Siddhartha Gautama must have looked particularly radiant the day someone asked him if he was a divine being. Not surprising, given that he was fresh off a solo retreat. After six years of following the ascetic path and mastering every kind of meditative practice and self-denial technique, he thought there had to be a better way to end suffering. He decided to simply sit at the base of a tree and not get up until he was enlightened.
Even for an advanced meditator, it can be challenging to stay present, aware of sensation, and not get lost in thoughts. But as he remained steadfast in his practice, Siddhartha began to see the nature of thinking, how the lure of distracting thoughts activated patterns of craving, aversion, and delusion. Instead of making an enemy of these thoughts and emotions, he greeted them again and again, saying, “I see you. I know you.” He recognized them for what they were: illusion. They held no power. He could have a skillful friendly relationship with these thoughts and emotions, letting them arise in his awareness and fall away. He didn’t need to go into battle, banish them, or belittle himself for their existence. What freedom!
This was a huge Aha! A shift away from the striving and self-abusive means to achieve enlightenment he had been taught by ascetic masters. After he rose from under the Bodhi tree, he stayed nearby, meditating in the area for 49 days, letting his insights sink in, giving himself a chance to practice what he had discovered and evolve in his understanding.
Only then did he set out on the road to reconnect with his fellow seekers to share his findings. In that state of awareness, he made quite an impression on the man he passed along the way who felt compelled to ask him if he was a divine being. How could any mere mortal have such a glow of awareness? But Siddhartha Gautama would not be deified or named in any way. His questioner wanted a definitive answer, so finally he replied: “I am awake.”
Note that he did not say “I am the awakened one.” His words were not nouns of self-definition. All attempts to categorize or label who or what he was failed to be true. Why? Because he was experiencing awareness of the inseparable nature of being. The illusion of separateness had fallen away. So he used a verb: “I am awake.” At that moment, that was his experience.
Using nouns to define ourselves can cause a sense of isolation and distort perception. Whether we are ‘awake’ or not, it is liberating to develop the habit of using verbs instead of nouns when asked to describe ourselves. For example, I write.
“Oh, so you’re a writer,” someone might say. Am I ‘a writer’? I notice that the minute I switch into self-identification, I feel some tension in my neck and shoulders. Fear-based patterns of thought arrive like attack dogs on the prowl. “Who am I to…?” “Who does she think she is?” “What is a writer?” All the judgments our culture has about writers are suddenly imploding my simple pleasure in the experience of putting words together in ways that keeps me engaged, interested and curious. Writing is one way I love life and then at times share that love with others.
It can be challenging to switch into verb usage. Forms ask for nouns, not verbs. Bios are awkward to write without nouns, as they seem more succinct. The deflecting quality of switching into verbs can be seen as false modesty. It’s complicated! And it would be certainly more so for anyone whose hard-earned title has been a source of pride and self-worth. Retirees sometimes struggle with discovering life beyond the self-descriptors that feel so completely embedded in their being. But it might be interesting to see if switching to verbs illuminates and enlivens their perception of the ways their actions contribute to the well-being of the world.
The more I let go of attachment to nouns, the more at ease I feel. I am not a separate object in need of defining. Don’t fence me in! Instead, I am living in a way that feels meaningful in this moment, whatever I’m doing. Verbs are alive and celebratory! Descriptor nouns are laden with memories, heritage, cultural attitudes, etc. Rich in some ways, but they can pull me out of the moment. Attachment to all the “I am’s” turns them into limitations. Even the self-descriptor nouns I cherish most— wife, mother, grandmother —can detract from the pure loving friendships I so enjoy with my husband, children and grandchildren. Those titles might give me a sense of entitlement or power that would undermine that love.
Some labels purposely divide us, driven by competition–‘”Rah! Rah! for our team” is a sentiment that goes far beyond sports. A spirit of connection and collaboration has a much better chance of meeting the challenges we face in the world today. As motivating as competition may seem, it ultimately creates a tangled mess of legalize and unmet needs because the intentions were never really about just solving problems but about making profits.
So to whatever degree I am able, I let go of labels. To the degree they define me, they confine me. They are not the enemy. I do not deny them. But I try to remember to see them as they are: illusion. When I get caught up in their tangle, I lose my balance and forget the intrinsic interconnection of all being. Thud. Agh! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!
You have probably noticed that self-definition is an epidemic in our culture: ‘branding’ ourselves as products that must be packaged attractively with appealing labels. Women of my generation and before were usually brought up to see themselves as objects, appendages to the male experience, trained to orbit rather than radiate. Now it’s not just women. Everyone is a product presenting themselves in the best light on social media.
Even the kind of self-care we are encouraged to do is about polishing up our brand, not cultivating compassion, healing or awakening. Instead of recognizing the wholeness of being, we are told to size ourselves up against the competition. How does each of us measure up? By whose measure? Even as I write this, my energy feels lower. But fortunately…
We can awaken to our inseparable nature! Through meditation, and then beyond it, by simply being present with all that arises. Reminders and inspiration abound. The other day, sitting in the center of a redwood grove, looking up into the canopy, I felt it. But I also felt it when I came upon a building being destroyed on my local college campus. It is a structure I remember being built decades ago. And I even remember the lovely building it replaced with the Spanish style portico. Things change. Ah, impermanence!
That night, looking through binoculars at the Neowise comet’s faint smudgy streak through the sky, I felt “knocked upside the head” by the infinite nature of being, how this particular set of circumstances, this pattern of particles in movement, will not be repeated for 7000 years. Seven thousand years! Mind-boggling, isn’t it? How does it feel to be so small and fleeting? Frightening? Or freeing? When my identity is locked into this body with all those nouns, I feel threatened. Little Steffie will not last. But if I can trip the switch to verbs and tap into the aliveness of this amazing moment, I feel…awake!