Updated: Oct 2
When I was in India a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Arunachala, a small mountain in the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India. The plan was to visit the mountain early in the day, but my friend Suchana and I had missed a connecting flight in Dubai and my luggage had also been lost so, between the lost time from our missed connection and the hours spent trying to track down my bag, we were many hours late. By the time we arrived from Chennai to Arunachala to embark our mini-trek, it was already late afternoon. But we still wanted to visit the mountain. Our guide, Saran, took me, Suchana, and the three friends who'd arrived a few days prior to the base of the mountain. It was still light when we started our journey, but, by the time we were back down it was pitch black. I remember squinting to keep sight of my friend Sonja's white clothing to stay on course.
At the beginning of our trek Saran told us to internally chant the mantra, "Who Am I?"
"Not with the hope of getting an answer," Saran encouraged, "but rather to simply open up to that question."
Those few hours in the pitch black were disorienting and, at times, scary. There were all kinds of animal and people sounds and no lights to guide us. I recited the mantra, "Who Am I?" over and over. It calmed me and kept me focused. Had I released the mantra and invited a specific answer to the query, I would have become distracted and disorganized. I might have lost my way in the dark, fallen, or injured myself in some way.
But I got down the mountain. We had a cup of chai and went home to sleep. Though my luggage had been lost and I'd spent several hours wandering around in the dark, I felt calm and happy. The next morning, my luggage still nowhere to be found, I donned a pair of borrowed disposable underwear and continued on with my day.
Since I sold my business exactly one year ago, I have been on a similar journey. When I left that almost twenty-year commitment, I gave myself permission to be open, to inquire of myself, "Who Am I?" I'm a seeker, maybe too much so at times. That question, "Who Am I?" is a blessing and a curse for me. The other day while contemplating my professional future with my partner Nancy, I said that I dreamed of teaching Yoga Nidra meditation full-time. But then, as quickly as I voiced the dream, I said, "But who am I to be able to do that?"
That inner voice that spoke back to me was not one of curiosity or openness, it was one of criticism and restriction. The irony wasn't lost on me. As soon as I heard my inner critic say, "Who am I?", I heard Saran's voice adding on top of it, in a more gentle, loving voice, "Who Am I?" It is a tiny difference in inflection, but a monumental shift in perspective. The former, "Who am I?" is a finite question, one that commands a definitive answer. The latter, "Who Am I?" is a question that provides ongoing, ever-changing self-reflection and contemplation. It invites the possibility to change and grow and discover.
So, as I acknowledge this one-year anniversary of making a big life change, I am reminded of the importance of staying open to, "Who Am I?" instead of bogged down by "Who am I?" It means being unsure, walking through the dark sometimes. Especially now, when so much is unknown--our county is socially and politically in shambles, the Coronavirus is a mystery that continues to challenge us in almost all realms of our lives, and our very earth is screaming for help. How can I know who I am right now, much less tomorrow? How can any of us?
The mantra, "Who Am I?", gives me hope. Today I might feel devastated by online school challenges. But tomorrow I might feel grateful for a laughter-filled family dinner. The world is always changing. The people around me are always changing, and so am I. I'm grateful for the memory of that nighttime trek with Saran and my friends. As I, along so many of you, struggle through these very uncertain times, I can rest in the wisdom that we don't have to know all the answers. We just have to keep asking the right questions.