As I began to search for language to understand the awakening I was having, I realized that I had spent most of my life identifying with the voice inside my head—my thoughts—my thinking mind. I think this is true of most people. When we think about who we are, that’s exactly what we do—we think. Everything stems from this. There is a phrase, “you are what you think”. For the most part, I believed this and left it from there. After all, what else is there? I’m a woman, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a good friend, I’m intelligent, I’m capable, I’m thoughtful and caring…When talking about identity, level one is often who you are in relation to other people (your roles, your career, etc). I had already begun trying to dig deeper than that, as I knew I wasn’t defined be my roles. So in recognizing my identity, I had moved to focusing on virtues and positive attributes about myself (honesty, integrity, etc) and even identifying with my feelings (I’m a positive person, I’m sensitive, I’m a happy or lonely person). I considered that a deeper level of understanding who you are, and I thought that was where it kind of stopped.
What I’ve come to realize is that who I am is none of those things. Largely, those things have flowed out of what I’ve thought about myself in my mind. But, I am not my mind. So, who am I? Who are we?
The truth is, I cannot articulate to you the answer to this question. But I do know the answer. What I’ve come to discover is that who I am, my truest self is an essence. I am the awareness of all those thoughts in my mind. The space in between my thoughts. I know this sounds abstract and possibly even a flippant answer. But, it’s not.
As I described in my last post (The Morning God Sent a Transgender Angel to Save me), my anxiety and panic had spiraled completely out of control. One thing that my counselor prescribed for me was meditation. I started meditating out of desperation. I wasn’t on some spiritual quest. I was losing it, and I had three young kids depending on me. That’s it. I began doing what I had to do to calm down so I could function and take care of my family.
As I practiced meditation, or mindfulness, I began to really look forward to the time and space to quiet my mind. The deeper I went into it, the more I began to notice that underneath my racing thoughts was a stillness and a peace. An essence deep within me that was both familiar and forgotten. These meditation practices felt a bit like déjà vu. I became more and more aware of this essence inside of me. It felt all-loving, all-peaceful, trusting and still. And more importantly, I realized it had always been there.This essence had always resided within me. It had never changed or gone anywhere. I had simply buried it. The voice in which it spoke was my intuition. But, I had conditioned myself to tune out that voice when it conflicted with what others expected of me…or what I expected of myself.
How had this happen? How do we lose touch with our true selves? With the help of reading Freud, I learned about some key, distinct parts that make up the human psyche. There is the id which is the “impulsive (and unconscious) part of our psyche which responds directly and immediately to the instincts. The personality of the newborn child is all id”. As we grow, we develop the ego. The ego is what develops “to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality. The ego operates according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave”. Finally, there is the superego. The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one’s parents and others. It develops around the age of 3 – 5…The ideal self (or ego-ideal) is an imaginary picture of how you ought to be, and represents career aspirations, how to treat other people, and how to behave as a member of society. .
As you can see in the illustration above, most of how we think and feel about ourselves, and the parts that we behave and make decisions out of, are primarily from the conscious part of our minds. But it’s in the unconscious part where our true self resides. Depending on how healthy or unhealthy of a psyche that was formed in childhood, a healthy ego may form and reflect more of the true id underneath it. But if an unhealthy psyche was formed in childhood, a person will employ psychological defense mechanisms in order to protect the False Self. “Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings”. . These strategies include: Repression, Denial, Projection, Displacement, Regression, Sublimation. So the way we think, feel and behave is primarily due to factors that we are not even aware of. Therefore, most of these thoughts, feelings and behaviors are involuntary.
Where am I going with all of this? Wasn’t this post supposed to be about Adam and Eve or something? Yes! I’m glad you asked.
What my own experiences paired with this newfound knowledge and my discoveries through meditation showed me was that I had spent most of my life looking at things with a dualistic mind. This is when you view people, behaviors, situations, etc. through the lens of right/wrong, good/evil, black/white. I began to see nearly everyone and everything with a nondualistic mind. Non dualism essentially means “not two”. It is a lens through which there are no dichotomies. It is the complete acceptance of every person, thing, experience and situation exactly as it is. Practically speaking, instead of labeling a behavior good or bad, it asks, “Why”?
It occurred to me that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden was, perhaps, not the literal account of how sin entered the world, but instead, a beautiful and powerful metaphor for dualistic vs. nondualistic thinking. At this point, I know some people reading this will think, “of course it’s not a literal story.” Others may think I’m a heretic for questioning if the Bible story is literal. But largely, both groups have missed what I believe is the profound wisdom in the story. (And, if you do believe that the Adam and Eve story is literal, that’s fine! For the purposes of this, you can believe it’s literal and still follow my metaphor).
The representations in my metaphor are as follows:
The story is one of wisdom warning us not to view life with a dualistic mind. Not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once we start labeling people and situations as good vs. bad/evil, we stop asking “why?”, and we create a lot of suffering for ourselves. The ego (snake) comes along and tempts Eve through comparison. “…And you will be like God,” Satan says (Genesis 3:5). Comparison is what feeds the ego. The ego’s desire is to build itself up, in order to protect and preserve the False Self. When we are unaware of our True Self, any threat to the False Self is highly disrupting and produces anxiety. Once Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they immediately see with a dualistic mind. They see good and evil and are “naked and ashamed”. We can see how this is exactly what happens to all of us as our psyche develops. When we are babies, we are physically and psychologically naked and unashamed. Once we develop a superego and eat its fruit we feel shame and shame others based on what we ourselves and society labels as good or bad. Eating fruit from the Tree of Life transcends all of this. The Tree of Life asks “Why?” and knows there is a reason behind all behavior. Therefore, no one is dismissed as “evil”, but met with compassion. Behind every “bad” behavior is a path leading back to an unconscious psychological defense mechanism. When we become aware of this, our consciousness transcends to a higher level—The Garden.
C.S. Lewis challenges dualistic thinking like this:
“The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend…Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler [or Hitler]? That is why Christians are told not to judge.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
When my child is throwing a fit, he’s not a bad child. It’s not bad behavior. His behavior is telling me something. His feelings are not right or wrong. They just are. As a parent, I can then look at my child with empathy, step into his experience, and help him make sense of his internal world. Any “bad” behavior should be met with curiosity from the parent. Much of the time, however, we parents interpret our child’s behavior through the lens of our superego, or the knowledge of good and evil. “This behavior is unacceptable…my child is embarrassing me…he’s triggering my anxiety.” Reacting out of this way of thinking conditions our children over time to think of their feelings and themselves as acceptable or unacceptable. They feel shame when parts of their true selves are deemed unacceptable by the world around them. An important shift I’ve had in my parenting is realizing that a major part of my job is helping my children hold on to and deeply know their true selves and intuition. This transcends behavior. The same nondualistic thinking can elevate the way we view the world as adults too. We see all sorts of atrocious behavior from people we label “evil”. The uncomfortable truth is that no one was born evil. Buried deep, deep (sometimes very deep!) below their behavior, is that person’s essence, which is good. The church seems to have forgotten that God first calls us “very good” in Genesis 1. He doesn’t call us broken, as we are accustomed to labeling ourselves. The essence, or image, of everyone is good. It is only after we choose to see through the lens of good/evil that we become ashamed and begin behaving in ways to protect ourselves from feeling that shame.
Do NOT hear me saying that harmful behavior is acceptable. There are indeed victims and we should always protect the innocent. ALWAYS. I’m simply saying that this story teaches us to shift our view and recognize that we are all victims AND perpetrators. When a rabid dog is on the loose, it should be stopped. But the dog isn’t evil. We must understand that something went terribly wrong for the dog. It is a tragedy. We must protect others from the dog and help any victims that fell prey to it. But, we must see the essence of the dog and understand why it behaves as it does. Once we understand, we can feel compassion. Only compassion and love can truly transform.
Sadly, the message I’ve heard from most pulpits has left me resigned to my shame as inevitable. Instead of explaining the wisdom in the Adam and Eve story, it’s presented literally, and leaves us feeling helpless to change anything. The church term for this is “original sin”. Basically, Eve screwed it up for all of us and we will perpetually suffer until an external god comes and does away with all of it. (The doctrine of “Original Sin” was introduced by St. Augustine and wasn’t formally adopted by the church until the 16th century. For me, it is no longer a satisfactory explanation for “sinful” behavior). As Brené Brown says: “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” As long as we believe that someone outside of our own minds is responsible for our suffering (ie. original sin through Adam and Eve), we will feel powerless to truly face our shame and change.
When I woke up to this, I realized I had spent my life throwing dirt on top of my id, my true self and my intuition—burying it deeper and deeper into the ground until I didn’t even know it was missing. When I awakened, it was like realizing there was a small child—me—buried alive inside of me. I had unconsciously been searching for this child my entire life and finally heard a faint cry from deep within. As any parent would, once I realized she was down there, I began to claw through the dirt and any other rocks and mud that were preventing me from reaching her. Having done this, I can look at people and see the buried child underneath their dirt…and question why the dirt is so thick and the hole so deep. In other words, I become curious about their Life instead of getting stuck in the trap of good vs. evil. I hope the church can discover this truth. Only one tree in the story brings Life.
The quote below from Dr. Gabor Maté is a profound paradigm shift that helps us see nondualistic thinking in practice. Keep in mind that addiction manifests in many forms. Some of those are celebrated (work/success/achievements), some are looked down upon (alcohol/drugs).
If people can just listen to the other person’s experience, then they could see them and feel compassion for the pain that they are experiencing. It might be necessary to take away the word addict because the word is now packed with so many negative connotations of stigma. Every time you want to say the word “addict,” you have to say instead: “A human being who suffered so much that he or she finds in drugs or some other behavior a temporary escape from that suffering.” What if we were forced to say that every time we wanted to say addict?Dr. Gabor Maté
I challenge you to give meditation a try this week. Try it for 10 mins a day for a few days, and see how you feel. I got started with the Calm app. This is a great way to get started because the instructor walks you through what to do. I began with the 7 days of Calm and 21 days of Calm programs. This is a link to a FREE 30-day trial. First 5 people to register and claim it, get it! If you aren’t one of the first 5, you can still do a 7 day free trial.