Category Archives: identity

The Incredible Shrinking Man

That’s what my husband called himself after his annual physical. He’d lost two inches in height. Not overnight, of course. Two inches off of what he had stated as his height all his adult life.

I remember when I started shrinking. It was a little disorienting, but also fascinating to see how attached I was to what I’d considered my natural height since I was fifteen.

Height is just one of the many ways we identify ourselves. When things change, as they inevitably do, we may have trouble adapting. We have become attached to thinking of ourselves in a certain way with particular characteristics. This is who we are. So when our body changes, mental adjustments need to be made as well. And that’s not always easy, is it?

We tend to pin our sense of self on impermanent aspects of being. And even the most permanent seeming aspects — our aliveness, our very breath, are transitory too. We may avoid thinking about such things, and we don’t need to dwell on them. but we can be aware of how life is like this. We can see change everywhere: the changing of seasons, family and friends grow up, grow old and yes, die. So why are we so surprised that time, gravity, stress and life events impact our bodies, too? Despite all evidence to the contrary, we often choose to see ourselves as the exception. We may worry that any changes in how we look will jeopardize our lives, our relationships and perhaps our livelihood. But deeper than those concerns is the discomfort of being reminded that life is fleeting, and that what happened to that autumn leaf that was once so supple, green and fresh, will also happen to us. Change will happen and life as we know it now will end. And whatever follows none of us can know for sure.

This attachment to a particular identity is a deep source of suffering. It can be challenging to see that it is the clinging — much more than the changes themselves — that causes suffering. If that sounds odd, pause to consider any pain you may feel at any physical loss either in looks or ability. Is it the loss or change itself that is causing discomfort? Or is it your thoughts and emotions around it? We create obstacles out of our attachment to identity, and it is part of our practice of being present and compassionate to see those patterns. Fortunately, like all things, those patterns are insubstantial and subject to change.

When we free ourselves from needing to ‘be’ the way we have always seen ourselves, and all the work that comes with reclaiming that vision, we come truly into the celebration of this life — a momentary gift to savor, like the first taste of a delicious dish. Switching our attention from how we look to allowing all our senses to open to this moment just as it is enables us to be fully alive, fully present, instead of lost in clinging to some sense of self that was never accurate anyway. Breathing in, breathing out, here and now, alive and ready to embrace with gratitude this fleeting gift of life with all it’s joys and sorrows.

(If you are interested in this idea of identity and would like to look more in-depth at the Buddha’s teachings about it, look at past posts about the Five Aggregates. Look over all of them and read them in what feels like a sensible order, which might not be the way they are presented in this link.)

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

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Illustration by Elroy Freem, Scholastic Books

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially thankful this year, especially for the rain yesterday and the fresh air that is pouring in every window and door after two weeks of stale air as we holed up from the smoke in so much of California. May the rain fall gently on fire-scarred hills to put out flames and not cause debris flows. I am also especially personally grateful that our daughter and her home in the area of the Camp Fire are safe. And so much more.

I am sure you also have much to be grateful for, no matter what difficulties you may be facing. Over the years I have written quite a number of posts on gratitude, but this year I’d like to look at the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday in poetry class at College of Marin, the assignment was to write about Thanksgiving memories, but, the teacher requested, ‘not the ‘Brady Bunch’ ones’. Few were able to comply and the poems were full of memories of the traditional table laid with the best china and polished silverware, white napkins and all the typical fare of a feast made by mothers in the pre-potluck days of singular devotional exhaustion and no doubt dysfunction, because Thanksgiving was only the beginning of the most grueling season of laborious maternal love, and living up to expectations that could never be met because sugar plums are not prone to dancing.

One poet in class did say what the rest of us had not but might have: That most everyone at the table described has since passed into the great beyond. That’s true in my case as well. But still, what great good fortune to have memories to cherish and an opportunity to share them. If sweet memories don’t make good poetry, they might be treasured by descendants, as traditions change a bit with each generation. Yet with no less love or gratitude.

The way we think about the first thanksgiving also changes. On PBS Newshour, there was a piece on how that historical event is being taught in many schools. Teachers are trying to be honest and inclusive of all perspectives of the peoples who were there. Doing so might rattle some Eurocentric Americans who prefer their hand-me-down version, even if it is myopic. Tradition for tradition’s sake is an empty tradition for those who carry it on, and a painful tradition for those who were central to the original story but whose perspective is excluded in its telling.

Why should Euro-Americans of today feel threatened by an honest exploration of our ancestors actions? Does personal identity rely on one’s ancestors being perfect? If so, good luck with that! Those early immigrants were fleeing from persecution and struggled to stay alive in a wilderness very unlike what they had left behind. Many didn’t make it. And many were helped by the inhabitants of the land that was not ‘new’, yet a new experience for the immigrants. The history of the devolution of that relationship has been and will be researched and wondered about, and enriched by looking at it from all perspectives.

In our personal meditative practice, we make room for the possibility that things we have held to be true are not necessarily so. If there is a sense of feeling threatened, then we notice that. But in time we might notice that there is freedom in accepting that we don’t know, that we don’t have everything locked down and figured out. There is joy in letting go of reliance on our ‘story’ to be who we are.

That is just as true in this case. It is our shared story, but we are expanding the narrow idea of who the ‘we’ is, making sure all voices are heard, and collectively recognizing that history does not necessarily define who we are. There is room for investigation and joy in discovering that we are not personally responsible for the deeds of our forebears or for defending or condemning them. But we are responsible for shining a light in the darkness of our own lives, our own unquestioned beliefs and our own fears. And when we do that wholeheartedly, we make room for everyone at the table.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life. I am most thankful for you!

Disguises can sometimes help discover authenticity

Halloween has come and gone and that’s just fine with me. Except for the adorableness of little trick or treaters and the creativity of some neighbors, it’s a holiday I could do without. I don’t enjoy being scared on purpose and I’ve never been into donning costumes.

But I do remember a time when I accompanied my then teenage daughter to the wig store. She wanted a straight long hair option to her shorter naturally curly do, and I was along for the ride. Or so I thought. It was too much fun not to at least try on a few wigs. My hairstyle at the time was a cap of mousy curls, so I tried on a straight blonde bob with bangs. I looked in the mirror and thought Whoa! Whozzat?

gertaIt definitely was not me, or at least not the me I knew. Whoever she was came to life full-blown, and claimed her name was Gerta – pronounced Gair-ta. And she demanded I buy that wig. So I did.

Much to my husband’s dismay. I had always heard that husbands like a little variety to spice things up, but not mine. And certainly not this cheeky chick. Wearing my Gerta wig, I would utter things I normally wouldn’t even think, let alone say. I’d been taken over by a whole different persona, and it was kind of fun.

I was normally shy in unfamiliar situations, as if a whole swarm of butterflies lived in my stomach. But wearing that wig I remember one time arriving late at a coworker’s birthday dinner with a large group of friends I didn’t know. Instead of sneaking in and quietly finding my seat as I would normally do, I made a grand entrance down a circular staircase, and somehow had them all in stitches. Maybe at first they thought I was hired entertainment until I sat down at the table.

Another time, a group of us was asked to sing a few personalized oldies at our friend’s 40th birthday party, and while normally I would stand in the back and mouth the words, that time, with my Gerta persona in place, I belted the lyrics out and had a great time.

Though I rarely wore it, I kept that wig around for a number of years. But more importantly, having had that empowered Gerta experience showed me that my seemingly ingrained shyness was not necessarily ‘me’.

To build up my self-confidence in order to be able to do things I wanted to do, I got up the nerve to join my local Toastmasters club where week after week I stood in front of a group, making every effort to speak coherently. With practice and kind encouragement, I found my voice. Now I can speak to large groups and be completely at home — not playing a role, not taking on a persona, like that cheeky Gerta — just unafraid to be seen with all my vulnerabilities and variations.

Have you ever had that freeing experience of a costumed transformation? A Halloween costume? A role in a play? What did that persona have that you think you don’t? Did you like her or him?

In class one student shared an experience of getting together with a group of friends to create some festive craft for a member of their group who was seriously ill and in need of good cheer. That sense of love for this friend, and the support of the group, let her discover the unknown delight of letting herself enjoy being outlandishly silly.

Another student told us how she came into a leadership role, something she had been averse to all her life. Again, it was in having a strong purpose — a cause she cared about, and having the encouragement of others who shared that sense of purpose and saw the latent leadership qualities she had within her.

Both these experiences parallel my own of joining Toastmasters, where I received so much support.  But what was my purpose? What drove me to want to speak in the first place? Decades ago I had had a life-transforming experience through developing a meditation practice, and I wanted to help others, women especially, who may find themselves overwhelmed with wanting to please others, focusing exclusively on the needs of all who relied on them, and in the process losing any sense of their own needs.

So adding these three personal experiences into the mix, let me ask you again if there is any unexpressed part of you that is being kept down for lack of a sense of purpose, love or calling, and/or a lack of support and encouragement from those around you?

Another student in class who had been feeling somewhat stalled and ambivalent in her recent decision to pursue a particular career, came to tears when she realized this was exactly where she needed to put her focus: Finding that passionate sense of purpose — why and for whom was she pursuing this line of work — and connecting with those who support her in that effort.

It seems sometimes we need a little playful exploration outside our comfort zone in order to expand our understanding of our most authentic self.

Getting past perfect
We all have assumptions about who we are, who we want to be or ‘should’ be. Our practice of meditation is in part about letting go of the need to establish a polished identity to present to the world. We are present to notice the desire to remake ourselves and perhaps investigate where it comes from.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other people. But it’s important to see them as the humans they are. It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing mind, lost in the painful disparity between what we judge as our messy insides and what we perceive to be their perfect polished outside. Chances are their insides are messy, too. Can we allow for that? Chances are others see us as a lot more perfectly polished than we feel. Can we make room for that likely possibility?

Even if we are content with our identity, we may feel it’s important to be clear on just what that identity is. We may feel that in order to be liked, loved, respected, etc., we need to be seen in a certain way, so we go all ‘if you like pina colada and getting caught in the rain’, trotting out our likes and dislikes, hope and dreams, accomplishments, opinions, phobias, etc., looking for the safety of being seen for who we believe ourselves to be.

But our need to establish identity based on our preferences, how we look, how we think, etc. sets us up for very shallow and limited connections. It locks us in to choices and opinions that we may have made when we were seven or seventeen or thirty-seven. It creates a tangled knot of unexamined and probably inaccurate detritus that blocks our view, and others’ view of us. It fortifies a separate seeming identity that keeps us isolated and unhappy.

How liberating to simply exist in this moment and respond to whatever arises in whatever way feels natural. We can be vulnerable and honest and fluid. This is not to hide or obscure any current preferences, etc. that we may have; it’s only to understand that they do not define us. And, as practicing meditators, we use awareness and wise effort to be kind, truthful and timely in our responses.

We can succumb to the idea that in the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhist teachings, there is a goal to ‘become’ a better, wiser, kinder person — as if this is some grand makeover we are doing here. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to build a superpower of wisdom and compassion, to become some charismatic being with the ability to withstand a gazillion traumas at a single bound.

But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re not trying to ‘be’ anything. We’re not donning a new persona. We are not taking the wisdom teachings, and constructing, as if out of Legos, the ideal persona of an enlightened being. Instead we rest in the understanding that we are all fleeting expressions of life loving itself — a complex ever-changing stream of patterns of being. Just noticing what’s arising in our experience with curiosity and compassion, releasing assumptions as we find them, to rest in a joyful state of being. We set and reset our intention to be present in this moment just as it is, holding it in an open and loving embracing. That’s our practice. Even as we live our intention to contribute to the well being of all life, in a way that is, quite naturally, our own unique expression of that love.

In our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we have been looking at Equanimity.

As with all of the factors, any attempt to appear to ‘have equanimity’ will not be authentic. The whole of our exploration, investigation and practice are undermined when our core intention is to be seen as wise, mindful, etc. We do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow for all of who we are to simply be a presence in our experience, to acknowledge what is arising with as much kindness and compassion as we can.

If we have been trying these factors on like wigs at a costume shop, seeing how we can bluff our way through and do a convincing caricature of a person who has it all together, then we might be intrigued and inspired in the short run — as I was with Gerta, discovering the possibility of such a way of being within me — but in the long run the wig will get itchy and irritating, and we’ll come to understand that to truly awaken takes the regular honest challenging practice of simply being present and allowing ourselves to grow, learn from the dharma and our own insights without the need to become anything or anyone.

 

Trying to capture an experience is not the experience itself

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The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

I recently had the good fortune to stand in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night’ while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was an ordinary fall weekday but there were at least a dozen people standing in front of this one painting. I could deal with that. But almost everyone but my husband and me had their phones held above their heads to take pictures of the painting. This is quite different from standing with a group simply admiring the work in quiet shared appreciation. We couldn’t even see the artwork through the sea of cellphones.

Why were they taking photos anyway? There are thousands of photos of this famous painting readily available on the internet, including this one, so I’m not sure what they gained.

But I do know what they missed. They missed the opportunity to be fully present with the painting itself, up close and personal, not through a lens trying to frame it. They missed the chance to simply gaze and allow their eyes to travel around it, to appreciate each element, to notice details of color, texture, imagery, contrast and other choices the artist made. They missed the chance to really open to the gift of seeing close up those swirly brushstrokes (something no camera can replicate), to allow themselves to be immersed in the experience of its creation, to let go and enter a world not of their own making. A painting has the capacity to move us, but only if we are present to experience it.

This is not a complaint or a request for museum etiquette, as much as it may sound like one. It was for me, and perhaps for you, a dharma lesson. Because it’s an example of how we miss living fully in the moment when we try to ‘capture’ it for later enjoyment. We can’t capture a moment. A moment is fleeting. And we can’t relive an experience, especially one we weren’t present enough to fully live in the first place

What is it to be fully in the moment? I encourage you right now to pause and look around you. Let all your senses fully explore this moment. Notice patterns, the interplay of light and shadow, color. Go beyond making a mental note of objects you can name. Notice their shapes and the arrangement of them in space.

Now use your hands to rub and touch the texture of things within your reach. Feel the inside of your mouth, the slippery sliding, the wet warmth.

Then listen, hear whatever there is to hear in this moment. And whatever else you notice in this moment, without getting caught up in a lot of thoughts about it.

For me, right now as I’m writing this, there is the sound of footsteps on the stairs, the clearing of a throat, the sound of the dishwasher — ordinary. Yet held in an open embrace, life being lived and loved, just as it is.

Can you be that present all the time? Probably not, and that’s okay, but what a wondrous thing to aspire to. Can you see how when we try to re-live memories of ‘special’ moments it dishonors this very moment. Everything in the whole universe fell into place in a particular way to bring this moment into being. Let’s have some appreciation for this, just this, just as it is.

Another lesson from this same experience of standing in the crowd in front of that painting: A few of the phone-photographers actually turned their back on the painting to take a selfie — ‘me and Vinnie, we be buds’ —  for sharing on social media. This is a perfect example of how we try to shore up our identity, fearfully putting together and promoting the self as an object to be admired, respected, loved and seen. Great compassion to that suffering being who fails to feel how supported and appreciated they are by the whole universe. How the whole universe came together to create them, just as they are.

Buddha discovered for himself and shared how there is no separate self. Sure, we function in this life as if we are separate — just as a drop of water flying over a wave seems separate, but it’s not. And we’re not. We are literally all stardust. Each body-mind is a unique but inseparable manifestation of life loving itself. Life is a complex system of ever-changing patterns of being, arising and falling away, forming and dissolving. There is nothing to prove on social media. There is no reason to feel isolated. We are all of us in this together.

So can we put down that phone and simply enjoy what is present in this moment? Ah. Welcome home.

What’s in a Name?

Lately I’ve been noticing how often people call themselves names: ‘stupid’ or “idiot”; or they describe themselves as ‘technologically challenged’ or ‘anal’, etc. They may start sentences with ‘I’m the kind of person who…’

What’s wrong with that? This is such a common human thing to do that it doesn’t seem problematic on the surface. Self-effacement is socially acceptable and even encouraged, unlike boasting, a sure way to lose friends. The boaster puffs up their personal identity in order to be admired, respected and safe. The person whose words are self-diminishing has a different strategy for self-protection: Perhaps to lower expectations? To put themselves down before someone else does? To gain sympathy? Not all the motivations have to do with impact on others. And probably only a small percentage of the put downs are said out loud.  Both the people who boast and the people who put themselves down may feel they are simply stating truth, seeing themselves ‘realistically’. Is that true? Or is it selective observation at best and distortion at worst?

As we practice mindfulness and become increasingly present in our experience, we can see how these autopilot statements lock us into a very limited sense of self. The words form a false construct — a painted shell — that camouflages our authentic being, disconnects us, and prohibits true engagement in life.

It is a good practice to listen for our own self-defining statements and to question them when they arise. This isn’t judging them, but seeing them clearly, questioning their veracity and motivation. In the last post, I talked about the faulty filter of fear. Can we see these ways we define ourselves as a part of that filter? If we say ‘I’m such an idiot’, there is clearly at least one if not a series of painful past experiences that bring us to this conclusion. It’s worth revisiting that past and investigating: Were we called a name by someone who was afraid in their own lives? We may doubt that the original voice of that name-calling was afraid, but what healthy happy person with no ax to grind goes around calling anyone an idiot? People who put others down are acting out their own unhappiness and insecurities.

Many of us over-manage our image like hyper-zealous stage mothers. And our running commentary gets in the way of people seeing us clearly. If this sounds at all familiar, are you ready for a little challenge?

Challenge

  1. Stop describing yourself to others! There’s no need to explain yourself. You may have your opinions, but let others draw their own. Live your life with wise loving intention and effort, and let the rest go.
  2. Pay attention to the unspoken but oft-repeated negative names you may call yourself. If you find one or more, take time to investigate, preferably after meditation, to find the source. Question the veracity with awareness and compassion. For example, you repeatedly call yourself ‘stupid’, you might think of times when you were smart.

veil-3

 

Exercise

Occasionally in class I share this exercise I created almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching meditation, but before I began studying and practicing Buddhism. It’s called ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. If you’ve been following along the posts in this blog, you might see a correlation between the veils this week and the filters from last week. Clarifying our view of the world and ourselves is an ongoing valuable part of our practice. And as always, we’re simply noticing how we are in relationship to all aspects of our experience, not trying to push them away or change them. Try this exercise after at least a few minutes of meditation.
‘Dance of the Seven Veils, an Exercise in Letting Go’
by Stephanie Noble

Here’s a written version, in case you can’t play it, or just want to review:

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. Think of your home, your furnishings, your clothes, your vehicle — all the choices you have made that tell people who you are.

To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements and your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. Woven into this veil are the titles you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the pain you have caused, the guilt you bear, the struggles you have gone through. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationship with others. See the threads of your various roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, teacher, co-worker, employee, employer and citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs, how you have woven together your religion, your spiritual beliefs, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, and your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fifth veil is all the aspects of you that you were born with: Gender, ethnicity, ancestry, physical features, and the most fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your perception of your body as isolated and your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.

Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind, consciousness. It is the you that maintains resistance in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

The seven veils drift to the floor. For this brief moment, allow yourself to shine free of them.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are one with all that is, an expression of the joy of oneness. You are undefined thus unconfined and expansive without limits. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment. Rest in this joyous light being.

Now you can dress in the veils. Take your time to take on each one as a light sheer manifest expression of being alive in this place and time:

This separate seeming consciousness — now lighter, sheerer, a softer way of being in the world.

This separate seeming body — now lighter, sheerer, able to dance with this gift of life.

This veil of personality and traits — now lighter, sheerer, more fluid and loving.

This set of beliefs — now lighter, sheerer, more insightful and open.

This set of roles in relationships — now lighter, sheerer, more ready to see the wholeness of being as you engage with others.

This veil of personal history loosely woven life lessons — now lighter, sheerer and full of kindness.

This final veil of possessions, no longer seen as self at all, but simply objects to use, enjoy, give, receive and maintain.

Once again you are fully dressed in all your veils, but now they are diaphanous and don’t weigh you down. Never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic inseparable you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

                                               – Stephanie Noble

 

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

‘Am I defined by my preferences?’

Last week we began an exploration of the Buddha’s Five Aggregates. We explored the First Aggregate, material form. We considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is my body. We observed how the body by nature is impermanent. It grows, it ages, it dies, and it is subject to illness and injury. We observed that the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world on a cellular level. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways: These are the qualities that tell us the body doesn’t define us. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these qualities to the four other aggregates.

This is an experiential exercise, as are all of the Buddhist teachings. The teacher offers a little guiding light in a certain direction, but it is up to each of us to explore whether it is true. We ask questions of everything that arises — questions about the teachings and questions about the assumptions we find we have been making. We come to the truth in our own time and in our own way. So simply be present and compassionate with yourself as you do this investigation.


I imagine that few of us who would take a meditation class or follow a meditation blog would ever believe the answer to “Who am I’ is as simple as ‘I am my body.’ We may have believed it to be a part of who we are, but certainly not all of it. So maybe letting go of the idea that the body is who we are is quite natural, even a relief.


We might say, ‘I am more than my body. I am also a person with certain preferences and ways of being in the world. Even if I forgot my name, even if there was no one around to identify me, I would still be here, still be me, still enjoy chocolate, still find high temperatures unpleasant, etc.’ You might pause now to jot down some of your likes and dislikes. You might magine you are writing a personals ad and these are the things any interested party should know about you. Once they’ve seen your photo of your material form, the next thing they need to know to answer the question of who you are is your preferences, right?


Thus we come to the second of the aggregates. The belief that we are the feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We all have preferences, but when we begin to think that they describe us, we run into trouble. We might say, ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ rather than ‘This tastes good.’ You can see the difference between these two statements. ‘This tastes good’ is very much in the present moment. ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ sets us up to mindlessly eat chocolate at every opportunity. We may be so of the belief that chocolate is an indicator of who we are as a person that we can skip the noticing, the simple experience of discovering, as if with new taste buds, what this experience is in this moment.


As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not in and of themselves always as satisfying as I believe them to be.


This is not to take the fun out of a simple pleasure. In fact, by being in the moment and not caught up in attachment, the pleasure can be exquisite. If we let it be momentary, acknowledge its fleeting nature, enjoy it while it lasts, let it go with ease as the next moment brings another experience, then we are not suffering.


We do suffer when we believe ourselves to be our preferences.

As we found in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, those simple feeling tone ‘seeds’ of pleasant or unpleasant can grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions, with vines that strap us up and even strangle us. Now we look at how many of those thoughts and emotions are caught up in identity-building. In the process of believing “I am the type of person who likes this, who doesn’t like that and couldn’t care less about that other thing,’ we build an impressive historical reference library of these preferences. We expect those who know us to have studied that library. We even give tests!


Think about how we feel when someone gives us a present that really shows us they know our preferences. Then think how we feel when the reverse is true, when we are given something that we would never choose for ourselves in a million years. In the first case, we feel known and loved. That person really gets us! In the second case, if it’s a person we thought knew us, we may suddenly feel a little bereft, in doubt of their feelings for us. That person we thought knew us apparently has no clue who we are.


As we did with exploring whether the body is who we are, we can look to see whether these feeling tones are impermanent, insubstantial and ungovernable.


Impermanent? Absolutely. Our preferences change throughout our lives, dependent on so many variables — what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. A year ago my granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change.


Talking about impermanent preferences, just think about style! Look at some pictures of you at various phases of your life. Would you wear that outfit or that hairstyle again? Not in a million years, you might say. But at the time we all believed that look to be quite the thing.


I will never forget the day in the mid 1970’s when I was walking down Fourth Street in San Rafael wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!


For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.

How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years ago. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been, of course. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.


Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive a Prius. Enough said! Because I drive a Prius, I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity.

Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.


When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might struggle with the discomfort of being seen in something that so ill suits us. If we believe our preferences to be who we are, we will suffer. If we allow ourselves to notice the discomfort and question it, that rental car might actually be a source of liberation. It doesn’t mean we go home and buy one like it. It just means we recognize that we are not our car, our house, our clothes, etc. We are not defined by the things we like and the things we don’t.


So these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle. But are they ungovernable, out of our control?


Yes! Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is

not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?


We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is feeling tone, this liking and not liking, the ‘I’ we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — so probably not.

There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post is the Five Aggregates we believe ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.


Notice for yourself over the coming weeks the degree to which you take your preferences to define you. Then come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness you might find a freedom from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. See how that feels.


In this process, remember that we are not trying to wipe out anything. We are not trying to erase preferences, become clean slates, devoid of all likes and dislikes. Striving for that would be just another preference. We do have to wear something, eat something and live somewhere. But we might find we are much happier if we vest less in our preferences and simply be in the moment, wherever we are.


At each stage of looking at these aggregates, these states of experience that we believe ourselves to be, we not only look more clearly, with more spaciousness, but also with great compassion. We are holding the child of our nature in a loving embrace. We are saying maybe you are not this and you are not that, but there’s nothing to fear. You are here. And it’s okay.