Recently I discovered a poem by William Stafford that caught my attention. What stuck out to me was the last stanza, which says:
"Who are you really, wanderer?"
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
"Maybe I'm a king."
I like it because it touches a certain emotional chord in me with its drama and melancholy. I also believe that it raises a question that everyone asks about themselves at one time or another, "Who am I really?"
Has anyone sufficiently answered that question? I think a few people have come close. I don't pretend to be able to give a comprehensive answer to it that will not leave some doubt, but perhaps a little discussion can shed some light on it. I think it is a question that we all have to answer for ourselves at some point. We are the only ones who can answer that question fully because we are the only ones who can experience the answer to it.
Most people try to answer the question with external positions and titles. I'm Bill Jones, I'm an accountant, I'm a father, I'm a Type-A personality, I'm a geek, I'm a Taurus, etc. The problem with answering the question of "Who are you really?" with those kinds of things is that if you strip them all away, you do not cease to exist. You could forget your name, lost your job, change your social status, and forget your birthday, and you will still be you.
I believe that we are eternal beings. We are experiencing this body and this life right now because at some level we chose to experience it. I think that our eternal selves exist before we enter this world through birth, and after we leave it through death. I also believe that we choose--before we begin life on earth--when and where we will begin our lives. We choose it for the experience that we want to have.
Now, I'm not asking you to believe that as well. I simply believe it because I think it is empowering. I don't have to accept anything as being my "lot in life" because I am the chooser. But of course some people want to believe that their world was forced upon them, that they are the unwitting and unwilling victims of life. I feel it is not my place to try and detach them from the beliefs they hold so strongly if they want to remain attached. So I will leave it at that.
Another view of it (kind of existentialist actually) that does not actually conflict with what I said above is the idea that we are all part of the universal consciousness. We're all part of the energy field of the universe, and we live our lives expressing the universe, God if you will, and at the same time experiencing it. We create our lives around us in order to experience our lives from our perspective.
Enlightenment, therefore, seems to be the state of experiencing our lives from our perspective, and at the same time experiencing them from the universe's perspective. Easier said than done, perhaps. I don't think that I want to go too deeply into that here, because it is almost something that I feel is beyond my power to explain or describe.
What I would like to discuss, however, is a little bit about what we are not. We think thoughts, but we are not the thoughts. Thoughts are flitting, brief flashes upon a screen. There one moment and gone the next. This is not to say that they have no impact, because they do. We tend to repeat our thoughts over and over, and the thoughts we repeat become ingrained in our behavior and our emotions. But nevertheless, our thoughts are temporal and temporary. You can stop thinking without ceasing to exist. You can stop thinking and still be aware of your own existance.
We feel emotions, but we are not defined by them on any but a superficial level. Emotions are ruled by opposites, paradoxes, and extremes. We can only feel pleasure because we can also feel pain. We can only feel sad because we can feel happy. If we had nothing to compare sadness to, it would not exist. You feel sad one day, but it does not mean you are a sad person. Nor does feeling peace one day mean you are a peaceful person. This is because emotions, though powerful and important, are not your being.
You can stop feeling, reach a place of numbness, or be drugged out of your mind, and yet you can still be aware of your existance. You can--through meditation--reach a place of inner stillness and peace like a calm, shimmering lake. And yet you still exist.
You are not your body. If you were your body, then you would act on instinct all the time. We all have instincts, but we also have the capacity to override them. They are powerful, so many times we do not override them (and indeed it may, for the most part, be silly to try to override them... explorations for a later article), but we have the ability.
Your mind, emotions, and body are all bound in this dimension. We are affected by time and by environment. However there is a part of us that exists beyond these things. What we truly are--on an eternal and transcendant level--is awareness and consciousness. We are aware of all the things that happen to us on this earth. Body, mind, emotions, we are aware of them all.
If our thoughts and emotions are clouds, we are the sky, peacefully and unpurturbedly aware of the passing clouds. Most of us, however, have identified ourselves with the clouds and not the sky. We think we are the turbulent, roiling storms, crackling with unpredictable thoughts, uncontrolled (or barely controlled, or over controlled) emotions. It is because of this identification with mind and emotions that we are not at peace. We feel that peace is something to be found, hunted down and obtained. But we have it already. We are it. All we need to do is let ourselves become aware of what lies beyond thought and emotion.
One simple way to do this is to say to yourself, whenever you feel some strong emotion or thought, "This is a cloud, and not the sky." Then ask yourself how the sky feels about the cloud. The answer should always be that the sky is aware of the cloud, but indifferent to it. The sky is at peace, regardless of the clouds. When you really do this process, and really focus your attention on it for a moment in the middle of some emotion or thought, it will create peace in that moment, bring you closer to the perspective of the universe, and let you respond to the situation in a way that is both logical and edifying to yourself and the others (if any) involved.
Become aware of the sky.