Self-unification in a divided world
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, Guest Contributor
“In order to truly change, we have to let go of who we think we are. Early in life we had to form the ego, or the ‘little self,’ in order to protect our true self. Later in life, the way we originally protected ourselves begins to endanger the presence of our Self. What protected us from harm at the beginning will cause us great harm later in life if we don’t learn how to let go of it.“
—Michael Meade, from “The Captive Heart” (Episode 294 of the Living Myth podcast)
We are who we are (or are we?)
“I am a[n] __________________ person.”
What word or words would you use to fill in the blank here? How does it feel to make that declaration?
Many years ago I heard Sarita Chawla, a senior teacher at New Ventures West, lovingly challenge a student who made such a statement. Sarita’s reasoning was that, when we define ourselves using language like this, it can solidify us in ways that allow for little else.
Indeed, there is an immovability to saying things like, “I am a cheerful person,” “I am an honest person,” or “I am a driven person.” You may very well embody those qualities, but what human doesn’t also have dark moods, gloss over the truth, or coast on autopilot from time to time?
Or what about saying I am NOT an X person? I’m not a creative person, an athletic person, or an intellectual person? Even if there is some truth to them, those statements all but rule out any possibility of developing in those directions.
When we crystalize our persona in this way, we skip like flat stones across the surface of the depths we all contain. These convictions translate into a structure of interpretation that influences how we relate to others: “I am an X person—or we are X people—and therefore must have a particular relationship to the Y people.” It contributes to how we ‘other’ one another. The resulting divisions among us are a heartbreaking feature of the world’s metacrisis—exacerbating, if not causing, all else that is breaking apart.
It’s important to remember, though, that we come by these ideas about ourselves honestly. Early on, in the face of familial roles, cultural norms, or simply how we are or aren’t seen, certain identities begin to harden.
How we become divided
Here’s Michael Meade again, from the same episode of Living Myth:
"Each child comes to the world with something golden inside them intended to be given to others and to the world. And, in that sense, each soul is ready to shine in its own way and give deeply of itself. Yet when the inner, golden sense of self is rejected or met with fear or indifference or envy, the heart begins to close around the deeper self within it. The inner gold is still there, but it is surrounded by fear, and usually guarded by stubborn walls."
Many of us have some form of inner critic, judge, or similar protector part that develops unconsciously. This voice is made up of caretakers, teachers, or anyone else who, with our ‘best interests’ in mind, decided who and how we needed to be, even if our true nature, our heart of hearts, said otherwise. It’s a division between who and how it is OK to be (“I am a polite person.”) and, thus, how it isn’t (“I can’t speak up to authority, even if they are mistreating me or someone else.”).
As adults, this part continues to ‘protect’ us by making sure the walls of our solidified identity are never breached.
Another teacher early in my coach training gave an unforgettable example of this from her own childhood: one day she was enjoying a peach, letting the juice run down her face, stain her clothes and make her hands and arms sticky. She ate in bliss until a parent came up and scolded her for the mess she was making. That voice (and ones like it) became internalized, muting the parts of her that were wild, innocent, and took pleasure in what the earth gave. It showed up in a buttoned-up persona, impeccable table manners, and outrage at anyone who would dare be so uncouth as to eat a piece of fruit with abandon.
Thinking back, can you find a moment or moments like that, when a part of you was shut down by the well-meaning people around you? How has that moment translated to the ways you behave now? In what ways has the echo of that moment, that voice, continued to hold you back?
A practice for inner unification
Since our experience of life tends to be an outward expression of what is occurring internally, what might be possible if our internal walls came down? Could it be that we begin to soften, to see just a little bit of ourselves in others?
One meaning of the word “integral” in Integral Coaching is the integration, or unification, of the self. Not in the sense of calcifying into one immovable identity—rather, the opposite. To start to let go, as Meade invites, of the identities that have walled us off from our true nature: the one that isn’t separate from anything, and never was.
As you may have found in your mindfulness practice, pushing unwanted parts of ourselves away only succeeds in strengthening them. Alternatively, bringing curiosity to the parts of ourselves we dislike can loosen their hold on us.
Here, in the interest of softening our protector part, we’ll begin a two-way dialogue with it. The hope here is that, as the voice begins to dissolve, it becomes part of your essential self, strengthening and invigorating you to live more in alignment with who you really are.
Set aside 15 minutes for this exercise, with a pen and paper nearby.
- Reflecting on what you found in response to the last question, locate the inner voice that ensures that you “behave” - i.e., stay separate from your essential self.
- Give that voice a name: e.g., the critic, the judge, the interloper, the ringmaster, Bob … however it shows itself to you.
- At the top of the page, write an invitation to that voice, asking it to speak. Something like, “What do you want me to know today?”
- Let the voice speak through you. Keep your hand moving, as though you are transcribing its voice. Let it go on for as long as it wants to.
- If and when the voice pauses, keep the conversation going with an inquiry: “How are you feeling?” or “What happened that made you believe this is true?” or even “What do you need?”
- Continue this dialogue for the full 15 minutes, or longer if it feels right.
- Visit in this way with this part every few days. Begin with a question for it, transcribe its response, and keep inquiring. It could be that the first session or the first several sessions is simply a long download from the voice. That is fine—the more it speaks, the less charged it becomes.
- After a few sessions, check in: has the voice changed? What qualities does it now embody? How has your relationship with the voice shifted? Have you changed?
To close, let’s hear from Michael Meade one more time: “In the same way something greater than ourselves once wounded us, something greater than ourselves seeks to awaken through us.”
May this practice open greater possibilities for who you are and what you have to offer the world.
You can begin to examine and loosen your own structures of interpretation in Foundations of Coaching, a one- and two-half day introduction to Integral Coaching. Mindful Leaders can take $100 tuition for any course with the coupon code MINDFULLEADER.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West, an Integral Coach training school based in San Francisco.