Thursday, May 20, 2010

Defining Ourselves From the Outside In

There is a maxim in the 12-step tradition: "Don't judge your insides based on somebody else's outsides." This means that we cannot accurately form opinions of ourselves based on the appearance and/or outward behavior of others. We may look at someone and think, "Man, she's really got it made," or "I wish I were as confident as he is." We might have these thoughts about a colleague, a celebrity, or even a close friend without being aware that beneath their exterior features there is a life being lived that may not be the bed of roses that it seems.

The Buddha knew that anyone who takes human birth is subject to suffering at some point in their lives. Being human myself, I am no exception. In the name of full transparency, in my role as a teacher and therapist I have been the subject of peoples' imagined ideal. They usually see me when I am on my best behavior, and in the role of someone who has answers to their questions. There have been times, however, when I have had to lead a meditation practice with my heart broken into bits.

There is also a tendency for people to define themselves based on their own outside appearance or possessions. You might hear something like, "That kind of car is not 'me'," or "What color sweater do you think I am?" Obviously, this way of looking at the "sense" of who we are indicates that we are deep into the territory of "I, me, and mine," which also means that we will soon be suffering because of it. If I define myself by what kind of car I drive, eventually that car will be gone and who will I be then?

It is fine to have possessions and people in our lives that bring us enjoyment. There is nothing essentially wrong with desiring to have things, either. What brings about suffering is desire that gives rise to a "sense of self." We really need to remember that we are not our possessions. Once again, the mantra, "I am not this, it is not me, and it is not mine," can help us to open the tight, grasping fist a little bit, and can offer us a moment of respite from the suffering that comes along with I-dentifying ourselves by what we own, what we wear, where we live, or who we know. When we can walk in the world as authentic beings, allowing the things in our life to come and go without as much clinging and aversion toward them, then we really possess something worth emulating.



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