Maybe you imagine yourself meditating by sitting lotus-legged and chanting Ohm with other saffron-robed masters. But long before that would have any value you have to do the other kind of meditation. The kind where you meditate on the nature of self, truth, identity, and reality etc.
You do that sort of meditation by asking yourself very simple philosophical questions like what is I made of? Or, What do I mean when I say I see something? It can be something as simple as, what definition of reality do I actually use every day? Or something as profound as if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? You might not get your answers in 49 days like Siddhartha did, but you too can definitely access your Buddha-Nature by answering questions like what is suffering?
All that we are is a result of all that we have thought. So what is this quote actually saying? When I say I am someone, the definition of me is really just a list of my beliefs and preferences. Your beliefs shape you this way: say one of your beliefs is that you like coffee. And so in the morning if someone asks if you want one, you always say yes.
But let us say you get an incorrect medical test that tells you that drinking coffee could be dangerously unhealthy for you. Because you aren’t aware that the test is wrong, and because you therefore believe drinking coffee will be dangerous, when someone offers you one you’ll say no instead of your usual yes simply because your belief about who you are has changed, (even though in some omniscient reality you could drink the coffee because the medical test is wrong). So in a very literal way, you aren’t what you are, you’re what you believe you are.
Preferences are just as powerful as beliefs when it comes to shaping our identity and yet they are acquired in a remarkably arbitrary way. You calm down around the colour yellow because your brother used to tickle your feet in your crib in your yellow room when you were a baby, so your brain associates yellow and happiness. That’s how a brain works; by association.
Similarly, if you see your dad look bad because he acts like a nerd, you’re likely to be attracted to your uncle who’s a cool-looking body-builder. So if someone says, oh Dave’s really into body–building, can we really say that was Dave? Or was it because of that day where his dad looked bad looking like a nerd? Do you see how strange it is that you think you’re who you are? Here’s how crazy and subtly you become You:
A dear friend of mine is a fine are painter. The reason she’s a painter is because she had an aunt who she thought was glamourous because she looked like a movie star. But the only reason she looked more like a movie star was because that aunt was more glamourous with her make-up choices. Still, it made the aunt glow with a special value, and so her life was studied more closely than everyone else’s.
One of the first things my friend noticed as a child was that the art on her aunt’s walls was different than other family member’s. She was too little to know prints from original art, but from her childish perspective she knew this art was rough. It was textured. Like it was three-dimensional. The little girl wondered if the three-dimensionality had something to do with her aunt’s glamour, and so she reached out off the back of the sofa to touch the rough surface of a highly textured painting.
It turned out the reach was too far and the little girl fell, and as she did her hand scraped against the painting and it drew blood. Because of all of the thoughts she had previously had, rather than being alarmed at the cut, my friend became fascinated by how this beautiful thing had managed to hurt her. For the rest of her life this paradox caused her to notice the art in every room she entered.
When you study enough art—especially with the innocence of a child’s mind—you can learn a lot. But the point is that she would today say that she is an artist, when in fact she has unwittingly chosen to be one simply because she was tipped by chance to notice and respond to the world through that filter. In a complex chain of causality, it is fair to say that my friend is a painter because her aunt was good with makeup. And that is how butterflies cause hurricanes and it’s why you shouldn’t worry about who you are.
Your identity is a very arbitrary, flexible thing. You have to have some preferences, so if steak or the colour pink are really working for you then go for it. It’s not like we should change just for the sake of change. But if you think you’re angry, or depressed, or unlucky then you’ll live like that’s true just like you won’t order the coffee when in fact the tests were wrong.
So it’s important to remember that while you don’t have to apologize for choosing to be a Madonna fan, you should still know that you can choose a better, more productive identity than angry, depressed, or unlucky. Because no one is those things any more than a movie projector that shows horrors is evil. But horrors are horrors, so don’t load those beliefs into your identity-projector. Don’t believe you’re depressed or you’ll act like you are, and you’ll warp the world with that lens. It’s one thing to believe you love Madonna, but it’s something completely different to believe you’re depressed.
You really are what you think you are. If you think I’m being anything other than completely literal then please take some time and really meditate on that, because being you is perfectly fine. But it is much more flexible and enjoyable to be a conscious you. And if you’re living consciously, then you truly know that all that we are really does arise from our thoughts.
No go think kinder thoughts about you, because you’re a lot better than you think
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.