“You are not a Pen, You are not a Body”, Spirituality & Health
“Indian spiritual tradition teaches that it is only our ignorance that makes us identify with our physical form, that temporary vehicle created out of matter which changes and perishes, rather than with our divine unchangeable content which is our true identify.”
Within a few weeks of being in India, in the autumn of 1996, my Guru Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji held up a pen and said to me, “You are not this pen.” I laughed.
“Yes, Swamiji” I said, trying to restrain my giggles at the seeming absurdity of his statement. He did not laugh and his eyes generated a light which seared straight into my chest.
“You laugh,” he said, “because you know you are not this pen. But you still think you are that body. You think you are all the experiences it’s having, all of the beauty it encompasses, all of the emotions, the pleasures and pains. You still think that is you.”
After my first spiritual experiences in Rishikesh, I still felt one with my emotions, connected to wonder, to awe, even to mirth as I watched my new world unfold. Although swimming in the formless world of the divine, I was also still very much in my body, in my emotions, in my experiences. If I wasn’t my body or my emotions or my experiences, then who was I?
It has taken me decades to fully unearth and embody this early teaching.
If asked, “Who are you?” Most of us will reply with our name, age, place of residence, academic degrees, career titles, relationships, with our shape and appearances, “I am beautiful. I am ugly. I am fat. I am athletic.”
Indian spiritual tradition teaches that it is only our ignorance that makes us identify with our physical form, that temporary vehicle created out of matter which changes and perishes, rather than with our divine unchangeable content which is our true identify.
Those of us who have had the experience of not being contained by physical form, may recognize we are not our age or height or color. However, we still say “I am depressed,” or “I am angry.” These are simply more subtle aspects of the physical being—they are chemical and electrical patterns of behavior in our very physical brains. They are not who we are.
Emotions, our experience of these neurological chemical and electrical patterns, are flashlights that show us the places in us where we are stuck, constricted, and contracted. Knowing what makes us angry, jealous, or frustrated is key to unlocking the stagnant, closed parts of ourselves. But we must use them as flashlights toward opening, rather than get stuck in identification with them.
We can follow the flashlight of our emotions into and then through the dark corners of our psyche, into our history, into the places beyond and before the history, into the places that are not stuck but free, not contracted but expanded. We have to be prepared to travel into the emotion rather than around it, for the path into the light is through the darkness. In this journey into the nooks and crannies of ourselves, we must be careful not to get stuck along the way and identify with what we find.
For most of us, the roots of that from which we suffer today were planted in our psyches many years, if not decades, ago. We were abused—physically and/or emotionally. We were abandoned. We were betrayed or lied to or cheated. Yet, if that original core experience happened more than eight or nine years ago there is not one cell left in our body to which it happened. Every single cell in our body regenerates, some quickly and constantly like skin cells, some much slower like organ cells. Within eight or nine years, though, they’ve all regenerated. So, there is literally and physically, no “I” today who was victimized.
We suffer throughout our lives, recreating the sense of betrayal or abandonment until we can walk into, and beyond, the original experience. As long as we deny the fullness of the impact of the original experience, we are forced to repeat it. That is basic psychological wisdom. It’s the reason that most forms of therapy are focused on examining the cause of our suffering. However, it is not enough to walk into the darkness. We have to be prepared to walk through the darkness into the light on the other side. We have to be prepared to recognize that the experience happened to us, but it is not us. There is an “I” on the other side of suffering.
There is even an “I” on the other side of ecstasy. It is, paradoxically, just as easy to get stuck in the good as the bad. “I may not be my anger, but I am my bliss.” No, we are also not our bliss, for when the bliss dissipates or changes, the true “I” does not wax or wane.
Today, only after more than two decades since my Guru’s teaching, if someone told me I wasn’t my body or the emotional patterns or thoughts in my brain, would I nod my head in deep agreement.