“The outward man is the swinging door; the inner man is the still hinge.” – Meister Eckhart
What qualities make up who “you” truly are? When you reflect on your concept of “self,” what ideas, traits, or qualities come to mind? The way that you define your identity and deep-seated sense of self affects your way of being in the world and the way that you relate to others.
When we overly identify with the external, our sense of identity is fragile and subject to change. Imagine if someone places the foundation of their true identity on their education, profession, family, marriage, or hobbies. While there is nothing “wrong” with feeling a close connection and alignment with these aspects of life, the danger lies in over-identification with them. This is so dangerous because all of these things are found externally and they are all impermanent.
Mindfulness allows you to cultivate a powerful connection to your observing self. This is the part of you that is pure awareness. The observing self is that part of you that notices all that you do, say, think, and feel. Right now you are reading the words on this page and having thoughts or feelings related to them. Perhaps you are feeling uncomfortable with your sitting position, so you are also conscious of your physical sensations.
There is another part of you that is not doing any of the thinking, feeling, or perceiving of physical sensations. This is the part of you that is aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations. You are probably breathing and your heart is beating right now, too. Now that I have drawn your attention to these physical processes, you are now aware of your breathing and heart rate.
Read through the following statements and mindfully observe your reactions (Alidina, 2011):
(1) You are not your body
Your body is a mass made up of millions of cells that are dying and regenerating all of the time. In fact, about every 7 years your body is composed of all new cells… you are no longer the “same” physical form that you were 7 years ago. In this very moment your lungs are filling with air, your heart is beating, your hair and nails are growing, your digestive system is working, and your immune system is fighting any foreign invaders.
“You” are not “doing” any of this… it is all happening. If your body were to become completely paralyzed and you could no longer “feel” your physical self, the sense of “you” would remain. As Alidina (2011) puts it, “the very fact that you say ‘my body’ suggests it is something you have, rather than your true inner self.”
(2) You are not your thoughts
No matter how peaceful and tranquil of an inner state you reach through mindfulness, thoughts keep on coming. When thoughts arise, you are aware that you are having them. You cannot “be” that which you are “aware” of – you are observing it. The very fact that you are capable of observing your internal thought processes indicates the separation between you and your thoughts.
There is a “space” between you and your thoughts. Mindfulness meditation allows you to take a step back from your thoughts and observe them for what they truly are without becoming overly fused to them. Do you “know” what you are going to be thinking in the future? Probably not… but you are aware of thoughts as they occur. They are separate from “you.”
(3) You are not your emotions
In the same way that your observing self is capable of mindfully noticing thoughts as they arise, you are capable of observing your emotions with this same awareness. If “you” were your emotions, then you would not experience any sense of struggle with them – they would pose no problems to you at all. Through mindfulness, you can learn to take a step back from your ongoing present-moment experience and observe your emotions as they arise. They do not have any “power” over you unless you allow them to. Your true self is pure awareness of emotions as they arise.
“You” are the fully awake, aware, and observing entity that is conscious of your physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. If you could no longer feel your body, “you” would still exist. It is “you” who mindfully observes your thoughts and becomes disentangled from them. It is “you” who is aware of your emotions as they come and go like waves over you. “You” are the immaterial and eternal presence that is fully awake. Choose to emancipate your true self from bondage to your physicality, thoughts, and emotions. “You” have been truly free all along.
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Alidina, S. (2011). Mindfulness for dummies. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Featured image: gata no espelho by Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes / CC BY 2.0