When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.
I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.
But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?
Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.
Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.
You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.
So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?
The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.