Who are you, really? If I ask you who you are, most people will respond by saying what they do for a living, where they live or say something like “I’m Sam’s father” or “Jessica’s partner.” These are all perfectly good answers, but what they have in common is they identify you with places, activities or relationships that are all outside of you as an individual. So we might want to ask, “Who are you inside?”
We often feel that who we have to be in public, in front of other people or when we’re doing a job, involves living up to other people’s expectations of us, of being who they think we are or should be. We might think of this social self as an accommodative, compliant or even a false self, to use a term made famous by British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971).
If we live in a society where we feel that our natural feelings, opinions, creativity or sexuality are disapproved of or are potentially the source of ridicule, shame or abuse, we may feel we need to hide our true self, and keep it hidden inside of us. What we keep hidden may be something positive and precious, like the love of a kind of music that none of our peers are into, or it may be a shameful secret that we don’t want anyone to know, like having been sexually abused by a parent. In either case, just by virtue of being kept hidden away, of being buried deep inside, it comes to be the thing we think of as defining who we really are, the thing I am that nobody sees.
It may be as simple as having thoughts that I keep entirely to myself and never say out loud to anyone. Or my whole identity can be organized around keeping hidden something that feels absolutely essential to who I am, as when I am closeted about my sexuality. When we think of ourselves this way – as having a surface, public self and private inner self, we are creating a vertical model of the self. This way of thinking about ourselves is so common and natural it may be hard to imagine an alternative, but our meditation practice can introduce us to an alternative horizontal picture of our self, or rather our selves.
If we sit with a simple open focused attention, watching, feeling, experiencing whatever comes up, it is as if we see in the mirror of our awareness a whole succession of what a contemporary psychoanalyst, Philip Bromberg (1931-2020), called “self states.” Moment by moment, feelings and thoughts pass by in no particular order, displaying the whole variety of ways “I” exists to “myself” – as confident, as anxious, as calm, as worried about what others’ think, as I remember being as a child, as I imagine myself in the future.
All these states proceed one after the other, in no particular order, and mostly importantly not arranged in any hierarchy. Each one is the “me” of that moment, to be followed by what may be a completely different “me” the next. Sometimes it feels like an unchanging “me” is having a succession of thoughts, then a different “me” appears, seeming unconnected to the first. Depending on our personality style, we may automatically and unconsciously assemble all the various “mes” in the feeling of a single identity, or we may allow them to remain mysterious and distinct from one another.
What is crucial about this horizontal picture is that there is no basis for any one self to be truer than another. One part of myself, a calm and serene self state, may not at all like it when an angry self state inexplicably shows up. The calm state may then use meditation to try to extirpate its rival, a particular brand of self-hate that often gets called spirituality. The more compassionate outcome of our practice should be to allow all our self states to co-exist, to allow each of them a place at the table, so to speak, since each of them arises from a genuine, if sometimes painful part of our past experience.
But whether we take a horizontal or vertical perspective, we still may be equating the self with the mind, with something taking place between our ears. Where is the body in this picture? What is the relation of my self to my body? Is my self in my body? Is my self identical with or separate from my body?
Throughout history there have been those for whom the very concept of spirituality was grounded in the possibility of separating the spirit from the body, forgetting, perhaps, the root of “spirit” in the body’s “breath.” Can there be a breath, a spirit without a breathing body? Yes, they promised, the spirit can be separated from its bodily container, be purified of its bodily needs and vulnerabilities, exist beyond the death of the body, continuing into another life through cycles of reincarnation or in transcendent heavenly (or if you’re not careful) hellish realms.
There have been those who teach us, “You are not your body, you are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings, not your sensations…,” seeking to identify the true self with a sort of pure awareness emptied of its contents. But in my particular Zen tradition, at least, we see the body as the perfect expression of the dharma and view the mind as uncontaminated by its contents. Our most fundamental realizations of impermanence and interdependence are continuously displayed by the body as it changes, as it ages, by its vulnerability to conditions of heat and cold, its need for food and drink, not to speak of our social interdependent needs for nurture, community and love.
When Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) spoke of the identity of practice and realization, the body, seated in zazen, was not just the vehicle for our realization, not a part of a means we employ to achieve enlightenment, but the ongoing expression of that realization, the way we performatively are Buddhas. For Dogen, the activity of zazen is the expression of our true self. Not because it is bringing forth our true self from deep inside, but because in sitting we are enacting the moment-to-moment reality of emptiness. Everything we do, everything we are, can’t help but also enact that reality. One might say that everything we do is the perfect expression of who we are in that moment. The action is a true picture of the soul. Nothing is hidden. It’s all come to this.
The self as it is, is comprised of multiple shifting self states, co-created by its world and its relations, is already, just as is the body, an ongoing expression of the dharma, of the joint realities of impermanence and interdependence. We do not have to discover a true self somewhere deep inside. Our true self has been hiding in plain sight all along. It is nothing but our ordinary self experienced from the perspective of emptiness.
Nothing needs to change, but that insight changes everything.