Who are You? Who is the Self that Would be Authentic?

How would you reply, were I to ask you, “Who are you?” Actually, take a moment to consider who you are. Really! Who are you? Perhaps you might pause a moment, and say out loud who you think you are.

Someone might reply to me, “My name is Sarah, I am a 41-year-old architect. I am divorced, and the single mom of two children. Between driving my daughter to karate, my son to soccer, minding a house, and keeping my career, I’m exhausted!”

I might reply, “Sarah, I understand your exhaustion. Yet how can this be you? There was a time when you hadn’t children. A time when you were in love with your fiance. A time when you were a college student, not an architect. Wasn’t that you back then too? ”

“Yes, but that was who I was then, this is who I am now.”

“And in the future, you’ll be retired, a grandmother, elderly, maybe a great grandmother, etc…. Where is your ‘I’ amidst all these changes? Your Self?”

The Self can’t be our innumerable changes. Think of how many sensations, emotions, and thoughts we have experienced. Sub-personalities do not define the self. “Dr. Profoundo”, the serious Michael, playful Michael, and other of my sub-personalities come and go. Also the Self must be other than the roles we play in life. At one time or another, we may play many roles such as toddler, youth, student, employee, parent, senior, etc. Amidst all these changes, always there is an “I” that experiences them.

Maybe Sarah might suggest, “Then, the Self is a process ever-unfolding moment to moment.”

Iis the psychological-spiritual process that you experience moment to moment you? Elsewhere I have described this process as your spiritual path (see Treading the Path – Living in Process). What does that path consist of? All the above: sensations, emotions, thoughts, sub-personalities, roles, identities, unfolding through time, instant by instant. Are these not the content of your life which your “I” experiences? The Self experiences the Path, but it is not the Path.

If not the above, where then shall we turn to find the “I”. What has endured all your changes, and yet remains? We turn to the experiencing awareness itself. Beneath the foreground of the sensations, emotions, thoughts, sub-personalities, roles, identities, which we might mistakenly take ourselves to be, lies the background of our ever-present awareness. From birth to death and perhaps beyond, awareness experiences each twist and turn of our living.

Tibetan Buddhism likens that awareness to a mirror. Imagine a mirror in the busiest room of your home. Throughout the day, the mirror reflects persons coming and going, their conversations, and their activities. Yet the mirror remains untouched, impartially reflecting all that occurs, always present, always reflecting.

Typically our “mirror-like awareness” becomes identified psychologically with the foreground content of the thoughts, feelings, activity, roles it experiences, etc. It is like a person lost in and blinded by a once-in-a-century blizzard. Yet that awareness can be discovered and revealed through the practice of presence.

That awareness also can be pointed to by the following exercise, if you’re willing to experiment. Make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes. For a couple of minutes listen to the sounds and the silences of your immediate environment. Listen as acutely as you can to every nuance. When you stop and open your eyes, reflect on how you could only listen intently, when your mind was emptied of thought. But if your mind was emptied of thought, who then was listening? The experiencing awareness.

Although that awareness has an implicit sense of “I”, it needn’t have a name. It’s just awareness. After all, there was a time you didn’t have a name. You had to be taught the name with which you would become identified. Perhaps as you lay in your crib your mom and dad took turns tickling you belly to get your attention, then saying over and over while pointing to you, “Sarah! Sarah!… Sarah!” And then a moment of recognition flashed through your eyes, and the first snowflakes of your blizzard began.

Can you imagine what would it be like to go through life identified as the awareness you are, not as the content of your life that you may have thought youSelf to be?


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