Thursday, October 15, 2009

Who I Am

Currently, I'm reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I've always been curious about books that people claim have changed their lives. And, as you may remember, Oprah was a huge follower of Tolle several years ago. So I decided to see what it was all about.

I am generally a bit skeptical of anything overly spiritual. Although I consider myself spiritual in a sense, I am atheist. And, having studied the hard sciences (biology major) and anthropology in college, I prefer to find physical or rational explanations. That said, I do believe that individuals can affect the quality of their experience in life through thought. And I am always open to hearing how another human has made sense of life, how their thoughts shape their experience. I recognize how my range of thoughts are limited by my individual experience, and I like learning new ways of thinking that I would never have conceived of on my own.

So in this spirit, I started reading A New Earth. And what I found was something fascinating...about me.

First, for those of you who haven't read Tolle, I'll do my best to summarize his ideas as I understand them thus far (I haven't finished the book yet).

Tolle says that a person is comprised of an illusory self which he calls the "ego", and the true self, or "consciousness," which is the presence within you who is hearing the thoughts of the ego. The ego is the speaker who we often think of as "I". But, he asserts that "I" is an illusion because it is given definition through human constructs (such as words). He says, "the greatest miracle is the experiencing of your essential self as prior to any words, thoughts, mental labels, and images. For this to happen you need to disentangle your sense of I, of Beingness, from all the things it has become mixed up with, that is to say, identified with." (A New Earth, page 26.)

This makes sense to me. I have been aware that there is a part of me who can hear myself thinking, that there is indeed a presence separate from and beyond the thoughts in my mind. A presence that doesn't think, it is just aware, it just "is." So, this is my true self listening to my ego. I just didn't define the two so clearly as the "ego" and my "consciousness."

What has amazed me while reading is my realization that I was fully aware of my true self from a very young age.

I remember doing a worksheet in 3rd grade (I was 8) about self identity. We had to answer questions like "my favorite food is...," "my favorite color is...," and "I'm really good at...." It is my first memory of defining my self, comparing myself to others and seeing how I am different. It was my first organized effort to figure out who I am. And I remember having a strong sense of "knowing" things that I couldn't put into words. Clearly, my intuiting function was already well developed. For example, I knew which group of friends the new girl would join upon my first interaction with her. I knew how to change my behavior to fit in with different "types". I had clear visions of how everyone in my world was connected-- I saw the structure of the interrelationships. Some of this was the development of Tolle's ego-- defining myself and the world with words and labels. But I also "knew" that my true self wasn't definable, it just was. And a few years later, that awareness became very strong.

When I was about 14 or 15, I used to wander off into the woods. I had a favorite boulder where I would sit and think. Sometimes I brought a journal. Sometimes I was working through a particular issue in my life (the usual teen situations). And sometimes I just sat to "commune with life" (as I called it then). The forest was filled with white birch trees which I loved, and I would sit and feel like I was one with them. Though my rational mind thought I was a bit bonkers at the time, I was aware of a joy that is beyond description. It was the start of my Life is Beautiful motto. I chose not to analyze it, because it was a source of strength that I knew, even then, was uncommon.

So when I read something in Tolle's book, tears came to my eyes. I felt a sense of validation that I've never felt before. He talks about the "influx of joy" and "inner peace" that fills you when you first experience the separation of the ego self (your thoughts and the content of your mind) from the simple awareness of being. Thoughts are constructs that limit our perceptions. Awareness is not limiting. It just is. This experience "happens in such a subtle way that [people] hardly notice it." (A New Earth, page 30.) This same subtle joy and peace is what came upon me in that forest. The joy of Being can only be felt "when you get out of your head. Being must be felt. It can't be thought." (A New Earth, page 40.)

How is this a strength? I have been told by several people through the years that I have a strength which they admire. In high school, my friends found my optimism curious. They joked about it, but I knew they also wished for the peace that I often felt. In college, my best friend told me I had an amazing "spiritual strength", which I chuckled at because I was on the verge of leaving my faith and embracing atheism. I hadn't considered my way of thinking a strength. To me, it was just the way life is. Just truth, as I saw it. Rational and realistic, not spiritual or some extraordinary ability to see through rosy glasses. And I didn't see myself as "stronger" than anyone else (I still don't.) I've got plenty of weaknesses. So what exactly is my "strength"?

Again, my heart stopped as I read Tolle's discussion on happiness. He says, "the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is." (A new Earth, page 96.) And furthermore, he says, "Don't seek happiness. If you seek it, you won't find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it. Unhappiness covers up your natural state of well-being and inner peace, the source of true happiness." (A New Earth, page 96.)

Yes! He has put into words something that I've "known" for all these years, but was unable to explain to others. We all have this ability to become aware of our true essence, by becoming aware of the presence behind our thoughts and emotions. And when we are aware of it, we can't help but sense a deep peace and happiness. Because happiness is our natural state of being, what "is" when we strip away all the thoughts and constructs that we have accumulated through thinking (the ego's function). This was the source of my "strength." I knew how to be free from unhappiness.

There was another reason tears came to my eyes while reading. I realized that at some time through the years I have woefully forgotten to separate my self from my ego. I have fallen into the ego's trap. I have been allowing my thoughts and emotions to define what is, instead of just "being". And as a result, I have caused pain, for myself and others.

So thank you, Eckhart Tolle, for skillfully using words to express what I could not. And for reminding me of who I am.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Basket Weaver

Sometimes I wonder who is living my life. The life I always envisioned. I hope that she is enjoying it. It was a lovely picture.

I've been challenged with a different life. And sometimes, like today, I feel lost. Not sure what my life should look like. Not sure which colors and strokes I should, or could, be applying to the canvas. All I know is that I don’t know.

I think of the things I would have done differently. But that's not valuable in the now. As Al Turtle says, "Guilt is time travel. It is putting today's wisdom into yesterday's event-- a time at which you only had yesterday's wisdom." I don't regret any of my choices because I know that I've always used the wisdom that was available to me in each moment.

But lately, I find that I don’t trust that I have any wisdom. I feel like a newborn. My eyes have been opened to a new world. One that was unknown to my past self. So nothing I've learned is useful in this new place. I suppose knowing that I don't know is a start. I am open to anything now. Is this an awakening? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's just my self/ego denying my failings, hiding in some esoteric idea about rebirth.

Sometimes I wonder if my tendency to think and explore ideas is a curse. I tried to have a career in which I helped others. Made life a bit sunnier or easier for others. But even as a student, I learned that I had few skills of practical value. During my apprenticeship my mentor said, "Aine, you're a scholar. But, keep your hands off the clients!"

Sometimes I wish I were a basket weaver. I could sit in the sunshine and create something useful, something that people needed and wanted. Life could be simple. I would be happy.

But I'm cursed with this tendency to think and explore ideas. Which I'm not even very good at. I rarely create my own ideas. I just enjoy exploring the genius of others. Alone.

I've been ignored or even ridiculed by all of my loved ones for my passions. But I don't blame them, my passions are all useless, impractical.

Al Turtle also said, "All humans are geniuses (at something.) Look for it."

I am, Al. I'm still looking.

Perhaps my genius is my ability to hope.

But, it's a curse,too. It makes me feel alone. It's impractical, unpopular, and just plain weird, as I've been told again and again. But that's the one thing I'll never give up.

If only I could weave baskets out of it...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Just a Wee Rant (or What's Buggin' Aine?)

A few days ago while browsing Yahoo, I (despite my better judgement) clicked on an article about Jon Gosselin. He probably needs no introduction, but for any fellow hermits, he's the wayward husband from reality TV's "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." In the article, a psychologist is quoted saying that Jon's behavior is due to the fact that he was married too young (he was 22), and so he never had an opportunity to sow his oats.

Whoa! Stop. Back up. Did he just say that?

My first thought was: so, 22 is now considered too young to get married, eh? For most of the past 100 years the average age of marriage ranged from 22 to 24 (for men in the USA). Hmmm.

Even so, maybe Jon Gosselin was too immature to use good judgement or make such a big decision (to get married). After all, I know that some human brains are not developmentally mature until 25. That is, they are incapable of processing higher level cognitive functions such as abstract thought, planning, or predicting consequences. This is why we provide parenting and parental guidance through the teen years. To ensure the survival of our genes, we protect our children until they develop all the skills required to make good decisions. Neuroscience tells us that this brain function doesn't reach full maturity until our early to mid-twenties. So, okay-- maybe Jon Gosselin wasn't developmentally able to make a good decision in choosing a life partner at 22.

And now that he is fully adult, he has chosen to not "own" his past decisions. That's his choice. It simply displays his character.

So, why did this article bother me?

Because a professional psychologist just provided an excuse for poor judgement. Perhaps even normalized it.

I suppose, following this thinking, that I should allow my seven year-old to sing songs about poop in her "outdoor voice" in a restaurant. After all, a seven year-old brain is incapable of impulse control, right?

So, I was bothered because this professional therapist validated poor judgement, effectively bypassing the issue of choice and accountability. Shouldn't a professional psychologist be modeling/teaching a healthier approach to situations? I'm not suggesting that he should've judged Jon's behavior based on some moral code, but he could have used the opportunity to discuss choice, accountability, character, and growth.

And this isn't the first professional counselor who has displayed such a lack of professionalism. I know of a situation where a psychologist told a married man (not a client) that it was okay to be unfaithful, that "it's" called DWM-- dating while married. And encouraged this choice as a method of getting needs met. Yikes!!

Why are people becoming so quick to ignore accountability and responsibility? Where are the role models for good choices?

Sorry. Rant over. As you were....