Young people can get really wrapped up in their egos and identities. Jocks. Nerds. Hipsters. Losers. Funny. Smart. Popular. Mean. Adults, of course, don’t have this issue. Perhaps it’s a modern problem. In the past, only the Pope and the king probably worried about their image. What would a peasant post on Facebook? “Dug a trough today!” But this is the era of selfies and YouTube (their slogan is “broadcast yourself”) and guys with blogs. We live in a an age where everyone markets themselves. One of my sons’ favorite shows features a girl in grade school who is always working on her “brand,” and I recently spent way too much time drafting my Twitter profile. For this reason, it’s a valuable lesson for all of us to contemplate the impermanent nature of the self. We made a new classroom or home activity (Who Am I Contemplation by Tall Trees Grow Deep) which gives young people a chance to think about what makes up their essential self. It’s based on a meditation common to many mystical masters. If done daily, you just might end up enlightened (and, perhaps, living in a cave eating bugs). The secret: It turns out you don’t exist. Everything about you is unreal or impermanent. So who are you?
Let’s start with the body: Are you your physical body? No, all your cells will be replaced in seven years. In ten, twenty, or seventy years, your body will be much different–old and beat up and falling apart. If you lost your arms, or legs, or your ability to walk, if you became a paraplegic and lost all control, would you still be you? Most people would say yes. You can go from fat to skinny to broken to whole and still be you. So you are not your body. You are something else than your body. The body changes. You remain. Right?
Are you your job, your career? Many of us think we are our jobs. That’s how we define ourselves at parties. But we’re not. We’ll quit or get fired eventually. Then what? You are not an accountant, you do accounting. I’m not a teacher (thank God). In fact, if you think you are your job, you better quit.
Ideas and Beliefs? Some people with very rigid beliefs think they are their ideas. Being Catholic or Buddhist is their defining quality. I’m conservative. I’m a democrat. But this too is changeable. I’ve change my mind about a million things over the years. Most of us do. I believed and did some strange things during my born-again phase in high school. I had a youth group leader who encouraged us to pray the demons out of the Halloween displays in our neighborhood. Now it’s my family’s favorite holiday. Later, during my communist phase in college, I was part of some weird protest on Library Mall involving chains and fake blood. Some days, I say The Rosary in the morning and I’m a convinced atheist by dinner. We all change our minds. We are definitely not our ideas and beliefs.
Are you your relationships? I’m a father and a husband. But these will change, too. My kids will leave. Some day they might change my diapers.
So what makes me me and you you, if we are not our bodies, our jobs, our ideas, our relationships? Are we a set of basic characteristics? Our personality? At a eulogy, people often remember the dead as a set of traits, like loving, friendly, f ull of life, a great guy or girl, a good dad or mother, a kind friend, and so on. So is that who we are?
Not really, because if we have to claim all our characteristics, then we are stuck with the bad stuff too: mean-spirited, obsessive, anxious, fanatical, dour, proud, and so on. We are not just a set of characteristics. We do have a basic, core personality, but is that our essential self?
So what’s left? You are something, aren’t you?
What, at the end of the day, is our essential self? Well, Korean Zen Master Paul Schwartz says we can become enlightened if we take ten minutes a day to sit in meditation and ask that one question over and over: who am I? Is it a soul, a hole?
For young people, it’s good enough to get them to see the transient nature of the self. Who Am I Contemplation by Tall Trees Grow Deep can be a good way to start a discussion about what makes us us. The answer to the essential nature of the self is different for each person, family, and faith, and so this activity leaves the ending open based on your own background. There might not be an answer for you. But kids tend to think they are locked into this shell they’ve been given (and many don’t like that shell), so giving them a little space from their egos and identities can be healthy and liberating. It’s good for all of us.
I’m going to get started myself, right after I finish my Twitter profile.