Silent Retreat - No Need to Be Someone Special
Last week I talked about identity construction and how clinging to a particular version of self can get us in to trouble. In that writing, I was talking largely about identity in the form of the roles we take on in life: mother, daughter, teacher, business owner, etc. Today, I’d like to take the notion of identity to the next level and think about it as an understanding of who were really are.
It’s accepted practice (called normal) to want to distinguish ourselves from one another, and we do that often through the roles we take on. And such “distinguishing,” we’re told, can help us move toward purpose and meaning in life. This seems good. Can you hear the “but” coming?
Here it is. . . but in the Buddhist tradition, not needing to be special or distinguished in some way is defined as being free. That is, free to experience our innate self. They say it’s not bad to have a constructed identity, just don’t get attached to it. Don’t get caught up in the story you’ve created about who you are, what you do, and what you are worth. Those identities are superficial, flimsy, and in the end, impermanent.
For instance, I was a college professor for many years, an identity I enjoyed immensely, but 5 years ago, I dropped that long-held role. Where did that identity go? And what am I now without it? I know many mothers who took their role as mother very seriously during the first decades of their children’s lives. But when those chickadees grew strong wings and flew the coup, what happened to the care-taking identity they so cherished? The loss of this identity has been crushing to some women. I could go on and on with interesting examples of shifting identity, but you get the point.
The question comes down to this: if I am no longer playing the role I inhabited for many years, then who am I now? This is an existential challenge for all human beings, because you can be sure your cherished identity is going to morph, change, or disappear at some point in the future. Then what?
Here’s the good news. You get to come face to face with the part of you that does not change, what the wisdom traditions call the authentic self, the part of you that is constant, immutable. And the purpose of a spiritual or reflective practice is to help us address the suffering the ensues when we believe the roles we play are what we are all about.
Buddhist teacher Ezra Bayda, in his book The Authentic Life, Zen Wisdom for Living Free of Complacency and Fear, describes what living out of the authentic self might look like:
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 props?
Before I fill my days with busyness and doing, I should read this paragraph every hour for the rest of my life. I should sew these words into a quilt and wrap it around my body, my sartorial banner. I should memorize it. I should perform it on the streets and speak it at dinner parties. I should call my enemies and offer this to them. I should whisper these words gently to my lover.
I am crushed by these words. I am humbled and smitten by these words. I bow down to them and pray for courage.
How do I gain the courage Bayda speaks of? This is the third lesson I took from silent retreat. It does not take courage to learn Bayda’s lesson. It takes practice. I don’t have to be skilled, or intelligent, or special. I have to get quiet. And I have to do it over and over again, with deep devotion. And sooner or later, with silence comes ease, presence, inner independence, resilience, gratitude, gentleness, contentment. The real stuff we are made of.
It is so easy. It is so natural. It is so, so good.
Practice is the way.