oxherding pictures. There is a long tradition of celibacy, hermeticism, sitting in caves, constructing walled enclosures and taking long retreats in the mountains while chanting a vowel name as a mantra. The word mantra itself is a vowel-name. This is not exactly the lifestyle of a soccer mom.
So, as we are aligning ourselves with our spiritual ambitions, what’s being transmitted to the kids?
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My personal experience is that my millienal kids are not that interested in my spiritual ambitions. They take for granted the calmer states in the household, and the equanimous way we might handle their lack of maturity. They assume the yoga studio has always been there. And they want the stuff. They want financial support. They don’t want our yoga and buddhist names. They don’t like being raised with no money. They wish we would go out there get a job, and stop gazing at the third eye. Tibet was the last of the great monastic kingdoms, where a son might inherit the throne of a monastic father. The kids in the suburbs don’t see what’s in it for them.
My conclusion is that the American boomers are transmitting a naming pulse that, perhaps for the first time, breaks the tradition of the newer, better family name. Those o-names may be better for the planet, but not for the family. Monks leave their families, and get a different name which they don’t pass down to their children. They either don’t have any children, or those kids are few and far between.
What’s a Parent to Do?
Given all of the alternatives, I’ve decided to stick with all my old consonant-filled, hard-shoe Germanic name. Roughly translated, the name means Highdweller, or someone who lives in high places. My parents worked very hard to give me a ‘good name’– a good reputation in the community. They considered it the most important thing they could do.
Last year we began my families’ 4th century in America, having arrived in 1712. What the original progenitor, Jacob, was here to do was to get free of Europe and establish this, the peaceable kingdom:
I come from a line of alternative thinkers, utopian dreamers, and practical farmers. That’s not such a bad combo. I don’t have an english power name like Blair or Sinclair. In fact, I don’t have a name anyone’s ever heard of. That’s alright with me.
So I’m claiming my name, and trying to make it a good one. I can feel the pulse of the peaceable kingdom running through my veins. I think we’re getting closer, and that we’re on the scent of a new kind of consciousness where the best of everything just might become the normative requirement. This current polarized swamp might be generating just the conditions that are necessary to break into something really new. When it comes, I hope to lend my good name to it.
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Let me know what you think. It’s a pleasure being with you as always.