October 31, 2016

I don't know who I am and it's better that way

In fall 2014 I attended a personal development conference and learned about how our concept of "identity" can either hold us back or open us up to amazing growth.  The presenter, Robert Fritz, an expert on the creative process (https://www.robertfritz.com/wp/) asked us to get out a pen and write down a list of "Who you think you are."  I happily started scribbling and came up with the following list:

Mom, wife, Mormon, Health Coach, Flake, Benac, Sister, Artist, Creator, Texan, Writer, Speaker, Bookworm, Violinist, Night Owl, Sociologist, Peacemaker, Independent, Dreamer

Fritz gave us all a moment and then said to the room of 250 people, "however you define yourself on the level of who you are is fiction.  Anyway you try to define yourself is fiction.  You don't know who you are."

I was stunned.  I was certainly all those things!  How could that not be me? That list of happy words that summed up a life, hopes, roles and more.  Certainly that had to be me?  My face showed my anger. This man didn't know me.  How dare he try and wash away my well-worn identity.  "Everything on your list is just something you do, not something that you are," he explained.  "Many of the things on your list probably relate to your relationship to others indicative of possesion, not an identity."  I examined my list.  It was true, if I took away all those things there was no doubt I would still exist.  I would still be me. Fritz then told us to pair up with a partner and repeat over and over to them the following phrase for 2 minutes:

   You don't know who you are.
   You can't know who you are.
   You don't need to know who you are.

As shocked as I was after the first exercise, this second one had my stomach in knots.  How could I face my partner and tell them they didn't know who they are or that it wasn't important?  I sobbed through both the giving and the receiving of the phrases.   I was terrified, livid, confused, deeply heartbroken.  And I knew he was right.  All those things that I was letting define me weren't actually me.  The person I was wasn't contingent on me having kids, knowing how to play violin, attending meetings on Sunday, being kind, I simply was.  I exist.  If I woke up tomorrow with no memories, I would still be me.  If my entire family disappeared overnight, I would still be me.  Those things I'd written on the list were things I did or owned, not who I essentially was.

Robert Fritz then gave me the gift.  He said, "Since you don't know who you are, you don't have to worry about what you're going to be.  You can just enjoy the experience."  And then I realized, losing my identities, breaking away from the roles I had shoved my existence into meant that I could instantly create total freedom in my life to create anything I wanted.  If I didn't need to be a creator, an artist, a mom, and just allowed myself to be there was no reason at all I couldn't create without limits.  I realized what I hadn't put on my list.  The identities I didn't see myself as.  Those were holding me back just as much as the identities that were written down.  My definitions of self stole from me the one essential truth, I am free every moment of every day to create the exact life I want now.

After this exercise the group took a 15 minute break.  I was shell-shocked and went outside to think.  I found a spot by a creek next to the conference room and just sat, looking at the water running by processing what I had discovered.  Three of my friends passed by from the conference.  Dear friends who shared my religion and career.  I must have looked awful because one of them came up to me and gave me a huge hug then said with great love, "don't worry, Hollywood, we know who we are.  He got it all wrong.  You are a child of God."  I just looked up and gave her a weak smile.  I didn't feel like telling her that I was excited to give that up.  That for me, the identify of being a divine being actually hurt my growth more than helped it.  That giving myself an expectation of pleasing some perfect, judging God and having to rise to live a divine existence had no part in my passion of what I wanted to create in this life.  All my identities could vanish overnight, and it would leave me more free, excited and passionate than ever to just go and live an amazing life free from expectation of how I should or shouldn't be.  I sat back down to watch the river again and my group of friends passed on.

As I've continued personal growth since then, I've learned that this concept is also central to buddhist philosophy (listen to podcast #4, The Illusion of the Ego here: https://secularbuddhism.com/podcast/) In the years since this experience, I've come to find that for me there is way more joy in living a life of passion than a life of purpose.  Purpose to me implies I create expectations for myself and how things should turn out.  Passion implies I live a life that creates joy, vitality, excitement and am open at any given moment to new experiences and ideas even if they conflict with prior ideas I may have held.  Passion versus purpose implies to me that I can give up trying to prove something to myself or others.  It implies that I suck the moments out of each day in gratitude for what is, not what should be.  It's been very exciting to see all the areas I've been able to grow in over the past few years once I gave up the idea of conforming to a specific identity.  When I do find areas that I'm frustrated in, I'll do a quick identify check and see if there's some expectation that's creating discomfort.  When there is a task that I don't want to do, is it because I don't feel like it fits into my role as a "wife" and should be more of a "husband" task?  Or when I'm disappointed that my business doesn't meet the exact goals I want in a certain month, am I shaping my identify on my business or rank?  Does my identify as a violinist mean that I get anxious about performing if my skills aren't up to snuff and I don't want to mess up?

The longer since this experience, the more value I find in it daily.  Today I'm passionate about living in a way that brings joy to myself and others.  For anyone interested in some great resources on living mindfully and in-the-now, I recommend the 30 podcast series on http://secularbuddhism.com.  Love to you all and enjoy the journey - Hollywood.

2 comments:

Mark A said...

I love you too Sarah. I love this post as well. It fits right in with my current life philosophy. All we are is the stories we tell ourselves. The good news is we get to pick the story and rewrite as needed. I see my kids trying to figure out what story to tell them self about themselves and others. Stories can become bad habits that take more than they give.
Thanks for sharing

Janell said...

I've been mulling on this post for a few days. I can only conclude that you and I relate differently to definitions of oneself or identity. There's is an paradigm that I do not see by myself, so your viewpoint is curious to me in the same way a different culture is often curious. Regardless of our differences, your soul-searching resulted in finding a way to live that brings you joy and passion. That is important.