Mindfulness: Subtraction and the Big Questions

The older I get, the less I seem to have to say, and the things I thought were so important and so meaningful have changed. Most of what I thought was important seems to be quite meaningless now. It’s a pretty long list. In the past, I have prided myself on having insights into life’s “Big Questions,” and being able to assist others in exploring their own answers to these questions. What are the Big Questions? “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Who is God? What happens when I die?” Maybe you have a few others.

Let’s focus on “Who am I?” One of my wise teachers from the past used to tell a story of the time when he was seeking the answer to this question. He decided to travel around India, seeking out the wisest of gurus, and asking them, “Who am I?” He eventually became frustrated and gave up this seeking, because he kept getting the same answer: “You are a man traveling around India asking ‘Who am I?'” It was only later, back home in the USA, that he realized the wisdom there. It’s the mindfulness game once again. We are exactly who we are in this moment, a motorist, a passenger, a customer, a sports fan, a lover, a blog reader, a blog writer, etc. Our situation changes, we change. We are transitory. We are malleable. The roles we play may be embraced as we are fully present in the moment with our experience.

But underneath that ever-changing self is an inner hearth and home where we carry our deeper identity. At least this is true for most of us. Carl Jung wrote about this in terms of introvert and extrovert. In Jungian terms, if we identify more with that inner hearth and home, that deeper, inner identity, we are more introverted. If our locus of identity is more toward the outer, more transitory self, we are extroverted. I would suggest that the more healthy, adaptive way of being is to be able to shift between the two. In the extreme, either introversion or extroversion is pathological, e.g., Schizoid Personality Disorder (pathological introversion), or Borderline Personality Disorder (pathological extroversion).

But meanwhile, back at the inner hearth and home, we can again ask, “Who am I?”┬áThe way life works for most of us is that we can live for long periods, maybe decades, thinking that we are this certain person. This person, “me,” is defined by how we are engaging our outer life. I am the son of my mother and father, I am a brother, I am a student, I am an engineer, I am a husband, I am a father, and so on.┬áThe Truth is, however, if we look deeply, we find that we really are not any of these “me”s. And as we live our lives, this Truth confronts us, sometimes in ways that are uncomfortable or traumatic, e.g., adolescent identity seeking, midlife transformation, retirement, old age and death.

So, here’s a mindfulness meditation you can try. I think it is a profoundly interesting contemplation to ask the question, “Who am I if I’m not….this.” We get at least a glimpse of deeper Truth as we continue to peel away the shallower truths, as you hear yourself say, again and again, “Nope, I’m not really that.” Try it yourself, and see what you find after you have subtracted out all that you are not. You may find it fascinating, maybe even enlightening.