One of the main characteristics of a life of sleep is that we are totally identified with being a Me. Starting with our name, our history, our self-images and identities, we use each one of these things to solidify the sense that we are living in our little subjective sphere. We experience ourselves as “special”—not in the normal sense of being distinguished or exceptional but in the sense that we feel unique and subtly significant. Interestingly, our feeling of specialness is not just from having positive qualities; we can even use our suffering to make us feel unique and special. Yet not needing to be special, not needing to be any particular way, is what it means to be free—free to experience our natural being, our most authentic self.
For example, we all have images of ourselves that we unconsciously carry with us throughout our waking hours. Our self-images are the conceptions or pictures of how we see ourselves. We can have a self-image of being nice, or competent, or deep; or we may have a negative self-image—seeing ourselves as weak, or stupid, or worthless. Usually we try to focus on our positive self-images, and we often try to shape our external life to portray ourselves in the most favorable way. We live driven by the vanity of trying to look a particular way, mostly to gain the approval of those whose opinion is most important to us. Whether it’s our clothes, our hair, our body—our radar for approval is constantly running, mostly unconsciously. This is true even with the car we drive: whether it’s a Cadillac or a hybrid or a pickup truck, when we sit behind the wheel, it defines who we are to ourselves and to others, and we are usually totally identified with that image.
Much of our life is spent trying to live out of our self-images, and we rarely have the inclination to look at them honestly. In fact, it is very difficult to be truly honest with ourselves, especially since we can simultaneously have both positive and negative self-images on board and may not recognize the inconsistencies. This is due to the fact that we all wear blinders—a psychological defense that doesn’t allow one part of ourselves to see another part. For example, if we need to see ourselves as nice, we may ignore all of our harmful or self-centered qualities. Or, if we need to see ourselves as unworthy, we’ll ignore all the positive data. This is actually quite common.
Closely related to our self-images are our identities—how we define ourselves according to the roles we play, such as mother, businessman, meditator, athlete, and so on. The identities we assume don’t have to make sense. For example, even though I’ve written five books and many published essays, I still don’t have the identity of being a writer. And stranger still, even though I’ve been severely limited in my physical activities for over 20 years due to a chronic immune system condition, I still see myself as an athlete. Actually it doesn’t really matter whether our identities make sense; what matters is how attached to them we are in our need to define ourselves.
Our self-images and our identities alike become part and parcel of the stories we weave about ourselves. Almost always these stories are skewed versions of the truth concerning who we are—our history, our victimhood, why we’re angry, and on and on. We are caught in a story when we tell ourselves, “I’m worthless,” or “I’m depressed,” or “People should appreciate me.” We’re particularly caught when we say, “I’m this way because . . . ,” and then assign blame to others—our parents, say—or to something that happened to us. We can also know we’re wrapped up in one of our many stories if we have the thought “I’m the kind of person who…,” or “ I’m not the kind of person who….” For example, “I’m the kind of person who has to be alone.” Or “I’m not the kind of person who can be disciplined.” The point is, most of our stories are self-deceptions in that they are partially manufactured versions of the truth—truths we adopt in order to feel a particular way. But living out of stories prevents us from living more genuinely.
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