As humans, we are a mass of contradictions. “I am a good person” can often be paired with “I am selfish.” When getting dressed for the evening, “I look great” can live alongside “I look like crap.” So often throughout the day our minds can fluctuate between “I am a star” to “I am nobody,” or “I am amazing” to “I am less than shit,” or “I am so lovable” to “I am unworthy of love.” This is the human condition: to continually fluctuate in our perception and understanding of who and what we are.
From the Western perspective, we are supposed to solidify our identity and construct a strong persona. “I am Kaelan. I am six feet, one inch tall. I am relatively handsome. I am smart, kind, and trustworthy. I am a loyal partner. I have a clever wit and am generally well liked by individuals.” And according to this view, the more we reinforce those ideas, the more secure and happy we will live. But what happens when those opposing thoughts creep in, as they will do? What then? Do we let the whole foundation of our self-understanding and self-confidence dissolve? If we cannot quantify and label ourselves, then who are we?
In Eastern philosophy, there is the idea of “samskara.” This word roughly translates to mean “impression.” Every experience we have in our life leaves an impression on our subtle body. Imagine, if you will, a man made out of tin. With every experience he undergoes, another little dent is made on his metal exterior, pushing it inwards. Over time, those dents and divots will accumulate, pushing his surface further and further towards his hollow core, until he eventually turns into a ball of metal. He went from an open and expansive being to a contracted, solid mass. This metaphor illustrates the exact same process that happens to us internally as we live our lives. As little children, we start out open and free; but as life experiences accumulate, we continuously contract until we become dense, heavy, and constricted.
Not only do we have to contend with the myriad experiences we’ve undergone in this life, but (if we are still following Eastern logic) also from every previous life we’ve ever lived, which can be many. This means that we have centuries of impressions pressing on us, pressuring us to contract, that we must overcome. Now, going back to my original point about the difficulty in attempting to succinctly label our identities, it furthermore means that old impressions can surface and contradict longstanding opinions we have about ourselves. Have you ever had a strange thought come into your awareness seemingly unassociated with your usual train of logic? Yet it seems unusually potent? This could be an old samskara surfacing.
We are assembled by layer after layer of impressions, each vying for our focus and our willingness to include it in our definition of “this is who I am.” We are filled with so many contradicting identities and desires that it becomes impossible to pin any one down as “this is me.” Yogic philosophy says that in our previous lives we have been every different gender, race, sexual orientation, belief system, religion, etc. Because of these opposing and overlapping experiences, the more we try to limit ourselves to any box, the more we realize that we don’t really fit.
“As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.”
When I was a teenager, I read a lot of self-help books. One of the common themes of this genre is the importance of positive thinking and trying to identify with only the more happy thoughts that bubble forth. It encourages creating affirmations to affix your amazingness in your psyche. And book after book, I found myself failing at this. I felt like I was attempting it well, but my results were lackluster. I felt frustrated with myself for not being better at this.
Then, when I was twenty, I discovered meditation. Specifically, a meditation practice rooted in Kashmir Shaivism, Vedanta, and Vajrayana Buddhist practices. What all those foreign words mean is that it was no longer was about identifying with my positive thoughts. I discovered that ALL thoughts – the good and the bad, happy and the sad – all sprung from my samskaras. And that I was actually none of them. Going back to the image of the tin man, I was the empty space between the sheets of tin. I was pure awareness. The thoughts floating into my mind were merely distractions from the pure bliss, truth, and light that occupied the space within me.
Moreover, this emptiness inside was actually none other than the pure awareness of God. I am God, God is me. In this lineage/tradition of meditation, I discovered an understanding of non-dualism. This means that there is no separation between myself and the divine, or the divine and, say, a tree. Every physical item on Earth (and indeed the whole cosmos) is nothing but pure divine awareness manifested in physical form. Just as light can express itself as both a particle or a wave – so too, divine awareness can express itself through energy or physical matter. This is the very substance of current quantum research: everything can be in both the physical and non-substantial form simultaneously.
As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings. Life began to feel like a sea of interconnected awareness, rather than my previous vantage as being an isolated being alone in the world. I began to identify less with “I am so-and-so and I do this and I won that,” but “I am pure, I am love, I am bliss, I am everything, I am nothing.” In India there is a very famous mantra: “Om Namah Shivaya.” It roughly translates to mean: “I bow down to my Inner Self, the Self of all.” The same radiant light within me is the same light within each of us. It is merely the layer after layer of samskara that prevents us from seeing it.
To illustrate this point: imagine a big bowl of cookie dough. This represents pure cosmic awareness; the dough is God. Well, a chef comes along and breaks up the dough into little balls. And the balls start to forget that they are actually all the same dough; they identify as being differentiated. And the chef then dips some in chocolate chips, totally covering their surfaces and hiding the dough beneath. He dips others in sprinkles. Maybe a few fall in the trash and get covered in garbage. Now, the balls think “I am chocolate” or “I am rainbows” or “I am rubbish.” But, really, they are ALL still cookie dough; they’ve just forgotten their true selves.
It’s common adage to hear spiritual masters say: “You don’t need to become enlightened, you already are. You just need to remember.” In order to do so, we must meditate. Through the process of sitting in meditation every single day, we actually buff out those samskaras, those dents. We expand outwards, recreating that inner openness that has been constricted by time and experiences. By cultivating a daily practice, we become more free, happy, and alive. While my earlier attempts to become happy and confident through positive thinking failed, I soon began to find the happiness and joy I sought by letting go of identifying my thoughts as being “me.” I continue to learn that I am so much more. I am God. I am Consciousness. I am Bliss.
This is why my home is filled with artwork and photos of enlightened yogis, gurus, great saints, and Tibetan and Indian deities. Each depiction is a connection to a being who has realized total and complete identification of their cosmic selves. And when we gaze lovingly at them, they can inspire that same state within us. It’s why it’s so important to seek out these beings and have them in our lives. The space within us resonates with the vaster space inside of them and begins to grow. We begin to feel the same expansiveness that they have attained. And soon it’s no longer “Kaelan from Chicago,” but “I am light. I am joy. I am truth.” I am bliss. And so are you.
Namaste (the divine in me bows to the divine in you. Inside we are all one).
Art and Words by: Kaelan Strouse
Buddha photo by: Michael Fawcett