Six years ago, I had the fortune to join a wonderful spiritual workshop led by my friend and psychologist, Dr. Meg S. Miller.
In one of the sessions, she asked us to sit on our knees, face-to-face with a person we did not know well.
The exercise required one person to ask the question, “Who Are You?” and the other to respond with a one or two word answer.
The person responsible for asking was instructed not to react verbally nor with a change in facial expression to their partner’s response. The only only allowed response was, “Thank you… Who are you?”
I remember that it was somewhat entertaining to hear my responses: “mother” “yoga teacher” “white” “athletic” “Jewish” “truthful” “patient” “woman” “grounded” “spiritual” “yogi.”
But as the exercise continued and these familiar layers of identity began to peel away, I started to notice more subtle identities of who I considered myself to be: depressed, faithful, controlling, married, organized, survivor, anxious, overweight, responsible, nail-biter, privileged, wounded.
As I responded, I could simultaneously hear the murmur of responses from the other participants in their dyads—“fat” “abused” “unworthy” “angry” “jealous” “unorganized” “adopted” “divorced”—lingering and merging with my own. Halfway through the exercise I, quite unexpectedly, started crying. The tenderness of that moment—to hear not only my own, but also the other participants’ responses—was deeply intimate and powerful. It felt as though thin, transparent filaments began to connect us all.
This was an intensity I had never experienced before. It felt as though I was being pulled apart, seam by seam, and in fact that was exactly what was happening.
There are pivotal moments in our lives, the kind of experiences we look back upon and see how our lives were forever changed. I have come to see that this was one of those moments.
It was during this experience that I became a witness to all the layers of endless roles and identities I thought myself to be, listening to others in the room.
I saw how we are all doing this with ourselves. At the end of the exercise I was physically exhausted and overcome with the realization that I had never been aware of the weightiness of these definitions–even the the roles that appeared “neutral” or “positive.”
Something quite remarkable happened that day; in becoming aware of these definitions, I was finally able to entertain the notion that who I truly was had absolutely nothing to do with all these ways in which I defined myself.
For the first time I could see a glimmer of my soul beyond all of that. From that moment, like a Pandora’s box had been opened, my life began to unfold from this powerful realization.
For my entire life these definitions of “Who I Was” provided me with a sense of a security, a grounded-ness of some sort, but now I knew that these were illusions, and I no longer found security in these parameters.
I felt like an astronaut, and it was somehow disconcerting “not to know” for the first time. Not only to not know who I was, but to awaken to the realization that all the times I thought I knew who I was were in fact just small prisons veiled in stories.
This experience eventually led me to a place where I clearly recognized that who I truly was had no definition(s) or labels, that I was being born each and every moment. From this everything became possible. The template of “this is who I am” or “this is who I am not” invariably ceased, and I was meeting life as it was.
This created some significant changes in my life. I have often referred to it as identity fallout: the closing of a yoga studio I deeply cherished, the ending of a marriage, parting of friends, an end to an obsession with eating and exercise, a deeper relationship with my mother, recognizing that dishes can remain in the sink overnight (and the world will not end) and—perhaps the one I am my grateful for—the realization that I no longer had to make sense of my past, because I was not my wounds.
Life became surreal, yet so very real. Knowing who I was beyond all the identities of who I had taken myself to be was liberating. I was amazed at all the changes happening—and without any effort or planning.
Life was not all rainbows and unicorns; I still experienced feelings of sadness, and anger still happened (I still yelled at my kids for their messy rooms), but these emotions were short-lived because I was no longer trying to protect or defend any identity.
“Who I was” was no longer dependent on anything—not feelings, others’ reactions, or ideas or requirements of who I ought to be. My relationships deepened, because I was also allowing others to be who they were.
So, years later and many more unfoldings from that place, it was somewhat surprising (yet not surprising at all) when I called my friend and said, “Holy crap, I think I may be in love—and it’s with a woman!” To which she responded, “Well, of course you are!”
What she was really saying was that in my being able to recognize beyond the labels and identities, everything had opened to me—even this experience of love.
I am deeply grateful for this awareness. If I had met this woman and experienced any of those feelings in the past, I would have turned away, in some subtle way reminding myself that I was in fact “straight” and that being with a woman was not a part of my story. I might not have even let the feelings be seen.
I have come to see through this relationship that it is not just the labels we place on ourselves, but the identities we embody that are of value to people in our lives (even our society, religion and culture).
As I began to reveal my new relationship, I noticed how often people wanted to label me and my sexuality, sometimes as a way to understand why I had left my marriage. Quite a few people were excited to now call me bi-sexual. I saw that many wanted me to corroborate their stories and I realized that it was not that they wanted to understand me, but rather understand themselves—through me.
It reminded me of all the ways I had required this of myself and how “who I was” was not just about my own identities, but how others in my life had also informed and supported my stories.
It was not just me, but others in my life (and even life itself) that didn’t have a chance of ever truly being seen anew. I realized that many of these identities and roles were deeply connected in my desire to be loved or loving, yet today I love others and myself by no longer being who others need me to be.
In knowing who I am beyond these identities, I am able to love in a way I have never experienced. In each and every moment I have no idea “who I am”—and in the past this would have scared the sh*t out of me, but today I feel alive.
Author: Erica Taxin Bleznak
Apprentice editor: Sara Kärpänen / Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Courtesy of Author via Joe Longo