When I was in high school, I remember being preoccupied with being my “authentic” self. I am quite sure I had little idea of what that meant because I think it was akin to knowing the content of my ego, my likes and dislikes, and simply being honest about them. For someone who avoids confrontation and tends to hide or lie about the truth far too often with the more persistent people in her life, this might not have been a bad ethics to practice; although, if that was what I was aiming for, I didn’t achieve my goal then and still have not.
I say that I was a bit misdirected also because I am helped a great deal by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.’s description of the Authentic self in his Five Levels of Attachment. From his perspective, the true self is no-self. It is one level below “preference,” and so implies that when there is so little attachment, one can be open to experiences without evaluating experiences in terms of likes and dislikes. And I don’t have her book with me (it is in my classroom library), but Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, in Most Intimate, attributes the same idea to Zen thought when she refers to going with the flow of life, the “self” moving in and out of holes. I think of big, hollowed holes in my face, but that is just my wacky mind. Also, Ram Das, in Polishing the Mirror, a text I am currently reading, writes, “As you are pulled inward [to the truth], you begin to leave behind the kinds of clinging and attachment that keep distorting and narrowing your vision” (1).
It is a relief to let go of a notion of self (I have for a while, at least from my experience) because maintaining any sort of narrative, and even figuring it out, could feel like a tight, constricting costume that came with orange rubber balls I needed to juggle as long as I wanted to claim it. Now I can just relax, breathe, and Be. Well, when I remember and am not wrapped up in mindless thoughts.
I used to have these huge three-ring binders about my life that I would update and nostalgically review. They were colorful and introspective, with photos and journal entries I had printed out. Sort of a narcissist’s scrapbook. It began as a project in 9th grade, “Freshman Memoirs,” and I loved the idea so much that I kept making a binder for each year (really each academic year because that is how time is demarcated in my mind) right up through graduate school. But about a year and a half ago, I decided it was too much work transporting them to wherever I moved and attempting to keep them hidden from others (strange that I wanted to catalogue a “self” so flamboyantly but then hide it), and I tossed them all away. I was at my parents’ house when I did this, and my mother, watching me from the doorway, commented that it seemed like I was erasing myself. It rather felt as if I were emerging and stepping out into the world a little lighter and freer.
For me, not having a self means letting go and forgetting what I might want to be or be seen as. When I walk through the halls of my workplace, I can simply experience the light through the windows and feel the air on my flesh and listen to what my voice sounds like humming. It allows me to take each moment as a fresh, new experience with curiosity and surprise. I can just focus on enjoying myself and being kind to others, without much self-consciousness. I don’t always remember this, of course. Being present like this just means to me that I am really seeing, really looking around, and everything becomes more vividly clear.
I wonder, coming from gender studies and writing for this site, if I am in danger of minimizing how unavoidable or helpful identity can be for some people and ignoring the privilege and luxury it may imply to be able to not be aware of or have pointed out to me markers of my identity because I am white, middle class, cis-gendered, and probably seen as straight. But I don’t necessarily forget my body. I cannot, when I am cupped around the nape of my bare neck by an older man who wants to “apologize” to me for bumping into me in the grocery store, as he explains he didn’t see my “ephemeral spirit” – or something like that – as if I were his grand-daughter or intimate partner (yesterday’s experience).
On a more positive note, I am fully aware of my menstruating body as I experience heightened pain, creativity, and sensual desire (last week’s experience). I am more aware of my body when I can quiet my mind. Being present is something I first came across in Eckhart Tolle, and I’ve always wondered about the universality of what he says though. One of my students is currently writing her juxtaposition/synthesis essay on his (and Trungpa’s) potential mis-handling of mental health and neuroses, for instance. So, I suppose I will have to think upon what I am inclined to celebrate and advocate for more critically. For me, though, no-self does feel like a good self, and it makes me a softer, kinder person most of the time, and that is really what I wanted to share.
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.