Who are you? Have you ever been asked this question? In many ways, we are asked a version of this wherever we go. It can be at a cocktail party or on a Zoom call where we introduce ourselves by defining our jobs and titles. We may be at a child’s party and answer the question in the role of parent. At church or temple, we may share another aspect of ourself. But, is this the real answer to the question?
Who are you?
Fully understanding and precisely answering this question, I believe, is why we are here on earth. I had believed I knew the answer, but, in fact, realized many years ago, I didn’t. I still don’t – but I am having fun getting to know myself in the process.
It was in October 2016 when I first discovered all I didn’t know about answering that seemingly simple question. It happened at a meditation retreat in San Diego. To kick-off the weekend experience, we attendees were given a blank paper. On it, we were asked to write down our answers to the following question: “Who are you?”
I sat silently, wrestling with how to answer the question. While others around me were busy scribbling, I was stalled. It was particularly tricky for me to answer this question at this time. It was precisely why I left my three kids at home with their dad that weekend. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
In leaving New York City in 2014, where I had spent most of my adult life, for San Diego, my life had turned into a series of past tenses: I was a national TV news anchor. I used to live in New York. I used to have interesting places to go and many friends to see. I had a fulfilling life of my own. I used to have a game plan.
I showed up at that retreat because I was lost. The flashbacks of the life I had in Manhattan were interrupted by the moderator when she said, “just a minute left to wrap up.”
So, I quickly jotted all that came to mind. It wasn’t much:
- Used to be a career person
- Former New Yorker
Tears began flowing through my eyes. After decades of hard work, education and accomplishment, these were the only words I could come up with for myself. 2 of them were written in past tense. The others were wholly unsatisfying because I wasn’t feeling successful or entirely satisfied in my performance in those roles at the moment. My stomach drops with the weight of disappointment I feel in myself.
To an outsider, my life may have looked privileged, ideal and happy. What’s to complain about when you live near the beach? Alot, actually. I was in the middle of an identity crisis and lost, my attendance at the event another sign. And yet, with my privilege and capabilities, I felt I didn’t have the right to complain. Worse yet, I felt guilty for complaining because it could show that I was ungrateful.
I really wanted to be happier as the caretaker for 3 kids under the age of 4. I thought I would be happier pausing my ambition for the first time in my life. I wanted to find satisfaction and fulfillment in becoming an ideal wife, caretaker and traditional woman. Instead, I felt I was falling short in every role I held now, different from when I had a full-time career. Gone were the competence and satisfaction I built at work that I would use into my role as homemaker, mother and more. Now, there was no job I had that fully made me feel like myself.
I was hoping this retreat could help me.
Parsing out our identity
“Now, look at your writing. If your adjective, quality or role can shift in anyway, like by death, divorce or change in circumstances, for example, – then cross it off the list,” the instructor said next. A New Yorker living in California can no longer be labeled as one. A journalist who is taking time off to care for her kids is not a career person. You get the the point.
Slowly, I found a way to cross everything I defined myself by off my list. I was left with nothing. Like the blank piece of paper with which I started. Empty. Exactly how I was feeling inside.
This was the point of the exercise.
“How many of you wrote down words identifying yourselves by the roles you play or the qualities you hold? Like being smart, kind, strong or pretty?” Every hand in the audience raised.
She went on to illuminate how we have all attached ourselves to qualities and roles – and thus identities – that are, in essence, transitory. They can change depending on circumstances. “You may be patient at work with your co-workers then yell at your kids when they are late for swim practice. Thus, you cannot be fully called patient, right?” I nodded in agreement.
“If your attributes can change, they cannot be your identity. They cannot be you. Because who we are never changes.”
My brow furrows as my brain wrestled with the words that blanketed the audience with a still calmness. Though I couldn’t explain it, what she said felt right and true. The feeling sunk descended into my belly like an anchor wading down to the ocean floor.
“I am not saying you cannot play your roles. We have to care for our children and our parents. Yet, you can play any role you like. It does not change who you are. Those roles are outside of you, not within you. What’s in you, can never leave.”
I breathed in that heaping whiff of truth. The last part filled me with optimism. It gave me hope that I had not lost myself by choosing my current roles and my zip code change.
“Close your eyes and reflect on who you are. Who is I? If you scan your body, where does I reside? “
As I turned inside to the dark stillness, I scanned for where “I” was. My heart? My gut? My brain? No where.
“Notice what you are aware of. That it can change with every thought. You are not your lunch nor the traffic. What is constant is your awareness of your thoughts. The witnessing. That is you. The presence. The source. This is transcendental consciousness.”
She went on to draw the metaphor of looking at an object, like a chair, in different ways. With your eyes, you see a chair. But, under a microscope, you see something different – molecules, cells and then atoms and then space – full of nothingness and yet full of potential. “That is like you,” she added.
This is the transcendental experience of self that has been mentioned across religions, sects and by different philosophers throughout time:
“…individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest of clearest, the surest of the surest…utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility…I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words?” British Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson
She went on to explain that there are 7 stages of consciousness with the 4th being transcendental consciousness. This is where you can witness your thoughts and things around you with stillness without getting swept away. This stillness is your true essence, your true Self. This is the self to explore, identify with and know, she adds.
“Now, let’s bring this to life in our first meditation session of the weekend…”
The rest of the weekend unfolded beautifully with more connection, clarity and confidence. I returned home to my children feeling uplifted – and without having to move coasts or get a new job. It happened by taking time for myself and looking within. For when I did, I could see myself in a different way – a kinder, more expansive and less temporary way.
At dinner parties, I still share that I am a working journalist, mother and aspiring author. I still have lofty ambitions and chores to do. The difference now is that I have more of a feeling of these things being roles I play, things I do – not the essence of me. That I am not arriving at some final destination of being whole and happy, that I am more-than-ok right now.
For a moment, consider reflecting on your own answer of who you are …though you may want to keep the answers to yourself and your journal. It could make your next Zoom call a little awkward if you rename yourself “peace and tranquility.” xx