Category Archives: self-image

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Apparently 3000 years ago Greeks would think you were delusional if you claimed the thoughts in your head were your own. Thoughts were the voices of the gods. Today if you claim the thoughts in your head are the voice of God, you would be deemed delusional. That’s just one of many examples of how thoughts, individually and collectively, change all the time.
In today’s western culture most people believe their thoughts are their own AND that they reflect who they are. This belief goes pretty much unquestioned, but if we pause our assumptions for a moment and take a look, we can see where this kind of thinking could lead to trouble: I have a bad thought; therefore, I am a bad person. My bad thoughts make me unworthy of happiness. I deserve to suffer.
Laid out so plainly, we might balk at that line of thinking, but when we notice the pattern of our own thinking, we might discover thoughts seasoned with just such unhelpful reasoning in one form or another.
In coming to Wise View (the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed to end suffering), it helps to unload the erroneous belief that we are what we think. Taking our thoughts to be who we are traps us in a hoarder’s house, constantly tripping over the clutter. No wonder we get depressed.

What are thoughts anyway? 
Thoughts are electro-chemical reactions from neurons interconnected by synapses, a cognitive process of receiving input from all the senses, assessing, categorizing, then retrieving similar experiences from the inner data bank for review and evaluation. Very cool tool, right? But can we claim the process or the output of them to be uniquely ‘me’?

As we observe thoughts arising and falling away — painful or pleasurable, creative or destructive, organized or chaotic, insightful or deceitful. We can see how they recur and how they can get entangled like twigs and leaves in a stream, stuck in a swirling vortex, sucked down and then spring up later or decay and get flushed downstream. Thoughts (and emotions) are the results of biological activity reacting to past and present causes and conditions.

Whose thought is this thought?
Someone else could have the very thoughts you are having right now, given the same causes and conditions. This is especially true if there’s something going on that activates pleasure or fear — watching a movie together, the members of the audience will experience very much the same thoughts and emotions. In general people thrive on that collective experience, but then walk out of the theater and reclaim individual ownership of their reactions.

Even without being part of an audience or other collective experience, thoughts are pretty predictable. If you were visiting briefly in a neighbors brain, how surprised would you really be to find they have dreams, fears, anxiety and curiosity just as you do?

While you may feel blessed or victimized by the causes and conditions of your life, and they do tend to shape your view, they are not the stuff to make a solid object called ‘I’ or ‘me’. This may come as a great relief, because thoughts are often contradictory, stubbornly opinionated, flighty, gullible, infatuated with infallibility, sometimes cruel, sometimes incurably romantic. Who would really want to lay claim to all that?

Contemporary literature often focuses on personal identity and self-discovery, exploring ancestry, misunderstandings and family secrets. But — spoiler alert!! — the resolution comes when the characters are liberated from the captivity of the very chains of belief they are exploring. They discover that what they were looking for was there all along. Think of Dorothy on her search for answers from the Wizard of Oz when it turns out she only needed to click her heels three times to come home to herself. This is not to negate the enjoyment of a grand adventure and the riches there are to savor in the process. It just lets us hold it all more lightly, appreciating each moment as it arises, appreciating the rainbow itself rather than seeking the illusory pot of gold hinted to be at the end of it.

The Buddha taught: You are not your thoughts or emotions, and if you spend a little time paying attention you will undoubtedly find that is true. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent, insubstantial, transitory, unreliable and uncontrollable. You might remind yourself of that the next time you notice you are entangled in them.

Thoughts are useful, of course. Thinking is a part of the human experience. All the categorizing and filing is efficient but it is not infallible. We need time out from active thinking for the brain activity to catch up with itself. Without that we can expect malfunctions and hampered judgment. Sleep, relaxation and meditation are all important ways to help the brain function optimally.

“You don’t know me”
In class students commented on how limiting it feels when people tell them who they are from their observations. I’m sure you’ve had that experience: Someone sees you do something and forevermore labels you a something-doer. It’s just the way the human brain functions – categorizing, labeling, filing away for future use. Registering how it feels to be labeled is a good reminder to notice when we are using that kind of shorthand labeling on others. It takes skillful effort to countermand the autopilot nature of that process and leave room for people to remain unlabeled. When we resist categorizing people, we keep our relationships more vibrant, loving and unlimited.

We can offer ourselves that same generosity of un-labeling. If we are not defined by our body, our preferences or our thoughts, how free we are to be alive in this moment just as it is! 

“But I like my labels”
If you feel threatened by the idea of becoming untethered from the labels you believe define you, that’s useful noticing and an invitation for more inner exploration. 

Liberating ourselves from the belief that we are our thoughts comes naturally when we give ourselves the gift of a regular practice of meditation — a little time out from the busy thinking-thinking, but also the ability to be more present in all moments of our lives. We begin to see the patterns of thoughts arising and falling away, and we understand that they are not unique. The person next to us could easily be having that same thought, given similar causes and conditions. When we experience a trauma we are drawn to others who have experienced it as well, feeling the bond of shared experience and a sense of being understood. There is real value in that. But there is also the potential to define ourselves solely by that experience, labeling ourselves, clinging to an identity that is no longer offering a complete sense of who we are. Staying present in this moment allows us the fullness of being alive however that presents itself right now.

All of us can notice that the thoughts we have today are often very different from the thoughts we had when we were young. Those thoughts don’t define us. To the degree that we allow them to define us, they confine us. Can we let them go?

What thoughts did you used to have that you don’t have anymore? If you are your thoughts, then changing your mind on anything would be threatening. I am the kind of person who believes ‘x’. Without that thought, who would I be? But if you are not your thoughts, then you are free to explore the wondrous world of thought. Often we adopt the thoughts of others whom we want to befriend or model ourselves after. When thoughts change, we may resist their natural flow for fear of losing connection with others. But if there is no room for inner growth and change, then that’s not a true friendship. And while role models might give us ideas of valuable qualities we might aspire to, no one is infallible. The Buddha himself said, “Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.”

“I can’t afford to be wrong”
One of the most rewarding discoveries is the freedom from needing to be right. This one insight really helped me in my relationships. Making room for human fallibility in ourselves frees us from the drudgery of constantly having to shore up the miserable and isolating fortress of ‘self’ that we have built. Suddenly we can see how that fortress was just causing suffering. Without needing to build a fortress, we are free to be a natural expression of life loving itself into being. The ‘I don’t know’ mind is a wondrous way to live.

“Nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove”
When you go on retreat at a meditation center, insights naturally arise as you sit and walk in silence. Each insight is valuable with potentially lifelong lasting benefits if we can keep them alive. On one retreat I suddenly realized I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove — but I did have something to give.

The beauty of insights is that they are universal, so I can confidently share with you that you can bloom right where you are planted knowing you have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and something to give.

What is that gift you quite naturally share when you’re not afraid, not hiding and not trying to prove anything? It helps to discover that it is not something that defines you but something that makes you happy to wake up in the morning, ready to engage for the benefit of all beings. This sounds like a big thing, but skillful things we do just for ourselves or for one other person are for the benefit of all beings. Don’t think quantitatively. Remember how things ripple out from each thought, each word and each act from each of us.

Can we let go of our clinging to a solid and certain-seeming identity, and in the process awaken to awe, discovering this moment just as it is?

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Who’s your tribe?

A prime motivator of the human species, right up there with safety, is comfort. Over millennia we have developed creative ways to provide ourselves shelter from weather extremes, food at our fingertips, soft places to sleep and sit, and ways to travel great distances with ease. Ah, comfort! 

Conformity is comfort, too. We feel safer if we make the same choices as people we respect.  We may define ourselves by our choices of brands of clothing and technology, for example. We are drawn to people with shared interests or outlooks, for both the stimulating exchanges and the sense of being at ease with shared viewpoints. In this way we have a sense of tribe.

We are tribal by nature, so when our ancestors migrated around the globe in search of food, safety and freedom from persecution, each generation had to expand its understanding of tribe. Nations arose not just to define physical boundaries but for a sense of belonging to a tribe. A tribe might have shared physical attributes, but as our sense of tribe grows, it is more dependent on a sense of shared experience, regardless of whether we look alike. For example, the shared experience of surviving a war, a famine, a drought, a depression or the assassination of a leader, will bind people together in a sense of a tribe. 

Each of us longs to be part of a ‘we’, however that ‘we’ is defined. Think about the word tribe for a moment and see how you feel it in your own experience. You might start with your family, then your friends, perhaps your coworkers, the people in your community, the citizens of your country, people with shared beliefs or practices around the world, etc. See where this exercise takes you and take your time with it.

When we look at the past century in the U.S., it’s easy to see the patterns of comfort-seeking conformity. Mass media set the standards of what was ‘in’ and all anyone had to do was dress the part. When I was an adolescent we read magazines like Seventeen and Glamour and followed their cues like maps to happiness, not just what to wear, or how to style our hair, but how to be in the world and in relationships, how to find true love and meaning. The boys read Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, MAD magazine and Playboy, finding comfort in shared interests and opinions.

But some didn’t find mass market media comforting at all and felt alienated from it, so revolted against it and appeared to be non-conforming. 

If it is our nature to seek conformity, how can we explain the non-conformists? They are still seeking comfort. They just have a different tribe, a tribe that seeks itself out. Look at all the gatherings, festivals and conferences that draw like-minded people together.

Recently I saw the PBS documentary Woodstock. (It is not the original Woodstock movie, which was also great but was focused more on the music. This one focuses more on how the festival came about, how it was received by the locals (the kind and generous townspeople of Bethel, NY and environs) and how 400,000 managed to be fed, etc.. Fascinating.)

Festival attendees from all over the country and the world were so elated to find their tribe, a tribe they couldn’t be sure existed beyond their own immediate experience since they only had a few newspapers like the Village Voice and Berkeley Barb. They looked bizarre to the majority of society, but together they looked much the same, their hair and clothes an expression of their desire to be free from the predefined conformity of their parents’ generation. They conformed to their own tribe.

The beatniks before them also found their tribe. I remember how happy I was when hippies happened because the beatniks that some of my school friends aspired to imitate in the early 60’s were just too dreary and depressing for me.

There have always been non-conforming tribes. I recently read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, about the tribe of artists in New York in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, with Lee Krasner, Elaine DeKooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. at the center of it all. They painted all day in studios that often failed to provide even the minimum of comforts, some lacking heat or electricity. Their diets were so minimal that some struggling artists died of starvation. They would rather die than give up their art! I was fascinated in part because my father was one of them in the late 1930’s and I remember him saying that he and his friend figured out that a diet of dates and peanut butter was the cheapest and most nutritious way to survive. I wish I had asked him more about his time in New York back then.

According to the book, what kept the group of artists going, were the late night co-mingling with their tribe of artists and poets while nursing cups of coffee that had to last all night at the cheapest cafeteria in their down and out neighborhood. That is the strength of tribe and the powerful comfort of conformity, even when the tribe seems from the outside to be non-conforming, even when all creature comforts are sacrificed for the greater comfort of self-expression and the community of likeminded people.

What has described tribe in our massive culture is often generational, defined by the music we listen to, the entertainment we enjoy, the clothes we wear, the way we groom our hair, and what we are upset about — the Vietnam War, gun violence, student loan debt, climate crisis, etc.

Adults choose communities, a particular style of home, kinds of food, the online communities to join, but whatever we are doing, we are always seeking the comfort of our tribe.

With the advent of the internet, geography has ceased to play a role in this tribalism. Every morning after I meditate, I am greeted with ‘Thank you for meditating with me’ notes from all around the globe on the Insight Timer app. Reviews on my guided meditations also remind me that this is a worldwide community. How comforting! How supported I feel in my personal practice!

At its best, the internet has provided the possibility to be a true world community, to overcome fears and perceived barriers, to celebrate the wonder of being alive on this beautiful planet. At its worst, it has made it easy to self-define tribes of fear-based hatred, emboldening incivility and violence. If we succumb to the negativity, perceive our tribe as under siege and in need of protection, then we have tribal warfare that destroys us all.

So what we are doing in meditation is making internal peace, recognizing the fear, listening with respect, and then giving comfort, kindness, compassion to all aspects of our inner world. In this way we allow a spaciousness of mind that can hold all of what arises in ourselves and in the world in an open and loving embrace.

And what our practice leads to is an awakening to a deep understanding that we are intrinsically interconnected with all life, that our sense of ‘tribe’ does not have to be limited to just those whose opinions match our own or those who look like us. All the world’s great religions lead to the same place of deep understanding that there is no ‘other’. We are unique expressions of all that is in its infinite loving variety. We are not alone. We are all one. Our tribe is here and now and infinite, interconnected and inseparable.

Image by Speedy McVroom from Pixabay

After meditation, gentle investigation

investigationInvestigation as an important part of the Insight Meditation experience. After the practice of meditation, chances are we have cultivated a more spacious compassionate awareness that allows us to look at the nature of mind with less fear, judgment or expectation. In meditation, we practice just being present with physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. After we meditate, when our thoughts ramble, rather than reminding ourselves to return to the breath or another physical sensation, we can add in some curiosity and follow the thread of that curiosity.

At some point we might notice that we keep having a recurring thought. Instead of simply accepting this thought as true, blocking it out or dismissing it, we allow ourselves to look more closely. I’ll talk a little bit more about the content of the thought shortly, but it is probably pretty mundane and easy to overlook. What makes it worthy of investigating is its repetitive nature. It’s a central player in the pattern of our thinking mind. It might even be driving the inner conversation.

So we do a little friendly interrogation, using simple questions — not to find fault or place blame but to shine a light on what is really going on. No crime has been committed here. There’s no need to rough anybody up.

As examples, I will use two types of repeating thoughts. Yours might be quite different, but the process is the same. One typical thought is a self-judgment or a judgment of a situation, as in ‘I am so dumb’ or ‘This is so lame.’ Another typical thought begins with ‘If only…’ as in, ‘If only I had/didn’t have/didn’t have to (fill in the blank) then I’d be happy.’

So, if you are reading this in a spacious state of mind and with a relaxed body, then I suggest you pause and think about something else (how often does a writer ask you to do that?) Just let yourself think your regular thoughts — what you plan to do today, what you did yesterday, letting your mind wander, even as you continue to pay some attention to overall physical sensations.

In this way you might notice if you start tensing up somewhere in your body. Now see if you can identify what thought or emotion is connected to that tension. What were you thinking about that seems to have caused your jaw or shoulders or some other body part to tense up? Spend as much time exploring this as you need. Even let it go, relax and release, and then return to allowing your mind to wander.

If nothing comes up for you, you might try triggering a thought pattern by completing one of the sentences:

“If only…”

“I am so…”

“_______ always happens to me.”

“He/she/life is always so…”

When a thought causes some tension and feels familiar, you can use it for your exploration, even if you think you might find a better one if you keep looking. This is just to give you the experience of how to do the exploration. You can do it again whenever you want.

The funny thing about the thought is that you might not even recognize it as anything but just the truth. Thus it is hard to spot! It is hidden in plain sight.

Naturally our first inclination is to agree with the thought, to build a stronger case for it with numerous examples that support it. It becomes what feels like a very solid part of our perceived identity. It is our story, and we tell it again and again. Even if it’s very negative, we still may cling to it. It’s not much, but it’s ours.

This well-developed story probably affects everything else we think or feel, the way a small amount of dye can tint a large body of water. Thus we are most likely making ourselves miserable, and quite possibly spreading that misery in all our relationships.

What to do, what to do! Having identified the recurring thought — and congratulations if you have! — we now can greet it with respect and kindness, as we ask “Is this true?”

“Is this true?” Hmm. There is likely to be some discomfort in questioning something we have taken for granted for so long. But at the same time we may begin to see that our tight clinging to it is uncomfortable. Just look at the way it causes tension in the body, and that’s just a part of the discomfort.

“Is this true?” Right off the top of our heads, we say of course it’s true. After all, we’ve bought into it all these years. Why wouldn’t we believe it to be true?

So we kindly and respectfully ask again. “Is this true?”

The investigation continues in this way, focusing more on the question, repeating the question again and again,  so that we are revealing layers of easy assumptions, smart-aleck retorts, grumpy mumbles and all the rest.. To each we say a silent respectful ‘thank you’, and return to our investigation. To respond in any other way is to simply get caught up in the tangle of thought we’re examining. (If this exercise is difficult to do on your own, find someone who is interested in doing it with you, preferably someone who has also just meditated.)

It can be challenging to remain respectful and kind. When we ask the question, we tap into our deepest wisdom, our inherent Buddha nature that we have accessed through our silent practice. In this way we can stay present with the experience. We may notice a rigidity setting in, a defensive posture, or another way that our fear of upsetting the status quo keeps us in its grip. We simply note the fear and give ourselves a little loving kindness and encouragement from our inner wisdom. (However, just a caveat that if this is too powerful and too scary, then find a qualified therapist, grounded in Buddhist psychology, to accompany you on this journey.)

Eventually there may be a slight shift and a different response comes up from someplace a little deeper, a little more heartfelt, a little more true.

We can also shift the questioning by going a little further and asking ‘How do I know it’s true?’ (You might recognize these questions as the core of the work of Byron Katie, a wonderful Buddhist teacher/author.)

This second question really challenges us to look at our assumptions. It makes us see the statement in full context. Where did this idea originally come from anyway? In this state of compassionate awareness and gentle investigation it is possible to see the thread that connects the recurring thought to something or someone in the past. We may even be able to hear in our heads the voice or the exact wording of the person who originally gave us this idea. Or we might recognize the traumatic experience in the past that continues to make us fearful. One member of our group said that she recognized the source, but that the original was even more insidious, that she had modified it to fit her better, but the content was still clearly there.

If we can identify the origin of the thought, then that’s a big leap forward in our understanding. If you can’t, It’s totally fine. Let go of expectation. But be open to the possibility that the origin might just waft up from the subconscious, sparked by something you see, read or hear over the next few days or weeks. And keep noticing that recurring thought, and each time it comes up, question it again in the same way. “Is it true? How do I know it’s true?”

If you do see the connection — immediately or much later — then there’s another opportunity to question with spaciousness, respect and compassion, whether that original source was reliable. Whether it came from a parent, a teacher, a friend, an ex or a schoolyard bully, you can recognize in retrospect that they were not omniscient possessors of all wisdom. They were human with all the foibles of any other human. Chances are, if the statement being examined is painful (as in ‘I’m so dumb’) or circuitously sets us up for pain (as in ‘if only’ statements), then the source of the statement was also in pain.

Sometimes the origin is not some specific person but just seems to be part of the culture. Advertising activates a lot of fear-based ‘if only’ thinking. (I used to be in advertising. Talk about insidious!) There are a lot of people banking on us feeling badly enough about ourselves that we will succumb to their assurances that their product or service will fix us up.

We are often so busy in our lives that we just don’t take the time to make such investigations. We might judge it as self-indulgent navel-gazing. But wait. If we are telling ourselves something that is not true, that is from an unreliable source, and we are making ourselves miserable in the process, then isn’t it worth a few minutes that we otherwise might spend watching a ball game or reading a novel — trying hard to escape from that harsh judgment or nagging thought?

Of course it is. So if you have already developed a daily practice of meditation, you are cultivating awareness and compassion, that likely is improving your mood, providing more balance, and softening the way you interact in relationships. Now, consider making good use of that time right after meditation — while you do some exercise or simple quiet household chores or personal hygiene perhaps? Whenever you happen to notice a harsh thought arising, a put down, a wish for this moment to be different, celebrate that noticing! And investigate!

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.

Goody-Goody!

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.