“Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
– Alice in Wonderland
[Note to reader: terms like self, yourself, small you, little self, ego, and big YOU are used liberally in this article. The first five are synonymous; big YOU refers to something greater.]
Shocking as it may seem, like Alice, we are not who we think we are, either.
Have you ever noticed that your thoughts and attitudes about your life, job, friends, family all vary greatly depending on how much stress you’re under?
Like Alice, YOU are not who you think you are.
Running deeper, on autopilot, is the stubborn belief that you are in constant danger.
But you are not YOU. You confuse the two.
The problem: You confuse the ego – the small you – with who you really are – the big YOU. This results in anxiety and depression and a dominant inner state of unhappiness.
The solution: Find the truth, so the truth can set you free. Or really, find the YOU, so that YOU can set you free. Discovering who YOU really are results in peace and acceptance, and a dominant inner state of joy.
Let’s begin to unravel these yous with some science.
Body and Mind: A Relationship Worth Examining
It’s been a while since our lesson on the nervous system, so here’s a refresher, with a holistic twist.
Body and mind are not separate things, but a continuous feedback loop that is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS is like a delicate wiring system that runs through your internal organs and tells them what to do. Two things, mainly: Go! Go! Go! or Go with the flow.
Thus, the ANS has two “switches,” the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) we call the “fight or flight or freeze” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) we call “rest and digest.”
When your body-mind perceives a threat, your SNS is active. You can actually feel that connection in your organs, when your heart beats faster, for example. The SNS is very busy. It:
- speeds the heart rate and increases blood pressure;
- pumps adrenaline and cortisol into the system for energy and focus;
- dilates your bronchioles in your lungs so that you can get more air with shallower breath; and
- slows down your digestion so that you don’t need to stop for a burger while you’re running from a lion in the jungle.
This is what we call the stress response.
In this state (blood pumping, heart racing, sweat forming on your upper lip), it’s you against the world. Mistakes are made. Things get said. Moms single-handedly thrust cars in the air to save their children.
Most importantly, you experience the world as dangerous – as inherently unsafe. You are unable to incorporate all the self-help you have devoured over the years because it doesn’t seem relevant when your world is coming apart.
When your body-mind senses safety, your PNS is active. This physiological sigh of relief:
- slows the heart rate;
- decreases blood pressure;
- allows for digestive activity;
- welcomes sexual arousal; and
- generally works to repair the damage of the SNS’s burst of energy.
This is the relaxation response.
In this state, you perceive the world as safe. Time is made. Attention is given. Other points of view are welcome. The meditation teacher’s words make sense again. Your spiritual awareness is once again available.
A Great System, But…
Our daily lives are full of rushing to work and worrying about that; looking at our bank accounts and worrying about those; shlepping our kids around and worrying about them; reading the news and worrying that the world will fall apart at any moment. So, like a fish in murky water, we carry on, unaware that we’ve created a reality in which…
Almost our entire waking hours are spent in the stress response.
Factor in how not-so-self-lovingly we eat, exercise, and sleep, and it’s no wonder that our systems become overloaded and eventually burn out.
Anxiety is a warning sign that the system is on overload.
Depression can be a negative response to all of this stimuli, too: an executive decision to shut down in the face of insurmountable odds.
We evolved on this planet to switch easily between these two states, the SNS and PNS. But with our modern lifestyles, we’re spending a LOT more time in SNS – an unhealthy state of stress.
This is why meditation and other self-care practices have become so popular – to balance the system out. What all these practices have at their core is the ability to switch the system to relaxation in order to make contact with what is deeper within.
Who you think you are is the little you that is active during stress. Let’s examine who you are.
Little you: A Mistaken Identity
Back to class, freshman psychology this time: Little you is what we can call ego. This aspect of ourselves is a taskmaster, problem solver, and is a bit of a narcissist.
Ego wants to keep you safe, strong, and powerful. It is responsible for stitching together all of your memories to create and defend the character that you think you are. The story of you in the world.
In order to defend and empower this story of who you are, it sends a near constant stream of threatening thoughts to your awareness. (Did he cut me off? That was dumb, I shouldn’t have said that. She better not take my spot – that’s my spot!)
This is the Shakespearean tragedy of our existence: that unbeknownst to most of us, there’s a lunatic at the helm: keeping us on hyper-alert of the most mundane activity and running strobe lights to get our attention; telling us that if we just take action, fix the problem, defend our honor, then – and only then, all will be well.
Until the next problem arises, in approximately 3, 2, 1…
The moment you stick your head into any one of these rabbit holes, your body-mind goes into fight or flight. The resulting perspective can be anywhere along the spectrum of “something is wrong” to “the world is a dangerous place” to “I think I’m dying.”
It stands to reason then, that if you’re constantly paying attention to your thoughts, you are almost certainly going to be in a state of stress and suffering.
Ego Just Needs a Job to Do
Now that we’ve got that figured out, the next obvious question is Why? Why would our mind-bodies be engineered for, well, insanity?
The short answer is survival.
You may have heard the saying, “The mind is a great servant but a terrible master.” This refers to the ego’s ability to help you get on in life: to negotiate your salary, to stand up for yourself, to take action on someone else’s behalf for what is right. When trained to consider options, deliberate and take action, the ego is your right-hand man, your taskmaster, your lady boss.
Ego is a wonderful problem solver. But what if, in this very moment, there is no problem? The ego will remind you of a thousand problems that are not, right here and now, an issue.
Ego (small you) is great at gettin’ ‘er done but limited in other (very important) capacities, like opening your heart to the wonder of life, and feeling the love that binds us all together.
There is another aspect of who you are that is always present, available, and ready to bring true joy into your life at any moment.
The Big YOU
The big YOU sees things as they are.
The big YOU is your deeper self. Your higher self. Source. Presence. The infinite and undivided energy that makes you. It is filled with the possibility of you. It is your consciousness. It is love, the energy of the universe and the driving force of creation.
We may have fleeting moments of it – deep, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime sparks of consciousness and pure awareness. We can also experience more common life-affirming moments of creativity and being “in the zone” and feeling at one with nature and humanity.
The big YOU is the place where things are clear and quiet. And from that quiet comes the truth, allowed to emerge, just as it is.
When we remove the muck (layers of psychological conditioning and traumas) that hides this truth, the big YOU begins to come through clearly. It will resonate and vibrate through you. It’s like a song that plays from deep in your soul. Our bodies, minds, and emotions become a fine-tuned instrument to play this song into the world.
We can know we are touching this aspect of ourselves when we feel a sense of great joy and a gentle exuberance. We feel… alive.
Loosening the Ego’s Grip
Back to “reality.” It can seem hard to get to YOU … to experience your world beyond your thoughts, conceptions, and judgements about how things really are.
Our thoughts tell us about how things “really” are… and they’re quite convincing. But really, they’re just interpretations of events that we’ve experienced in the past and projections about how things could be in the future.
They’re not what’s happening right now.
- Our memories of the past are based on interpretations of what happened to us, not what actually happened.
- Our projections of the future are based on these past interpretations, which limit our future possibilities to those that our minds can imagine – mostly based on faulty interpretations of the past.
While these filtered versions of reality do their job at keeping us generally safe and out of trouble, they keep us safe only in a way that it is familiar.
New possibilities emerge when we let go of our tight grip on you and move to the experience of YOU.
So, if the ego has us on lockdown, it goes without saying that we’ll need to shake things up a bit.
The Wedge Between Small You and Big YOU
Mental training, meditation, mindfulness and similar practices that intend to quiet the mind (or calm the lunatic) are widely understood as the very keys to releasing the ego from its grasp, relaxing the nervous system, and unlocking our potential.
Put simply, meditation can make us happy.
If you need science to tell you this, there are reams of studies. If you prefer to hear it from the Buddhists, they have 4,000+ years of practice.
In May of 2001, modern science and long-time Buddhist meditators came together to shed some light on the subject of how meditation substantially impacts our emotions. Meditators were fit with EEG skeins of 256 electrodes to put the scientists’ hypothesis – that emotions, moods, and states such as compassion are trainable mental skills – to the test. Dominant activity was measured in the left prefrontal cortex, the part that elicits more frequent, positive emotions. Along with other amassed studies, these findings implied, as stated by the Dalai Lama, that “happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training.”1Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, p 229, Ballantine Books, 2008
One of the great disseminators of meditation in the Western world is Jon Kabat-Zinn. His describes mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
I like to focus on the space it creates between you and YOU.
When we meditate, we notice that there is part of us that is thinking and part that is aware of the thinking. This is you and YOU.
When we identify with the thinking, we feel a constriction in our bodies which comes from the nervous system moving into stress. This constriction makes us feel small, “not enough,” and our energy feels like it is squeezed out of us.
When we identify with what is aware of the thinking, we feel a spaciousness in our bodies. We breathe deeply and create space in our hearts and minds that feels big… immense.
The very act of noticing the difference between thinking and being aware is the awakening that removes the wedge between small you and big YOU. It allows for all things to exist harmoniously, the way that they are right now, without wanting them to be different.
Meditation is not about destroying the ego. It’s about removing its vice on your experience of life. When we see the ego as the character we play in this life, but not the end-all be-all of who we are, we can take it a bit less seriously.
We can solve problems and make jokes. We can plan for the future while knowing that “man plans, God laughs.” We can assign ego the right tasks so life can truly be lived.
It’s easier said than done. In my clinical and coaching practice, I help people free themselves from suffering by recognizing the mental-emotional triggers that activate old ways of thinking and being, which keep us on the hamster wheel of small you dominance.
Becoming aware of triggers allows for the release of old patterns of behavior and allows for the creation of new habits and possibilities. Meditation is one of the most powerful tools clients can use to continue this process of self-examination while creating healthy habits for a joyful life.
To be clear: Meditation is not only about sitting quietly and enduring the rapid fire thoughts produced by your ego. It is also the focus in a yoga practice, paying attention to nature on a hike, breathing deeply and expanding while your partner is angry with you.
It is about moving beyond thoughts, not eliminating them. Don’t expect your mind to become serene. Expect to practice aligning with YOU while hamster-wheel you endlessly tries to distract yourself from that process.
The rewards of consistent meditation practice are subtle and dramatic and everything in between. Many practitioners notice that regular meditation results in noticeable benefits, including:
- inner calmness
- mental focus
- connection with others
- enhanced creativity
- the ability to prioritize what matters
and the list goes on.
Getting Started with Mental Training
There are plenty of apps, classes and instructions on meditation, along with guided voice, music, mantra-based, mindfulness and other styles. You will likely want to experiment with what works for you.
Along with styles that resonate for you, feel free to consider the following:
Breathing is necessary in every moment, why not use it to your benefit? When you breathe deeply into your belly, you will trick your autonomic nervous system into perceiving the world as safe so that you can be YOU.
As you breathe in with your eyes closed, feel the breath in your nose and inside your body. Feel your belly expanding and moving.
Visualize what a breath might look like going in your body and then releasing. Listen to the sound of your breath.
Notice the moment between an in and out breath. It’s the space between notes in a piece of music. It’s the moment between heart beats.
This is spaciousness.
All thoughts can be allowed to travel through your awareness without grabbing onto them. Without believing them to be true.
All thoughts, rumination, judgements, and worries are all based on past experiences, not the present moment.
Whenever a thought comes in, notice it and then come back to this moment, now.
You may start commenting, judging, critiquing, following the thought – all normal.
Come back to the breath. Use your senses to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste what is happening now. Just notice those sensations without commenting or even trying to figure out what they are.
This is mindfulness practice. It can be done anywhere, anytime.
With practice, you will spend more and more time with YOU. Your ego will begin to adjust to what YOU really want, which is to let your deeper awareness through.
Plato is famous for his quote, “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” I would argue that an unexamined self is at the root of our suffering.
All of our dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and anxiety, as well as a good portion of our physical discomfort, pain, and disease, is literally self-inflicted. We believe the self to be an independent, separate entity in the world. The ego comes in to protect this separate entity and the trouble begins.
When we train the body-mind to align with YOU, we find a tremendous relief of the anxiety of being alive. We connect with the unity of all life and can lift the heavy blanket of depression.
But I understand that this work can be difficult. You may be one of those who says that meditation isn’t for you. Your thoughts just get louder and impossible to ignore.
This is the wily work of ego trying to protect you. If you get to YOU, ego believes, s/he will have failed in his/her ability to protect you.
That’s why they call meditation “practice.” You must commit to it regularly and stay through the tough moments of constriction to arrive at the moments of expansion and joy. And then recognize that just as quickly as you’ve arrived, the constriction comes right back.
But the more you train yourself to relax your nervous system and let those scary, unpleasant thoughts go by without attaching to them, the more you ground yourself in what’s really true. What’s really YOU.
Additional contributors and editors: Kim Neumann, LAc