Mindfulness and the Self

In this short article, Zeenat discusses how mindfulness can help us address some of the big questions we can have around our self-identity.

Who am I? What is the self? What is my identity? These are questions that inevitably arise on any journey of personal discovery, and for all of us at certain key transitional times in our lives. These questions are not only philosophical but in fact deeply practical. Behind every action we take and every choice we make lies some idea of who we are, ideas about our qualities, our attributes or our limitations. Some can be helpful, many less so, but all of them can define and circumscribe who we are in limiting ways, reducing us to no more than the sum of our concepts.
 
In meditation practice, particularly in the deep observation of mindfulness, we can enquire into these fundamental questions in a way that is practical, fruitful and liberating. Mindfulness meditation, in helping us witness and healthily step back from our thoughts, opens a space in which we can understand who we are in a new way. 
 
From the point of view of the meditation traditions, the big ‘identity crisis’ of our lives is that who we think we are is far more limited, defined, and rigid than who we really are. The ‘me’ we think of as real is on the whole a mistaken identity, defined by our thoughts, concepts and memories, and conditioned by our past.
 
Thoughts by their very nature are abstract and discrete, they divide and discriminate. They do a very valuable job is helping us navigate our way in the world, in organising, structuring and making sense of things. Perfect for example for designing a building, planning a long journey or filing your accounts. Yet when we over-identify with our thoughts of who we are, we reduce the self to the sum of our thoughts, to an abstract idea. Then we mistake this idea, this limited identity, for reality, and for the totality of who we are.
 
This is a disaster in terms of our ultimate happiness and sense of connection with others. For example we confront this limited identity whenever we lack confidence and hold ourselves back, thinking that ‘I could never do this or that’. We come up against it when we berate and criticise ourselves as being bad, inadequate, or simply not good enough. We face it whenever we get stuck in some old way of thinking that no longer serves us because ‘this is simply who I am and I can never change’.
 
In deep meditative enquiry, observing all of our thoughts and ideas, we see just what it is we are identifying with, and we observe the whole process in action. This deep seeing is spontaneous, it is fresh and immediate. We have an ‘aha’ moment of vivid clarity in which we are, at least momentarily, freed from the shackles of our limiting ideas. We come to understand that thoughts by their very nature are insubstantial and impermanent, just like clouds, coming and going in the sky of our naked awareness.
 
The self is fluid, spacious and unlimited. It can encompass thoughts, ideas and concepts, but is ultimately the pure awareness that contains all of the ever-changing, coming-and-going mind content, without identification. This is truly good news. If we can expand and open our attention beyond our limited views of ourselves to this vaster openness, to this auspicious potentiality, then any thoughts of who we are, whether in some measure false or true, can no longer disturb us.  
 
If there is an end-goal to meditation, to our mindfulness practice, if this being in the moment, moment to moment, is also paradoxically leading us somewhere, then perhaps it is this: to realise this pure, spacious, open awareness as the true nature of self. Then we rest in its spaciousness with a quiet contentment and joy, and with a vast open heart which naturally reaches out to share this new found treasure with others.
 
On the way to this end goal is the daily bread and butter of our mindfulness practice, watching our thoughts, feelings and sensations, observing the moment-to-moment movements and impulses of the mind. Little by little there is a gradual and constant process of freeing up and letting go, so that in small ways in our everyday lives we are changing, becoming more of who we really are and entering more into the fullness of our lives. We do what we never dreamed we could, we love deeper than we thought we could, we invite life in.