Finding Your True Self
(an excerpt from The Little Book of Big Lies)
Developing our awareness of our inner
Self, the innately whole and worthy part of us,
makes all the other tasks and events in life easier.
The person inside of you who wakes up, struggles with life, feels overwhelmed and at war, and needs to be in control is not who you really are at your core. This warring outer self is our small surviving self—a distortion.
Distortions are lies.
They are like the images we see in a House of Mirrors at an amusement park. The mirrors make our images so grotesque, weird, or laughable that we barely recognize ourselves. In one mirror we look like the Pillsbury Doughboy, and in another our heads are pointy and our faces elongated and wavy.
When I was growing up, my family regularly visited an amusement park in Chicago called Riverview Park. The House of Mirrors was a family favorite. There were always a couple of mirrors in which the distortion was so captivating that I found myself fixed in one spot—twisting my body from side to side, distending my belly, and making weird faces to see what the distorted mirror would reflect.
But I also got bored with seeing myself distorted and was usually the first person who wanted to leave the House of Mirrors. Once the novelty of the weird shapes wore off, I was ready to be myself and move on. I wanted to get on with the fun of the day and enjoy the other attractions and rides.
So, normally, after maybe five minutes in the attraction, I was eager to get to the last mirror. It was usually placed by itself, just on the other side of a curtain. This last mirror was not a trick mirror. It told the truth and marked the end of the attraction. When I looked in the last mirror, a certain calm always settled over me as I saw myself again as I really was, undistorted. I would shake my head at the thought of how awful it would be to get stuck inside a House of Mirrors forever and never have a clear image of myself.
When I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with figuring life out. (Now I have to stop for a moment. I have learned to stop myself and tell a deeper truth whenever a statement I make calls for it. The deeper truth here is that my obsession with figuring life out was based in fear. I was afraid of all that could go wrong in life. I was afraid of change. I was afraid that life might throw something my way that I could not handle—the death of my parents, a devastating betrayal, becoming a person I didn’t know how to be. I wanted to have a jump on life so it would not catch me off guard and drag me to a place from which I could not return.)
Instinctively, I knew there was more to my life than the rush-rush and day-to-day thoughts of career, dating, and making money that were my focus then. I was making strides in virtually every area of my life, yet my accomplishments fell short of fulfilling the satisfying “something” that eluded me. I longed to feel a sense of inner fulfillment that was different from feeling proud of my worldly accomplishments. I began fervently searching for this something.
My thirties were a time of awakening. Every book I read and every lecture or spiritual retreat I attended gave me an-other piece to the puzzle of life. I realized that life is indeed a House of Mirrors—full of captivating distortions that lie to us and keep us from seeing ourselves as perfect and whole just as we are. I had once heard Michael Bernard Beckwith refer to human beings as innately perfect, whole, and complete. This notion felt correct to me, and I began to work inside of myself to understand and embody it.
In life there is but one overarching task. It is to discover the truth of who we are. Developing our awareness of our inner Self, the innately thriving, whole, and worthy part of us, makes all other tasks and challenges in life events easier.
In my search for this “something,” I began to catch myself thinking and behaving in ways that were no longer a fit for the life I wanted. Engaging in gossip, judging and finding fault, distrusting everything and everybody started to make my life feel small. These habits had been so comfortable I didn’t realize they were habits. I believed my thoughts and behavior were just “me.” It never occurred to me to challenge them until I started to feel their restriction. I also felt con-fined when people would place their limitations on me, dis-count my thoughts or feelings, and tell me how I should think or be. I was desperate to find a way of being with life that was a fit for me.
About this time I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite spiritual quotations (by Ernest Holmes): Faith is the most important thing in your life. It is impossible to arrive at the grandeur of its possibility through petty thinking and small ideas.
When I developed the ability to see how often my thinking and behavior were rooted in varying degrees of fear and pettiness, I began to reach for a new and bigger possibility. I became determined to find my way to freedom. I resolved to trade fear for the inner grit life requires.
I did not know exactly what it meant or looked like to forge a relationship with my Self, but the promise of profound inner resilience, Self-acceptance, and peace was the carrot I chased.
When my mind is working on a problem, it is not uncommon for me to go to bed with a particular question and wake up having dreamed the answer. In my forties, I had a dream that opened the door wide to a new way of seeing my Self (with a capital S ).
In the dream I was on a secluded beach looking for something. It was an overcast day. Up ahead I saw two women arguing. One was standing facing the endless ocean, and the other’s back was to the water. As I got closer to them, I realized that only one woman was arguing. The one facing the water was listening. Actually, the more accurate statement is that the one facing the water was just standing there, exquisitely being, while the arguing one was very animated—shouting, stomping, cursing.
To me, the quiet, listening one was the more compelling. I was drawn to her. The closer I got to the two of them, the more animated the arguing one became. It was as if her flailing arms and loud voice were desperately trying to distract me—pull my focus to her and away from the quietly present one. I could see the arguing one’s mouth moving, but I did not hear her words, even as I moved closer and closer.
The quiet one’s radiance was like a magnet pulling me to her. Willingly, I complied.
I stopped about ten feet away from them. The compelling woman turned toward me and smiled in a knowing way. Then, she stepped toward the arguing one and embraced her. As they held one another, they both turned to look at me. I saw they were both me. In that moment the overcast clouds parted, and the sun broke through, shining so brightly it blinded me for a moment. When I could see again, both women had disappeared.
I woke from that dream energized. It had revealed that the something I was looking for was my Self.
Yes. I could clearly see my selves in this dream. I could see that in my daily life, I was constantly moving in and out of these three selves. I had never thought of myself in terms of the parts that I saw in the dream. Yet, there I was: Three distinct parts of me were on that beach—all living together in the same moment.
Seeing myself in this way felt instructive. I named these three selves the surviving self, the thriving Self, and the infinite SELF. Seeing them, and then paying attention to them in my life, has transformed how I see my Self and others.
The surviving self is the arguing self in the dream. I knew her flailing arms, loud voice, and tendency to feel upset. The surviving self represents the part of me (the part of all of us) that reacts to life. She is quick to judge and take things personally and is always ready for a fight—attacking, proving, protecting, or blaming.
For this self nothing is ever enough. No matter how well things are going, the surviving self looks for what is wrong. No matter how beautiful the image of Self is in the mirror, this self tends to skip over the good, searching for a problem, or an issue that could potentially become a problem. She sees the image in the mirror as mere flesh and bones and therefore constantly fears for its safety. Thus, the surviving self, regardless of our level of financial abundance or elevated life circumstances, is caught in an endless state of surviving life—doubting, worrying, and resisting. (In all fairness, I should point out that the reactionary nature of the surviving self is rooted in the reptilian part of our brains. For nearly five hundred million years the role of this part of the brain has been to be on the lookout for danger and to react appropriately.)
The thriving Self is the image constantly moving forward on the beach of life. Yes! I knew her, too. The thriving Self gives us the ability to hope, dream, and make new choices and to see ourselves as connected to something more powerful than our anxious thoughts. She was the part of me that felt restrained by gossip and my judgmental thinking at that time.
Unlike the surviving self, the thriving Self can observe and create distance between the Self and the events that take place in our lives. This Self can be in difficult circumstances and not feel defined or limited by them. The lives of leaders like Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela confirm this notion of the thriving Self. The thriving Self sees every situation as an opportunity to grow and expand and believes that anything and everything can change for the better. This Self navigates life using as its powerful tools compassion, compassionate action, curiosity, a sense of possibility, enthusiasm, expectation, hope, openness, optimism, vulnerability, acceptance, unity, community, the ability to observe ourselves in action, and the willingness to change.
The profoundly peaceful infinite SELF took my breath away as I witnessed her effortless ability to just be. The infinite SELF is the quietly present compelling Self that stands before life unaffected by the chaos of human confusion and fear. I can’t help but see this Self as God. This infinite SELF is the essence of life that has existed since the beginning of time. Like clay, SELF morphs into endless forms without its essence ever changing. It is at the center of all things and every human being, and because of it, everything in life is connected. It is the intelligent force behind everything. The infinite SELF is the essence of life that dwells in all of us and everything.
When I learned that the brain’s number one function is to support our survival, I saw that the surviving self survives through fear and the thriving Self survives through hope, courage, and curiosity. These are two distinctly different ways of navigating life that leave us with two distinctly different internal experiences. The infinite SELF, on the other hand, being infinite and eternal, transcends the notion of survival. There is nothing for the infinite SELF to survive because it is life itself. The infinite SELF in us is not at war with life because it is life.
It became my goal to make more room for the peace of the infinite SELF, to recognize when I am operating from fear and instead aim to see every situation in life as an opportunity to grow and expand into more of who I am (and to have fun in the process—even in those moments when life might drop me to my knees). This notion taught me to constantly ask myself the question, Are you looking at life from a place of fear, curiosity, or acceptance—from the surviving self, the thriving Self, or the in-finite SELF?
Today, when I observe my surviving self taking the reins, I know to consciously shift my energy and thinking toward thriving characteristics: become curious about my circumstances; ask my Self how I can use the situation before me to grow and expand; ask what might be possible beyond what I see; accept that whatever life brings to my plate is mine to handle and grow from; trust that my inner Self, steeped in the infinite nature of God, can guide me. This is the starting point for strengthening our relationship with Self. This is the inner fitness practice I defer to.
In the dream, when the compelling woman embraced the flail-ing argumentative self, her act revealed a purpose encoded in us all:
Acknowledge the inner Self. Embrace the idea that we have innate value, and our innate strength, wisdom, and love will
throw its arms around the unhappy surviving self, and our experience of life will transform.
The goal of knowing my Self jumped ahead of all other goals. Having a career, a house, and great relationships remained important, but not as important or fulfilling as the discovery of this inner oasis and power.
I have fallen in love with the ability of the thriving Self to rethink, rechoose, and rewrite the past. Contemplating the infinite SELF teaches me that I am innately capable of meeting any circumstance and that nothing in life can destroy the infinite part of me.
My dream of Self does not mean that old habits stop presenting themselves. But seated in a higher sense of Self, I see even the most nuanced Self-rejection and abusive tendencies quickly, and I head them off at the pass. It has become much easier for me to interrupt the habits of the surviving self and to work to retrain and rewire my reactions. When a negative thought tries to land and take root in my life, I know it is a lie, and I make no room for it. If a lie happens to take root and grow, I pull it out as soon as I see it.
I don’t pretend that problems and fears don’t exist. I simply, as the Dalai Lama says, pay them no mind—I give them no meaning. I invest no energy that would create for them a greater reality.
Self with a capital S is teaching me that I can change my relationship to anything. This makes me more courageous and determined. If I encounter difficult people or situations, a relationship breakup or other challenging events that disturb my sense of myself, I question my surviving self perspective and work to shift it.
The aim is not to get rid of the surviving self. This self is quite helpful. Over the course of human history it has taught us to sense and survive all kinds of threats. Also, this is the self that can get deliciously caught up in the moment and common notions of romantic love. The aim is to have a relationship with my Self that allows me to better manage the surviving self.
Up until now the surviving self has gotten way too much of our attention. The goal is to pay more attention to the thriving Self and the infinite SELF.
Like the mirrors I stood before in the House of Mirrors, I have come to assign the label of “trick mirror” to anything that tries to distort my healthy vision of myself. This reminds me to see all pain as a distortion, and not the truth. I look for the lies that have snagged me and turn to my Self in navigating them.
I have cultivated a circle of girlfriends where I feel safe, seen, and heard—just like the characters in my play The Circle. The Circle is about seven diverse women learning to navigate the choppy waters of life together. For five years I contemplated writing it. (Actually, the deeper truth is that for five years I doubted my ability to write the characters and stories that were rustling around inside of me begging for life. I didn’t consider myself a writer. My mind kept looking for someone else—a “real” writer—to step in and bring the characters to life. Finally, I realized one of life’s biggest lessons: No one can step in and do for us what is ours to do—whether it is writing a play or rewriting our personal stories of hurt. Being afraid does not let us off the hook. This realization was a point of demarcation on the journey to my Self: If no one can step in and do my work for me, and life is short, and I want to be fully alive, then I must throw my arms around my surviving self, dive into my life with hope in my heart, and nurture new possibilities in my mind. Courageously stretching beyond my comfort zone to apply this new way of being in my life opened a door through which both this book and The Circle were born. Since the reading of the first draft of The Circle by a group of actresses in 2011, the play has been performed in eight cities for thousands of people. It has been changing people’s lives, proving to me that learning to lovingly manage the surviving self is the shortest distance between where we are and where we want to be.)
My real-life circle and I have made a pact to support one another. We act as an undistorted mirror for each other. When the habits of the surviving self grab hold, we help one another to see how the surviving self is in control so that we can then make thriving-Self choices. We look to one another to remember that we are beautiful, whole, and undistorted.
My real-life circle has so enriched my life that I wanted to turn our experience into a theatrical one that audiences every-where could enjoy and benefit from. It is gratifying to witness audience members see themselves in the characters in The Circle and boldly throw their voices into the room when, toward the end of the play, they get to shout to every dream stealer who has ever hurt them, “Carry your own damn bag!”
The two statements that above all others have helped me come to know that each of us is more than the image we see in the mirror are (1) God don’t make junk, and (2) there is a part of us that can never be hurt, harmed, or endangered. This part is the inﬁnite SELF, the force I call God. The idea that this force lives inside of me as the inﬁnite SELF is more than comforting. It gives me permission to challenge any and every fear and to trust that life works with itself for the beneﬁt of itself.
As I hiked up a mountain one overcast morning, my dream replayed in my mind. I got to the part when the compelling woman embraces the arguing one, and the clouds parted, and the sun broke through. But this day when the dream was replaying, for the first time, when the sun broke through the clouds and the light was so bright that the two women disappeared, I realized that they did not disappear. Instead, we all became one. This is the possibility for each of us—that the three selves work together harmoniously as one.
Our true purpose is to discover our oneness with the highest SELF—God—the omniscient, intelligent force that governs the universe.
Inner Fitness Practice
The Big Lie
The self you see in the mirror is all that you are.
You are so much more than the image you see in the mirror. The all-pervading intelligent nature and power that governs the universe lives inside of you. Give it room, and its presence will expand.
Becoming aware of the Self in you that is full of possibility, born to thrive, and cannot be hurt, harmed, or endangered.
Find a comfortable place in your home to experiment with feeling the presence of your inner Self:
Sit in a chair and become aware of yourself.
Scan yourself. Become aware of your body. Look at your arms. Watch your chest rise and fall. See your thighs. Become aware of your calves, legs, and feet.
Now close your eyes and let go of the image of your body and give no thought to breathing. Become aware of the essence of you. Feel it radiating with aliveness. With your eyes closed, see yourself looking at your body without being your body.
Say to yourself, There is more to me than I know.