The following is an excerpt from my “book” that I never finished, that continues to probe the question “who am I?”.
Who Am I? Or Being vs Doing
Walking the path of chronic illness is much more about being than doing. We may have to rest, maybe more often than we might like and we often move through our day slowly, sometimes stiffly or painfully. Many of our days are spent just taking care of chores that have to be done, like taking out the garbage or doing the dishes and little else. Our entertainment may be simple, like watching TV, playing games on our gadgets or going to the park to people-watch. We have time on our hands, and, unlike able-bodied people, our time has little to do with being active. In this Western culture, there is much more emphasis on what we do than who we are. (In fact, a clear example of this is if you meet someone at a party, the standard question to start a conversation is, “What do you do?”. A friend of mine, who had Lyme disease for some time would answer, “I work hard at staying happy and healthy”. Someone else I know asks a different question that is much more interesting than the standard one: “What is it that you’d like me to know about you?”).
As we explored in the section on loss, for most people, we have been defined by what we do to earn money and what we have accomplished in the physical world, rather than anything going on in our inner world. Therefore, when we become chronically ill, we can often experience a feeling of low self-esteem or ineptitude, because we aren’t producing something or being very active. The path of chronic illness can force us to explore our inner world, whether we like it or not, and who we really are and get underneath the labels we have had up until then, like “teacher” or “jogger” or “social butterfly”. In fact, if we take this even further, one of the greatest teachings chronic illness has to offer is to show us that who we are at the core level, is of the most importance and value. A good example of this is that for a time, I regularly chanted with a small group that was led by a Tibetan Buddhist lama. The first time I met him, I was floored by his essence. I walked into the meditation room and instantly felt a calm, expansive, loving, gentle energy emanating from him. I was so drawn to this energy! I wanted it for myself! And all he was “doing” was sitting there – he hadn’t even opened his mouth to speak! I immediately felt some of that calm pervade my being, understanding later, that a certain transformation had taken place in me just by being in his presence. Who we are at our very core can heal.
Being chronically ill can bring most of us to our knees at some time or another. What does this really mean? It means we are forced to let down our defenses. It means that when things are at their most challenging, our life is pared down to the very basics to what has to get done and what doesn’t. We are forced to rest even when we don’t want to – our bodies give us no choice. So, what are we left with when all else falls away? Our own energy. Who are we without our doingness? When things begin to break down, when we can’t be active, once we break through our first response of anger or perhaps fear, we begin to see our essence, our beingness.
We have already had to peel back the layers of our former identities and what defined us – job titles, etc. We may have to also peel back the layers of symptoms and our mind’s reaction to them to probe further, because they don’t define us either. The natural next step then, is “who am I beyond this physical body?”.
When I rest in the answer, or perhaps I should say, the question, I find myself resting in the Great Mystery, or beingness, itself. And when I’m resting there, I feel a completeness and an understanding that I’ve tapped into something of great value, and in the moment, I let go of any self-pity or any low self-esteem I may have. It might not solve any problems on the physical level, but it can bring me great peace.
Meditation: Who am I?
Get in a comfortable meditative position and relax your body and mind as much as possible but remain alert. Notice how sensations in the body arise and how some dissipate, how they change. After some time of just noticing, ask yourself the question, “who am I?”. Let yourself sit with the question. Or, you may find more appropriate the question, “who am I beyond this body?” or even, “what am I?”. See what happens as a response. Rest in that.