Tell me who you are.
It’s an easy enough question. Chances are if someone asked you, you’d say ‘I’m <insert birth name here>’. Maybe a bit of info on your job, hobbies, family, likes and dislikes, if the conversation merited it.
But what if all that stuff isn’t who you are? And what if you were sitting with your face just inches from the blank, staring face of a stranger’s, telling them who you are by just pouring out anything and everything that comes into your head. You burst into tears at a sad memory. They say nothing, just stare at you blankly. You’re near shouting with rage because fuck this, you don’t care who you are anyway, and this is stupid and you just want to go home. They say nothing, just stare at you blankly. You’re laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity of everything. They say nothing, just stare at you blankly. You tell them your mind has gone blank and you have nothing to say. They say nothing, just stare at you blankly.
Then there’s a bell and its your turn to ask them to ‘tell me who you are’, and be the blank, staring face while they rage and cry and laugh and stare blankly back at you because they don’t know what else to say.
Last weekend, this actually happened to me.
I’ve written about mindfulness and meditation before, and my mindfulness teacher, plus a couple of friends, had previously gone on a Zenways three-day intensive retreat run by Julian Daizan Skinner. And this is how I found myself at the stunning Anam Cara, near Inverness, with one friend and sixteen strangers, the aim of the weekend being to find an understanding of our true selves and our true nature. A form of enlightenment, as it were.
The days were packed with a busy schedule, from 6am until 11pm, and mostly involved sitting in pairs, asking our partner to ‘tell me who you are.’ If you were asking the question, your job was to act as a witness; simply sit there silently, maintaining eye contact, showing no judgement of any kind. No emotion, no nodding, no frowning, no questioning. Just sitting there, accepting and allowing. As the speaker, your job was to look within and express whatever arose. Ideas, thoughts, memories, emotions, physical sensations – just express them, let them go, and see what came up next. After four minutes, the bell would go, and the listener and talker would swap. After forty minutes, it was time for a switch, and to sit opposite someone else.
The rest of the retreat was spent in silence – no talking during meals, during walking meditation, during breaks between sessions, during the rest period in the afternoon. The aim was to always be contemplating your question, and (within reason) ignoring everyone else.
I found that long-forgotten memories surfaced, and my social anxiety raised its head in the most interesting way. I couldn’t feel it, because I felt I was in a safe place, as I couldn’t be left out of a group that didn’t have any conversation between it’s members, and there was no pressure for small talk. But this anxiety needed to be made conscious and processed, and I found myself going increasingly paranoid on the second day. No one liked me, I was doing everything wrong, they were all somehow communicating with each other and leaving me out. All utter bullshit but the thoughts came into my head and brought up the usual physical symptoms. But as soon as I expressed these fears to my partner, they went away and I could see things for how they really were again.
The listening was a wonderful experience, although hard at times. As humans, we never, ever, ever listen without judgement. Even just nodding and making the right noises is a form of intervention, and it causes the talker to steer what they’re saying in a certain direction. But with this process, there was no steering; what came out was raw, honest and at times painful to hear. To sit opposite someone in floods of tears, and be unable to even attempt to acknowledge or comfort them is possibly the hardest part of the process, but it allows them to really be themselves and express what needs expressing, in their own, true way. It was wonderful to hear those peoples’ stories, and to finally, really, understand that I’m not alone in my faults, fears and insecurities. We all have them. We told each other things that would be hard to tell anyone else, and indeed I’m certain some of us told each other things we’d never ever told anyone. On one level, I feel I know those strangers better than I know people I’ve known all my life.
For those three days. I felt we were living outwith reality; we were living on the edge of everyday society and reconsidering what it is to be human. It was utterly horrendous at times; there were moments where I wondered if I had either been induced into some sort of cult, or if I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet there were also beautiful, wonderful moments when I felt more present and alive than I had ever felt. More honest, more understanding, more human.
At Sunday lunchtime, we were told we could talk again. People were hugging, crying, laughing, talking. I mostly stood aside awkwardly, longing for the silence to continue. If it hadn’t been for the fact I’d got a lift down with my friend, I would have got into my car and just left, there and then. That’s what some people did. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak to those people. We had entrusted each other with some of our greatest secrets, but there was no awkwardness. Instead, I felt a sadness at being thrown back into a world of small talk and judging and gossiping and point-scoring. Not that any of those people were doing this – indeed, in the end I was glad I stayed as I got to speak to some lovely people, as well as witness one of the ladies take her Buddhist precepts; it turned out to be a great afternoon. But as someone who hates small talk, is painfully introverted and socially awkward at times, I just didn’t think I had enough mental power to carry me through a dreaded group lunch setting after so much silence. But I survived.
And did I find out who I really am? Well, I didn’t have any sort of big breakthrough or enlightening moment, but I had moments where light shone through the cracks. Knowing who we really are, is just that – it’s a knowing. An understanding, a process. Its not something that can be expressed in words. I couldn’t get this – I really, really couldn’t. But now I do. And sometimes I feel it. I can show you who I am, but I cannot tell you. Daizan likens it it to a magic eye picture; sometimes you get it and you see it clearly. Other times, you lose it altogether. But its still there.
Sometimes I feel down because I long to be back there, in a world where I don’t have to make small talk, where I don’t have to justify myself, where people really listen to me, where I can really listen to them without the pressure of having to formulate a response, where time and money don’t matter, where meals are cooked for me and I don’t have to think about what to have or when to have it, where I have no pressure to do anything except be myself, where I can switch my phone to aeroplane mode and not feel worried/guilty, where I’m free from the dramas of world news and gossip. It sounds so self-indulgent, but it was damn hard work. At the same time, though, it was wonderfully freeing.
I’m slower now. I listen when people talk and I try to keep my opinions out of it unless they’re asked for. I think before I speak, and things that used to get to me, don’t get to me so much. Life feels lighter, easier. And I like to think I’m that bit kinder. Not that I wasn’t kind before, but I’ve realised I could do better. It’s early days yet, but something in my perspective has changed. Over time, I’ll find out what that is.
It’s one of those experiences which, while living it, you’ll never want to do it again, But once its over, it doesn’t seem so bad. And would I do it again. Absolutely. And I 100% intend to.
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*NOTE – this is NOT a sponsored post, and I was NOT asked to share my opinion on this experience*