We believe that we are who we think we are. The co-existence of thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations creates a compelling and seemingly incontrovertible experience of me. And if that experience is painful or difficult – which is often the case – we spend a great deal of time and energy attempting to move away from it, in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
We each wear many labels, and each label has its own tone, its own unique content. Some labels we wear proudly, making sure they’re on public display as often as possible. Others, we shamefully keep hidden, fearing exposure. A few are so repellent, so unbearable, that we relegate them to the shadows, ensuring that even we can’t see them. Our identities are a carefully choreographed dance; protecting and defending, evading and avoiding. Whether we see ourselves as deeply flawed works in progress, or as the perfectly satisfactory finished article, there’s a sense of needing to hold up or maintain the structure. When someone contradicts or challenges or confirms our labels, we react. We’re hurt, angry, offended, pleased, defensive. Conflict arises, and we struggle. And it all feels very real; what we think, imagine, feel, and sense seems to provide all the evidence we need that things are the way they seem to be.
Rarely, then, do we ever take a peek behind the curtain to examine the assumptions that we live by. Instead, we do our best to mitigate the discomfort or suffering we feel, however slight or intense. As if our existence depended on it (which, on one level, it does) we find myriad ways to keep ourselves from fully feeling what lies at the core of each label. We’re all familiar with the more negative forms of self-medication – alcohol, drugs, loveless sex, endless television – but supposedly more positive activities, such as meditation, therapy, sport or spiritual practice can also be used in the same way. Underneath it all, we are terrified that the edifice of me will one day come crashing down, and we do everything in our power to stop that from happening, much as we simultaneously long for it.
However, it is the refusal to be with what seem to be our deepest truths that perpetuates them. As Sandra Maitri says, Paradoxically, at least to the mind, the more we immerse ourselves in our experience, the more we become disidentified with it. When we finally cease analysing, strategising, controlling, avoiding, and defending – even for a short while – we get to discover what the label has been covering up.
Over the last few months, I’ve spent many hours each week facilitating people (and being facilitated) in Scott Kiloby’s Living Inquiries. I’ve seen how, when we start to look into each identity, its true contents are revealed. We’ve opened boxes labelled I’m bad, I’m clever, I’m not good enough, I’m broken, I can’t, I’m a failure, I’m alone, I don't want to be me, and so many more besides, and found that each box contains words (thoughts), pictures (memories and images), sensations in the body, and emotions. We’ve looked carefully at each item, and allowed the sensations and emotions to be there, exactly as they are. Often, we feel emotions that have never been truly felt before; the raw, searing pain of grief, the raging energy of anger, the bittersweet despair of longing. No running, no hiding, no justifying, no mitigating, no making sense of it.
In that open space of looking, it gradually dawns that those collections do not, in fact, make up a solid identity. A few words here, a sequence of images there, some tingling, a little contraction, a flood of tears...and that’s all. There is no-one who is unlovable, or bad, or clever, or alone, or anything else. Ultimately, we can’t find the one that we’ve taken ourselves to be. But it is only by having the courage to open the boxes (even the ones that are surrounded with barbed wire fences, armed guards, and ‘keep out’ signs) that we’re able to discover the deeper truth of who we are. By fully feeling what we’re not, our hearts break open to the freedom beyond. Are you willing to look?