Last week we talked about the value of doing self-exploration and inquiry when we find ourselves in a state of feeling threatened. Fear and contraction are the experiences through which the compressed hard rock of our false identity was formed. Practicing being in the present moment, which is what meditation is, develops the ability to begin to see this process of false identity creation in action, as if we have slowed down a video of complex activity and can actually see a step by step demonstration.
If we take the time to inquire within, to be patient with the process, and to release our vested interest in the outcome, then we will be able to release our tight hold on this lie we believe ourselves to be.
We live in a culture that discourages being present with what is actually arising in our experience in the moment. Instead we are encouraged to plaster over anything unpleasant with a veneer more suitable, more comfortable for everyone.
In some ways it’s better than it used to be. I’ll never forget my mother’s response when I would tell her how I felt. She would simply tell me I shouldn’t feel that way. This was not a stance unique to her and I don’t blame her for it, though it was frustrating for me. It was the way she had been raised. It was the way most everyone she knew felt one should deal with emotions. But it wasn’t the response I needed, and it was a real conversation stopper, leaving me feeling stuck with the added feeling of being judged for how I felt.
Since then there has been a collective growing awareness that emotions matter, that feelings matter, and even though we may feel we are being overloaded with too much information from other people’s stories, how much better it is for us to see that we all suffer from the same emotional states rather than to think that we are freaks of nature who suffer alone.
But there is still within us this desire to name our experience ‘a problem’ and then rush to come up with a quick fix. Society tells us, ‘Yes, meditate, do what you need to do, but come out of it upbeat and cheerful please!’ We get caught up in spiritual striving. We struggle for release from what torments us. And as long as we are running, searching and seeking solutions to the problem of us in this state then we are doomed to keep chasing our tails. Our inability to come up with a solution causes more feelings of unworthiness and failure.
We are often told to focus instead on the good bits within our identity, to see how really nice and generous and loving we are. In fact, all the positive things we have been told about ourselves can be just as problematic as the negative, especially since we are likely to cling to them all the more tightly!
This false identity may seem less like a hard rock and more like a golden nugget of goodness that will sustain us, but our relationship to it is exactly the same as to any negative view we may have of ourselves. We are naming and claiming something we perceive to be solid about ourselves, creating something we must in turn defend.
For most of us we recognize that we feel we do have something to defend and at the same time we may bristle at being told we are defensive.
As self-explorers we find ourselves often more reluctant to venture into the areas where we feel good about ourselves. If we feel good about ourselves then we figure that part is resolved, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But we are not on a fix-it mission. We are on an awareness and loving-kindness mission, shedding both light and compassion wherever we go in order to loosen the tightness we hold in our bodies and in our minds. We can notice how our believing ourselves to be nice or smart or good also causes a tightening of our grasp on our perceived identity.
We do ourselves such a disservice when we embrace these labels for ourselves. Positive or negative, they are all limiting. We find we are packaging ourselves like a product instead of allowing ourselves to be the rich and wondrous process that we are, intricately woven in the infinite web of life.
As meditators we run the risk of contracting around a new identity of being wise, calm, present and compassionate. It’s very easy to simply add developing skills to the list of accomplishments that make up our sense of who we are.
Often non-meditators who know that the practice might have value for them but who can’t bring themselves to do it may be inhibited because they have met meditators who seem to be caught up in this false sense of identity. Whether it is the meditator who has fallen a little in love with this idea of themselves or the non-meditator who is projecting this on them, the effect on the non-meditator is the same. They believe that to be a meditator is to be holier than thou, full of oneself and a goodie-goodie – not someone they want to invite to their next party!
Beginning meditators may expect more advanced meditators and certainly someone who teaches meditation to be the perfection of all positive qualities, and so are aghast when it is revealed they are human and flawed. They may take on the practice and the study of Buddhism as a way to be good: A good Buddhist, a good person. If I’m on the Eightfold Path then I am good, end of story. But this approach to meditation leaves us high and dry, only noticing what we want to see, not acknowledging all of what is occurring in any moment.
So creating a gold plated rock of false identity is just as self-destructive as a negative one. Perhaps the person with the positive self-view can accomplish more in life, take more risks, look on the bright side, make lemonade out of lemons – all of the things that we praise in our culture, BUT there’s a high price on the upkeep of a gold-plated or diamond -encrusted rock. The security costs are immense and the isolation can be painful. If we must always be this paragon of perfection, we are cut off from acknowledging much of our human experience.
While virtue is its own reward, being a paragon of virtue, a poster child for virtue, which is what we become when we contract around that false identity, is hazardous. The culture we live in holds these paragons up as if they were gods, has a feeding frenzy of delight when they act out the suppressed shadow side created by that solid rock of virtue. It seems every other week the news is so full of the fall of these paragons that anything that might be of value to know is side-lined, in order to ‘give the people what they want’ and fuel the feeding frenzy.
Why do people love to see paragons of virtue fall off their pedestals? So much of it has to do with this hard rock of false identity that we protect and nurture within ourselves and project onto the people we see in the news. Something inside us yearns for balance. We feel a little righteous come-uppance for those who hold themselves too high and conversely we feel warmed by rags-to-riches stories. High brought low, low bought high.
Through awareness practice we begin to see that two extremes do not create balance, as we explored when we studied the Buddha’s Middle Way. We learn to develop a sense of connection, compassion and spaciousness that makes rooms for all beings and all the emotions we experience, even the uncomfortable ones brought up by the news we hear. We are human with human thoughts and emotions. Our ability to accept that fact gives us the opportunity to see more clearly how our emotions affect us. If we pretend to be devoid of anything negative, we are disempowered because only when we are fully present with all of what arises in our experience are we able to see connections, causes and conditions, and make wise decisions. Being present with all of it is the way to keep it in the light so we can see more clearly. We are not donning an outfit called ‘meditator’ that makes us wise and honorable. No one, not even ourselves, will benefit by it.
We can be virtuous without having to cling to a prefabricated identity. We can be smart, strong or independent without having to label ourselves or let others label us. Releasing our attachment to a particular identity allows us to fully inhabit this rich gift of life. Why limit ourselves to pre-packaged frozen dinner identities when we can live a farmers’ market life, discovering new things about ourselves and life in every season, and we can create a fresh meal, a fresh life experience in every moment? Then whatever we make of our lives will be truly nourishing.
The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth says that it is our grasping and clinging that causes our suffering. Our grasping and clinging has created that hard rock of negative and positive beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. But through the practice we begin to notice that the rock we have compressed through our grasping and clinging is only a small part of our experience. We can notice the rich soil of life that is there to support us.
Think of the earth. Think how receptive it is. We can feel whatever arises, we can be present with every experience, and the supportive earth will receive it all without judgment like rain water. We think there are parts of who we are that would poison the earth, but these toxic emotions are only poisonous when compressed and turned on ourselves and others. Of themselves, they are simply human emotion and can be noticed, questioned and released in a natural way, and the earth will receive them like rain water.
All of life – the earth, the sun, the rain – nourishes our well being and speaks to our deep interconnection. We can rest in the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. We can celebrate the sweetness of being alive with all its joys and sorrows, and savor every moment of this amazing gift in all its variety.