Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Learning to Be Self-ish

Self-ish...not selfish

The most important relationship that we have is with ourselves. Yet, the greatest obstacle we face in creating conscious relationship is, well, ourselves. We love to get in our own way.

By failing to recognize our needs and give voice to our feelings, we often end up putting ourselves aside for what we might perceive as the "greater good" of a relationship. But in doing so, we get lost.

This, then, becomes a conversation about being "self-ish". That is not a license to be selfish, in the sense of self-centered or self-serving. It is, rather, an admonition to undertake a stewardship of the self. If we are not in a good place, then we are no good to those around us. We need to be grounded, clear, present, content, and safe. This inevitably begs the question, "What do I need to feel grounded, clear, present, content, and safe?" So, here is our first step...defining our needs.

It is important first to distinguish needs from wants or desires. Wants and desires provoke anxiety or regret because they cause us to either anticipate the future or return to the past. To remain present for ourselves we must focus on the now. We need to become grounded in the real. By grasping at what we do not have, we create anxiety for ourselves because we anticipate loss or disappointment. By clinging to what we never had, we come to grief. Either way, we come out of the present moment and get stuck somewhere else. By being aware of our needs, defining them, and setting an intention to see those needs fulfilled, we become present.

But isn't setting an intention anticipating the future, and both taking us out of the moment, while also creating anxiety? No, it is not, because we remain in the moment to create the future. Deepak Chopra, in his Way of the Wizard, calls this "living backwards in time". To create a future, not wish for it, we must make the future happen in the moment...this moment.

Defining our needs inevitably provokes feelings. And, in defining our needs, we must be ready not only to acknowledge our feelings, but to give them voice. Let's take safety as an example. What do you need to feel safe? And when you are unsafe, how do you feel? Can you say out loud, "I'm not feeling comfortable with this, and so I am feeling [anxious or frightened or withdrawn or enraged]?" Most of us have difficulty with this sort of thing because our greatest unconscious need is to be loved and accepted. We develop an equally powerful unconscious mechanism for remaining silent in the face of strong emotions for fear that if we are disagreeable we will no longer be lovable. And the loss of love is one of the greatest tragedies that we can endure.

The simple fact is that is when we do speak our needs and when we do give voice to our feelings we do not become less lovable. Quite to the contrary, we become more substantial. We define ourselves more clearly, and assert our presence. In asserting our presence, we become more present. And in being self-ish, we become quite selfless. With our fear and frustration set aside, we can be more consistently present for both ourselves, and for those around us.

There is no magic to this formula, but there is work.  Self-inquiry is a long-standing tradition among the practitioners of Vedantic Yoga and Buddhism, as well as Western philosophers and social scientists. The question of, "Who am I?" has become no less daunting over the centuries, but it is a question we must ask if we are to realize our fullest potential. Breaking that overarching question down into smaller bits like, "What do I need?" and "How do I feel?" makes the whole enterprise somewhat more manageable. In the end, we come to a greater understanding of who we are and our place in the world. In this understanding we can find ground, presence, clarity, contentment, and safety. Moreover, we can resolve some of our own inner conflicts and find peace, both within and without.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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