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A Compliment from Hell

When I was in my mid-twenties, someone said to me once, “You’re really talented in cooking and sewing.” I didn’t like it.

Yes, I knew it was meant to be a compliment. In the moment, I responded with an appropriately polite thank you. But inside it triggered a whole chain of negative emotional reactions . . . resentment, anger, frustration. sewingBeing good at cooking and sewing was not the image I wanted to project. And now, nearly forty years later, I can still remember that innocent, off-hand comment!

I had been typecast by certain early conditioning, and I knew it. But I desperately wanted something different for my life. My heart was on fire with the excitement of ideas. Indian philosophy, English literature, these were my passions, along with my beloved ballet, which I studied with ardent devotion.

Our self-image is the most powerful construct of the reality we perceive. Comprised of memories, experiences, behaviour patterns, physical objects—all the things we think we are and others think we are, it is the greatest obstacle on the spiritual path. This “me-identity” looms with a seeming solidity. But in fact it is just as impermanent, just as empty of form as everything else.

Change is the essence of everything manifest. Nothing stays the same from one moment to the next. Think about the universal field of vibrating energy, down to the subatomic pulse of positive and negative charge, which is the core reality of all forms. Think about the cellular activity of your body and its interaction with everything it takes in . . . food, water, air, and everything it releases into the atmosphere. Think of the corollary of that process on the psychological level, your thoughts, emotions, memories and how they arise and fall according to whatever images come before your awareness.

Often we can grasp this concept looking outwards. Everything in the cosmos is intrinsically connected to everything else. Everything is interdependent. In other words, everything IS everything else . . . one seamless whole that we call the One, or the Source, or Absolute Reality, or Shiva/Shakti or whatever you want. Individual forms arise and subside in it, so “real” in the moment but actually as evanescent and formless as a soup bubble. Separation, ultimately, is illusion.

However, looking inwards, this concept is harder to grasp. Our “stuff” that we cling to gets in the way. The “me-experience” gets reified; it becomes an edifice, rigid and persistent. Everything appears in reference to our self-image (or ego, or ahamkara, the “I-maker”). It is the lens through which we experience everything, which is why it is so hard to grasp that the material of this me-identity is actually fluid, just like everything outside it. In fact, “inside” and “outside” are arbitrary divisions; the boundaries are relative not actual. The object that sees (that is the me-identity) and the object that is seen (whatever comes before awareness) are actually both objects, interdependent and belonging to the same seamless whole.

Yet knowing this, have you ever tried to let go of your self-image? I can tell you through experience (as I have tried!) that it is not easy. In fact, I believe it is impossible. And the very effort of trying helps make it so. That “me-identity” is a tenacious construct. Even after decades of yoga practice, I can still bristle when something offends my cherished self-image. It doesn’t happen as easily as it used to, and I usually can get over it quicker, but it still happens!

The key in terms of practice, I believe, is understanding that your reaction itself ALSO belongs to the fluidity of experience. You watch it arise, you watch it subside, you let it go, you move on. Gradually, the boundary between “me and other” becomes more permeable. The “me-identity” becomes less like a fortress to defend and more like a particular vantage point of experience, one among many possibilities. A degree of indifference sets in, along with a benign contentment with What Is.

To counterbalance the effect of your reaction when it gets to you, go into your garden.lilac Let the fragrance of the lilac remind you of the exquisite beauty contained in so many transitory forms. Open your heart to the joy and let your life be as full as possible of those kinds of moments. Or listen to the news for another perspective. Let the stories of horrific violence remind you of the suffering experienced through so many transitory forms. Open your heart to the grief of others and watch how that shifts your priorities.

Though direct effort in deconstructing the “me-identity” can prove endlessly frustrating, there IS something else you can do. You can consciously and deliberately take on challenges that move you out of your comfort zone. If you tell yourself that you are “techno-phobic”, then give yourself a project on the computer. If you tell yourself that you are hopeless in the kitchen, then plan a dinner party and cook all the food. In this way, you deconstruct the whole notion of “I am the kind of person that . . . “

I saw this practice in action in the Buddhist House where I studied counselling many years ago. As a part of Buddhist training, the person with the least aptitude, experience and inclination for a particular task was chosen to take on the job. And did they squirm!!!

Why choose discomfort? Because it is precisely by forcing ourselves to do things that we think by definition are impossible for us that we can chink away at the rigid construct of the “me-identity”. We can do different things, we can try on new identities, we can experience fluidity instead of rigidity around the whole concept of who I am in the world. Travel can have a similar effect, if it involves immersing yourself in another culture and language or confronting different basic assumptions about life.

The kitchen was (and still is) my comfort zone. It’s an identity that goes deep and old. I can see the karmic potential for it in my astrological chart. nonna cookingI can understand the genetic inclination coming through my Italian blood. Much in my early conditioning prepared me for domesticity as well. (When I was 16, my father wanted me to spend the summer on the farm with my grandmother so I could learn how to preserve fruit. It was only my mother’s interception that saved me and allowed me to take my first course in Indian philosophy instead.) Now I’ve made peace with all that. I actually love cooking (though sewing not so much). I even wish I’d learned more of those culinary secrets of old Italy that my grandmother took with her to the grave.

But at the time, the self-image I coveted resisted everything to do with domesticity. I was shaping a “me-identity” based upon something different. Anything that supported the “me” I wanted to be, I desired; and anything contrary I rejected, even if it was coming in the form of a heartfelt compliment.

It has been a long, tough road . . . and it would take a long, long time for me to understand how the desiring and rejecting actually contributed to the problem. Now I can observe the phenomena of “me-identity” with a bit more dispassion. It is still there, but it moves with more fluidity. It embraces more and discards less. And every once in awhile––sometimes during meditation, sometimes during moments in nature––it ceases altogether. It is those moments of heightened reality–recognised only in hindsight when individuated consciousness returns to conceptualise something––that clarify for me altogether the absolute absurdity of a tightly held “me-identity”. An understanding comes to light, and out of that life can truly flow, as it will.

And then I’ve just got to laugh! So try it yourself next time something bristles against your boundaries. Find that garden flower and let its exquisite perfume carry you through to the other side, to that place of infinite spaciousness where boundaries no longer have meaning. Let the tears or laughter come if they will. Then move onwards with the flow of life!

2 thoughts on “A Compliment from Hell”

  1. Thanks for this article Marianne – and your website is lovely by the way! I am also on a constant exploration in an out of me-identity. I know I feel better when I let go of it, but then i feel that I need it to acheive things in the world – that I need that ego pushing me to DO something. But maybe I don’t, maybe it’s better if that something comes out of the unity consciousness, comes out of what my soul is channeling through to the world for the good of all, rather than through what my me-identity wants me to make or do…..

    1. Thanks Michelle! Glad you liked the article and my website. The understanding of what is going on is very subtle. It goes against very basic assumptions we all have, namely the illusion that action originates with “me”. If you analyse it carefully, you will see that the desire to achieve things in the world, to DO something, is always a reaction to something that arises. It may be something seen, heard, felt; in other words, something perceived through the senses. Or it may be a thought that arises, and a thought has its origin in previous sense experience, coming from the “outside”, even if it has remained dormant in memory for decades or longer! So in other words, “my action” is totally dependent upon many things that are not a part of “me”.

      The “me-identity” defines itself by setting up these boundaries, saying “my action” and creating the illusion of separateness. In ordinary life, we think this way. The illusion of separation is necessary for things to happen in the world as they do. But in fact, everything happening is nothing more than “unity consciousness in action”; it is part of the functioning of totality. “My” action belongs to this totality, and “my” is an arbitrary division. All the myriad little “me-identities” dissolve into this totality. A profound paradox lies at the heart of this: What makes our existence in the world possible (i.e. the illusion of separateness) makes our existence imperfect.

      You say, “What my soul is channelling through to the world out of unity consciousness”. Think of that the other way around. “You” are an “instrument”, a “mind-body organism” comprised of genes, karma and conditioning (which came together in a certain way based upon action not of your doing!). Unity consciousness is playing you. Unity Consciousness is the ONLY subject; everything else in this world of time and space is object. Action happens through you according to the unique programming of the instrument “you” are. (And that programming is not fixed, by the way. It changes constantly according to fresh conditioning.) But pure consciousness wrote the script, pure consciousness directs the play, and pure consciousness is playing all the parts. Truly, this is all a divine dream, the dream of Pure Consciousness (not our dream). We players are the dreamed characters, materialised thought of the Divine, of Unity or Pure Consciousness.

      Knowing this will not change what “you” do. If it is your programming to do certain things in the world, then “you” will do them. You will act according to your dharma. As Krishna explains in the Gita, “inaction” is impossible. Nothing in the world can remain still for an instant. All that changes with this understanding is perspective, but with that comes liberation and so much peace. Ramakrishna said, “Be absolutely convinced that you are merely an instrument played upon by the Divine, then do whatever you like”.

      With much love, M x

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