So often in class I encourage my students to be willing to get out of their comfort zone and have the courage to peel away the layers of in-authenticity and defensive armor that cover the light of their true selves. Like most spiritual teachings this is much easier said and understood by the head then experienced fully in the laboratory of life.
Knowing ourselves on a deeper level is a daily practice with all sorts of resistances and blind spots that emerge as we open our eyes more clearly to our truest nature within. We are trained from a young age to be successful and productive human beings. And this mostly means being corrected repeatedly away from our natural tendencies and desires and steered towards social norms. When we set out to re-discover who we really are, it’s likely we may at first draw a blank – and that can be extraordinarily unnerving.
I came across this quote recently that sums it up nicely:
“Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.”
― Heath L. Buckmaster, Box of Hair: A Fairy Tale
I vividly recall the adventure and joy of spontaneous and imaginative creation I enjoyed as a small child. I’d raid my mother’s and grandmother’s closets, gather an audience of relatives, neighbors, anyone who was in the vicinity, and start my show, parading around in wigs, jewels, snazzy shoes and my wardrobe of colorful costumes. I created all sorts of characters – human and animal – to illustrate my stories. Who knows what I was saying, I can’t remember. But what I do have a faded memory of is the sensation of complete and utter free self-expression. And it came with a healthy sense of self-love. Not the overblown narcissistic kind of false ego bloat we often develop in later years, but a pure, wholesome, whole and total sense of “I am OK.”
Then, as we all do, I experienced one shock to my system after another as I grew older, experiencing new and unexpected reactions, perspectives, and actions from those around me. With each new experience I re-adjusted my internal “wiring” to reflect what I believed at the time to be a truer and more complete picture of our world.
My yoga practice has brought a years-long process of re-assessing all of this. Many of the automatic and innate ways of being and believing inside of me, ways I had just assumed were “the way it is” or “they way I am” I am beginning now to see in the light of awareness as completely made up and often a cause of unrest, stress and anxiety. But giving these ways of thinking perceiving up can be fraught with resistance and guilt. The parents and role models that trained and guided us gave us these tools because they cared about our wellbeing and wanted the best for us, right? Whoa, the guilt and fear that can arise when we make a choice to ride ourselves of their well meaning coaching. Other beliefs we created ourselves to protect us from perceived harm – cruel or unthinking words and actions from others. To rip these away is to expose the often still frightened and confused child within us.
Somewhere along the way I picked up what must be a Midwestern way of humble self-depreciation as a model way to demonstrate your honorableness and honestly. All that deflection and unwillingness to accept compliments and putting oneself down to make another feel better about themselves, letting other people go ahead of you in line, not speaking up when you feel cold or hungry or uncomfortable because you don’t want to burdon your host or friends, it all starts to take a pretty heavy toll on the ‘ol self-esteem. Where I come from, overt self-love is somehow sort of shameful, like trying to be a parrot in a filed of brown sparrows. Casting this off and being willing to spread and event display rainbow wings can feel like a big affront to a lot of kind, generous and caring people.
And then there’s this whole pesky business of now knowing who we really are under all of that. It’s like meeting an old high-school friend at a coffee shop and struggling for a relevant way to connect.
I have found self-forgiveness to be a salve for much of these resistant feelings. As Maya Angelou says: “It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’
If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”
So I have a new part of my practice that involves delighting myself in small but poignant ways each day. Surprising myself with little kindnesses and nurturing gestures. Little things like allowing myself to snuggle up under a warm blanket on the sofa and listen to beautiful music while I work on my laptop, or a 30 min break for a warm bath with aromatic salts, or a spontaneous trip for a healthy lunch from my favorite restaurant while I’m running errands. A cup of soothing tea. Some delicious-smelling lotion. Ten minutes listening to an empowering podcast from one of my favorite teachers. You get the idea. Now cut yourself some slack, give yourself a hug and a healthy dose of “I am OK” and bring a deeper sense of joy to yourself and your day.