We were running a workshop for future teachers of mindfulness. When asked about their intentions one of them said: “I want mindfulness to help people to find their authentic selves, to get in touch with who they really are.” Hmmm. So, this raises the question, what is the self, let alone our authentic self? Not to mention, how do you find it? Questions that have been debated by philosophers, psychologists, and theologians throughout the ages.
Mindfulness actually uses meditation to examine the phenomena of experience (e.g. body, thoughts, emotions and feeling tone -the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral charge of an experience) rather than debating issues related to the “self”, authentic or otherwise. Mindfulness teaches us how too much “selfing” leads to fixed identities, that result in suffering if we hold on to them vigorously. It is easy for us to take our “selves” too seriously, getting stuck in self-importance that either emphasizes how bad we think we are or how great. Neither extreme is particularly helpful.
In fact, we would argue that a main principle underlying all mindfulness teachings is that rigid attachment to who you believe yourself to be and the stories you tell about yourself are limiting and are the root cause of many of our problems. So, we would rather talk about self as a “process”, or as mindfulness scholar Andrew Olendzki has said, “self as verb”, which allows us to be more open to possibility when we don’t see ourselves as unchanging. For example, if one sees themselves as “a depressive” or as “a sick person” or “incompetent” or “a failure” then, we are fixed or static and as in the words of British blues musician, John Mayall, “I can’t give the best, unless I’ve got room to move.” In this case, what we mean is that when we are tightly bound to who we believe ourselves to be or to how we think things “should” be, we’re stuck in a place that narrows options and responsiveness.
When we are able to have a less judgmental, immersive stance in who “I am” this may enable us to be gentler and kinder with respect to what arises and our subsequent behaviors.
When we are able to have a less judgmental, immersive stance in who “I am” this may enable us to be gentler and kinder with respect to what arises and our subsequent behaviors. Bringing awareness and accountability to how we treat ourselves without so much self-recrimination makes space for less self-absorption and more compassion for others. If we are all “process” then you really are just like me, and I am just like you. There is then, so little separation between us. And, if I can stop blaming myself, hopefully, I can stop blaming you, particularly when you cut me off in traffic. I can be open to the possibility that you are not a malicious jerk but, just like me, self-absorbed at times or preoccupied or in a hurry. I can be gentler, and kinder to both of us and perhaps bring empathy and concern for the suffering of others who are beyond my social circle.
Now, you may be wondering at all these references to myself, yourself, the self, and I when we are calling for a more flexible, fluid sense of who we are. Let us not forget that “the self” can be viewed as a construct and that it can be seen as a necessary heuristic device—a means to communicate, interact and navigate our way in the world. It serves a function, providing the structure of “me.” Without it, we would be unable to plan, set goals or to imagine a future we might work toward. If we locate ourselves completely as a process, always in the moment, as neuroscientist Norm Farb has said, our lives would be chaotic.
The bottom line is that we can all be kinder and more compassionate if we don’t get too attached to our sense of “self,” who we believe ourselves to be. After all, we really are just bags of cells and fluid ambulating on this earth for the briefest moment in time.
A Meditation for Decentering Your Self: “It’s Not About Me”
Taking a step back from a fixed view of self, or decentering, can help us to get less caught up in believing our ideas about who we think we and others are. We can start to see these as a constructed view, rather than the truth. The message really is, “don’t believe everything you think.” In this way, we have more options for dealing with whatever life brings.
- Take a moment and settle yourself, closing your eyes and bringing the sensations of breathing wherever most prevalent for you, into the foreground.
- After a few minutes, bringing to mind a recent time when you were angry with or felt hurt by someone (thinking of something not too highly charged). Who was with you? What happened? What did you think?
- Notice the immediate thoughts that pop into your head. Check in and see are they personalized – he or she did that to me or how could they do that? Check now and see if there are blaming or labeling thoughts – what a….. or it’s all his or her fault!
- Now check in with how this is all showing up in the body. Is there bracing or tightness? What’s here? Explore this for a few moments and then bring attention back to the physical sensations of breathing.
- Lastly, bring attention to the entire body around the breath, widening and opening attention for a few minutes. And then contemplating about this situation and person bring to mind what else might have been going on with that person? See how many possibilities you can come up with? What might they have been feeling or experiencing? How much of what happened actually had anything to do with you?
- Now opening your eyes, write down all the possibilities that came to mind. What do you feel now? What emotions? And what do you feel in the body?
Practice this exercise every time you feel irritated, hurt, or annoyed for the next few weeks and see what you discover. How many of your reactions really need to be taken up as “me” and how many can you let go of and see that fellow human being as just like you.