One of the main characteristics of a life of sleep is that we are totally identified with being a “Me.” Starting with our name, our history, our self-images and identities, we use each one of these things to solidify the sense that we are living in our little subjective sphere. We experience ourselves as “special”—not in the normal sense of being distinguished or exceptional, but in the sense that we feel unique and subtly significant. Interestingly,
our feeling of specialness is not just from having positive qualities; we can even use our suffering to make us feel unique and special. Yet not needing to be special, not needing to be any particular way, is what it means to be free—free to experience our natural being, our most authentic self.For example, we all have images of ourselves that we unconsciously carry with us throughout our waking hours. Our self-images are the conceptions or pictures of how we see ourselves. We can have the self-image of being nice, or competent, or deep; or we could have a negative self-image—seeing ourselves as weak, or stupid, or worthless. Usually we try to focus on our positive self-images, and we often try to shape our external life to portray ourselves in the most favorable way. We live out of the vanity of trying to look a particular way, mostly to gain the approval of those whose opinion is most important to us. Whether it’s our clothes, our hair, our body—our radar for approval is constantly running, mostly unconsciously. This is true even with the car we drive; whether it’s a Cadillac or a hybrid or a pick-up truck, when we sit behind the wheel, it defines who we are to ourselves and to others, and we are usually totally identified with that image.
Closely related to our self-images are our identities—how we define ourselves according to the roles we play, such as mother, businessman, meditator, athlete, and so on. The identities we assume don’t have to make sense. For example, even though I’ve been severely limited in my physical activities for over twenty years due to a chronic immune system condition, I still see myself as an athlete. Actually it doesn’t really matter if our identities make sense; what matters is how attached to them we are in our need to define ourselves.
Both our self-images and our identities become part and parcel of the stories we weave about ourselves. Almost always these stories are skewed versions of the truth concerning who we are—our history, our victimhood, why we’re angry, and on and on. We are caught in a story when we tell ourselves, “I’m worthless,” or “I’m depressed,” or “People should appreciate me.” We’re particularly caught when we say, “I’m this way because…,” and then assign blame to others such as our parents or to something that happened to us. We can also know we’re wrapped up in one of our many stories if we have the thought “I’m the kind of person who…,” or “I’m not the kind of person who….” For example, “I’m the kind of person who has to be alone.” Or, “I’m not the kind of person who can be disciplined.” The point is, most of our stories are self-deceptions, in that they are partially manufactured versions of the truth—truths we adopt in order to feel a particular way. But living out of stories prevents us from living more genuinely.
Perhaps the most pivotal story we tell ourselves is the deep-seated illusion that we are one single, permanent self. Yet simple observation would show us that we are really a collection of many “Me’s,” or personas. Which “Me” predominates depends on which self-image or identity we’re believing in, and also on what beliefs we’re holding to in the moment. A simple example is how the mood we’re in determines how we see things—if we’re in a good mood, other people may seem fine to us, whereas if our mood turns sour, the exact same people may seem to be irritating. Given that we have examples of similar situations every day, how can we continue to believe in the story of being a single, unchanging self? In fact, the whole notion that who we are is limited to the story of a single self is perhaps the main illusion that Zen practice addresses. This is why one of the deepest teachings is that there is no one special that we need to be. In other words, to be inwardly free means we don’t have to live out of our self-images and identities; we don’t have to feel a particular way; we don’t have to believe the stories we tell ourselves—the stories that dictate who we are and how we live.
In order to experience the freedom of living a more authentic life, it is absolutely necessary that we drop our stories and illusions. This is certainly not easy to do, and it helps to know what it actually looks like to live authentically. First and foremost, living authentically means living with honesty—being willing to look at our own illusions and self-deceptions; questioning our self-images and self-limiting identities; examining the stories we weave about ourselves, including our stories about our past and who we are. Many of our convictions, ideals, and “shoulds” are just
mental constructs, born out of our conditioning. Do we have the courage to see them for what they are? Can we experience the freedom of no longer using them as a prop?
We have to realize how our identities, convictions, and stories prop up our sense of purpose and importance in order to subtly make us feel special. We count on these props to give us a feeling of solidity and security. When we lose one of these props, such as when losing our job or having a relationship failure, we naturally experience anxiety: without our familiar supports we are left with just ourselves, which is a frightening prospect. This is why we try to fill our lives with busyness and doing, as well as with our many diversions and entertainments—to guarantee that we are never left alone with ourselves. We don’t want to feel that hole of emptiness.
But as we see through our illusions, identities, and stories, they decreasingly dictate how we feel and how we live. This is what it means, in part, to live authentically—no longer fooling ourselves with our illusions and self-deceptions. But in order to be free of them, we first have to see them with both clarity and precision. What this requires more than anything is being open to our life—being willing to face the things we’ve never wanted to face. This includes our fears—of rejection, unworthiness, and uncertainty. To be open, to be present, in turn allows us the possibility of no longer sleepwalking through life, just seeking comfort, security, and approval; and no longer living with the illusion that we have endless time.