Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Sometimes it can be helpful when we start to feel very trapped in a mind-state that is causing us a great deal of suffering to do a practice that pushes us (a little uncomfortably, but hopefully not too uncomfortably) at examining the very perspective from which our thoughts and feelings emanate.
These two exercises come from Steven C. Haye’s book A Liberated Mind. I have found them both interesting and helpful at times for myself and when used with clients.
PRACTICE ONE: I AM?
Take a sheet of paper and write down the following.
I am ________________.
I am ________________.
I am ________________.
Now complete the top two with one-word answers that represent positive psychological attributes of yours. Don’t put in mere descriptive attributes (e.g., I am male). Use terms that refer to your most prized personal qualities. Reserve the last for the exact opposite. There, list in a single word a personal attribute that you fear you have or think you have that is negative.
Let’s begin by reviewing the top two “positive” answers. A couple of simple questions: Is this true all the time? Everywhere? Toward everyone? Without exception? What about the bottom one. Is it totally true, everywhere? Would someone else say the same thing if they could watch you 24/7?
Now another question: how many of these statements can you turn into a comparison with others? Try to do it with each one. If you wrote down I am smart or I am kind, see if these statements link to the idea that you are smart-ER or kind-ER (or dumb-ER and so on) than at least some other people. This isn’t just your story—it’s your story in comparison to others. No wonder we begin to feel alone inside our own “content”-focused selves.
The beginning of a solution is to notice our fusion with these statements. Beginning with the first one and continuing through all three, change the full-stop at the end of each sentence to a comma, and then write down these two words: OR NOT. For example, I am intelligent, or not.
Now read each sentence again, slowly. Watch what happens. Take your time. If you find your mind filling with negative thoughts as you do this, use your defusion skills on them, saying to yourself, “I’m having the thought that . . .” and see if that helps to loosen the grip on the thought that’s threatening to hijack your mind.
You may be able to sense something opening slightly—as if a little bit of air is coming into a room. You may feel that you somehow have more options about how you think about yourself. Don’t try to hang on to that feeling—it will come and go—and don’t get into an argument with yourself about which version is more accurate. The mental process we are cultivating here is reminding ourselves that we can refuse to buy one version of a story as compared to another. We’re opening our minds to possibilities. See if you can notice that this sense of opening happens with both the “positive” statements and the negative one.
Now take the first sentence and cross out all of what you’ve written after I am. Who would you be without that content? Pause to consider the answer. Then do the same with each of the other sentences. What would it be like just to let go of that content?
This process raises the question: Who are we without all of our stories and defenses? Who or what are we trying to protect? If we woke up one day and all sentences like this were just sentences—they all had that open sense of “_______ or not!”—would we still be our selves? If your mind replies, “Hell no!” take just a moment to notice who is noticing that mind of yours. Aren’t you noticing that mental reaction? Isn’t the you that is noticing a deeper sense of “you”?
As the final act in this little exercise, circle the two words repeated three times—I am—and consider them. What if the deeper sense of self we seek is closer to these two words alone? In crafting the story of our lives, we lose sight of this powerful alternative: just being.
There is one more step in this exercise, which helps us become more aware of when we tend to fall under the spell of our self-telling. Ego-based stories are not just distorted, they also tend to be too general. In actuality, we focus on different aspects of our self-story in different circumstances. For example, when at home with our loved ones, we may focus on our view of ourselves as being caring; while at work, we might focus on our thoughts about being inept. Becoming aware of how our self-story changes according to different situations helps us stay better connected with our transcendent self, and therefore with our ability to choose among possibilities about how we will be.
So now, we’re going to transform the “I am _______” statements by rewriting each. First, instead of I am, write I feel or I think. For example, if you wrote I am loving, replace it with I feel loving. If you wrote I am intelligent, make it I think of myself as intelligent.
Next, qualify each statement by describing the situation in which you think or feel that way, including how your own behaviour is involved, using this phrasing:
“When [the situation] and I [your behavior] then [how you think or feel].” For example, “When my wife is disagreeing with me, and I take her perspective seriously, I feel loving,” or “When I have a lot to do, and I take time for self-care, I think of myself as intelligent.” You can also write descriptions of the situations in which you do not feel loving or intelligent. For example, “When I have a lot of work to do and I ignore my twelve-year-old son, I do not feel loving.”
PRACTICE TWO: DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN WHAT WE’RE AWARE OF AND WHO WE ARE
Take a breath or two, notice who is noticing that sensation, and then note your experience. Whatever your mind settles on—an external object, an internal sensation, a thought, a feeling, a memory, or so on—get clear on it.
Then restate the experience in three forms:
- “I am aware of [state the content]”
- “I am not [state the content]”
- “I contain awareness of [state the content].”
For example, “I am aware of the television. [PAUSE] I am not the television. [PAUSE] I contain awareness of the television”
Or “I am remembering a memory of being five. [PAUSE] I am not a memory. [PAUSE] My awareness contains a memory of being five.[PAUSE]”
Five or ten minutes is plenty of time for this exercise, and after the first engagement with it, you should practice it regularly for several days. Then, for ongoing practice, you can simplify the task. Just notice the experience and then state “I’m not that; my awareness contains that.”
Don’t get drawn into an argument—instead see if you can touch a deeper awareness that your attachment to any content is distinct from awareness itself.