Do you ever ask yourself, “Who am I?” I have been curious about who or what I might be from as early as I can remember. Brought on, in part, by this feeling that I wasn’t quite real. I never verbalized that and I’m not sure I could have, but somehow, looking in at myself felt like looking in on my dreams. There were shapes and forms and some semaphore-like story line, dotted and dashed to the point that it was impossible to decode.
I’m not sure that it’s possible to live your life without forming some structured sense of self. So, I did what humans do: I took on an identity. More accurately, I learned to present an identity that was part authentic expression, part other people’s opinions and beliefs, and part reflection of the cultural soup in which I grew up. The author Kurt Vonnegut says, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” This is the aspect of identity that fascinates me, what is pretense and the habit of pretense and what is true, truer, Truest.
In my childhood and into early adulthood I studied people and situations, trying to understand what threat or promise they held and who I would have to appear to be in order to avoid the one and capitalize on the other. It’s a terrible way to live. I couldn’t have people from separate parts of my life in the same room at the same time for fear they would see what a fake I was. By the age of thirty I wondered if I was insane.
The next four years became a dark passage where I felt increasingly unreal. I was either acting a part or drinking myself unconscious. I could not stand being alone with my thoughts and wondered if death was the only way out.
It might sound strange, but I’m grateful for that descent into darkness and grateful that I reached the place where going on like that was no longer possible.
In 1983, a few months before my 35th birthday, my ability to carry on ended. The thing about a healing crisis is that the one in crisis doesn’t know or see the healing aspect. All you have is the experience of that crisis, however it plays out for you. In my case, there was a little death—and the discovery that death can be a blessing. The path I had been following came to a cliff edge; beyond the edge was a complete unknown. I was scared because I couldn’t see what was ahead, but then I had been scared for a long time.
The wonderful thing about intense fear is that it does not leave you with the option of doing nothing. Fear forced me to do the thing I least wanted to do—ask for help. And help appeared, as the fairy tales tell us. Help came from my father and his simple matter-of-fact acceptance of the mess I was in. Help came from new friends and one or two old friends who were willing to see me change. Help came from books, books, and more books and from workshops and retreats.
I stepped off a well-worn path that was going nowhere good and onto the path that I am still exploring. A path that is revealed and created with each step.
At first, I worked very hard to know where I was going. Slowly I learned to trust the journey (mostly) and my curiosity returned. I love the expression, “Follow your nose.” My nose led me back to the essential question, “Who or what am I?”
Questioning like this has driven me a little crazy at times. I struggled, and it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that I was looking for an actual, intellectual answer, and that no such answer is possible. I had to learn that the intellect and reason can only help me to see what I am not, and that the answer to Who or What am I appears as an intuitive knowing that cannot be Thought.
More and more, I am the inquiry. If there is an answer it seems to be—Awakening. Whatever I truly am is this unfolding mystery.