Six years ago I had the fortune of taking a wonderful spiritual workshop led by my friend Meg S. Miller. In one of the sessions she had us sit face to face/ knee to knee with a person we did not know well; the exercise required one person to ask the question, “Who Are You”, and your partner would respond with a one or two word answer; the person responsible for asking was instructed to not react, either verbally or with a change in facial expression to their partners response, only to say after each and every response, “thank you…….who are you”.
I remember that it was somewhat entertaining to hear my responses: “mother” “yoga teacher” “white” “athletic” “jewish” “truthful” “patient” “woman” “grounded” “spiritual” “yogi”, but as the exercise continued, and these somewhat familiar layers of identity began to peel away I began to notice some of the more subtle identities of who I took myself to be: “depressed” “faithful” “controlling” “married” “organized” “survivor” “anxious” “overweight” “responsible” “nail-biter” “privileged” “wounded”. As I responded, I could simultaneously hear the murmur of responses from the other participants in their dyads, “fat” “abused” “unworthy” “angry” “jealous” “unorganized” “adopted” “divorced” lingered and merged with my own. Halfway through the exercise I quite unexpectedly started crying; the tenderness of that moment, to not only hear my own responses, but hearing the other participants was deeply intimate and powerful. It felt as though small thin transparent pieces of filament began to connect us all. This was an intensity I had never experienced before-it felt as though I was being literally pulled apart, seam-by-seam and in fact that was exactly what was happening. There are pivotal moments in our lives- experiences that we look back upon and we see how our lives were forever changed, I have come to see that this was in fact one of those moments. It was during this experience that I became a witness to all the layers and layers of endless roles and identities I took myself to be and listening to others in the room — I saw how we all do this with one another. At the end of the exercise I was physically exhausted and overcome with the realization that I had never been aware of the weightiness of these definitions–even the “heavy” quality of the roles that appeared “neutral” or even “positive”.
Something quite remarkable happened that day– in becoming aware of these definitions, it finally allowed me to entertain the notion that who I truly was had absolutely nothing to do with all these ways in which I defined myself; I could for the first time see a glimmer of my soul beyond ALL of that… and from that moment –like a Pandora’s box had been opened-my life began to unfold from this powerful realization.
For my entire life these definitions of ‘who I was’ provided me with a sense of a ‘security’… a ‘groundeness’ of sorts, but now I knew that these were illusions and I no longer found security in these parameters. I felt like an astronaut-and it was somewhat disconcerting to ‘not know’ for the first time–to not only not know who I was, but to awaken to the realization that all the times I thought ‘I knew who I was’ that these were in fact just small prisons veiled in stories. This experience eventually lead me to a place where I clearly recognized that who I truly was has no definition(s) or labels…. that ‘who I was’ is literally being born as it meets each and every moment; and from this everything became possible—the template of this is ‘who I am’ or this is ‘who I am not’ invariably ceased and I was meeting life as it is.
This did create some significant changes in my life- I have often referred to it as “identity fallout”: the closing of a yoga studio I deeply cherished, the ending of a marriage, parting of friends, an end to an obsession about eating and exercise, a deeper relationship with my mother, recognizing that dishes can remain in the sink at night (and the world would not end) and perhaps the one I am my grateful for –the realization that I no longer had to make sense of my past because I was in fact not my wounds.
Life became surreal– yet so very ‘real’. In knowing who I was beyond all the identities of who I had taken myself to be was liberating. I was amazed at all the changes happening and without any effort or planning. Life was not all rainbows and unicorns, I still experienced feeling of sadness, and anger still happened, (I still yelled at my kids for their messy rooms), but these emotions were short lived because I was no longer trying to protect or defend any identity. Who I was- was no longer dependent on anything –not feelings, others reactions, or ideas or requirements of who I ought to be- my relationships deepened because I was also allowing others to be who they were.
So years later and many more unfoldings from this place –it was somewhat surprising-yet not surprising at all when four months ago I called my friend Julie Morse Pogachefsky and said “holy crap I think I may be in love and its with a woman!”. She responded with “well of course you are”! What Julie was really saying was that in being able recognize beyond the labels and identities – that literally everything had opened to possibility for me—even this experience of love.
I am deeply grateful for this awareness. If I had met Holly and experienced any of those feelings in the past, I would have turned away, in some subtle way reminding myself that I was in fact “straight” and that being with a woman was not a part of my ‘story’ or I would not have even let the feelings be seen. I have come to see through this relationship that it is not just the labels we place on ourselves, but the identities we embody are of value to people in our lives, (even our society, religion, culture etc); they are also dependent on knowing ‘who we are’ –but it is who we are for them.
As I began to reveal my new relationship, I noticed how often people wanted to label me–my sexuality or as a way to understand why I had left my marriage. Quite a few people were excited to now call me bi-sexual. I saw that many wanted me to concur their stories and I realized that it was not that they wanted to understand me, but rather understand themselves…..through me. It reminded me of all the ways I had required this of myself and how ‘who I was’- was not just about my own identities, but how others in my life had also informed and supported my stories. It was not just me but others in my life, (and even life itself), that didn’t have a chance of ever truly being seen anew. I realized that many of these identities and roles were deeply connected in my desire to be loved or being loving –yet today I love others and myself by no longer being who others need me to be.
In knowing who I am beyond these identities, I am able to love in a way I have never experienced. In each and every moment I have no idea ‘who I am’—and in the past this would have scared the shit out of me but today I feel alive.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you –to my remarkable teachers and their teachers-and in particular to all the students who inspire me each and every day with their courage to delve into exactly these unchartered spaces mentioned above —you are my hero’s.