True Who?

09.04 2017
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True Who?

“We know truth, not only by reason but also by heart.” – Blaise Pascal

In Spanish, a person identifies him or herself with the phrase, "Me llamo..." – literally, "I call myself". "Me llamo Alejandro, me llamo Laura, me llamo Frank, Lulu, Paulo, Janine..." I've always found this a little amusing, as if the person can't quite commit to what the name might evoke (Candy? Sven? Gladys? Percy?), or as if he wants to say, "Well, I call myself Alejandro, but I really see myself as more of an Xavier..."

For millennia, one of the basic questions pondered by spiritual seekers and some regular Joes, Janes and Xaviers alike has been, "Who am I?" We're well-versed in our genealogy, cultural and geographic backgrounds, and educational and professional trajectories, but in those quiet moments of reflection, or alternately of crisis, we often wave those facts aside and ponder, "But who am I... really?

Oddly, despite having spent our whole lives with ourselves, most of us seem to be the least reliable experts, as we're usually the most myopic of the observers. If we survey our nearest and dearest, we're sure to get a virtual smörgåsbord of perceptions – many contradictory and some of which might shock us. We usually find that others perceive us as far more likeable, accomplished, attractive, intelligent and engaging than we secretly suspect ourselves to be. Fools! Sycophants! Mothers and grandmothers!

In attempting to answer the Who question for ourselves, we tend to first go straight to the negatives: the physical – "I'm too fat, skinny, short, tall, dark, pale, blahblahblah." Mental – "I'm not smart enough, intellectual, tech-savvy, professionally accomplished, blahblahblah.” Emotional – "I'm so angry, impatient, weak, insecure, sensitive, not sensitive enough, blahblahblah." Then, trying to apply a dollop of equanimity to this fractured self frame, we reluctantly add a few complimentary details: "I guess I have a nice smile. People say I'm funny. I do have a bit of empathy. I am very detail-oriented..." Nevertheless, a vague, or sometimes very deep sense of being pocked, incomplete and unfulfilled persists.

Our spiritual teachers and other guides counsel us that life is suffering (so get used to it) and propose string-ball koans and other challenging practices to help us pass the time on the road to self-understanding and acceptance. They advise us to be mindful, grateful, do some volunteer work, therapy, meditate more, maybe give vipassana a try. And we comply, longing to “fix” ourselves through self-revelation and secretly hoping for even a slight energetic resemblance to the Dalai Lama or Pema Chödrön. We figure that if we vanquish that long list of negatives – if we lose/gain weight, swallow fistfulls of brain-sharpening supplements, and take long, deep breaths before responding to our partner, parent or child, we'll soon slip jellyfish-like into the salty sea of peaceful self-knowledge and contentment.

Wrong. Rumor has it that when we awaken to our “true self”, what we discover is that we are all magnificent beings whose only purpose is to be at peace and in profound love with ourselves, other humans and the planet we inhabit. We're here to be happy and to enjoy. It's that simple. As anyone who's ever been down this circuitous self-inquiry path can no doubt attest, that's not usually the way it goes... or at least not for the first decade or three. Because humans are just not built that way. We have jobs and difficult bosses, financial pressures and frightening political climates, maddening relationships, self-absorbed children sucked glassy-eyed into the unrelenting social media vortex, Alzheimer's- and cancer-ridden parents queueing up as our second round of children, health problems of our own. On the days that all those planets collide, it can be tough to remember, let alone instinctively feel, that our true selves are shimmering, beaming, good vibe-emanating kaleidoscopes of love.

As part of my morning prayers, I always ask that “I live as my true self today, and not the product of fear, insecurity, guilt and shame.” I may then proceed to spend the entire day steeped in fear, insecurity, guilt and shame. Is that my true self then? Yes. Well, sort of. It's yes on the days that I've loaded that program and can't tear myself away from it. That devilishly looping stream that sinks my heart and dims my light. But it's also yes to my true self on the days that I wake up believing that I'm a just a beaming ball of love and light. Because our true selves are all that.

What I've come to believe is that the definition of one's “true self” as a conscious human being differs quite a bit from one's True Self in the other realm. Finding one's True Self in this lifetime is definitely possible (see Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön), but for most of us, probably not likely. To believe that accomplishing it in our current world can be self-defeating and actually hinder our effort to enjoy life in the here and now. I recall a meditation teacher once remarking to me anxiously, “Someone in the group has to awaken [spiritually]!” He didn't seem to care whether it was himself or another member of the group, but he seemed quite concerned that somebody do it. Spiritual stress? That can not be good for you.

All that may sound pessimistic. On the contrary. To succumb to the notion that we have no control – that we're stuck in the lives we've got and are just passive victims tossed about willy-nilly by the whims of the Universe – is also self-defeating. Despite the duality of my true self being of the Darth Vader variety one day and of the shining light variety the next, what's crucial is how much I allow each to define me. I believe that who I ultimately choose to be in my greater perception of myself will determine in large part the richness of my life, as well as how I impact others and the physical world.

Most days I can accept living with my duality of selves. What's been remarkable though, is that lately the scale of my daily life seems to be leaning more in the direction of shining light. I muse sometimes (and others have also gently suggested) that I live in a fantasy world. At first that notion put me a little on the defensive. But upon reflection, I decided, “Well, why not... and so what?” When I first fully comprehended that it's up to only me to define and inhabit my true self it blew. my. mind. When I then understood that other peoples' opinions of me and my true selfness were none of my business, I was stunned. And then delighted. It's brought about a great sense of liberation and also upped my compassion for myself and others, which in and of itself I consider spectacular life success. From the compassion comes appreciation, peace and deep pleasure – even if only in flickers on the most Darth Vaderish days.

Nevertheless, I won't profess to resemble the Lama or Pema in any way, shape or form. Nor do I aspire to, because that would be co-opting their glow. And I like my own. I do believe that my true self is kind and loving like theirs, though, and that comforts me and lets me ride the rough waves. I'm very grateful for this self and will continue to try to nurture and cultivate it without a sense of urgency or judgement. Fantasy world denizen or not, who cares? Who cares? Whoever you are, it's your world. So rock that true self however way you want. Namaste.

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