Cleaning Mirror in Strange Land: How Does it Feel to be Yourself (part 2)

Part 1: Refuge of Lost Souls

Part 2: This is it

- Who am I?

The most common question seems to be the hardest.

Early on, I had an earnest and sincere desire to find answer. I imagine we all do, at some point in our life – if not a desire, may be a subtle and unsettling sense of vagueness. Like when you look in a dirty mirror, and it bothers you; you want to wipe it clean, but you aren’t quite sure how. Then you look around and find out that others have dirty mirrors too. Therefore, you assume that dirty mirrors are normal, that they are a part of the deal, and that we should just go on living with it. One day, a very bad thing happen that takes away your life. So you wind up living without even once seeing yourself clearly.

I did not want that.

Yoga Master Erich Schiffmann wrote a powerful passage about this quest for know thyself his renowned book Moving into Stillness.

Here is our situation: We are ignorant of our true nature, our real identity. We don’t know who we really are. This is because we have never experienced ourselves directly. We have never stayed “home” long enough to experience the truth about ourselves. We were not encouraged to do this. Instead we accepted as true what other people told us about ourselves. And, unfortunately, we were taught by people who, in all likelihood, and through no fault of their own, did not actually know.

When I was little, my grandmother often praised me for being good, and I happily defined myself as good. Sometimes my father scorned me for not cleaning up my room; he said that I was bad. I trusted him and thought of myself as bad. I remember in first grade, my teacher wrote down that I was “meek” in the pupil book. Meek was how someone outside of my little world defined me for the first time. In many years afterward, I believed that I was a timid, shy, compliant person – not something people who’d known me in the last five years could, in their right mind, imagine.

So the harder I searched, the deeper I got lost in the midst of all contradictory opinions of who I was.

When I was 22, I had a feeling that I finally got a hold of my definition. I worked hard to a point when everybody seemed to give the same opinions of who I was – or wanted to be. The next day, something unexpected happens, a huge failure. And everything I thought I knew about myself simply shatters. I went through depression for a month and decided that it was time to get away. I applied for an internship to teach English in Poland through AIESEC.

- Who am I, really?

I asked myself once more as I boarded the plane to Europe, without knowing that I was about to find out.

Something happens to you when you travel. Or rather, something stopped happening to you – your imposed identity.

You wake up in a strange land with a peculiar lightness. No country. No home. No family. No friends. No tasks. No words that you can understand. No one knows you. Therefore, no expectations, no validations, no track records, no past achievements or failures. And if you were in the midst of recovery from a miserable failure – as I was – no self-assurance either.

In the dusk of a strange land,  you may, or may not realize that everything that yesterday you thought made of who you were has vanished. Like how Master Schiffmann describes:

Let go of everything you think you know about who you are, and see what’s left.

I can tell you what’s left: nakedness. A feeling of being unmade like a sheet of coal paper being washed white.

Many are not comfortable with this state, and hastily reach back to their identity source: call their family, facebook with their friends, meet people from their country. They did not understand that:

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

George Bernard Shaw

I did not understand Shaw’s wisdom for a long time. “Finding yourself” sounded like a serious mission. How could life be not about it? But now I think I know. Finding implies the search for an existing thing. Creating implies constant movements, like a living organism changing its cells and renewing its form, here and now.

As spring was blossoming in the beautiful city Krakow, I was creating myself by living my day with the creative energy of a writer courageously writing new stories on her blank page. Free from self-critics. Free from others’ expectations and judgments.

What did I learn from all that? Those ten weeks did not give me the answers for the question “Who am I?”. It allowed me to taste and savor the experience of being my true self. To understand how it feels like to be centered and free and alive. So that I know when I am not myself, and can find away back to that place again.

“So how does it feel like?”, you may ask. I found in the words of Schiffmann a beautiful way to describe the experience of being your true self:

…move into stillness in order to be guided from within, and then to be brave enough, and willing, to do as the within is prompting you to do – even when you cannot explain your behavior to yourself or others.

“Very nice… so what’s your answer to the question ‘Who am I?’”, you may still wonder. Actually, I’ve stopped thinking about it for a long time. Every day, I’m cleaning my mirror.