By Tsokyni Rinpoche
Parents sometimes ask their children this question when they’re acting up or arguing. It’s not a sincere question, but rather a way in which parents try to assert control, to put their children “in their place.”
Sometimes, though, we find ourselves asking this question of ourselves as adults. Our lives are so complex that we find ourselves playing different roles in different situations. We’re parents… children… employees… bosses… lovers… loners… counselors… seekers. Sometimes the sheer complexity of switching between all the different roles we have to play throughout the day becomes overwhelming and we find ourselves momentarily confused, genuinely wondering, “Who am I?”
Although it may initially seem distressing, we can learn to appreciate such moments of confusion, to consider each one as a gift — a break from the rigidity and routine that all too often creeps into our daily lives, robbing us of the openness, spontaneity and creativity that characterize the essence of our being.
One of the core principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that our essential nature is completely free. At the basic level of our being, we are “empty” of definable characteristics. We aren’t defined by our past, our present, or our thoughts and feelings about the future. We have the potential to experience anything.
When we come into physical being, we’re clothed in a body that comprises not just a physical form but also the capacity to sense, to feel and to discern. During the first months of life, however, all these aspects of embodied being are rather hazy and indistinct. We know, for instance, that something is occurring, but we can’t necessarily define what it is. We’re experiencing a level of identity which in Tibetan is known as the “mere I,” a very fluid sense of being that might best be described as a stream of experiences. At this stage in our development, we have no words or labels for the things we experience or for the self that is experiencing. The distinctions made at the level of the “mere I” are very light. They run into a sort of continuous and continuously changing movie in which we’re fully and vividly immersed.
As we go through life, however, we tend to lose this fluidity as we confront the need to make distinctions — literally and figuratively bumping into things and others, and having to figure out what or who they are and what or who we are in relationship to them. Over time, we accumulate layers of ideas about who we are and what we’re capable of achieving; and as these layers accumulate, we tend to become more and more attached to them. They offer us an illusion of solidity in a world which, whether we like it or not, is characterized by change.
One of the ways we manage change is to define ourselves, and to hold on to such definitions even if they’re unflattering. In fact, over many years of teaching around the world, I’ve been struck by the numbers of people I’ve met who are strongly attached to unflattering, limited, painful, destructive identities. People who think they’re unlovable. Or ugly. Or stupid. Or incompetent. These identities are often forged by powerful experiences, which in turn become compelling and persistent personal histories — or “I-stories.”
But even a particularly persuasive “I-story” can be challenged in a moment of confusion — in the exhaustion at the end of a long day, for example; when we meet someone unexpectedly; when the meeting we thought we were prepared for turns out to be about something entirely different. At such moments, the seeming solidity of our story-selves drops away and we experience, perhaps only for an instant, the openness and fluidity of the “mere I.” A little break in the pattern occurs through which a bit of the blissful, playful wonder we experienced as children has a chance to shine.
In the rush of daily life, it’s easy to miss such moments, to gloss over the confusion and try, without even thinking about it, to regain the seeming certainty of our identity — whatever that identity happens to be at the moment.
But I’d like to offer you a little challenge, which I’ve found useful at various times in my own life. The next time you find yourselves momentarily confused or uncertain, allow that confusion, that uncertainty to linger for a moment. Ask yourself, not in an unkind or parentally controlling way, “Who do you think you are?”
What happens when you do that? What do you feel?
Maybe you can try it when you feel stuck in a particularly unpleasant point of view about yourself.
Or maybe when you’re just stuck in traffic.