Who Am I Really?

Lying in bed last night, about to drift off to sleep, my mind was flooded with fearful thoughts of my boyfriend coming home in a few months. You may at first assume you misread that first sentence, but no, I was afraid for him to come home. Even though I love and miss him tremendously. Still I was feeling terrified by the way things may change once he’s nearby again. I was afraid of how my routine would change. How much time will he be expecting us to spend together? Will I have to drive up to the city multiple times a week to see him? How often will he be staying with me? All of these unknowns prevent me from my normal mental and emotional preparations for change. I simply don’t know how my life is going to be from day to day in 2022.

Oddly enough, just eight hours later after waking up, having some coffee, and starting my workout, the thought of him not only being close by again, but even living with me, seemed like a dream come true. I couldn’t wait to share as much of my time with him as possible. I fantasized about being the very best version of myself with him by my side to motivate and inspire me. Everything I’ve been aspiring to do/be seemed more likely to happen once he is back home. The same changes that sparked fear last night, were now the very thoughts spurring me onward, giving me hope and energy.

This is not an uncommon occurrence for me. There are many times I find myself overwhelmed with a thought at night, that brings me joy the next morning. The question that always arises is, “Which one of these people is really me?” Who should I believe? The evening me or the morning me? How can one person shift so totally in the span of a day? And shift so predictably and consistently at that? It seems like everything becomes scary and negative in the evening hours, but in the morning the whole world appears brand new and enchanting. It makes me wonder if this is normal. Do other people feel this way? Is this what people mean when they say “morning person”?

In my mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that this drastic inner change is caused by my brain’s neurochemicals dwindling as the night sets in. So I’m inclined to believe that the morning version of me is more true to who I am. The evening me is depleted and out of sorts, unable to view the world accurately. However maybe it’s my morning self that is deluded. Perhaps my refreshed brain is offering me a rose colored perspective that is just as inaccurate. Should I be distrustful of both? Should I deem the middle ground between these two states the most reliable and realistic?

This confusion and uncertainty about which thoughts are “me” and which thoughts are “not me” has always been of great interest to me. Never being able to decide, I gravitate towards the Yogic perspective. None of these thoughts are actually “me.” I am not my thoughts. I am the one who watches these thoughts. I am the one who wonders which of them are me. After all, that watcher within is the one consistent aspect of my mind, the one that is ever-present and unchanging.

Now the question becomes, how can I learn to identify with the watcher, rather than the fluctuating thoughts constantly demanding my attention? How can I keep myself from getting caught in the undertow of emotion that they cause? I suppose that this is the purpose of meditation. To practice being the watcher. To train ourselves not to get swept away. To ground ourselves in the impermanent and illusory nature of existence. To cultivate trust in the fact that it is okay to allow these thoughts to pass through us without letting them force us into action.

Contemplating the different layers within has, at the very least, allowed me to let go of the urgency I feel to respond to the thoughts I have. Lyrics from one of my favorite bands explains it best: “Nothing is ever as pressing as the one who’s pressing would like you to believe.” So when I find myself franticly playing out different scenarios in my head and wondering how on Earth I’ll be able to cope with them, I remind myself of those words. I assure myself that I don’t have to make any decisions or take any action right now. I can acknowledge that sense of urgency without feeling pressured by it. I remind myself that no matter how serious a situation may seem right now, with time my perspective will surely change. It’s okay to just wait, to observe, to sit with those feelings for now. Because I know that tomorrow I will awake to a new world, a new me. And maybe she will be able to handle it. She always has.

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This Is It

Waking up. Cool morning air. Start the coffee. Hear the dripping as the hot water saturates and spills past the grounds. Feed the cat. Let the dog out. Brush your teeth. Walking back and forth, daily repetition, absent minded, heavy footed. These are the moments we rush to get through, moments we skim over and ignore. Our attention is focused elsewhere in these moments. Making to-do lists. Ruminations about the day before, the day ahead. Frustrated by monotony. Bored by actions repeated hundreds of times. Angered by the uncertainty of it all, the futility of doing something only to do it over again, and again…

Rushing back and forth between the meal I was preparing and the garbage can at the other side of the kitchen last night, I realized something: This is it. These “worthless” moments, the “wasted” time of washing, eating, using the toilet, cleaning off counters, sweeping the floor, opening and closing doors, these are the moments that make up our lives. How we spend these moments matters. Trying to rush through and gloss over these moments does not serve us. Rather, it trains us. How we perceive and live these moments becomes the way we live and perceive the rest of our lives.

Are these daily tasks obligations or are they opportunities? Are these experiences arbitrary or are they important challenges to be faced with curiosity and attention? Yoga has taught me the importance of repetition. It has taught me how to find nuance in the mundane redundancies of life. Though the different postures we assume with our bodies are limited, our experience of them is unlimited. A sequence of poses performed precisely at dawn each day will never result in the same practice twice. There are always differences, slight subtilties to take notice of if we have the patience to look for them, if we practice truly being there in our bodies from moment to moment.

It’s easy to be present in a new place or performing a new task. The mind is not clouded by expectations. It is unable to fall into auto-pilot. However, we are creatures of routine. The longer we live, the more deeply these grooves of routine become. Of course there is value in routine: efficiency, mastery, and many other wonderful things. Eventually the challenge changes from the task itself to maintaining mindful attention to said task.

We have been conditioned to view some parts of life as pleasant and other parts as meaningless, unpleasant, or simply maintenance. There is nothing enjoyable about waking up early and getting ready for work, doing the laundry, or mowing the lawn. This is the narrative that most of us recite unconsciously each and every day. But when it comes down to it, don’t these activities comprise the majority of our lives?

Enjoying life isn’t just about traveling, partying, playing, or whatever else we may label as “fun” or “meaningful” experiences. Enjoying life is something we practice in each moment. If we pay attention, there is pleasure to be found in even the most insignificant of activities. Pleasure is not derived from the experience itself, rather the attention we afford the experience.

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur to us only when we are not doing them. Once we are standing in front of the sink with our sleeves rolled up and our hands in warm water, it is really not bad at all. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have dessert, the time will be unpleasant, not worth living. That would be a pity, for every second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!

Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve found that the easiest way to be present is to get curious, to ask myself questions. The answer to these questions doesn’t really matter. What is more important is the focus my mind experiences while searching for an answer. Use the morning routine I mentioned earlier as an example. As you wake up, ask yourself: What does it feel like to be awake? How does the air feel this morning? Is it humid? Chilly? What do my sheets feel like against my skin? As you prepare your coffee, ask: What does coffee smell like? What is happening in my mind and body as I pour the grounds? Do I feel groggy, excited, calm, impatient? How are the hills and valleys of the piled up grounds different than they were yesterday?

It may be difficult to hold your interest in these kinds of mindfulness practices, especially if you’re in a bad mood. The good thing is, this disposition is also something we can take notice of, be curious about. Sometimes trying to be mindful feels like a poorly veiled attempt to force myself into a more positive headspace. This type of heavy handed energy can defeat the whole purpose, creating anxiety, frustration, and resentment, rather than patient acceptance of what is. It is important to remind ourselves of this and to constantly reconnect with our true intention: simply to notice, to observe. There is no need to judge or change how we are feeling. No need to feel upset or guilty about how we are feeling or what thoughts are coming up. Just notice, examine whatever is there with interest and equanimity. That is enough.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane

Thich Nhat Hanh
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Meditation Metaphor

Imagine the mind as a flowing river. Normally we, ourselves, are submerged in the rushing waters of our own minds. Trying desperately to keep our heads above the current. We are swept along with every passing thought. Unable to separate ourselves. Meditation is a chance to step out of that raging river.

When we sit down to meditate, we have stepped onto the bank of the river. As we nestle in, the sunlight begins to dry our dewy skin. We align our backs with the trunk of a sturdy tree. We imagine our own roots sprouting from the sits bones, anchoring us. Finally finding solid ground after being carried by the cold rapids for so long.

As we watch the river in front of us, we notice leaves falling from the tree and landing on the water’s surface. These are our thoughts. Fragile and fleeting, the river carries them off quickly. As we meditate, our job is not to stop these leaves from falling, nor is it to catch them or collect them from the water. We simply observe them. We watch them land on the water, floating gracefully for a few moments before the current carries them out of sight. We don’t need to identify the leaf or discover why it fell. We don’t need to stop the flowing waters. Just watch. Just breathe. Feel your new roots grounding you, anchoring you in place. Secure as we watch the river of the mind and it’s many thoughts.

This is one way to visualize meditation. It isn’t about control. We can never hope to control our minds. Meditation is about observing. We are watching ourselves. Noticing what it feels like to exist. Maybe as we watch, realizing some of our own patterns, and maybe not. Just giving ourselves permission to sit on the bank for awhile. To just breathe, just watch, just be. It may even be helpful to visualize yourself at the side of a river as you meditate. Whenever you notice yourself getting tangled in thought, bring your mind back to the image of the water. Imagine the thought falling as a leaf into the river, and watch it go. We are not the leaves of thought. We are not the swift waters of the mind. We are the one who watches.

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You Are Not Your Thoughts

Since I was in high school or maybe even younger, I developed a somewhat strange way of thinking that was comforting. A duality seemed to exist in me at will, and I would imagine my physical body as a cute helpless animal that my mind had to care for. It allowed me to feel compassion for myself. I had the tendency to be quite critical and cruel to myself, but thinking in this way helped me to be kinder and more loving when I was feeling devastated or overwhelmed.

More recently, however, a third part of me has begun to emerge in this strange mental play as well. The seed of this idea was planted by something I read once. I have no idea where, but I’m certain I did not come up with it. As you may have already guessed by the title of this post, the idea was you are not your thoughts. Even while we are thinking, there is somehow also a separate awareness of those thoughts. We aren’t those thoughts, we are the observers of our thoughts. I like to image this is what in yoga is often referred to as the higher self.

This realization has completely transformed the way I see myself. I see my consciousness as something almost apart from and deeper than both my mind and body. This view gives me space from my experiences. It’s as if my consciousness exists outside of my physical body. This physical body also affects the way my conscious is able to manifest mentally. The chemicals that control the way my brain is able to function are affected by so many different factors from my genetics to the things I do and experience each day. But I am not my anxiety. I am not my anger or my doubt or my shame. I am able to observe my body and mind’s experience of these things now from a distance with curiosity and compassion. This space keeps me from getting caught in a torrent of negative thoughts and overwhelming emotions. I just observe in stillness and let it settle. And it will always settle if you don’t keep stirring it up.

Maybe this idea is new to some of you. If so, I hope that you play with it in your own lives. I am still learning to utilize this mindfulness every day, but it has helped me more than I could have imagined. My wish is that by sharing what I’ve learned in a new way, it may also help others.

Observe in stillness.