Who do you think you are?
All of the spiritual masters teach us that the fundamental question is “Who am I” or “What is ‘I’?” The key to true joy, true happiness, true freedom lies in the transformation that occurs when we really engage this question and learn to observe ourselves. Who is this “I” observing “me”?
Jesus said, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34) Spirituality is a matter of right perception of reality, of awareness. And this awareness begins with self-awareness. “You hypocrite,” warns Jesus, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
In his own baptism, Jesus is giving us a sign of the importance of right perception in understanding reality. The ritual act of bathing serves to wash the scales from our eyes, cleansing the lens of perception so that the whole body can be full of light. This is depicted in Jesus’ baptism as the heaven’s opening up, the parting of the veil between ignorance and understanding, darkness and light, to reveal his true identity.
The ritual bath we call baptism condenses in one sacramental moment the meaning of a life-long process of transformation whereby we “wake up” to our true identity. We spend our whole life “washing off” the illusions and attachments that cloud our vision, undergoing a continual letting go of false constructions of our identity to which we cling tenaciously, even as they cause us suffering.
The story is told of a woman in a coma who was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.
“Who are you?” a Voice said to her.
“I’m the wife of the mayor,” she replied.
“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a schoolteacher.”
“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I’m a Christian.”
“I did not ask you what your religion is but who are you?”
“I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.”
“I did not ask you what you did but who you are.”
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.
Anthony De Mello comments after sharing this story: “Your duty is to be. Not to be somebody, not to be nobody – for therein lies greed and ambition – not to be this or that – and thus become conditioned – but just to be.” (Taking Flight, pp. 140-141).
It is very easy for us to confuse our inordinate desires and cultural programming with our identity, and then to become distraught when our desires are unfulfilled or our conditioning bumps up against someone else’s conditioning. We become identified with labels such as I am an “American,” “Republican,” “mother,” “gay,” “Episcopalian,” as if these really defined us. But if I become a Democrat instead of Republican, does the “I” change?
A man asked his friend, “Are you planning to vote Republican?” The friend replied, “No I’m voting Democratic. My grandfather was a Democrat, my father was a Democrat, and by God, I am a Democrat.” The man said, “That’s crazy logic. If your father was a horse thief, and your grandfather was a horse thief, what would that make you?” “Ah,” said his friend, “that would make me a Republican.”
The point is that our convictions are transient. They come with our programming and are subject to change. I am not my ideological persuasion. I am not my thoughts; sit in meditation for any length of time and “I” observe thoughts as distinct from the observer. I am not even my body, or at least, my body is a part of me that changes. Millions of cells in our body are renewed each moment, so that every seven years our bodies are composed of entirely new cells. Cells come and go, just like our thoughts. The “I” remains.
Yet we identify with these transient epiphenomenon, as if our happiness depended upon them, and this causes us suffering. Our attachment to certain pleasures, to acclaim, to financial success, our resistance to criticism, loss, and negative feelings, these are the things to which we cling or we avoid as if our life depended upon them. We thereby gain the world, as Jesus said, but lose our soul. What does it really profit us?
Perhaps the most dangerous form of identification is with religion. A little girl asked her classmate, “Are you a Presbyterian?” “No,” he replied, “I belong to another abomination.” When we cling to religious identities they become abominations – sources of conflict, hatred, and judgment. The lens of perception becomes just as clouded by religious ideology as by any other. As one wit put it, “I see you are a doctor of theology; what kind of disease is that?” A fatal one, I’m afraid.
So, Christian friends, even our Christianity is not something to which we should cling, but a path we are invited to follow to discover who we are. Jesus invites us to imitate him, to be Christ, not to venerate him. He invites us to die to our self so that we might live; to drop our illusions and attachments so that we might become joyous and free. As Meister Eckhart said, “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.”
Who are you? Only you can answer that question, but St. Paul points us in the right direction: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As St. Paul put it, the old man or woman has to die so that the new man or woman can be born, so that Christ, our divine nature, can shine forth. That is what baptism symbolizes – death and rebirth. But what does that look like in daily life?
In his wonderful book, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, the Jesuit mystic Anthony De Mello offers us an outline of the way to discover who we are. It begins with a practice of attention, of self-observation, acknowledging our feelings including the negative ones. This practice yields insight into our inner life and motivations, the multiplicity of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we observe there.
Step one is observation, insight. Step two is realizing that these feelings are in me, not in reality. If I am resentful because my partner didn’t take out the garbage, the resentment is in me, not in him. This yields understanding of the causes and conditions that generate resentment such that I can choose to respond otherwise; perhaps with acceptance or at least action, rather than reaction.
Third, with understanding comes detachment. I don’t have to identify with the resentment. “I” am not resentful. Resentment is simply “there” and I can observe it. It is transient. The feeling will pass. I don’t have to cling to it, creating a whole identity around my resentment.
Finally, with detachment I begin to see that my happiness doesn’t depend upon my partner taking out the garbage. It isn’t him who needs to change, but rather me. When I change, everything else changes. When I am able to drop the resentment, I can begin to perceive myself and my partner, to perceive reality, clearly and compassionately. In Christian terms, “I” can observe “me” dying and Christ being born. This is the transformation that brings joy and freedom. It is the end of suffering, the end of the power of sin and death to define us. God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Insight, understanding, detachment, transformation: this is the life long process of living into our baptism. Once we have removed the log from our own eye, then we can begin to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye, and act (not react) in ways that promote healing and reconciliation in the world. If we fail to take the time to observe ourselves, to discover who we are, then we become like the exhausted woodcutter who kept wasting time and energy chopping wood with a blunt ax because he did not have the time, he said, to stop and sharpen the blade.
Who do you think you are? Isn’t it time to sharpen the blade?