A few weeks ago I met up with my best friend from university. I hadn’t seen in her almost 30 years, despite us having lived and worked spookily close to each other for the last 12 years. On the drive to meet her, I fretted over what I’d say. How to describe the life I’ve lived, the choices I’ve made and the reasons behind them?
What we want the World to see.
People’s story always fascinates me. I love meeting new people and listening to the way they describe their life. Even on quiz shows, I’m always intrigued by how contestants introduce themselves, how they want to be seen. We all have a lot of stories to tell, but in that initial recounting of who we are, we give so much away about how we see our life and how we want to be seen.
First of all there are the things we identify with – I’m a mum, an accountant, a husband, a free spirit. Then the language used to describe the story. And also the bits that are being emphasised, and the bits that aren’t being spoken.
My own story varies depending on who I’m talking to. There’s usually an element of rebel to the story – “yeah, I’ve moved around a lot, never really wanted to settle into the system” – and something along the lines of “I’m more interested in the internal world than the external”. But, if I’m honest, I could also say “I get bored easily”, “I’m frightened of being tied to one place”, “I’ve never really worked out what I want to do” and “I find it hard to fit in”.
Who’s story is it?
To work out the truth of our story requires us to get really quiet and honest. What we identify with and how we see the World is hardwired into out Default Mode Network, and it can be really difficult to untangle. Our identity has been re-enforced by experience over time and has essentially become our reality.
And compounding this is the fact that a lot of our perceptions about who we are comes from sources other than us. Our family often assign us roles that we play throughout our life. In my family, I’m the eldest child and I always did really well at school. My sister didn’t like academic stuff as much so, in an effort to balance things out, my parents started bigging up my sister’s creative achievements, and belittling me where they could. They regularly said that I was disorganised, lacked common sense and didn’t have the creative flair of my younger sister. And it was only in my early 40s that I started to really look at these things that I had believed for years and realised that they just weren’t true. And, moreover, they were creating limits to what I could achieve.
It’s not just family either, it’s our interactions with our friends, work colleagues, spouse, even society. We have pressure to conform socially, to fit in and be recognised. We identify with our home, our job, our social standing, how we vote, where we shop, our hobbies and much more. I have a really good friend who has bought astrology hook line and sinker. In her story, the stars have guided her every decision – she’s where she is and who she is because of the placement of the planets at the time of her birth. And her personality (and often quite challenging behaviour!) is out of her control. “I can’t help it, I have Aries rising”.
Are our fact or fiction?
Kundalini and meditation have been the greatest source of awareness for me. They have helped me unpick what’s what in my story. Where beliefs have come from and what’s useful, and what’s destructive. I write in a journal every day after meditation and it’s there that I have started to unravel Suzanne. Most spiritual traditions teach that there is no self. That who you are is no more than a collection of neurons wired together & re-enforced. The state of our nervous system determines how we see the World. Even our gut bacteria is responsible for some of the choices.
I don’t have an answer to this. Is there a soul? Is there a core self that we were born with? I’m not sure. I pondered this with my university friend (we both studied philosophy so hardly surprising). She hadn’t really changed at all and it certainly didn’t feel like we had been apart for 30 years. I was my twenty year old self again, perhaps with a few more sophisticated edges, but essentially unchanged. Was I triggering old neural pathways? Was this my soul? Or a shifting identity in relation to my friend?
We may perhaps never know if we have an essential essence. But one thing is clear – the majority of our story is changeable. And who we think we are isn’t necessarily the truth. What we identify with, choose to emphasise about our life, how we want others to see us, how we view the world and how we justify our actions, is hugely complex. Some of it is useful and some of it is holding you back from living an authentic life. And there can be no real healing until we heal our identity. So get journaling and get curious. What’s your story? And is it fact or fiction?