Who Are You?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 10

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 1: Knowing Thyself in One Easy Lesson

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I am a divine idea of a loving God, created for a divine purpose, which finds its greatest satisfaction in expression of its uniqueness, in harmony with God’s other divine ideas, which make up the infinite universe. Perhaps the universe produces what is needed in every place, at every time.

All of the millions of tiny needles on a fir tree are necessary for the perfect functioning of the tree. You and I are like those needles — we are right here, right now, because the universe requires it. The difference between us and the fir tree’s needles is that we can choose (a) to follow our inclinations—doing what we love, fulfilling our destiny, and perfecting the universe — or (b) to deny our talents and be diverted from our purpose. —Anonymous

[Knowing who you are] does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world…. You are… like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential. —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Who am I? What am I? How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? No kidding? All that? Can I have a nap first?

These are the kinds of questions most of us ask from time to time — for example,

  • During or after a crisis
  • During or after a long summer evening at the campsite drinking beer and saying to virtual strangers, “I love ya, man.”
  • When we have way too much time on our hands (see also [b])
  • When we’re not struggling for survival; that is, when our basic physical needs have been met
  • When we’re tired of struggling for survival and we’re wondering if it’s worth it
  • When we’re living in a dorm and a lot of us are taking Philosophy 203: The Mind-Body Problem (with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain)
  • When we’re depressed; when we doubt our value; when we discover that other people’s perceptions of us are less flattering than our own
  • When, in short, we find that we’re not who we thought we were, which is just as well, because we’re never who we think we are, and we’re just as likely to be as uncertain today as we were yesterday

As in Chapter 3, however, I’ll put forth a few operational definitions so that we’re all speaking the same language, or nearly so. These definitions will be incomplete but useful answers to the questions

What is the self?

Cells are not the building blocks of life, nor are the atoms and molecules that cells can be broken down into. The body is built on invisible abstractions called information and energy–both of which are contained in your DNA. —Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want


In what sense can you know yourself?

Is it possible to “reinvent” yourself? (Reinvent is the buzzword du jour for “adapt” or “change.” None of these words says precisely what I mean. “Adapting” is passive and gradual. “Changing” is too general. “Reinventing” implies that you’re starting from scratch.

(“Participating in your own creation” or “co-creating yourself” are cumbersome but are more to the point—which is that, when things aren’t going well, or when what has worked for you in the past doesn’t work any more, you can either change your approach or rant about the unfairness of everything. “Participating in your own creation” conveys both intention and acceptance of an essential, divinely created self.)

There are tomes dealing with each of these concepts. Take self-knowledge, for example. Most would agree that since the self is never static, it can never be known. By the time you figure out who you are, you’re someone else. *

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

I have only a casual observer’s understanding of Buddhist ideas about the amorphous self—personal identity without boundaries. But Buddhists don’t want everybody to walk around bumping into things all the time. The Buddha himself emerged from his transformative meditation believing in the “Middle Way” between an ascetic life and a worldly one. To learn more about what I call “practical Buddhism,” which I hope is not an oxymoron or an offense to actual Buddhists, I highly recommend the book The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (Harmony Books, 2007).  

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s possible to have a working knowledge of ourselves through information gained from three sources: (a) self-observation, (b) a more-or-less accurate understanding of others’ perceptions of us, and (c) revelation (or, if you prefer, intuition). Now consider the story of my friend Carrie, a widow, who had an electrical problem.

The Buddha

The Buddha

Who is Carrie: Tramp, chemist, pathetic widow?

Several aspects of Carrie’s surface identity are easy to describe: She is

  • a widow
  • a charming woman with a firm handshake and a good memory for names. When she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she means it. She asks friendly questions about your family, your work, your beer-bottle-cap collection. If you rebuild transmissions for a living, Carrie can’t think of anything more fascinating. “Now, how is it that my automatic transmission knows when it’s time to shift into overdrive?” she wants to know.
  • a neatnik. Carrie is one of those people who dust beneath and behind the sofa daily. She can see bacteria and viruses with the naked eye. Hospital sterilization personnel salute her as she walks by. They name autoclaves after her.
  • not an electrician. Carrie doesn’t know an amp from an alligator. She breaks out in hives when she has to change a light bulb.

Thus, when the electrical outlet next to her bed stopped functioning, Carrie called in a professional. Al the electrician would arrive at 8 a.m. the next morning, Carrie was assured.

In the perverse way of such professionals, Al arrived at 7:15. Carrie was discomfited because, though she was dressed and halfway through her second cup of coffee, and though her little house was always spick and span, she hadn’t yet made her bed.

She greeted Al at the door, offered him coffee (which he declined), and ushered him into the bedroom. The electrical outlet was situated near the floor between Carrie’s bed and her nightstand. There were four items neatly arranged on the nightstand: an alarm clock, a lamp, a book, and a jar labeled (in letters that, to Carrie’s horrified eyes, appeared at least two feet tall) “Sexual Enhancement Cream.” As Carrie told me later that day,

Al was here for half an hour, fooling with that electrical outlet, reaching over the table checking this and that, at one point even elbowing the jar aside; and he’s talking to me, explaining electrical things, and I don’t remember a word he said because I was trying so hard to be nonchalant, while this jar, before my very eyes, is inflating to four or five times its original size and also changing from white to neon orange with flashing purple letters, and an actual human voice, like at a carnival, is shouting “Sexual Enhancement Cream! Getcher Sexual Enhancement Cream here, on Carrie’s nightstand, next to her unmade bed!”

Carrie used the word mortified several times. She could have said embarrassed or humiliated. Mortified, really, is overkill, so to speak. Mortify enters the English language from the French mortifier, which in turn comes from the Latin mortificare: “to put someone to death.”

But there is a sense — a poetic sense — in which Carrie was indeed “put to death” during that excruciating half-hour and for a while afterward. Carrie’s “death” is, of course, metaphorical.

The self she knew, the tidy widow, mortified
By nothing but a jar, was stricken, died,
And what was resurrected wasn’t she at all,
But something hard, dispassionate; so small
And wretched, so pathetic, it seemed barely worth
Its rations—water, air, a bit of earth.

During that excruciating half-hour, Carrie saw herself as she imagined Al must have seen her. Since Al had given no sign of having even noticed the jar (“but he couldn’t possibly have missed it!”), her imagination ran wild. In Al’s eyes, she was (a) an oversexed spinster, (b) a brazen hussy, or (c) a purveyor of phone pornography.

I suggested (d) a chemist, and anyway, (e) why did she care what Al thought? But for some reason, in Carrie’s mind, Al’s perception of her had become more important than her own, which, it appeared, was a little on the fuzzy side. “Widowhood” was still a strange and shadowy place for Carrie. Her identity as “Phil’s wife” had been well defined. Without Phil, she wasn’t sure who she was.

_______________ 

* My research on the physics of observing and understanding a system (in this case, the self) when you, the observer, are embedded within the system, came to an abrupt halt when I learned that it would involve “fractals,” which—being statistically self-similar to their substructures and, further, generated by an infinitely recursive process—are clearly wicked, and possibly radioactive as well, and should be avoided at all cost.

 

Lesson 10.1: Assignment
How ‘Conscious’ Are You?

Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth that “nothing you can know about you is you.” We are not our titles or our roles. When my children were still living at home, I was so enmeshed in the role of “motherhood” that I became very ill when my youngest left the nest.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Meditation is one way to encounter your “essential” self—the you that isn’t plastered over with ego: roles, ambitions, relationships, other people’s perceptions, even your own measurement of your worth. Tolle calls these things “content… the inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future [as well as] … events.” The more you identify with “the inner space of consciousness”—which, unlike content, is not transient—the less likely you are to be buffeted about by emotions and the freer you are to live poetically.

If you are young and competent, you probably have experienced little tragedy and you are confident of your ability to manage your life. I remember thinking, from time to time, that I “couldn’t bear it” if “X” happened, and I would do everything in my power to prevent it. And then “X” happened anyway (my first big “X” was the death of my mother at age 62), and I suffered, and survived, and grew in compassion. Since then, there have been lots of “X’s,” and there is little left to be afraid of, and much to celebrate.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions in a paragraph or two (about fifty words):

What makes you unhappy or afraid? What do you have or do that, if you couldn’t have it or do it, would seriously disrupt your sense of self?

It’s important to be honest here. This is the first step in “knowing thyself.” I will not ask you to send me this assignment, but it is important to write down your answers and save them for use later in this course.

Next: Chapter 4, Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible

 

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