In LES MISERABLES, Jean Valjean sings these words just before he reveals himself to his stalker, Javert:
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I?
What a great question. When my insomnia started over the holidays. I said, “No, no. Wait. Who am I? I’m the kind of person who sleeps well.”
December brought revved-up nights of my raiding the fridge at 2:00 a.m, and debating at 4:00, “Do I get up? Do I stay put?” I stuck to my good sleeper self-definition, even as the huge blanket-shuffling winds of tossing and turning whipped through my every cell. So I googled and found advice called “sleep hygiene,” among it: bedtime rituals, a routine lights-out time, and turning off the computer monitor and the action-packed TV an hour before bedtime.
Who am I? I held onto “I’m the kind of person who lives plugged in.”
But my eyes drooped in the morning, body lead-heavy. The Sue whom my high school yearbook named “effervescent” had vanished. I tried powering down my computer after dinner, but I told myself I’m not that type. I’m an extravert. I’m a stay-connected type. My self-talk zig-zagged with the energy of monkeys jumping from branch to branch. I am this. I am not that. This is me. That isn’t.
I searched again and learned a simple practice to cut through monkey-mind complexities. Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi, 1879-1950, wrote, “By incessantly pursuing the inquiry ‘Who am I?’, you will know your true self.”
And the mystical poet Rumi asks, “Who am I, standing in the midst of this thought traffic?”
Finally admitting sleep-defeat, I started this study and shared the exercise with a few students.
Question: Who am I? Answer: Grandmother. Insight: Not only that
Q: Who am I? A: Daughter, sister, mother, wife, neighbor, friend, teacher. Insight: Not only that
Who am I? Good sleeper. I am not.
One woman answered, “I am kind,” and then, after shrieking at her toddler, declared, “Oops. Not always.”
A man said, “I am healthy,” thought again and added “maybe in spirit” when he received a terminal diagnosis.
After four months of this repetitive and sometimes frustrating practice, –it took resolve and effort—my view of who I am slowly loosened. And when our little group ended, we all knew that we were not the persons we thought we were. We are not our traits, roles and behaviors; not only our bodies, emotions and thoughts. Most of us never got one sure answer to our Who am I discovery. But we now know we are bigger and more than we thought.
Today I receive answers like, “”Heart” or “Growing.” Some of these words baffle me. Yet if we ask the tough questions, stop striving to fit into our small self-images, false selves drop away. True-self becomes clearer. As muddled as this process seems, our Essence beams wider, more spacious and open than “I’m a good sleeper,” or “I’m an extravert.”
We practice by pursuing the inquiry. Posing the question disarms our tightly held beliefs. Our answers merely lead to deeper asking, closer listening. If we go to bed knowing where our souls belong, we more likely wake up with a new understanding of who we are, or maybe more importantly who we aren’t. Then like Jean Valjean we journey on. Maybe our bargain is to share our effervescence in the world. And maybe the answer to Who Are We is that we are all meant to shine our own light.