In our last chapter, we examined the ways in which awareness is the cornerstone of helping us change our behavior. In this chapter, we’re going to look at the ways in which awareness is the cornerstone of who we are.
You may wonder, “But Dr. Puff, how could awareness be the cornerstone of who we are? After all, we have our families, we have our experiences, we have our schoolings, we have our memories…don’t all of these things together create, make, and define us as who we are?” All of these things definitely play a role in who we think we are right now, but the key phrase to remember is “who we think we are.” The truth is that who we think we are is in constant flux, changing all the time.
For a moment, let’s close our eyes and let’s recall who we were exactly 4 days, 3 hours and 10 minutes ago. Can any of us remember? Clearly our memories are not exact; they change, they transform, we forget things, we have new memories that replace some of the old ones, or we talk to someone else who may see the same thing differently than we do and then we change it in our minds. We change our memories! Therefore, our memories of who we are change constantly.
For example, let’s say that when we were in elementary school, we were very shy and hesitant to make new friends. But when we got into high school, we joined the drama club and we became more actively involved with our fellow students and even enjoyed interacting with other people. When we went on to college, let’s say that we took on an entirely different persona, a different identity. Perhaps we became the “party animal,” or instead we became the “academic scholar.” There are many different hats that we wear throughout our lives.
When we go to family, high school, or college reunions, we may notice that yes, there are characteristics in all of us that remain the same over the years, but there are also many things that change. Now we look differently, we’re often interested in different things, we have new people connected with us, we may be married and be a parent, and we act very differently than we did in high school or college or some phase of our youth. We change as we grow older. If we are constantly changing, how can we possibly say we are “that” when we are not “that” later and we weren’t “that” before?
Let me use the example of a typical teenager to illustrate this point. A typical teenager wants to stay out late to be with his friends, and doesn’t care that his parents are upset and worried about him. He really doesn’t give much thought to the feelings of others or even to his own safety. He just wants to have a good time! Then, later in life, when the same teenager becomes a parent, he’s far more cautious and far more concerned. It’s almost like a metamorphosis; once a wild and crazy teenager, the individual has now become an anxious and overly cautious parent.
Since we frequently change, who are we really? When we reach retirement, again we change. We may become the recluse, we may become the alcoholic, we may become the person who loves to travel in a motor home and explore the world, we may move into a monastery, et cetera. There are so many different ways we change. We may become a grandparent or a great-grandparent. Which identity are we? If we keep changing, we’re really none of them. Now you may ask, “Who are we then, Dr. Puff? Really, who are we?”
The answer is actually very simple and our own experience can be the proof of it. Let’s try this together. Let’s think back to one of our earliest memories; perhaps when we started school, or when we were a child at home on our birthday. Let’s recall one of those big events that we remember even today. I have a pretty good memory of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is when I was about two or three years old. I was visiting my grandparents on their farm in Iowa and there had been a huge snow storm. There were these absolutely massive snow drifts that I would climb up to the top of and slide down. I was having a blast! Now when I think about this memory, I can see it just about like I see my memories today. I can witness, I can be aware of my feelings without labeling them or without labeling myself, and they feel exactly the same way as I experience things today.
Last Thanksgiving, my wife and I took our children to the Sequoias for a week-long holiday. One night when we were there, a huge snow storm piled about six feet of new snow on the ground. I went sledding down the hills of snow with my children and, again, it was a blast. Though I am, of course, a very different person than I was at two or three years old, my witnessing or my awareness of what I was experiencing in the snow on that day or many, many years ago was the same. I am aware of what’s happening in both instances. I am awareness.
So who are we then? We too are awareness. We are aware of our experiences. When we’re around two or three years old, what happens is that we begin to label things. We see that we like this and we don’t like that and between those two poles we actually create our personality. We have likes and dislikes, and we take on labels which do change as I argued before. What doesn’t change is our awareness of what’s happening. We are aware; that’s where we start.
Perhaps a better way of putting it that would help us to understand this concept is to say, “We are right here, right now, we are. All of our memories are in the now. All of our future ideas are in the now. Everything is right now.” The only thing that is right now permanently, that always has been and always will be, is our awareness. We aren’t “being” us when we take on labels. They’re not really who we are because they can change; they are transitory. But what does stay the same is our awareness and if we reside there, we begin to relax. We become happier, which is what this article is all about, how to be happy. When we don’t reside in the now, in awareness, and we instead identify with those labels, then we fear something. This causes us suffering. Even desire can cause suffering. Even if our desire is great and even if we have it met, it’s going to pass and it’s going to change and that change, that fear of losing something, that longing for something, can cause us suffering. Remember, all the ideas of who we are, are in our head; they’re concepts and they keep us from just enjoying life. We enjoy the “snowdrifts” of life a lot more when we don’t label things and we just play in the snow, whether we’re 100 years old or whether we’re 2 years old.
When we identify with our awareness instead of identifying with our labels, we take a much more “child like” approach to life. It’s new, it’s fresh, and it’s exciting. When we label something, we miss out on it because we don’t truly see it anymore. But when we keep our minds quiet and we can just be the awareness of life as it is, without all those labels, the beautiful adventure of life can really be tremendous. It can really be amazing as long as we stop labeling things so much and just flow with life.
I’d like to conclude with one simple technique to stay in the awareness, to stay in the witnessing state. Whatever we are doing, whenever our minds start thinking, we are missing out on life. So when we do that, we must remember to just get back to living. Let’s experience what’s before us: let’s look around, check in with life, and let our thoughts become quieter and quieter. Let’s allow our egos to just relax and say, “Everything is going to turn out okay. Let’s just enjoy this journey of life.” Be in the present moment, and life will proceed a whole lot better.
Dr. Robert Puff, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, international speaker, and meditation expert who has been counseling individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses for over twenty years. A contributing writer to Psychology Today, he has authored numerous books and creates a weekly podcast on happiness at www.HappinessPodcast.org He also creates a weekly podcast on meditation, http://www.MeditationForHealthPodcast.com and a weekly podcast on spiritual enlightenment, http://www.EnlightenmentPodcast.com His retreat schedules can be found at http://www.HolisticRetreats.tv You also might find his blog useful at www.Meditation-Enlightenment.com If you are interested in having Dr. Puff speak to your organization or company, you can learn more about his speaking services at http://www.HolisticRetreats.tv