Sense of Self

By Richard Lang

Photo: Caras Ionut

Our sense of self – who we see ourselves to be – is highly infectious. We cannot keep ourselves to ourselves. When we are under the illusion that we are what we look like – a person, separate from other people – our state of mind broadcasts to others and influences them. But when we see through this illusion to the clear No-thing at our centre, this awake emptiness that contains all things, this state of mind also broadcasts – and influences others. Let me illustrate how this plays out during our lives.

There are potentially four main stages in our lives – the baby, the child, the adult and the seer.

1. The Baby
Essentially the baby is open, faceless, at large, space for the world. It is not yet seeing itself from outside, from a few feet away, as it appears to others – with a face. It is seeing itself only from its own point of view – a single Eye full of the world. Of course, it doesn’t think in these or any terms. It just is. Looking at your mother, you are room for your mother – face there to no face here.

Watch how this Openness affects those around the baby. An adult is talking with a mother holding her baby. Then he turns to the baby and his face opens – he even starts speaking in ‘baby speak’. He looks into the baby’s eyes with no feeling of self-consciousness. The baby’s state of mind – its facelessness - gives the adult permission to be faceless, open, at large. Then the adult turns back to the mother and puts his face on again…

A baby’s Openness is powerful. Non-verbally the baby is saying: “I am open for you, I am space for you. There is no distance here – we are exchanging faces. I am in you and you are in me. Enjoy this with me.”

Obviously the baby is not actually saying or thinking this – but this is its state of mind, or rather state of being. It is hard to resist!

2. The Child
A child of five years has been learning for five years about its appearance. Everyone around it is telling it (mainly non-verbally): “You are what you look like to us. You cannot see your face, but you have one. Look in the mirror, put that face on, and act as if you are behind it, inside that body.” We cannot resist this feedback. Our parents, friends, everyone is saying: “I am in this body, and you are in that body. We are separate. Become aware of this and take responsibility for the actions of your body – for your actions…”

Far from resisting this process of identification, we embrace it enthusiastically. As children we want to be a part of this new world, to be someone in this society. This is healthy – it is an essential aspect of growing up. In fact, growing up is this process of working out which person you are and taking responsibility for being him or her.

But as children we still have one foot in the Open World from which we are emerging. Unselfconscious we are still free, at large, making things up as we go along… most of the time. But as the months go by we are less and less in this headless childhood world and increasingly in the headed adult world… Say I am a child in the garden, wide-open to the flowers and birdsong, when someone calls my name. Suddenly I feel self-conscious, shrinking from being as wide as the sky to the one in the mirror – the one in my mind. Or I am racing around being a bird or a plane and dad tells me to behave. Immediately I jump into ‘myself’, the one with a face. From being at large and free, increasingly I find myself ‘boxed in’. Childhood is this back and forth between being Nobody, natural and free, and being Somebody… And as I grow up I spend less and less time being Nobody…

Why do we love being around children? Surely because their contact with their essential Openness and Freedom is contagious. It gives us permission to see the world afresh, as we used to when we were children. With children we can for a moment be free again, we can be spontaneous, we can again live outside our adult boxes… Gazing unselfconsciously into a child’s eyes, making faces, being a train or a bird, making nonsense sounds for fun… we are transported to our Childhood whose essence is our self-free Self. The child there gives us permission to find the Child here. “Hey adult, stop being an adult and come sail with me across wild seas to a land of wonder and mystery…”

At the same time, we as adults cannot help but guide children into their self-boxes. There comes a time when we must all put aside childhood and ‘grow up’.

3. The Adult
As adults we have made the leap into becoming people. I am now profoundly convinced I am what I look like to others. The idea of being space for the world, of being at large, of being face to no face with others – in this adult stage this sounds like madness, or at best, childish fantasy. In adult society we all agree that we live behind our faces and are therefore face to face with each other. Non-verbally I declare a thousand times a day: “I am here inside this box, you are there inside that box.” This consciousness is everywhere. Who would deny this ‘reality’? I have only to look at you for you to have the feeling that you are being looked at – that you are the one that I see… And you do the same to me: “Hey, Richard…” “Yes?” I affirm my separate identity without even thinking.

Is this what life is all about? Is this the end of the story - you find out who you are in society and then make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt? Is this the purpose of the great adventure of life that started so promisingly – shrinking from being everything to the one in the mirror?

No! This is only Act Three in a four-act play! Now comes the best part…

4. The Seer
I look at what I am from my own point of view and take seriously what I find – faceless, I am not contained in any kind of box here but am at large in the world. I am space for everything….

This is not regressing to being a baby again, for I do not forget what I have learned. I am well-aware that for others I have a face. In other words, I now have two identities: Publicly I am a person, separate from others; privately I am space for the world – others are in me, face there to no face here. I am the One appearing as an individual.

Now I cannot help but broadcast two states of being: I continue acting as if I am a person and therefore continue reflecting back to others how they appear to me. I am still saying, non-verbally: “I am a person and so are you.” But at the same time I am seeing that I vanish in favour of you - I have your face instead of my own. I cannot help but silently declare this reality to everyone I meet. This is not primarily a thought or a feeling - it is a non-verbal looking, listening, sensing. Seeing this, silently I transmit this incredible truth to you: “You are in me. Your face is mine. I am you.” And therefore I am also saying to you: “You too are faceless, at large, free! Please enjoy this with me!”

When we notice this beautiful, profound, astonishing fact about ourselves: that I am in you and you are in me – overlooked in Act Three but rediscovered in Act Four – we don’t need to tell people verbally for them to receive it. We transmit it simply by seeing it. This message, this state of being, is as contagious as the “I am separate” message we are also sending out.

Be conscious of your Original Self, your headless Self, which includes your acquired self, your headed self, and carry out an experiment:

Can you keep this wonderful reality to yourself? Can you really contain yourself?

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