If I asked you to send me a picture of yourself you'd probably send me a picture of your face, right? Maybe a full body shot but you definitely wouldn't send me a picture of "yourself" that didn't include your face. But is your face who you really are? Many people have had their faces drastically changed by severe burns, acid attacks, plastic surgery, shaving their beard, etc. -- yet who they really are remains in spite of no longer having the face that they were born with. I’ve read many reports of people who came to know themselves in a truer way after they could no longer depend on their faces to define them. Everyday people lose body parts and as we’ve all seen, many of those people go on to live more happily & fully than they did when their bodies were "whole". What that says to me is that who you are cannot be a face or a body because you can lose both of those things & not only still be, but maybe even be better.
So, who are you?
The first response that probably pops into your mind is your name. I definitely spent much of my early life thinking that my name defines who I am. Luckily, before my mom passed I got the chance to ask her about my birth & learned that she didn't fully decide on my name until after I was already born. Which means that, even if only for a short time, I once existed without a name. I am, and would be even if I was never given a name. What I’m trying to say is that existence always precedes definition, not the other way around. “I received a name because I am”, not “I am because I received a name.”
Okay well if I’m not my name or my body then that means I have to be my mind, right? Wrong again! I've thought of myself to be many awful things in the past but when I started observing my thoughts, I learned that my mind doesn't know me very well. My mind thought that I wouldn’t like Yoga. My mind thought that I’d never be able to do a handstand. My mind thought that no one would enjoy or benefit from my writing or my music. I know that I am not my mind because I can observe it & through observation I’ve found that my thoughts don’t come from me.
So who am I?
If I'm not my body, & I'm not my name, & I'm not my thoughts than who the hell am I? What I truly am, what we truly are, is beyond words. It’s beyond thought, it's beyond appearances, it's beyond concepts and ideas. It’s not something that can be fully described with words but it is something that can be experienced. That being said, if you want to find out what you are, you're going to have to look and get to know it for yourself. But what I can tell you, unequivocally, is what you are not and you are not a face, you are not a body, you are not what you think nor are you what anyone else thinks about you.
My name may be Micheal but Micheal is not who I am — it’s what I am called. And I’ve been called many things — good & bad, light & dark, beautiful & ugly, sharp & dull, wise & fool, selfless & selfish, talented & average. The same lips that once told me that I had the potential to be anything I wanted also told me that I would never amount to shit. Everything that I’ve ever been called, I’ve also been called its opposite. Does that mean that I’m bipolar? Perhaps. But what I think it really means is that no matter what people call me, they’re wrong. Some people look at me and see everything. Some people look at me and see nothing. But regardless of what angle you view me from, I assure you that you’re not getting the whole picture. I am large; I contain multitudes. And not all of what I am is pretty or socially acceptable. That’s why calling myself “Yoga Teacher” started to feel like a limit. I started feeling like because I called myself a Yoga teacher, I needed to be behaving a certain kind of way. I’m not really a “good vibes only” kind of practitioner and it seems that in order for your Yoga to be marketable, it needs to be about always feeling good. Don’t get me wrong, I share light because I enjoy light but I am as much darkness as I am light. My knowledge of the light only came by way of darkness. Teaching Yoga is something that I do, it’s not who I am, so that label eventually began to feel more like a hindrance to what I am than a representation of it. Even calling myself “love” felt like a lie because even though I do believe that at my best, what’s closest to my essence is love, the honest truth is that I’m not always at my best. Especially when I forget who I am and let my ego start running the show. My most recent relationship showed me on several occasions that I still don’t always behave like love. And maybe I never will always behave like love. Maybe that’s not the point of having a human experience. Maybe the point of having a human experience is to feel it all — not just the pretty parts — and that’s why I try not to call myself anything these days. I want to be open to experiencing everything and I’ve learned that any name, no matter how sweet it sounds at first, will eventually damn me if I claim it to be myself because what I really am is too vast to be defined.
My favorite synonym for “name” is “handle” and when you start viewing names as handles, it makes perfect sense why they can feel so controlling. Nothing naturally asks for a name. Names are something that exist exclusively in the human mind, created by the human mind in order to better understand, categorize, and ultimately control its reality. Names aren’t inherently a bad thing. They help us tremendously with navigating our day to day existence. But names can also be traps. They can be triggers. And what I’ve found them most to be are limits. We work so hard trying to create an identity for ourselves not knowing that the entire time we’re digging ourselves into a grave. How many times have you heard stories of “successful” people who ultimately felt trapped by the very thing they’d worked their entire career to achieve? We have to tread lightly when it comes to identity because identity is something that only exists in the mind and what we truly are is beyond the mind. To identify something is to define it, and to define something is to contain it, and to contain something is to initiate it’s decay. There are a lot of people out here living dull, unfulfilling lives because they’re attached to an identity that doesn’t allow them to express who they really are and they’re afraid of who might think what if they decide to be something else. Human beings have many powers but one that we neglect the most is the power to change ourselves. We’re so committed to being this one idea of what we think we should be or of what others think that we should be that we go years and years suffocating the infinite potential that wants so badly to express itself through us.
For most of my life, my external appearance was the foundation of my self-confidence and my self-worth. I remember when I got hot-lined in the eye with a softball when I was 16, what I was immediately most concerned with after realizing what happened was if my face looked okay. After I found out that I would effectively be blind in that eye for the rest of my life, my greatest concern was still what people were going to say about how looked when I got back to school. I honestly enjoyed the thrill of fighting with my brother and cousins when I was younger but would avoid physical fights with others mostly out of fear of what a stranger, who wouldn’t have had to deal with the wrath of my mama, might do to my face. Like I’ve expressed in prior posts, my face was really all I had to work with from my limited perspective at the time. I had to protect it at all costs because that’s what the largest part of my identity relied on. As I got older and started gaining more life experience, I began to see that faces weren’t really the end all be all. Romantic relationships definitely proved this to me because very rarely do couples split because one stops liking the other’s face - no, what causes breakups is misalignment with what’s on the inside of both parties. Not only that, once I got out of the small bubbles of my hometown and college town, people started paying significantly less attention to me because they had more options. Everything is relative - once you leave your small pond, you’ll be amazed to see you were never as big of a fish as you thought you were.
When I started losing my hair, I stopped recognizing myself in the mirror. I’ll never forget the day I came home to take my mother to the Cancer center after not seeing her for a few weeks. I call her name as soon as I get through the door but receive no answer. I walk around the corner to see her, larger than I’ve ever seen her before because her belly was so swollen and filled with fluid. She could barely move but she was trying her best to pack her suitcase. She hadn’t responded to my call because she couldn’t gather enough breath to make a loud enough sound. After I tended to her, I went into the bathroom to try and compose myself before we left but unfortunately caught my appearance in the mirror. An appearance I admittedly wasn’t keeping up with because of the depression I felt regarding my mother’s sickness. What I saw in the mirror, I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t the me that I knew. This wasn’t the life that I knew. I fell apart. My attachment to my appearance wasn’t just tied to vanity but it also was an attachment to the world I knew. The only world I’d known and the world that I, no matter how much I kicked and screamed, was losing by the day. And I’m grateful that I did lose it because I’ve gained something much greater. I’ve gained the realization that what died was not my mother but my mother’s body. And what may change and die on my body is not me either. Even though my appearance has changed many times throughout this existence, what I am has and will remain the same.
Ramana Maharshi is who introduced me to the question that I asked you in the beginning of this piece. He taught that the quickest way to “enlightenment” or realizing the true nature of one’s self is by self-enquiry. Self-enquiry is asking oneself “Who Am I?” and seeking the answer until you realize it. What self-enquiry eventually reveals is that what I am is not what can be perceived but rather, I am what perceives. There’s a part of us all that is always still, always quiet, always observant, always honest. There’s a part of us all that never changes but watches joyfully as everything unreal does. It has been referred to as self, and Atman, and soul, and witness, and observer, and consciousness, and pure awareness. But no matter what it’s called, you cannot fully understand it until you experience it for yourself. If you’re interested, I invite you to practice. Below are the first two questions that were posed to Ramana Maharshi by Sri M. Sivaprakasam Pillai and his answers. This Q & A eventually became known as the famous “Who am I?” teaching. If you’d like, you can read the entire piece here.
As all living beings desire to be happy always, without misery, as in the case of everyone there is observed supreme love for one’s self, and as happiness alone is the cause for love, in order to gain that happiness which is one’s nature and which is experienced in the state of deep sleep where there is no mind, one should know one’s self. For that, the path of knowledge, the inquiry of the form “Who am I?”, is the principal means.
1. Who am I ?
The gross body which is composed of the seven humours (tissues: plasma, blood, muscle, bone, fat, marrow, and reproductive tissue), I am not; the five cognitive sense organs, the senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell, which apprehend their respective objects, sound, touch, colour, taste, and odour, I am not; the five cognitive sense organs, the organs of speech, locomotion, grasping, excretion, and procreation, which have as their respective functions speaking, moving, grasping, excreting, and enjoying, I am not; the five vital airs, prana, etc., which perform respectively the five functions of in-breathing, etc., I am not; even the mind which thinks, I am not; the nescience (ignorance) too, which is endowed only with the residual impressions of objects, and in which there are no objects and no functioning’s, I am not.
2. If I am none of these, then who am I?
After negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this’, ‘not this’, that Awareness which alone remains - that I am.