Who I am today is not who I am yesterday
Last week I suggested to some friends who like to meditate that we meet up in a local park and make the most of the current heatwave with a little outdoor meditation. A few of those who came hadn’t met the others before so I did my usual thing when everyone had arrived of asking each of us to share ‘who we are and why we are here’…. to which one of those present laughed out loud and said “Oh my, who am I? That’s a big question to start things off with!”
Who are we really?
One of the most powerful answers to that question that I’ve heard in my lifetime is: “Who I am today is not who I was yesterday”. This is a modern translation and adaptation of words attributed to the Buddha.
We are made to believe that who we are today isa manifestation of our own choices, actions, thoughts as well as our genetic hereditary and the way we were raised when young. Perhaps that doesn’t stand in contradiction to the Buddha’s words, but it widens the lense of how we think of ourselves.
Every time I hear those words echo in my heart, ‘who I am today is not who I was yesterday’, it sends shivers of both truth and possibility down my spine. It’s like the dawning of each new day. The sun rises every time and I wake up in the same body and most days in the same place. And yet the night has wiped the slate clean, the day is new and the air is ripe with opportunity. Whether it’s a case of starting over, moving on, growing, or choosing to dwell in the flow of whatever will arise, that same body is about to go through a whole new inner and outer experience.
It’s hard to escape having an identity and certainly impossible to live in the world without presenting some kind of identity. We relate to each other by ‘who we think we are’ and how the other ‘views us’. We have numbers to help the State pinpoint us and even before we are given a name, where we first came into the world will affect who we think we are forever. Humans have carved out the planet so that it’s gone from one big globe in space into a series of territories and named bits of land. Of the multi million postcodes, the one we were born into and the man and woman who created us will act as a thread through our identity, whatever we do next or wherever we move to next – and however many years of therapy you might engage in to undo that!
Leaving to one side the surface level presumptions of who we are, things like, our job, our financial status, the education we had, the home we live in if we have one, it used to be religion or the culture we were born into that strongly defined our sense of who we are. Indeed, in many parts of the world today, this still stands true – and unfortunately the impact of that is often adversary and divisive.
But what lies beneath our cultural milieu, family upbringing and genetic predispositions?
Stripping it down, the physical body in fact presents a fair objective view to that question of who we are. There’s gender (I know, that’s considered a debatable ‘concept’ by some nowadays, but I’ll leave that in, as we are born one or the other after all), age, and yes, the feeling within the body. It’s all real and it’s all a reflection of what’s there. If we could all learn how to directly feel our own bodies and the messages within them, to view in the sense of not just through our eyes but through all our senses which includes inner wisdom, to be able to feel viscerally deep into our bones and deeper still into the energy that lies within, what is there, this would provide a truer picture of who we are in the present moment (which is all we really know, right?) than our material acquisition and experiences (such as education, social and familial conditioning, where we live…). Modern science conforms now to ancient wisdom that says the cells of our body store every memory and experience we’ve ever had.
By body, I do mean the head and heart literally but also symbolically. In eastern ancient thought, the mind and emotions are considered part of the body. In fact, emotions and thoughts are considered one and the same thing and are manifestations of the mind, which is in itself ‘em-bodied’.
This is why things like sitting quietly for a while on a regular basis can brings us insight into and eventually closer to a sense of who we are beyond what others see us as and the things, places and people we have associated ourselves with over our lifetime.
Of course though there’s a catch…
Every moment we experience is a new moment and therefore the body (mind and heart included) is absorbing a series of new experiences, alongside filing them away with previous experiences in different compartments of our being, and coming up with new combinations all the time.
In this way, I think I understand what Buddha means by ‘who I am today is not who I am yesterday’.
Life itself is in constant flow and flux so the very fabric of my being, my conscious and unconscious state, as well as the cells in my body and the ‘knowledge’ I acquire with each passing moment, will be in flow. Even if there is so much of our time in our lives we might feel anything but in flow, especially in hard or challenging phases.
So if we were to agree, that who we are is always changing and never the same, then what about this… a) why bother even enquiring about this? and b) why is it that when you develop a spiritual practice or simply get really absorbed into something you do feel some kind of ‘connection to the essential self’?
Here are my thoughts on that:
Well, for a)… if getting in touch with the present moment through the body (which includes the mind and heart – I feel I need to repeat that as we are conditioned so strongly in the west to think of the body as separate from feeling and thought) does give us a real sense of what is going on within us and then back out to what is happening around us, this is probably one of the most vital and enlivening skills we can develop as human beings. Being in life as it is, and not through a foggy conditioned outer determined bubble.
For b)… ah, well this is up to you to try, to experience and find out! But yes, in terms of personal experience and talking to students and clients and friends who’ve either spent regular time on some kind of spiritual practice or have a real passion they engage in in their lives, there does seem to be this agreed upon idea that beyond the present moment reality we experience, there is something more!
Here is how I would describe for me what that something more is:
It’s like the absolute centre of the centre of the core of an apple.
It’s like the same inner smile feeling I felt when I was four years old playing with a balloon in the back garden, without any thought of the future or past, simply and totally absorbed with my green balloon.
It’s like a super friendly ghost who whispers from deep within, in times of both joy and sadness.
It’s like the man in the moon is inside of me.
I think that’s enough analogies for now!
You know, a while ago I met a chap that I ended up dating. On our second date, we had one of those spontaneous deep and meaningful chats that went on late into the early hours of the morning. The next day, while we were both at work, I received a text from him that said “You know, no-one’s ever asked me before that question that you did.“
“Which one?” I asked. If you know me, you can guess there were many questions asked.
“When you asked ‘who are you really?” I’ve never thought about that or that I needed to ask or know that but… now..”
Oh dear, what had I done to this formerly blissful laissez-faire, live in the moment man!
“Why do you think me asking you now has made you want to enquire about this, er.. now?”
There was a long pause.
“Because without you saying anything, when you asked that I suddenly felt something of you that is deeper and beyond what I could see or thought who you were. I think I felt an energy of who you really are. I want to find that in me.”
That relationship was rocky, start to finish, by the way. Our identities on paper were absolutely calamitous. Who we are in the world is incongruous on every level. Yet the relationship continued for a while because on some level who were ‘really are’ did connect and when we got still and beyond our outer reality, those two essences glimpsed each other.
Where does that leave me and the Buddha then, if I do feel there is a part of me today that actually is the same as yesterday?
I reconcile it in this way: the state within which my heart and mind operate, and therefore how I view the world and myself changes with each day, because life is in flow and every experience we have impacts us. But, the core of that mind and heart is beyond change and time and experience. It is the essence of who I am. And maybe that’s one of the reasons we want to fall in love, so that the essence of another can see that too.