As I lay there in a yin class, acutely aware of all sorts of sensations all over my body that I can now focus my attention on, I acknowledged that even a few years ago I didn’t know how to direct my attention inward.
If someone asked me to feel the sensation in my left hand, I would visualise a picture of a hand in my mind
because it was the only way I could make sense of what they were asking of me.
I was so constantly caught up in my mind, the only place I could hold my attention was my mind, and so, I tried to use my mind to sense what was going on in the rest of my body.
During the class my favourite yin yoga teacher Jen came up with yet another amazing analogy for self discovery. She spoke about how our body is like uncharted territory for most of us.
To get to know our “real selves”, we have to be curious,
as though we were a cartographer making a map of this new land we’ve discovered.
To do so we need to look around our body with our attention; put our attention into the sense receptors that are found all over our body.
As Jen put it, we might find some dark lakes with sea monsters in (places in our body that feel stuck, stagnant, or tense – where we don’t want to look), and we might find some places where we like the view (places in our body that feel light, fascinating or relaxed – we’re happy to linger with our attention).
But a cartographer doesn’t judge the land he’s discovering, he observes everything with curiosity and maps it out, the good and the bad.
If we want to get to know ourselves, we have to do the same.
Just because we live inside a body doesn’t mean we know anything about what goes on in there.
We have faint notions of when we’re hungry or stressed or elated or sad. But do we really know what’s going on in our left little toe? Ever?
Just like I don’t know much about the structure of the house I live in, because I haven’t bothered to study it, I also didn’t used to know anything about the internal structure and sensation of my body.
Jen studies anatomy as well as yoga, and has a control-freak/ overachiever background like me, so she’s very very practical and has a real knack for explaining esoteric subjects like the science of yoga and traditional Chinese medicine in a way that just makes so much more sense to my formerly sceptical ears than om shanti, namaste.
“How do I find the real me?”
is probably the most common question I get asked. Many people I work with have lost touch with their sense of self and they feel a bit amiss. They can’t make decisions because they’re never sure whether it’s the right one, they struggle to articulate what makes them really happy because they’re not sure anymore. Then they lose confidence because
how can you be confident in your Self if you don’t know who your Self is?
If you think about finding yourself like finding and charting a country, it can be a really useful analogy to understand such a misunderstood topic.
It’s as though each of us woke up one day (were born) in a country, say Australia. We woke up, and we were amazed at this country, everything around us.
Then imagine that over time, we got used to living in one city, say Melbourne. We became so used to living in the busy city of Melbourne that we forgot, most of the time, that there was a vast country all around us that we could explore.
Our mental-map of Melbourne was very detailed, because we’d spent a lot of time exploring it.
But our mental-map of the rest of Australia was mostly uncharted.
This is what happens when our attention gets too focused on one thing: our mind.
In this analogy, your mind is the city, and your body is the whole country.
When you first were born you could perceive your 5 senses and feel sensations all over your body being delivered to your brain by the peripheral nervous system and all the interoceptors all over your body feeding your brain information about the status of various body parts.
Then, your mind (the city) started to develop in language, and before long,
your awareness was so overwhelmed with your mind (the city) that you all but forgot that there was a whole country around you.
This is essentially what has happened to all of us.
If you look at Australia as a whole, you could describe it on a mind level – you would say, yes, Australia is a nice place, great beaches, some dessert, bit of humidity up north, terrible snowboarding, didgeridoos, kangaroos, Skippy cornflakes, surfing people, etc, etc.
But that really wouldn’t scratch the surface of Australia’s real identity. To find Australia’s real identity you’d have to travel all over the country, sensing it with all your senses, sight, taste, touch, sound, smell and emotional responses, as well as the mental labels that your mind would attribute to your experience.
The same goes for you.
You can describe yourself on a mind level,
you might say, yes, I’m Andrea, I run a business teaching mindfulness, I have freckles, I am a control freak and I love gluten free tiramisu.
But that doesn’t scratch the surface of who I am, my real identity.
I’m the only one who can know my real identity, and I only know it because I’ve spent the last 7 years exploring the landscape.
My landscape is internal, it consists of my emotions, my 5 senses, my gut instincts, my values, my motivators, what gives me energy and what takes it away. All of this – only I can experience, and I can only experience it by looking inwards and making maps of what I see along the way – not judging or analysing, just charting.
You can never explain who you are in words.
The closest you can come to it is to define yourself using your values, which in the end, are only a mental/ mind-made label for things that you feel with your gut instinct.
If you value what we call in English: authenticity, as I do, the only way you’ll know that authenticity is one of your values is by observing your gut feeling/ internal reactions when in the presence of authentic people or while being authentic yourself, and likewise when in the presence of non-authentic people or while knowing that you’re being inauthentic.
That instinct is there for all of us, and just as it guides birds to migrate half way round the world without chatting to anyone or looking at a map, when we find it and follow our instinct, it will lead us where we need to go and away from the things that drain or harm us.
I know that my former self would scoff at such impractical language, but in the end, you have to just go with what makes sense.
As far as I know there is no scientific explanation for how instinct works, it just does, it’s known that we and all animals have this thing inside us that drives us towards some things and away from others, even when others are repelled by the things we’re drawn to.
There is no logic nor hard and fast rules to it, which makes it very hard to study, and impossible for a control freak mind like mine to accept as “science”.
Luckily I realised there was a whole other country in me, not just the hustle and bustle of the city in my head, and
I use my continued internal research into the whole of me to tell me who I am and what I want.
And by jove it serves me million billion times better than my mind ever did.
It has lead me to my Bloody Good Life.
So how do we get to this place where we can chart our own sense of self?
Well, by learning mindfulness of course.
It’s just like learning another language, only the language is your self.
If you’re new round here, welcome to Project SELF!
I hope you’ll learn more about yourself and your mind by reading stories about mine!