Have You Ever Wondered Who You Were?

Have You Ever Wondered Who You Were?

Within the Rinzai Zen tradition, koan meditation is considered one of the cornerstones of monastic and lay practice.  Simply put, a koan is a seemingly unanswerable question or riddle that is designed to shatter the limits of the rational mind and thus serve to awaken a deeper intuitive sense of “knowing” within the practitioner. Probably the most famous koan (and there are many) is “who am I? “

When we first ask ourselves this question in meditation, our initial response is often our name and what we might call our vital statistics: age, height, weight, species etc. It’s almost as if the question is so obvious that it doesn’t even warrant investigation. The aspect of ourselves that is most familiar is the one we see in the mirror so this is not perhaps very surprising. But this does not give us a clear and rounded picture of a person. If someone was given all this information about you, they might know what you looked like, but they would really know nothing else about you, nothing about what makes you tick.

With even a little contemplation, it becomes clear that our sense of “I” is not restricted to the body and how we look but also extends to our thoughts, beliefs and opinions. “I like these people and not those other folk; I believe in Heaven; I am unhappy; I’m a disaster with the opposite sex; I’m not funny”: these are the stories that we create and repeat for ourselves which define the borders and details of our personality. More importantly, this personality can feel every bit as concrete as the experience of a physical body.

Now this personality is built from our past experience and memories. We will all have experienced joy and heartache, humiliation and pride at times in our lives and, as part of our animal nature, we are programmed to chase pleasure and avoid pain, both physical and psychological. It is in this light that certain events from our past have more resonance than others and produce what we might call a deeper groove in the mind.

If you were once embarrassed at school or on a date, the experience will have been painful for you. Your animal impulse is quite naturally to want to avoid that feeling in the future, and so you may begin to avoid situations in which it could happen again. It is also possible that at that point you made an assumption about yourself like “I am a fool” or “I am a social failure.”  This assumption can almost feel like a moment frozen in time: “from now on, I will remember this feeling and will always carry it around with me”.

Just as we can have memories of painful situations, we can also have memories of great joy and pleasure. You can perhaps remember a time when you felt very happy in your life, carefree and unburdened. Our animal nature, as opposed to running away from this feeling, wants to repeat it again and again. We can then find ourselves constantly chasing after this experience and wondering if we will ever find it again in the future. There is also a continuous comparison between the way the way life is and the memory of this happy feeling. The gap between these two states can make us feel anxious and restless.

In this way, is built up a network of memories and assumptions about ourselves which begin to define and shape our behaviour patterns. The crucial point here is that the vast majority of this is going on below our radar. We may be dimly aware of our character traits in some way but we accept these as hard fact and never really look to enquire into them or have the time and energy to spend pondering this.  

Our minds are thus pulled forward and backwards continually as we assess the present through this continuous cycle of comparison and self-defence. We may not even have any notion that this is happening other than a vague feeling that something is not right or that we are not truly happy. We are also constantly analysing our own behaviour through these same filters to see whether our behaviour is matching up with our internal set of standards. If I am someone who has a strong belief in God for example, I may find that my behaviour is constantly falling short of what I deem to be correct and appropriate: this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame.

These deeply held views about ourselves really all come back to the very natural desire for us to find happiness and avoid pain. But, in reality, lasting inner peace is never found in this constant battle.

Running away from things we fear, and after things we love, can never be satisfied

Have you ever got what you want and then instantly found that you started to want something else? We could perhaps describe it as a sense of restlessness, that neurotic sense that we always have to perfect our life in some way in order for us to be happy. When we talk about Santi in Yoga we are talking about a peace which is unshakeable, which is not dependent upon external factors for its survival.

This is a peace which comes from understanding and accepting the present as it is without the need to somehow perfect what is around us to fit our internal vision of how it should be. It manifests in day-to-day life as the sense that “I can handle what is thrown at me without any unnecessary drama and anxiety.” None of us is immune from crisis and tragedy in our lives but we can learn how to deal with these unwelcome guests far more skilfully and with a great sense of compassion for ourselves.

The Buddha was very interested in this notion of inner peace and the problem of the ever-wandering mind. It is from his investigation of this problem that there arose the practices of mindfulness. Essentially, what we are learning to do with mindful practice is to bring our full awareness to the present moment, to begin to appreciate life for what it is and experience ourselves in a very different way.

Observing the inner critic at work in real time

 It is almost as if the light of our awareness can shine on these frozen moments from our past, to allow them to thaw and release their hold on us.  For most of us, the sheer speed of daily life, however, has made this process even more difficult as we barely have a moment to pause. But as we slow down and bring our full mind and awareness to bear on what we are doing, even for a few moments, we begin to realise how much we have been missing.

There is an enormous detail and richness to our lives which is passing moment by moment but we are too caught up in our problems to notice it. It is by entering into this richness that are sown the seeds for a genuine appreciation and enjoyment of life.

The ironic thing is that all our attempts to make ourselves secure and happy, often end up making us more anxious because all we are really doing is playing this game of feeding and protecting the needs of the ego. In mindful practice, when we are fully present, we are learning to open our awareness to what is really happening without any concern really for what should be happening.

So much of our time and energy is burnt up and tied down in worry and remorse, that when it is released to come into this present moment we can feel extremely liberated and thankful for the smallest things in life. It is only in this present moment equally that we can learn to see how the mind constructs this sense of personality and ego for us, how it creates fear anxiety and a consistent inner judging.

By slowing down, we can observe this process at work and in time learn to be free of this movement of restrictive thought and then to enjoy our lives to the fullest. In essence, transformation comes through observation. 


Image copyright Fotalia gustavofrazao

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