How We Define Ourselves

“Trailing clouds of glory do we come, from God who is our home,” wrote William Wordsworth. As preverbal babies, we experience ourselves as limitlessness. At one with what we see and feel, we have no need to define ourselves. We are both nothing and everything. Then Iago imposes a sense of limitation, of something missing, which we can never quite put a finger on. We can spend an entire lifetime trying to find a satisfactory ending to the statement “I am . . .” It’s as though we have amnesia and just remembering the answer will allow us to rest. We take on labels and defend them. We resist their opposites. Assigning these labels allows us to function in the world of separate beings, but none of them really removes the fact that we have a very vague sense of who we really are, deeper than these roles we play.

Every label we adopt creates a polarity. As soon as we identify with being intelligent, we live in a universe that also contains stupidity. Being wealthy is a resistance to poverty, and power creates weakness. So a personality is not only a bundle of qualities with which we identify, it is equally a unique set of resisted traits. Often creating a “spiritual” identity for ourselves, results in us also resisting our power, authority, and darker energies. Thus our personality is “spiritual” but not translucent; fragmented rather than whole.

Try It Yourself. Would You Still Exist? 

William Wordsworth, portait by R Carruthers

You can do this exercise alone or with a friend. It can transform your relationship to your identity. Start by writing down every quality you identify with. If you are working with a friend, one partner can ask the other, “Who have you taken yourself to be?” Be exhaustive in your answer. Write everything: I’m a plumber, I’m Jewish, I’m someone who likes Italian cooking, I’m a gardener. Keep going until you cannot find any new answers to the question. It might take you an hour or more. Then go back slowly through the list and ask yourself, “If I no longer identified myself as . . .” and add one of the words you’ve written, “would I still exist?”

For some of your answers, you’ll get an immediate clear “yes.” For example, if I were no longer a plumber, would I still exist? Yes, I could go into selling life insurance. Some may be a little stickier: “If I were no longer a father, would I still exist?” You might have to carefully remember your days before you had children and ask yourself if the core of who you are now and the core of who you were then is the same. You might have to imagine what it would be like if one day you woke up and found that your entire experience of parenting was just a dream. Disorienting as it might be, would you still be here?

Some answers will be even more difficult: “I am a man.” It might take you several minutes of feeling deeper even than your gender identity to decide if you’d still exist without the gender you are used to. Some of your answers may be conceptual, like, “I am light” or “I am consciousness.” When you ask, “Would I still exist?” you may feel that this answer points to something deeper than the other labels. You can change the question to, “Would I still exist without this thought, without this concept?”

Whether you do this exercise alone or with a friend, you will need some time for it to go deep. If it does, stop and feel your own presence when you have let go of all definitions. Are you still here? Can you still feel and see and hear? Take some time to relax into knowing the face you had before you were born. 

This has been an excerpted from my book The Translucent Revolution: How People Just Like You Are Waking Up and Changing the World. Click here to purchase your own copy today.

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