Many a great philosopher and religious man (or woman) has asked the seemingly vital question “What is reality?” Some have attempted an answer, inevitably using their own perspectives, observations, and conclusions and thus – arguably – really only describing their own reality. Now, I am not a philosopher or religious scholar; I am a psychotherapist, a counsellor and educator. And so, looking at the question of reality I feel that in order to even attempt an answer we may have to answer a different question first: the question “Who am I?”
This question, like the question of reality, has many levels. It seems to be important to people: we ask it of others all the time – “who are you?” On first glance it also seems deceptively easy to answer: “I am Sabine, psychotherapist, married, living in Ontario.” But really, when looking at that answer it doesn’t say anything about who I am; it only describes what I do and have done so far in my life. So, what is the answer to that question and why do I believe it is so important?
Let me start by answering the second question first: I believe that our purpose in the here and now is based on finding the answer to this question. According to some people, ours is the era of the heart chakra; the era of love and understanding, acceptance and healing. And how can we love, understand, accept, or heal anything or anyone, if we don’t know who we are? The inscription over the wisdom schools of the ancient societies read Know Thyself. The bible speaks about loving your neighbour as you love yourself. And many initiation rituals over the centuries included a moment of having to face ourselves. It is in ourselves that we find our essence. It is in our bodies that we find the divine energy that rests in all of nature. It is in finding ourselves and facing ourselves that we finally can learn to truly be loving, accepting, and understanding of everything and everyone around us. It is by knowing and accepting ourselves that we heal – us first, then our primary relationships, our work relationships, our neighbourhoods and cities, and finally Mother Earth and global society. Too lofty a goal? Maybe. Achievable? I believe it is, each in our own way.
That is the why. So how about the how? How does one answer the question “who am I?”
There are many ways of starting such a journey of self-awareness and self-discovery: illness, loss or another trauma in our personal lives; a conscious decision that this is the right time to go on that journey; prompting from others or from life to name but a few. Depending on our start position and our general disposition towards life’s mysteries and the unknown, the journey has a different flavour for everyone. But one thing it requires of anyone who starts it is courage. It isn’t easy to see ourselves clearly and honestly and most people I know shy away from some of the less flattering facets of that puzzle of self.
I personally have found the image of a garden to be very helpful in my search of Self. Like a garden I have a wide variety of plant (and animal) life in me: some parts are more colourful, others less so; some like it shady, others thrive in the glaring sunlight; some require a lot of water, others do well with very little. Like every garden, I have areas that are somewhat plagued by weeds – or at least by what I have labeled weeds at this time. Some of the things I deem good and valuable may be growing out of hand every once in a while. At times I get a real urge to make changes which has lead more than once to the attempt to eradicate anything I don’t like – doesn’t work, generally speaking: it grows right back. And in spite of all the seemingly chaotic energies, somehow the whole makes sense and brings about a feeling of calm and peace – as long as I don’t overly focus on those weeds.
You see why this images works for me? For those of you who don’t feel very attuned with gardening, try the image of a puzzle or a road. Whatever your reference point, I find it helps having one to keep the perspective. It is really easy to get lost in all that is “wrong” with us.
So, once you have your image, what’s next? Well, observation is next. Before you do anything you need to know what it is you have to work with. Observation in terms of self-discovery can come in several forms. There are the things you have noticed about yourself: you are easily touched by another person’s pain; you are very punctual and don’t have much patience with people who aren’t; you are often being misunderstood; you have a lot of energy; etc. Then there are things that others have said to and about you: you explode easily; you are a clean freak (or could be more of one); you are so kind; you always seem to know what to do; you are aloof; etc. Finally there are those things that seem less specific but still may have an impact on who you are: you are Canadian which people say means you are friendly, polite, and laid back; you are a Taurus, which seems to mean you are family oriented and earthy; you are a woman, mother, and wife, all of which come with there own set of characteristics.
That’s the visible part of the garden, the laid out flower beds so to speak. But what about those hidden corners with all those weeds? This is were we need to tap into our courage. Good thing is that no one else needs to be allowed to see those areas as long as we look at them. These are the fears, suppressed feelings, and unacknowledged urges we have; all those things we feel are inferior and “bad”: our singing voice; the fear of the dark; prejudices and judgements; anger that can’t ever be expressed; the secret wish to be somewhere else and not with the friends / family we are with. These areas need to be outlined carefully because over time we will have to work on them if we want that inner garden to be beautiful and fruitful.
There is an exercise that I do from time to time and that I often suggest to clients: writing out all that you know about yourself and what you have been told about yourself as well as what it is that you really identify with (not everything others say about you is true; it may be their inner confusions and hidden areas that see something that they are afraid off). By putting it all on paper often certain patterns come to light. Also, doing this exercise every once in a while shows where and how we have changed and grown and what areas still need attention. Life patterns become visible in this way, as well as supportive patterns.
The next step in the process is acceptance: here is this garden of mine, here is all of me as I know it to be right now! Let that be okay. I am not going to go about changing it all right away. I am going to sit with it, let it unfold, stay aware of it, and observe how all those different parts of me interact, create new parts, strengthen or weaken each other. I am going to look carefully at those bits that I have labeled “weeds” or “bad”. Who knows, maybe they turn out to be really valuable. Lemon balm, peppermint, and oregano are healing herbs – and as everyone who every planted them in a yard or garden knows, they take over: they are weeds in behaviour. If I looked just at the behaviour I’d eradicate them from my garden. As it is, I just give them clearly defined areas in which they can grow. Similarly, my fear may be getting out of hand completely. But maybe I need it in order to stay aware of real danger and in order to keep observant and deal with new situations with discretion. So, rather than eliminating my fear or just overriding it every time it comes up, I may want to learn how to keep it in bounds and use it on my terms. I can only do this if I accept that fear is a part of me and probably is there for a reason.
So, now we know what’s there and we have an idea of what may need some work. All that is left to do is the work and then the maintenance. The work can take different forms again: emotional healing work and therapy; prayer and spiritual work; energetic healing; physical exercise and nutrition; relationship and communication work; skill development; acceptance and surrender; etc. Maintenance just requires ongoing awareness. It doesn’t mean that we have to spend every minute of every day scanning our inner landscape for any little weed coming up. It just means being aware if one area is starting to sprout more than its usual growth. Also, the work doesn’t have to be done all at once. Like with a garden or a yard, it is best to pace oneself: one year I tackle this area, then I let it rest and focus on something else. And every now and then – very frequently – I just sit back and enjoy the beauty of it, imperfections, wilderness, and design all the same. And I invite others to share in the beauty: fostering relationships, supporting friends and family in their growth and exploration, accepting others for who they are and where they are at and lovingly making them aware of really blatant problems in our relationship. For really, what’s the use of the most beautiful garden if no one ever gets to see and enjoy it!
At the end of this process – or actually, already half way there – you will get a rather clear sense of who you really are. It may not be all you expected but it will be real – as real as it can be at that particular point in your journey. It’s a freeing experience. It takes away the guess work and the hard work of trying to be someone else; and it makes it much easier to experience your reality in the here and now. Enjoy the process!