One night a few summers back I went to the gym, and feeling quite proud of myself decided to walk home to keep the momentum going. As I was briskly walking along, with my rainbow New Balances and a big grin on my face, a young artist who could’ve been my age asked me to look at his photographs. I admired them, complimented his artistic eye, and was about to continue on my way home. But before I could, he started asking me if I was going to buy them. I told him I had no money on me but that I wished him good luck with his work.
Instead of the usual disappointed face and goodbye, I received a totally unexpected barrage of questions. Did I really have no money at all? Couldn’t I go to the ATM? Don’t I just live off my parents’ money anyway? I admitted I was blessed and did in fact have some money to my name, but that I too was an artist, working part time. He wouldn’t stop asking questions. I could have made the choice to walk away. In my mind it was important to just watch him and see him as a human being. But when someone is completely taken over by the voice in their head, as he clearly was, the most helpful thing can be to choose a new situation, and exit.
Saying things like “I am blessed” and telling him how, as a poet, I understand how difficult it is to make money, set me up for a barrage of attacks on my religion, and my art. “Oh yeah right, we’re all poets aren’t we?” he sarcastically remarked. Along with, “If you really were religious you would go and get money right now but you’re not, so I guess you aren’t really what you say you are.” On and on he went. And I just stood there in awe, listening.
Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and walked away, tears streaming down my face. He had attacked every identification I held dear. He tore down all of the things I associated with to give me an identity. He acted as if he could not see me at all, as if I were not a real person standing in front of him. He may have appeared like many of my acquaintances from art school, with his hipster clothing and shaggy hair, but he didn’t seem to relate to me on any level.
I was in shambles the rest of my walk home; you would have thought something truly terrible had happened. But I knew in the deep recesses of my consciousness that something terrible had not happened to me, it happened to my ego. The part of me that attached itself to things and ideas had been belittled. The voice in my head that demanded others take it seriously, and believe in what is says, had been attacked with no chance of retribution. Not my true self, but the mind which seeks outside things to feel secure and to attain an identity, that ego self, had been greatly diminished. He had claimed to know me better than myself. He took everything I thought I was, and laughed at it, claimed it was all one big hoax.
Now I can say, thank God for this stranger. Everything he said, all of the parts of me he attacked, were much too specific to be meaningless. The universe is a beautiful being, who used this man, a person completely taken over by his ego, to show me the vestiges of my own ego. The universe teaches lessons through joy, but it can also use negative people and situations for your good.
Since I couldn’t defend myself after parting ways with this stranger, my ego could not repair itself. It couldn’t build itself back up, dig its heals in, and explain why it was what it said it was. Whenever the ego is diminished without being repaired, space is created for your true self to emerge, that which is beyond thoughts and emotions. Instead of defending my beliefs about who I was, I allowed myself to let go of what others thought of me, along with letting go of what I thought about of myself. No thoughts, no labels, are who I am. Nothing I can ever think about myself will ever come close to the reality of my being. That stranger was a small flame of refining fire, burning up the egoic mind-made self, leaving room for my eternal being to live more fully through me. It did not feel good. I was amazed by how truly terrible it felt. But through acceptance, the pain dissolved, along with the resilient attachments that are the ego, and I was still there. Completely whole, undiminished, and open to life as it really was. We don’t need others to define who we are. We don’t need ourselves to define who we are. Beyond definitions, we just are.