Who am I?
The Story of the Self
"Who am I?” is a fundamental question that lives in the heart of every human being. For some of us this question ignites a quest that illuminates a lifetime of self-discovery.
You may have found that a therapist can be an ally as you navigate this perennial path of self-exploration. Like the poet Walt Whitman, who celebrated that “I contain multitudes," perhaps you’ve realized that the self is evolving, fluid and multidimensional. No doubt you’ve discovered buried treasures even in the shadowy multitudes of self, the ones that whisper from beyond the light of consciousness. Over time you’ve come to know deeper aspects of your self but you sense there is still more.
The Story of the Separate Self
Imagine how comfortable it was living in the warm coziness of mother’s body where every need is immediately satisfied. There is no need to even order take out. And imagine how overwhelming it was for each of us to eventually be rejected by our mother’s body and wrestled from blissful unity into the world as a separate being. As we take our first breath we’re confronted with the Buddha’s First Noble Truth that our life as a separate being is inherently stressful.
Despite the continual demands of life we're gifted with the means to survive and thrive. For example, neuroscientists now claim that humans and other species possess “mirror neurons” that empower us to be master imitators. We are born with an innate responsiveness that enables us to adapt our behavior based on the nonverbal feedback of others. Our native openness is an essential quality of our being, whether or not you believe it is dependent upon neurons. Our emerging story of the self is shaped by assimilating the unconscious projections of those who care for us. This dynamic fluidity of consciousness enables us to continually shape a sense of self based on our experiences.
"Your real nature is welcoming." Jean Klein
Shared consciousness is an essential quality of the source of our being. But every aspect of our lives is directed by the primary assumption that we exist as completely separate entities. The belief that we are fundamentally separate is unquestioned even though absolutely nothing has independent existence. Cultures definitely vary in their beliefs about the relationship between self and other. But the dominant paradigm today defines the self as a singular mind, distinctly separate from others, and dependent upon an individual physical body for its existence.
As a psychotherapist I came to realize that the experience of living solely as a separate self leads to the level of alienation that underlies common mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Most people experience cycles of demoralizing inadequacy that are generated by the burden of feeling so separate and accompanied by thoughts like I’m not good enough, not powerful enough, not loved enough. Collectively the assumption that we are fundamentally separate leads to exploitation and conflict. Our exaggerated investment in the belief of separation results in us feeling severed from our roots, the source of our being.
We know no other way to imagine being in the world except as a singular body/mind complex that is constantly striving to define itself as distinctive and valuable. Because we are essentially fluid and open we may seek to solidify our existence as separate selves through a compulsive accumulation of material goods, power and achievements.
We've been thoroughly trained to believe we exist solely as a separate self among others who all believe they are separate selves and nothing more. But is there another way? How can we recover from the burden of separateness?
From the Separate Self to Creative Self
One path to recovery involves becoming more conscious of the stories we unconsciously assumed early in life and have reinforced ever since. Psychotherapy typically offers practices to help us wake up and investigate the default patterns and beliefs we now want to outgrow. But rarely does psychotherapy investigate the essence of self or the ideology of separation.
Our story of self is born from what Buddhists call the “causes and conditions” that emerge from the collective stories of our ancestors. As children the essential openness of our consciousness allows us to absorb the unconscious projections of our caregivers to create a reality about self and the world.
For many decades our mind generates an endless stream of thoughts and feeling states that appear to constitute the self. But these mental formations are actually only a self-reinforcing trance state. Do we ever wake up from the trance of our story about the self?
Consciousness is infinite but localized in individual finite minds where it continually manifests its creative potential. Each of us experiences this creative potential every night while dreaming. By day you’re busy being “you,” but when the curtains come down on the external stimulation of daily life, consciousness is free to dream a new self into being. As Salvador Dali said, "When we are asleep in this world we are awake in another."
"Dreams unfold in that small theater in the brain which we keep brightly lighted all night long." Robert Louis Stevenson
This theater of the imagination is a multiverse that transcends any conventions of time and space. Nowhere is the poet Walt Whitman’s claim “I contain multitudes” more true than in your dream life. In dreams your inner artist feels free to experiment with self, to celebrate its multidimensionality and many expressions of being. Every night we dream ourselves into being. Do we also dream ourselves into being every day?
While dreaming your experience of self and the world feels very real to you. Upon awakening you typically consider your dream experience was a only projection of mind. But could it be that “we wake from one dream into another dream," as the poet Emerson once mused? Perhaps everyday life is also a projection of mind?
During the lucid dreaming experience you become aware that you are dreaming when asleep. Can we become lucid in daily life too? Tibetan Buddhist Lojong practice (mind training) advises us to “regard all dharmas as dreams.” Our everyday reality and our self-identity may appear very solid, fixed and permanent but they are more fluid and ephemeral, like a dream, than we think. Can we wake up from the trance of everyday life and live a more fluid, fulfilling and inspiring story of the self?
When asked to contemplate the question "Who am I?" most people refer to the multitude of social roles, beliefs and qualities they've identified with their narrative about the self. But what if who you think you are is a case of mistaken identity?
Who is creating your multidimensional self? Who is the one that creates “you” in both your every day and your dream life? Now we're back to that fundamental question, “Who am I, really?”
artwork: Rudy Autio
The Awakened Life™ by Hollye Hurst. All Rights Reserved