One thing about meeting online instead of in person, we are often reminding each other to ‘unmute yourself’. And last week it struck us that this was a rallying cry for many of us. Unmute yourself!!! Find your voice! Feel free to explore and express yourself.
For many of us this is easier said than done. Why? That’s part of our continuing exploration of identity. Last week we asked ourselves ‘Who am I’ and ‘What do I want?” and discovered some of what feels unseen and unheard within us. It may have felt a bit like a coming home party.
And yet we are told that getting caught up in the self is a trap, and a sure way to be miserable.
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”
Gautama Buddha is quoted as saying, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen due to causes and conditions. For now it should be felt.” And that is what we do in meditation. We are simply present to notice the arising and falling away of sensation, thoughts and emotions.
The Buddha taught for over fifty years and was very clear on the matter of ‘self’. He asks us to look at the Five Aggregates of what makes up this ‘self’ and each one in turn is revealed to be insubstantial and impermanent: body, senses, perception, volition, consciousness. [READ MORE]
We can come to this same understanding scientifically, looking at the nature of matter. We are all made of the same stuff. Okay, you say, we’re all made of the same stardust but formulated differently. Maybe, but we now know that our DNA, that foundation of life, varies from person to person by only .1%! That doesn’t give us a lot of wiggle room to define ourselves as unique and special, does it? In fact, it pretty much leads us to understand that almost all of what makes up how we look and act is written in our genetic code and played out in a field of interactions that have little to do with us.
Is this terrifying or a relief? As Wes Nisker says in his book with the same title, “You are not your fault.” Given all the same causes and conditions, any human would have pretty much the same thoughts and emotions as each of us do. This seemingly unique self we either love, hate or seek is an ever-changing set of synaptic events. What exactly is there to love? to hate? to seek? Can we rest in the awareness of being?
And yet we are expected to define ourselves, to give people the Cliff Notes of our being. So we fabricate a ‘self’, using labels to identify the folder for them to file us away in their brains. These labels have to do with how we make our living, our interests, our preferences, where we live and how we are related to others. So the shorthand version of me would be “meditation teacher, Buddhist Insight Network board member, dharma-blogger, poet, chocoholic, wife, mother, grandmother, Marin resident, American, etc.”
All of these are true, and there are many other labels I could add, but you get the idea. But you can also see that if I became attached to the idea that these labels are me, then my sense of self gets put through the wringer when any of those labels ceases to be true. Years back, high on my list would be daughter and sister. But these are roles I no longer have. If besides losing my loved ones I had to lose my sense of identity, I would suffer even more.
So, to whatever degree I am able, I choose to use verbs rather than nouns to answer questions about me. “I teach meditation, I write a dharma blog and poetry, I love chocolate, I live with my husband of 50 years, I live in Marin, etc.” In this way, I feel like I am celebrating the ever-changing nature of being. If I stop teaching or loving chocolate tomorrow (yeah, right!) that’s just another twist in the ongoing pattern of living. I am still being and I’m practicing noticing how being overly attached to the idea of ‘me’ as a brand to be polished and promoted causes suffering.
As a species, it seems that humans aspire to live in a way that has value and meaning, to connect with others, to be generous and kind, to meet perceived challenges with creativity. This COVID-19 period we’re living through has really illuminated that pattern of being.
It’s easy to observe the patterns of being in other species: how lizards pump in the sunshine or chase each other on the rocks, how spiders spin webs, and birds sing. And they have patterns of reactivity when threatened, just as we do. In our garden, a pair of jays attacked our neighbor cat who wandered too close to the tree that held their nest of hatchlings. We are humaning, just as other species are lizarding and birding. We’re all doing what comes naturally. Our species is ever-evolving in consciousness. And self-consciousness — where we, in fear, feel isolated and defensive — is just one aspect of who we are. Perhaps, like molting snakes, we are in the process of shedding our habit of self-consciousness, and growing in pure consciousness, becoming fearlessly open.
If we look back at the similar quotes by Einstein and the Buddha, we can see one other thing they have in common. They were both men. And while there may genetically be a fine line between species and even a finer one between genders of the same species, culturally and historically the genders are treated quite differently, and so the way we are in relationship to this not-so-solid self is vastly different. While of course there are variations from person to person, in general for men, there’s a solid sense of self in the world, encouraged by parents and society to go forth and be themselves, as long as they can make a living at it. How they relate to this instruction may vary, but the focus is on the self.
For girls and the women they become, there has been a very different message: Always put others first. Focus not on what you want but on how you can be of service to your birth family, then your husband, your children and your immediate community. (These are not bad things per se. In fact, women often make great leaders because they lead to be of service rather than to be admired as great leaders. The more caught up a person is in needing to be seen, needing to take the credit and point a blaming finger elsewhere, the less effective they are. We are seeing that now and it is painful to watch.)
Because historically girls and women have been unseen or seen only as objects of beauty or usefulness for procreation and domestic service, many of us feel unseen, unrecognized, and unappreciated for anything beyond being useful to men.
Over the last century, the message has been expanded, reminding girls and women that their sphere of service and influence can be much greater than that of their foremothers. Yet there isn’t a woman who can’t think of instances where she hasn’t been ‘muted’ in some way. Yes, statistically we talk more than men do. We’re the communicators, the connectors, the hubs of families and communities, the behind-the-scenes arrangers, the crucial axle upon which all things turn. And for all of this we’ve been belittled and teased and made to feel small. We’re habituated to this and accept it as normal, but in the process, we get lost. We lose our sense of self.
The very self the Buddha and Einstein would have us do away with, we have not had the luxury to discover! Instead of being encouraged to explore “Who am I?” we have been taunted with “Who does she think she is?” So we are more likely to ask ourselves instead, “Who am I to…?”
If that resonates with you, let yourself follow the threads of these words into images, memories — who said them to you or about you? Or maybe they were said about another girl or woman but the message was clearly for you as well?
As a child, I once overheard my parents remarking on a neighbor who ‘thought she was a writer’. Their judgment of a woman who spent a portion of her day working on a novel that might or might not ever be published but was the activity she felt compelled to do at the time, stayed with me. It has kept many a manuscript in the drawer over the years! I still hear my parents’ catty opinions. Opinions I cared about more than any others!
But all these years later I recognize that both of them wrote, and at least one of them longed to be published. Decades after their deaths, I have their writing efforts, some published but most not, in Tupperware storage boxes in the basement. (Sorting through them is one more project for sheltering-in-place!) So now I can see that their judgments came from their own insecurities and longings, their own fear of not being good enough. Maybe projecting their own insecurities onto that neighbor felt good in the moment, but it didn’t free them. And certainly they didn’t realize that in the process, their own eavesdropping daughter would internalize their words, using them like daggers to cripple her own self-expression, assuming that she would be judged the same by others. “Who does she think she is?” are words that have lived within me all my life. And I suspect I am not alone, though it feels very lonely.
My younger students seem to feel that they should feel more liberated than they do. While certainly things have changed in many cultures, it’s important for us to recognize that all the threads of attitudes and behaviors are still present in some form, so there are confusing signals from family, society, and our own conflicting thoughts and emotions. To expect the shift to be clean and swift is unrealistic. Life is messy. It’s an organic dance of hodgepodge make-do creativity, a fabric being woven by us all together throughout the millennia in response to all that arises. We don’t know what will happen next! Ever!
For me at this time of my life, I take my cues from nature and understand that this individual ‘I’ is just a feature of the human brain and a cultural adaptation to circumstances. Because during this shelter-in-place period, I am now less about errands and outings in nature and planning and enjoying events, staying home without losing my mind has become an art form. Yesterday I found a perfect pairing: The first section of The Overstory by Richard Powers and the first half-hour of the documentary Fantastic Fungi which I was able to watch on YouTube. This combination knocked me completely out of my daily patterns of worry and wondering when this will end, and into the arc of life on this planet. This is just a miniscule dot in time, but perhaps a pivotal one. All moments have the potential to be pivotal on a personal level, but this is the rare moment of a globally shared perspective that will have ramifications that ripple out. We don’t know all the ramifications, but we can be sure that some will be wonderful and some will be difficult, just as the shelter-in-place experience is both wonderful and challenging for most of us.
It’s an amazing time to be alive! So unmute yourself!!! Find your voice! Feel free to explore and express yourself. It’s your birdsong! Join the chorus!