A man walks into a meeting. A woman greets him.
“Good morning, I’m a 2007 Lexus. And this is our executive vice president, 1980 Restored Mustang.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m a 2012 Jaguar.”
“Have you met my assistant, 2009 Ford Focus and our office manager, Rides-the-Bus?”
Silly, right? You might shudder at the thought of identifying a person with their mode of transportation. But, we misidentify each other just as seriously every day.
We identify ourselves with “I am” but then link it to some temporal feature or accident of birth. When you see someone, it’s common to identify that person with “He is” or “She is” by a feature:
- young, old
- fat, skinny
- rich, poor
- black, white,
- African, Korean, American
- homeowner or homeless.
But, in no way, do these features begin to capture the essence of that person. Instead, you are seeing something as trivial as a mode of transportation. Or, it’s as if you’re mixing up the person with their choice of clothes today.
And, when we focus on what makes us different from others, we are setting ourselves up for conflict, disappointment or a feeling of separateness. If you put your antenna up, you can feel yourself start to bristle. It’s this separateness that is needed to start an argument, continue a conflict, or to feel envy, loneliness or resentment.
Losing My Labels
I learned this personally over a few years, when one by one, I lost the labels that I’d used to prop up my self-esteem.
After a divorce, I was no longer a wife. With no kids at home, I didn’t feel like a mother. I distanced myself from my family so I wasn’t much of a daughter or sister then either.
I quit my job as an engineer. As I tossed aside that job title, my finances also crashed. I went from being a homeowner and landlord, to a debtor with no place to call home. I had been one that helped the kids financially, picked up the tab at dinner, or bought the unexpected gift. Suddenly, I was unable to do any of that. I was staying for weeks or months in the spare bedroom or on the extra couch.
In my late 40’s, I’d also giving up any claims to being a sexy siren. (Actually, I never claimed that role, but got there a bit later …but that’s another book!)
During this period of losing my outward identity, I went to Ghana. There I found people that had less than I did. I had an American passport, the ability to get a travel visa easily, could read and write, had a college education, and a multitude of opportunities. There, I made friends who at age 16 had not yet learned to read, who had no parents, no birth certificate, no passport, no money in the bank and no job prospects. With an estimated unemployment rate of 70 percent, I imagined people would be sulking and downtrodden, bemoaning their fate.
And yet, they had a presence about them.
Those of us that have invested our identities in our achievements and our stuff, spend a lot of time fearing the loss of it. My friends in Ghana impressed me with a groundedness, and a sense of being satisfied and content, no matter what. This was a stark contrast to myself, and what I knew as normal behavior. Where we Americans had a sense of fragility, irritability and oversensitivity, they had a sense of contentment, strength and joy.
I felt the power of their presence as a profound healing impact. Having dropped so many labels, myself, I was feeling free but teetering ungrounded. But the more I was around them, the more I appreciated this outlook. And I realized that I could have this powerful healing impact on others …and that it was totally unrelated to my bank account, my job title, or family.
“The identity you think you are, does not exist.”
- Hugh Prather
And at that point in time, when I’d dropped those labels,
so many miracles happened. Family relationships that I’d been trying to wrestle into my assigned world view, suddenly ironed themselves out. When I didn’t have money to spend, others stepped forward and developed new bonds with each other. When I needed a place to live, friends and family allowed me in. I showed up and was able to pitch in. I babysat, drove, cooked and counseled. None of this depended on my bank account or job status.
Ego was and is probably one of my biggest challenges. When I lost my financial and professional prowess, I was humble. Without money or a place to live, I had to be humble. That was a blessing and a lesson long overdue: one that I have to review, again and again.
Not attaching to an outer view of yourself allows you to move freely and flow smoothly through life’s ups and downs, learning to cry less and laugh more!
Teaching in South Korea in 2010, I learned that the suicide rate was skyrocketing. Some parents tell children: “There are too many of us. You have to compete.” And many parents measure their child’s worth with their test scores. Children are pushed to study longer and score higher, at all costs. Some stressed-out students jump to their deaths when they do poorly on tests or imagine that they might.
Professionals there, as elsewhere in the world, often strongly identify themselves with their jobs and their status. And as the economy waivered, friends who lost their jobs, dropped out of communication …unable or unwilling to be in contact if their finances or status were not up to their expectations. They attached their identities to their positions, and when the economy crashed, so did they.
Identifying the value of yourself with your achievements, your scores or your positions is risky. When someone misidentifies themselves as a ‘failure’, depression and suicide are associated risks.
If you find yourself saying, “I’m a failure,” you’re a victim of your own identity theft.
Get a Good View of Life’s Ups and Downs
In my twenties and thirties, things came easily to me. University degree, marriage, kids, jobs and houses. But as life often does, what is given can also be taken away. And most people experience these ups and downs. If you attach your identity and your happiness to these things, you’ll be disappointed and in shock if and when they are gone.
Imagine yourself as a tiny speck on a bicycle tire. If you position yourself on the outside of the bicycle tire, you’ll sail through times of sunny blue sky, then suddenly be flung through mud and thorns and rocks. But if instead, you move to the center of the wheel, you’ll be just fine.
Growing up we had a merry-go-round on the playground. You could hold on to the bars on the outside edge and run and get it going pretty fast. It would take all your speed and strength to hop on and hold on. But if you could crawl to the center, you could sit peacefully, smiling, watching the world go by.
Knowing that you are not simply your labels puts you in the peaceful center.
Take a Step Back: Mid-Day Adjustments
Even if you have a clear identity for yourself at the beginning of the day, it’s common to lose it as you go through the day.
- “I got so caught up in my work, I lost track of time.”
- “I was so into this project, I forgot to eat.”
- “I’m in such a panic about getting everything done, I worked until 2 am!”
When I feel myself getting all wound up about something, I notice the feeling first. Then, I know I need to take a step back and get a new perspective.
Your Life vs Your Life Story
Eckhart Tolle says it succinctly. “Don’t confuse your life with your life story.” Your life is the unchanging “I am”. Your life story is the series of ups and downs, the saga that unfolds over time. Sure you can describe yourself, but don’t attach to any of that description of those temporary features.
My favorite mantra is one I learned in Sahaja Meditation:
“I am not this body, these thoughts or this day.”
This reminds me not to attach my identity to the current drama unfolding, the story.
See yourself as the movie viewer holding the popcorn, gasping, crying and chuckling as the story twists and turns. On the screen, the title appears, “My Life: The Romantic Comedy.” Appreciate the richness of the story, but don’t attach yourself to it. When that episode is over, you are unscathed. Life is more fun from this perspective.
The better way to complete “I am” is something you can capture in your own words. For me, when I start to feel separate, I think, “I am more like you than unlike you. I am connected to you. I am part of you. You are part of me. We are overlapping souls.”
And further, I know that I am connected to those that went before me and those that will follow. So, “I am connected to my father. He is connected to me. I am part of him. He is part of me.” I am trying to life my life as best as I can. And so are you. And so is she.
That means, “I am” is unchanging. Nothing can hurt me. What’s important about my dad lives on. What’s important about me also will live on. Thus, “I am one with all. I am eternal.”
Thus, simply “I am.” = “We are.”
Understanding the difference between your life and your life story allows you to weather the storms. You can sigh and relax with that amused chuckle, knowing that any challenge is certainly a blessing in disguise.
“Transform loss and change into gift and opportunity.”
- Shakti Gawain
How Meditation Helps
Our most serious struggles happen internally. All the various roles we have taken on argue their sides of the story. But when we take a few minutes to just sit, the voices have their say but then within a short time, it becomes clear that there’s no one to argue with.
When I get to this “I am, We are” state, things quiet down nicely. I laugh as I imagine something like a global kindergarten holding hands in a circle!
In this state, I can see myself as I would see a good friend or a newborn baby. I dismiss the fears and worries, and see a person that is a stunning, gift of creation that is not limited by any temporary role or situation. The world is full of possibilities and fun awaits!
- Introducing Yourself
Notice how you introduce yourself in business, school and social situations. What did you say? What did the other person say? How did you feel?
- Visualize a New Introduction
Imagine meeting someone in the future in these settings. Before you say anything, remind yourself, “I am more like you than different. I am part of you and you are part of me.” “We are overlapping souls.” Use these words or your own.
- Quick Adjustment
If you notice that you have stopped taking care of your body, are berating yourself or feel tension building, stop. Develop a quick ritual to adjust your perspective: a few minutes looking out the window, a walk and an affirmation will do the trick. “I am not this body, these thoughts or this day. I am …bigger, one with everything.”
- Edit out ‘failure’
Do you ever hear yourself saying, “I’m a failure.” Edit out this red flag for misidentification. Find the humor and the good twists of fate that have come out of any perceived shortcomings, by appreciating your uniqueness.
- Watch from a distance
When you hear the ranting in your head, criticizing and finding shortcomings, use the image of watching a movie of your life story. Lighten up and enjoy the show.
“I am not
or this day.”
- Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi