Photograph by KatB Photography
Have you ever been nervous for a job interview or a date and had someone tell you to “just be yourself”? What on earth does that mean anyway? If you’re anything like me, the command to be yourself is likely to make you even more self-conscious than ever. We have so many different identities and often take on different roles in different situations. Think about what you are like around your friends vs your family. The roles we take on in a given situation can be useful, but they can also start to change us in unhealthy ways.
During my brief stint as a web project manager for a large multi-national corporation, I was called into the bosses office one day and given a talking to. Among several other offenses my two bosses told me that I was “very negative”. Wow. That threw me for a loop. When I first started the job, I noticed how much everyone around me complained. I decided that I would be a bright shining beacon of positivity in our gloomy basement office. Yet, little by little my determination to be the example of light eroded as I unconsciously began complaining in order to fit in with the corporate culture. Apparently, I went a little too far.
As hard as it was to hear, I was grateful that my bosses pointed out my stinky attitude. The change from Positive Patty to Negative Nelly had occurred so slowly that I wasn’t aware of it. From that point on, I made it an absolutely unbendable rule that I would not say anything negative at work. It wasn’t easy, but it was an incredibly helpful practice in awareness.
The building of such awareness is an invitation to question and explore the very nature of self. Who am I, really? The positive person I want to be, or the negative one I sometimes act like? Such questions have led many people onto a path of spiritual practice and I’m no exception. While I am influenced by many, the practices that have touched my heart the most are the ones that are descended from Hindu Tantra. The Tantrics describe two worlds woven together: the world of spirit (purusha) and the world of matter (prakriti). The world of spirit is unchanging and perfect. The world of matter is constantly moving, pulsing between concealment and revelation, ignorance and knowing, positive and negative. These two worlds are both distinct and real, and yet inextricably bound together.
The part of us that changes, including our thoughts, feelings, preferences, abilities, and aversions are of the relative world. Through the lens of this worldview, it seems perfectly normal for our personalities to contain contradictions. The part of us that does not change is the part of us that actually goes beyond self – it is where our individual self merges into the universal self. In other words, this is the self that we all share.
According to many spiritual traditions, returning to a full awareness of the universal self is the purpose of spiritual practice. From the Western individualistic perspective, the thought of merging with the one consciousness might seem scary and even undesirable. My first experiences in studying yoga philosophy left me confused. Why, I wondered, do we even have a personality if our goal is to transcend it? It was the actual experience of connecting with that deeper self that offered me an answer.
Through my practice of meditation, I have created a connection to and even a relationship with the part of me that is connected to everything else. When I sit, close my eyes, and relax it is like dropping into the embrace of the sweetest and most familiar friend. My struggles, my insecurities, and my doubts fall away and the boundaries of “me” becomes blurry. Over time, one of the biggest changes I have noticed and attributed to this practice is less worry about being right, being liked, or especially being cool. Not that I’m over those things entirely, far from it. But the more I practice connecting to the universal part of myself, the more comfortable I become in my own skin.
An awareness of the way that we are all connected offers freedom from the need to compare ourselves to others to look for superiority or inferiority. With a deep connection to the part of us that is perfect, our surface imperfections become a part of our natural beauty. We become willing to express our moment by moment truth without needing to convince someone else or even be approved by them. Thus, our self expression becomes an act of love for the miracle of diversity. We are free to create and re-create our selves spontaneously simply for the joy of it.
Practice: Close your eyes and relax your personality. Relax your preferences. Let all sense of self release. As you let go of your individual self, issue a non-verbal invitation to the universal consciousness. Allow your self to merge with all that is by simply relaxing into it. Rest here for several minutes. When you open your eyes, look around the room where you are with the awareness that every single thing you can see, feel, taste, touch is made of the same substance. Look for the beauty inherent in such variety. Each hard thing creates softness. Each dark thing creates light. It is only contrasted against each other that each shape, color, and sensation exists. As you walk through your day, take a moment here and there to marvel at the world you live in.