Often when I receive a spiritual insight, it comes in a dream at the end of a sleep. The other day I took an afternoon nap on a rainy afternoon here in Telluride, and I fell soundly asleep and deep into dreaming. I was dreaming that someone was accusing me of being emotional unavailable, and in the dream I was considering this. I suddenly felt an insecurity that I was harboring inside myself that I did not want to look at. In the dream, I saw how I protect myself by hiding my insecurity behind an outward persona that I project to the world.
Someone once told me something about Buddhist philosophy that stuck with me. They said that we all have three personas. First, we have the public persona that we display to the world at large. For most of my life, this was my professional persona. My identity was printed on a business card. I showed up, on time, in a suit, and got the job done. For decades this persona served in most of my daily interactions with people. The second persona is the person we display to those who are close–our friends, family, neighbors and people we trust. The third persona is who we really are, shadow and all, and it is this persona that most of us do not even know ourselves. We deny the truth about ourselves because we are ashamed or afraid or addicted or simply unaware. This is a serious break in integrity that comes from our very root, for how can we be grounded at all if we do not even know and accept ourselves as we truly are?
I naively thought for a few years that one of the ideal purposes of a spiritual life would be to integrate these three persona’s. I thought, naively, that if I could come to truly know myself, then I could integrate these three personas. I would be possessed of deep self knowledge, and then I would present my full authentic self at all times. Of course, this does not at all work in the real world. I have to be able to go into the public world with a persona that enables me to accomplish my day to day routine without any unnecessary conflict or drama.
So over years I realized that instead of unifying these three personas, it is more important to use them consciously. And then it became clear that I actually have many personas that I present to the world from moment to moment. The persona I present to my parents and family at Thanksgiving can be different from the persona I present to my personal friends and different from the persona I present to my spiritual community. Consider politics as an example. I have relationships with people of all kinds of different political persuasions. But it’s usually quite pointless to engage in debates about politics. And so in my persona, I reveal my political feelings in varying degree.
But what I learned in the dream is that there are aspects of myself that even I do not want to look at or admit. I myself turn away from looking at these aspects of myself, and so as a result, I create a persona that I display to my very own conscience so that I do not suffer the pain of self loathing that comes when I examine the parts of myself that I do not love.
In my spiritual tradition, there is frequent reference to the allegory of the iron giant with feet of clay. This is often used to describe the unsustainable society that humankind is building. The same holds for the persona that I build when I do not truly know myself. The iron giant is the image of who I am that I present to myself that I can love and embrace and feel good about. This persona excludes and denies the things I do not love about myself, and therefore, I can look at this self image and believe that I am a good person who deserves to love and be loved. But if I build a persona that I show to myself, that denies my own true nature, then my very identity will have feet of clay underneath.
This causes a tremendous dissonance within me. I hide the part of myself that I do not love, and build an image of myself that I do love, and when evidence of the truth pops up, I avoid it or deny it or pretend that it does not matter, or whatever, and this prevents me from having real integrity. Instead of being rooted firmly in self knowledge and self acceptance, I have the feet of clay that comes from denying who I really am even to myself.
I saw in my dream this prevented me from being emotionally available. True emotional availability is not possible when I protect a self image that hides the things I do not like about myself. Every conversation, every interaction, every relationship, has an aspect of protecting myself from the truth about myself.
So the first key in this work that I am doing right now is to get out the flash light and look at all the parts of myself that I do not love. This does not mean that I need to expose them at all. It only means that I need to know what they are and then reconcile them. The key to reconciliation is the knowledge and faith that I am a child of God, created as God created me, living in this world. I am what I am.
My relationships with other people are very helpful in this process, because we all act as mirrors for each other. It is very easy to see the things I do not like in another person, and when I have strong reactions to other people, it’s usually because they trigger something inside of me. These triggers open the path to self knowledge. I can then replace or heal them with forgiveness, self acceptance and self love. I am a child of God, I inhabit the world material world created by my divine mother, and my purpose here is to love all beings equally as I love myself.
So where does all this self loathing come from? We are taught this from a very young age by our parents, our teachers, our peers. As a young child, I was told by priests on a daily basis that I was born a sinner and that I needed to seek absolution for my sinful nature every minute of every day. That there was only one person who was ever not a sinner, and they killed him on the cross anyway. Have we not all been taught this? That we deserve to be rejected at the gates of heaven if it were not for the salvation meted out to us? This is not the path of spiritual enlightenment at all. This is the path of slavery to human institutions. It is the prison for the mind that makes us all slaves.
So I have been replacing this with the concept that I am fundamentally a good person. I am kind, I am loving, and I am emotionally available. I can trust my natural inclinations to guide me in my daily life.
But this does not at all mean that other people have the same opinions! I do not need to expose myself to the judgments and derision of other people and neither do you. I have an easy example. I have two tattoos, one on each shoulder. There are people that I am in relationship with who have a very antiquated view of tattoos and they think people who have them are deviants. I remember an interaction I had with someone where they were going on about how no self respecting person would get a tattoo, and I remember thinking that they were assuming I did not have one. I declined to show them that I have one. But I also know that I do have one and I accept this about myself.
And that’s where it is possible to have a consciously managed persona. If I can continue on the path of self knowledge and self acceptance, then I can know and love who I truly am. And then I can be truly available emotionally to the world and to other people. At the same time, I can manage my persona to slip easily through life. Instead of a heavy shield that protects me from myself, my persona becomes like an energetic force field that projects out of my consciousness. It is incredibly light and strong. The heart secure behind this protection is available to love. Self knowledge is the first step.