Are Self-Definitions Holding You Back?
I’ve often reflected that those great composers and other artists who achieved so little fame during their lifetimes may have been more fortunate in their obscurity than most people realize. Public acclaim can place limitations on a person’s talents, even by so simple an act as defining them. Once an artist’s public builds a house for him, figuratively speaking, on the plateau where they discovered him, he’ll probably find it more difficult to leave that plateau for any other.
Definitions, to the extent that they clarify a reality, are not merely helpful, but often necessary to comprehension. They can also, however, stand in the way of progressive clarity, for no definition can ever fully express the reality it defines.
Don’t dwell too long on any self-definition
Self-definition is a way in which we all develop our abilities. The beginner in business who, after making his first big sale, defines himself as a successful businessman may in so doing create the self-confidence necessary to reach the heights of success. What happens, however, when such a man is asked to respond outside of his self-definition? Will he be more free in his response, or less so, than he would have been earlier?
Suppose the women of his community ask him to help them sell trinkets at a table for a fund-raising bazaar. Will he reply indignantly, “What do you take me for – a peddler?” Or will he respond pleasantly, “Why not? I’m honored that you would ask me to help”
The banker who defines himself too rigidly as a banker may make an indifferent husband, father, or neighbor. The artist who defines himself too narrowly as an artist may forget what it is like to act like a human being. The sergeant who daily barks orders on the drill field may issue commands at a friendly party, where simple requests would be far more effective.
The positions in which life places us can help us to define ourselves, and thereby to achieve a certain level of self-understanding. But if we want to attain to ever higher levels, we cannot afford to dwell for long on any self-definition. In short, we must be as free in our minds to set definitions aside as to use them.
The illusion of individuality
The body you take on is just the product of all the things you’ve done and the reactions you’ve had over many, many lifetimes. These experiences have molded your face, your personality, your likes and dislikes, and have become your self-definitions, but you are none of those things. You are not your body, male or female. You are not your personality. You are that formless soul — that alone is who you are.
Paramhansa Yogananda defined ego as “the soul identified with a body.” All egos are like little jets of flame on a gas burner, each one with the appearance of individuality, but each one being, in fact, only a manifestation of the unifying gas underneath. What gives people their illusion of individuality is the bundle of self-definitions they gradually amass, most of which are quite insignificant, but which become, in their aggregate, a heavy burden on their spiritual awareness.
Forever at rest in the eternal Self
I always marveled to see how my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, in different situations, always reflected the reality of the moment. For example, when he was in the company of medical doctors, he reflected their consciousness even to the extent of using their terminology! He possessed no self-definition to remind himself: “I’m not a doctor: I’m a yogi and a swami.”
In a deeply real sense, he was everything. At the same time, he was not identified with or attached to anything. Completely human — lovingly, charmingly so — in the highest and fullest possible sense, he was yet forever at rest in the eternal Self within. Nothing could define him, for he had transcended all definitions, and swam blissfully in satchidananda—the ocean of perfect, divine immortality.
Our essential reality is not our outward humanity: It is the eternal soul. What happens in the process of meditating is that gradually we begin to understand that, “No. I’m not any of these definitions.” It’s a discovery that each soul makes as it evolves in its own self-unfoldment. The more completely we renounce self-definitions, the easier we find it, by our openness to soul-guidance, to discover that in our deepest reality we are that eternal, infinite, ever-blissful Self.
Twelve ways to banish limiting self-definitions
What practices, then, can help you in your journey to freedom from all limiting self-definitions?
1. Try never to use such expressions as, “Well, as I always say!” Try not to be or do anything “always.”
2. Try not to think, “I’m a man,” or, “I’m a woman.” You are a soul who, from one lifetime to the next, may become one or the other.
3. Try not, as your age changes, to define yourself by that age. There was a child of nine, named Jan, who lived for a time at Mt. Washington with his mother. Our Guru would sometimes say to him with a chuckle, “Little Jan is no child: he’s an old man!”
4. Try not to be patriotic in the usual sense, which is to think, “My country, right or wrong!” If your country falls into a fit of madness that you oppose — as happened in Germany under the Nazis, who persecuted Jews — making sincere loyalty impossible, then it is better simply to emigrate.
5. Don’t define yourself by your own preferences. Don’t say, “I am by nature an artist,” or, “a businessman.” Say, rather, “I paint,” or, “I do business.”
6. Don’t define yourself by your beliefs such as “liberal” or “conservative.” Don’t say, I’m a Christian.” Say, rather, “I love Jesus Christ, and try to follow his precepts.” Realize that there are as many types of Christianity as there are Christians.
7. Don’t define yourself by any opinion you hold. But define yourself, if you will, by your desire to know the truth. Be willing to change your mind whenever you see that you’ve been wrong.
8. Don’t define yourself by your talents. Don’t define yourself by your intelligence. Don’t define yourself by your ability to win others to your ideas.
9. Don’t seek perfection in the image you project toward others. In the realization of God alone as the Doer, even the thought, “I am kind,” or, “I am truthful,” is self-limiting. Even your human virtues are but small steppingstones on the way to an infinite perfection.
10. When people praise you for something you have done, you should say (and feel), “God is the Doer.” When people criticize you, whether with or without cause, you should thank your critics and say, “I shall try harder, in future.”
11. Don’t allow the negative perceptions of others to become your own self-definition.
If people slight you, maintain your dignity but tell yourself inwardly, “How nice it is not to need their good opinion!”
12. Never define yourself as a sinner. Sin means, quite simply, error. It is born of ignorance. To punish ourselves for our mistakes is to deny ourselves the God-given power to learn from them, and rise above them.
We must always aspire toward something
Make any self-definition your own that may help to lift you out of ego-consciousness. Define yourself, therefore, as a child of God. Define yourself by the fact that you love God, by your desire for truth, and by your longing to escape the ego.
If you believe in what you think to be a truth, be firm in that belief. But if anyone gives you good reason to doubt that belief, then don’t hesitate to abandon it. Never abandon a belief, however, only because you feel that it is not wholly correct. Wait until you can replace it with a sounder belief. Better a wrong belief than belief in nothing at all. Better to cling to the flimsiest wisp of truth than to become a nihilist! For negation is the destruction of all hope.
Don’t, then, define yourself as someone who believes in nothing, who aspires to nothing, who trusts in nothing and nobody. We must always aspire toward something. It is best if our aspiration reaches up to the heights, but even a hillock is better than a pit as a definition of our aspirations. It is better to strive to become rich than to strive for nothing at all. It is better to be a mediocre artist than to give up painting altogether in despair.
Find your own true individuality
Each one of us, in his soul, is individual and unique. God, I’ve often said, has a special melody to sing through every one of us. No two snowflakes are exactly alike. Once we have overcome ego-consciousness, we’ll manifest our true selves in the one Self, yet each of us will do so in some special way. True saints manifest the same one Bliss in their lives, but each one does so in some unique way.
So never fear the loss of your individuality in finding God. What you’ll find is your own true individuality. To do that, you must first give up all self-definitions. In your true Self there are no definitions; you simply are.