Who Am I?
It was the first morning of a weeklong meditation retreat here in San Diego in November of 2009. I was a few minutes late so had been eagerly scanning the room for an open chair before realizing one of the last seats was on the isle next to where I was standing. Soon after I sat down, the teacher began to guide us into the first practice.
“Turn to the person next to you and ask their name and where they live. Ask about what they do for work, the car they drive, their favorite food, favorite color and hobbies.” What followed was a common conversation alike to so many I’d had at cocktail parties or networking events. We each took turns casually sharing our preferences and reporting on the superficial facts of our lives. There was a feeling of safety and stability in the exchange.
“What you just shared is not really you”, said the teacher. “Now tell the other about your hopes, dreams and losses”. At first there was hesitation but eventually, one at a time we revealed our stories of where we’d been and where we’d like to go. This was still relatively comfortable but took a bit more vulnerability and had the energy of a first date.
“The stories you just shared are not you”, the teacher said once again in a kind but matter of fact tone. “Now take the other persons hands and stare silently into their eyes until I ring the bell.” This went on for what felt like an eternity. I experienced a range of quickly changing thoughts and emotions from moment to moment. First there was a layer of self conscious thoughts, “what is she thinking of me?” “Did I brush my teeth?” “I hope I’m not making her uncomfortable”. Then there was a sense of gratitude, “Lucky choice of seats, I could be gazing into the eyes of an old dude right now. She is pretty cute.” There was also a growing sense of curiosity: “who is this woman?” I began to see a depth to her that I hadn’t noticed in our conversation. “This is someone’s daughter and best friend”. Her presence communicated a certain kind of wisdom and a strength that transcended the need for words. There were also fleeting periods where thought seemed to completely subside into a pure sense of spacious awareness. From this place of presence arose a kind of recognition; a vaguely familiar sense of connection, intimacy and unity.
“This is who you really are,” the teacher finally declared.
This spacious presence of who we really are didn’t last long before the onslaught of “single male-self” thoughts rushed in one after the other. “Am I feeling a spark here? Hmm, I might be able to get a date out of this!” “Hey this retreat is about to get interesting!” And it did get interesting. Lisa and I got married about a year and a half later.
Philosophy, psychology, anthropology and every spiritual tradition throughout time has weighed in on the perennial question, “who are we?” People go on meditation retreats or hire a life coach for all sorts of external reasons but at our core, we’re all asking this very same question. “Who am I, really?”
Growing Up vs. Waking Up
“You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fu@#ing khakis.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Psychology has tackled this question of the “self” by slicing and dicing our identity into neatly packaged parts including Freud’s ego, id, and superego; Jung’s animus, anima, shadow, and persona; Roberto Assagioli’s multiple subpersonalities… and many more. There are dozens of assessments that will tell you exactly who you are -as defined by your personality type, archetype, temperament, style, attitude and character traits. Some of these assessments like the Eneagram and the Values In Action (VIA) Strengths Assessment can be valuable resources for self- discovery.
It’s important to point out that when exploring who we really are, there is a bit of contrast between the conclusion western psychology reached and the Buddhist approach from which contemporary mindfulness is derived. These traditions hold that mindfulness practices evolved as tools not as a means to become a better version of our self, but for deconstructing our usual view of ourselves and the world. Mindfulness practice is for waking up from conventional, socially reinforced fictions about who we are and how to find happiness. It’s about liberation from conditioning, from the past, from ego and from the fixation on self.
In developing the Mindfulness Based Coaching Model I’ve leaned on experience with both coaching psychology and mindfulness practice to help my clients know who they are from both a "relative" and "absolute" perspective. On the relative level of ordinary everyday life, we can make a simple distinction between the “Healthy Ego” and “Unhealthy Ego” which coaching psychology also refer to as “Best Self” and the “Inner Critic”.
The conventional goal of coaching is to support clients in bolstering and fortifying the Healthy Ego while overcoming the challenges of the Unhealthy Ego. This process is important for developing greater self-confidence, living a healthy lifestyle and improving performance as well as overcoming limiting beliefs and harmful habits. But these “Self Improvement” and “Self Management” strategies are not the end game for my long-standing coaching clients. Sitting in meditation eventually reveals that these relative selves we’re trying to improve and manage aren’t so solid or stable and identification with even their Best Self may be contributing to their stress and ultimately limiting their freedom.
Buddhist Psychotherapist, John Welwood refers to these two different tracks of human development as “growing up” and “waking up”, healing and awakening, or becoming a genuine human person and going beyond the person altogether. “We are not just humans learning to become Buddhas, but also Buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other.”
There is much that western psychology and coaching can offer to the mindfulness traditions. John Welwood talks in great length about “Spiritual Bypassing” which he sees as a widespread tendency, especially in Buddhist and Yoga communities, “to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
And of course there is much that mindfulness can offer to deepen traditional therapy or coaching practices. Mark Epstein, another Buddhist Psychotherapist and author of the book, “Thoughts Without a Thinker” regards the realization of “anatta”, or Pali for “no-self”, which is achieved via mindfulness meditation -- to be the crowning contribution of Buddhism to psychotherapy. He says, “when the self is seen to be nonexistent, the human being is freed from narcissistic concerns, which are the source of our suffering.”
Growing up to your Best Self is about being true to your values and ethics. It’s about living with purpose, leveraging your strengths and acting in alignment with your hearts deepest intentions. When coming from your Best Self, there is a sense of resonance, alignment and authenticity. There is an openness to life and relationships and one can function in a way that’s beneficial to society.
As also mentioned, part of the process of becoming your Best Self includes understanding, accepting and healing all of the “other” parts of your self. I’ve already written a blog that covers “The Inner Critical Coach” and “Inner Compassionate Coach” in some depth here.
Here are some of the practices I have my clients do to get familiar with their Best Self:
Peak Experience: I sometimes have my clients recollect a “peak experience”, a time in their past where they felt in the “flow” or were performing at the top of their game. You can even try it now, or come back to it later. Whenever you’re ready, close your eyes and think back to a peak experience. See if you can really go there in your mind --feeling into this experience and feeling it into your heart. When you’re ready, write about this peak experience in as much detail as you can remember. Who were you with? What was your physical environment like? What were you doing a lot of? But most importantly, who were you being? What strengths were you using regularly? What kind of thoughts, emotions and body sensations were present?
The point of the exercise is not about feeding some perfect, idealistic, fantasy version of ourselves or trying to recreate the past but instead, it’s about mining the past for information that might be helpful.
Reflected Best Self: Another way to compose a portrait of your Best Self is to look at your reflection through the eyes of others. This exercise draws on the perceptions of significant others who have unique and valuable insights into the ways you add value and make contribution. The first step to this exercise is to identify a diverse group of 5-10 people who know you well and who would give you honest feedback. These may be colleagues, friends, family members, customers, peers or anyone who has had extended contact with you. The next step is to write an email with a specific request to your respondents asking them to share three stories they recall where you were being your Best Self. Finally the feedback is collected and sifted through for key insights and commonalities across the responses.
Projected Best Self: Often it’s difficult to see your own latent qualities when you look at yourself but it’s easier to see them projected onto others. You can get some clues about your own Best Self by looking at other people who have the traits you respect and admire. Coaching clients are encouraged to think about a role model, a mentor or someone who inspires them. Then we process what specific characteristics and ways of being are most attractive in this person. Most likely these are potential qualities that are held within you.
After clarification of the Best Self through assessment or any of these inquiries above, the next step is for clients to integrate and actually start taking these new understandings of their potential into their life. I’ve partially covered this in another blog “Mindful Use of Strengths” here.
“The brain is like an orchestra without a conductor.” Wolf Singer, Neuroscientist
Understanding and working with this psychological self is the main focus of work in both therapy and coaching. It’s what John Welwood calls “horizontal work” and it forms the foundation for the next level of human development, which is about liberation from the self. Mindfulness practice is what Welwood calls “vertical work”. It’s more like cutting through any state of mind to the essence. In Buddhist terms our essence might be called emptiness, limitlessness, pure awareness or a non-dual awareness. It’s also sometimes referred to as “Buddha mind, Buddha nature”.
This is not an abstract Buddhist concept to believe in, but something that can be directly experienced right now. If you pause for a moment and turn consciousness upon itself as we do in meditation, you will discover soon enough that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they’re continually arising, changing and fading away. But if you were to look for the thinker of these thoughts, the self, you won’t find one. The feeling that we call “I”— the sense of being a subject inside the body — is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking. As meditation deepens, you can begin noticing what consciousness is like in the gap between thoughts. The experience of observing or witnessing as consciousness does not feel like being a subjective self or an “I”, but something more spacious and vast.
And the sense that you might have in this moment — “What are you talking about? What do you mean I don’t have a self? Of course I do, I’m right here!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.
What we see through mindfulness practice is that creating a sense of self, healthy or unhealthy is actually an impersonal process constructed from a multitude of unconscious mechanisms and factors. We begin to see that this concept of a “central me” at the core of our experience, is actually an ever changing encounter with sensations, perceptions and intentions. Who we are starts to feel more like consciousness experiencing a constellation of tendencies and behaviors, conditioned by believed thoughts, accumulated through past education and experiences.
Being No Self
Ok, so what if the self as we know it is an illusion… “who” cares? Good question. It doesn’t take much convincing for the ego to sign up for being a Best Self, but why would anyone sit through hours and years of mediation to see this cherished self as an illusion?
“The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of self” – Sam Harris, Waking Up
According to the mindfulness traditions, attachment to the concept of the self --even your Best Self is the root of our suffering. It follows that if I’m completely identified with being Pete the wise and helpful coach, compassionate friend, committed husband, and fitness buff, what happens when my clients don’t make progress, I forget someone’s birthday, snap at my wife or strain my back? I’ll suffer.
Eventually the roles we love playing come to an end. This is common in high-ranking officials, big shot CEO’s and pro athletes when they retire. Going from an identity of greatness to normal is a hard fall. Losing their sense of importance, they’re prone to depression. But this isn’t limited to stars. Parents who’s kids grow up and move out can suffer from “empty nest” which is a real loss of identity with their role as a good mom or dad. And the hard truth is that we all lose everything, eventually.
So does this mean not to invest in building skills, going to the gym, honing your character and performing at your very best? No. It just means don’t be attached, because as my wife and I were told at the meditation retreat, “that’s not really you.”
“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and everything you do, is for your self. And there isn’t one.” -Wei Wu Wei
By knowing that our own sense of self is constructed via an ever-changing experience of the five senses, narrated by conditioned thoughts, it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails. It explains why humans behave the way we do. Rather than judging someone when they behave unskillfully, we can see that they’re simply reacting to fear. Although we may not like how they’re being, there is an understanding that they’re doing the best they can, given their conditioning and their life circumstances.
To the extent that we can witness both the saint and sinner in ourselves, we’re better able to accept others, warts and all. Our judgments about good and bad, right and wrong tend to lighten, and we can more readily feel compassion toward ourselves and other people when we act in less-than-noble ways.
Sense of Humor
"Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream." - Jack Kerouac
To re-gain perspective when I’m taking myself too seriously, I look up at the stars at night and try to wrap my extremely limited mind around the experience of being on a rather smallish rock, circling a big ball of fire, hurling through infinite space. Then I recall that our fire ball is one of 100 thousand million other fire balls in the Milky Way alone, which in turn is only one of about the same number of galaxies in this thing we call the universe.
Most of the seven billion other little people with whom I share this smallish rock, passionately disagree on where we really came from and where we go when we die. We all have our own cherished beliefs and theories, but ultimately those too are just conditioned thoughts arising in consciousness. As I look out at the stars, my oh so important to-do list starts to not look so daunting or urgent and eventually fades into the mystery of being.
What will become of my to-do lists, my triumphs and failures after I die? Even if I leave a legacy, in a several thousand years, the earth will likely be covered in water and too hot for humans to survive! I actually don’t find any of this morbid at all- in fact, I find this practice of being insignificant rather freeing.
From this perspective, I can watch all of my habits of planning and striving, primping and decorating, trying to impress others, and attempting to control life --and find it all absolutely hilarious! And does this mean I’m going to stop doing all these quirky, human things? Probably not. It means I can keep doing them if I choose, with a sense of lightness and humor.
“Relax, nothing is under control”
Being Awareness Practice
Waking up to your true nature can be experienced by anyone in this very moment. However for most, fully realizing and continuously living this understanding from moment to moment, in everyday life is a gradual process that comes with dedicated practice over a long period of time.
A relatively simple way to recollect this practice is R.A.I.N:
- Recognize what is really happening in any moment
- Allow everything to be just as it is with the perspective of acceptance and lightness
- Investigate the inner experience of thoughts and emotions with kindness and curiosity
- Non-identify with thoughts and emotions. Rest in the natural state of awareness knowing that these thoughts and emotions are here right now, but they're not "me" or "mine". Feel into the vast spaciousness in which all of this arises. “That is who you really are."