The other night I dreamt of an orchestra. It was an odd dream (aren’t they all?)- it had nothing to do with how the music sounded. Instead it was sort of a broad overview of an orchestra as a unit. I saw my dream-orchestra clearly as a collection of people, musicians with instruments, a conductor, the players who created the whole. I noted how, over time, individuals joined, lived out their careers, retired, and were replaced by new individuals. In my dream, I thought, ‘The orchestra changes over time as people come and go. It’s made up of many different fluid parts, and yet we refer to it as one solid unit- a thing- as though it were permanent, individual, and unchanging. That’s how you see yourself, too. But it’s not true.’
This thought woke me, and I opened my eyes in the dark to look toward the ceiling. I felt myself breathing and absorbed this thought. This wasn’t a new concept to me- my teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and many other Buddhist writers speak of this frequently. But I felt I wanted to share this with you, to try to explain how it’s unfolding for me.
“A river flows with fresh water, always changing, and we still call it a river. If we visit that place a year later, we think it is the same river. But how is it the same? If we isolate one aspect or characteristic, this sameness falls apart. The water is different… ‘Appearance’ is quite an unstable basis for ‘truth.'” –Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What Makes You Not A Buddhist
In my experience, it has taken some time, coupled with meditation and contemplation to begin to have a felt sense for how this might be true. After all, isn’t there some continuity to our experience? Aren’t I the same person I was when I was a baby, a child, a teen? Upon examination, the facts don’t really support this assertion: cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Studies show that through meditation we can alter the structure and function of our brain. And I certainly don’t look the way I did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. We can accept that some things will change. In another part of the same passage listed above, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche notes,”of course, we say that some things change. A bud blooms into a flower, and we still think of it as a truly existing flower as it changes. That growth and change is part of our fixed idea about the nature of the flower. We would be much more surprised if it became permanent.” Still, I think, it feels more comfortable and familiar to feel that we are essentially the same person, with a quality of identity, self, or me-ness that we reinforce through habits and labels.
Initially, I experienced some discomfort with the idea of not being the same me. I began to unravel some of the stories that reinforced my idea of a continuous, ongoing, more-or-less-unchanging Laura experience, and found that I had some nostalgia, an attachment, to those labels- even when they were negative. I remember seriously asking myself- “Who am I if I’m not depressed?”- Yuck! There was a sense of fear, emptiness, and an immediate need to fill that gap with a new label. “I’m a yogi- or a recovering depressed person- or something-!”
Returning gently to this inquiry again and again- who am I?- or, even better, letting go of the “I” and asking, “‘Who is it that is experiencing this/breathing/eating this piece of chocolate cake*”- I began to feel that I could loosen up and relax into the ambiguity of moment-to-moment experience.
“In a book I read recently, the author talked about humans as transitional beings- beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free but are in the process of awakening. I’m in the process of becoming, in the process of evolving. I’m neither doomed nor completely free, but I’m creating my future with every word, every action, every thought. I find myself in a very dynamic situation with unimaginable potential. I have all the support I need to simply relax and be with the transitional, in-process quality of my life.” -Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
What does it feel like to ‘relax’ with this quality? Like most humans I know, there are things I’ve said and done that have caused others and myself great pain or even harm. You know: moments that used to make me cringe; things I’d tucked away into dark corners of my memory as too painful to recall. The time I threw a plate at my ex-boyfriend. The hurtful, mean things I said to a friend. The way I ran out on friendships or relationships rather than dealing honestly with the challenges. If I experience myself as a fluid, changing, “transitional being,” I am able review these past actions with a quality of genuine kindness and understanding while still feeling remorse. Because I can now look honestly and critically at these events, I’m able to resolve to handle myself differently in the future.
Yet habits are strong, and the more we repeat them, the stronger they grow (remember this blog entry?). So, in many cases, I’ve found myself repeating many of the same “mistakes.” I forget that I am fluid, in-process. Sometimes I even feel trapped, as though I have to do something simply because I’ve done it so frequently before!
A few months ago, I experienced this when I visited a friend for a weekend. He’s an incredibly kind person, and when he asked me how I was, I crumpled like a Kleenex- I was sad about the end of a relationship and his warmth just triggered my tears. After I pulled myself together, I felt the pull of my past habits. “Now,” I thought to myself, “I’ll be depressed for the next two days. I’ll skulk around and avoid everyone because they saw me cry and be sad.” (Hey, I’m not saying this makes any sense, I’m just saying this is how I had handled this in the past. Maybe you have your own neurotic tendencies. I bet you do.)
So here’s the “aha” moment- I felt an almost physical shift-lightness- in my body as I realized- “I don’t need to do that at all. In fact, that would be really kind of silly, and a huge waste of time.” I remembered this passage from Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living (yes, i do have it memorized):
“At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited, or to remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of being harmed… If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so, and that the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.”
That’s it, guys- the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available. You’re not the same person you were yesterday. You’ll be different tomorrow. The orchestra seems like a continuous, solid entity- and for convenience, we refer to it that way- but it’s constantly changing, and so are you. So is your partner, your best friend, the guy in front of you at the grocery store who’s maybe a little bit smelly or rude or whatever offends us.
Again, I am speaking here to my experience- for me, one of the dangerous things about the earliest steps on the spiritual path has been my tendency to feel like “I’ve got it!” So, in reading a piece like this, for example, someone may be feeling like, “Yeah yeah, I’ve got this, I’m changing, I’ve changed, I quit smoking, I do yoga, things are great now! High-five, soul sister!” One of my meditation instructors- a compassionate, kind, brilliant man- frequently says, “Every insight is a false summit.” I return to this again and again. Every time I think I know something- every time I think I understand a concept or really “get” impermanence, for example, I find that I really don’t know anything at all. It’s humbling: the more I learn, the less I know. So right now in my life, I’m asking myself, again and again, Who Am I? Who Is This?- and hoping that maybe I’m continuing to loosen up. Flow on, fluid friends. You’re not trapped. You’re not stuck. You’re in process. And that’s really good news.
*This is Pema Chodron’s idea- in fact, I believe she says she might ask herself, “Who is eating this third piece of chocolate cake?” More reasons to love her!
One thought on “Who the heck do I think I am, anyway?”
Laura, thanks for the inspiration. My wife and I are now officially Yoga beginners, completing our tenth introductory class today. She has goaded me for some time, so I bought two membership trials for her birthday along with mats and off we went. It has been good to do it together, as we need someone to push us to go when we feel less inclined. Thanks for your advocacy over the years. BTG