We all have a story.
A dozen years ago, I co-founded Wanderlust, a company that produces large yoga festivals around the world. Our flagship event in Squaw Valley, California amassed enough yogis in leggings to swaddle the Taj Mahal in lycra. In the summer of 2012, I arrived on-site at our host hotel, the somewhat tattered Village-at-Squaw. Knackered from the trip, I was intent on quickly checking in to my usual ski condo and getting to our production meeting. As the stoner-cum-concierge bumbled through an unnecessary ream of clerical work, my patience began to fray. And I said it. It’s the only time I have ever uttered this phrase and I shudder in the paternalism of it even as I type.
“Do you know who I am?” I said.
Befuddled, the desk clerk looked at me, turned to his counterpart and said, “This dude I’m checking in doesn’t know who he is.”
The fool speaks wisely as the wise man acts the fool.
Who am I? This is humanity’s nagging question that chases us like a tail. It was famously asked by Ramana Maharshi in the eponymous tome on self-inquiry. Some never ask, suspended in their slumber. But once the shell is cracked, it becomes a life’s pursuit. You remove sheath after sheath, like opening a set of Russian dolls, only to find yet another ontological riddle. I have dog-eared dozens of books trying to solve this conundrum from every available angle. But given the limited word count of this letter, I skip the lighter fare and ask:
Are we simply pure awareness perceiving transitory phenomena from moment to moment?
Or is our identity defined by the continuity of our life’s experiences? Are we the summation of the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves?
It was 1975 and I stood outside in the playground with the other kids. I was a kindergartner at the American School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The student body was mostly Brazilian with a smattering of foreign nationals from the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe. English was prominent in the classroom. But, on the playground, the linguistic currency was Portuguese, specifically Carioca, the slangy dialect native to Rio.
My absorbent brain sponged in the language with relative ease. We had moved to Rio from Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The transition from Galician Spanish to Portuguese is simpler for the non-conceptual child’s temporal lobe. I was trading in sounds, language as music, not as vocabulary lessons. Of course, I was dragged into fluency by a force greater than anything cognitive; the innate instinct to belong.
The yard outside the main building was sloped at one end. And it was a favorite pastime to run along the flat section, then jump on to your bum and slide down the embankment. The grass had given way to dirt halfway down forming a landing strip of sorts. This was a ritual that I assiduously avoided. My body was not built for such nimble maneuvers. I was chubby. My paunch hung over my jeans. My thighs chafed just enough to wear down the denim between my legs to a thread-bare smoothness.
I parked myself on the sidelines listening to the school bully, Bobbito, direct traffic down the slope. The soundscape was chaotic. What possessed me I don’t remember, but a sudden surge of confidence thrust me into line and I poised myself the best I could. My turn. And I ran towards the slope, flung myself awkwardly forward like a baby robin in first flight. It wasn’t the smoothest landing and no distance records were set, but I did it. I made it down the hill. A couple barks of “Americano” my reward.
More sure of myself now, I trudged back up the hill and back into the queue. I cinched my belt a notch, tugged on my polo. This approach had more verve. I launched up, landed on my butt. And heard the sound. Curious how the brain can immediately process sonic phenomena into material reality. It was a ripping noise that made all other aspects of existence momentarily cease. I had torn my jeans straight down the crack of my ass. What’s more, my tighty-whitey underwear, now available to the yard, had been stained by the dirt path.
This sent Bobbito into paroxysms of rapturous laughter as he belted out, “The American shat his pants.” The infectious refrain was repeated again and again. “The American shat his pants. The American shat his pants.” A catchy tune it must have been as it echoed across the yard. I stood at the bottom of the slope, nowhere to hide, eyes welled, lip bit, naked less my cloak of self-loathing and embarrassment.
Fight, flight, freeze or, in this case, find the angle from which the least amount of people can see your stained underwear and shuffle back to the classrooms. Finally, off the Serengeti, and back into the relative safety of the admin building, I found my backpack and did my best to sling it cumbersomely behind me in attempt to camouflage my predicament. I limped into the nurse’s office purporting an awful headache, one that apparently must have caused the nurse to think I shat my pants. “I must go home,” I told her.
My mother was summoned and dutifully arrived. I made my brisk walk of shame back across the yard clumsily, as if I was in a three-legged race with myself. One last lingering coda of the “The American shat his pants” faded into the distance.
This was the story of my youth, the hero’s journey inverted, replete with all its classic shadow archetypes; the bully, the nurse, the tender mother, the ego, the shame, the self-loathing.
And this tale became the parable of my adulthood; the incessant need to be liked, to assimilate, to seek the approval of others, to base my identity in what other people think of me.
It’s what led me to get into a taxi cab thirty-five years later with my daughters, recognize that the driver was Pakistani, and subconsciously muster a thick South Asian accent, “Greenwich Willage, pleece.” My girls looking at me horrified. The cabby eyeballing my khakied whiteness with confusion and pity. I just wanted to connect.
It took me forty years to understand the difference between fitting in and belonging. Of course, I couldn’t have expected my shit-stained 5-year old self to comprehend it, but Brené Brown finally articulated it perfectly. Fitting in is changing who you are in order to be accepted. Belonging is to be accepted while never compromising your authentic self.
I have compassion for that chubster. I was simply using the tools I had to survive. However, I now recognize that many of the seeds of my adult shortcomings were planted in this childhood yarn: the lack of self-love that pushed me down that slope in the first place, the false pride not to cry, the lying to the nurse, the shame born out of a lack of empathy for myself. These are all deficiencies of the ego.
Our own personal folklore can so often reinforce negative states of mind and keep us helplessly entangled in our emotional states. In many ways, living in the myths of our past and projecting them into the future keeps us bound to our pain and lost in thought. And it is our identification with this thought that can create the ego or a false sense of “I.” In this way, our suffering is simply a fantasy of our own projection.
A layer pulls back. A doll cracks open to reveal another doll. And I try to move a step beyond.
Now that I look more critically at my story, as humorous as it may be to tell, I wonder if it’s all bullshit. Maybe I slid down that slope and no one even cared? Maybe Bobbito was a voice inside my own head? To some extent, does it even matter? Whether fact or fiction, perhaps my ego sculpted this story to gird a false sense of identity?
And now I author questions because I am questioning my self-authorship, groping for truth in the dark.
Memory itself is a type of confirmation bias crafted by the psyche to reinforce one’s current assumed identity? Are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves simply the ego’s attempt to retain sovereignty over an illusory self?
My playground story is among dozens of others that constitute the content of consciousness. And my personhood is certainly connected to the continuity of my life’s experiences. I don’t want to bypass trauma. Awful things can happen to people and that pain is real and must be processed.
However, as I sit in meditation, peeling back the koshas, I leave my satchel of stories, albeit briefly, at the door, if only to pick them up later. Just for an instant, there is a sensation of emptiness. For specks of time, the notion that “I” am somewhere inside my body as the thinker of my thoughts dissolves. I can only suppose this is what Eckhart Tolle means when he reduces “being” to the simple “I Am.” I live nowhere near the enlightened state he inhabits, but I suppose to glimpse it is to know it exists.
In this wide, fleeting expanse, there is a simple conscious awareness of passing phenomena happening in this moment. And again now. In this quietness, there is truth. And truth has no story.