How To Let Go
Step 1: Be Still
The process of releasing your labels without losing yourself begins in stillness. You may have read Christopher Reeve's book, Still Me, written after the actor became paralyzed from the neck down. The title refers to the fact that he is still the same person who played Superman and also to the stillness of his own body. You may also know that Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson's disease, which causes him to shake constantly and uncontrollably. But Fox says he's found a peace that eluded him when he was clinging to his Famous Actor label. "I couldn't be still," Fox said recently, "until I couldn't be still."
Stillness is the key to these men's courage, the gift that has kept them from despair. In stillness, each has found a self beyond all labels, the still, small voice that speaks straight to the soul. When I tell my clients that the first step toward finding their perfect job, spouse, or living situation is to sit still, they look at me as though I've turned into a snake. Stillness scares them, and rightly so. If we hold still long enough, we begin to feel what we really feel and to know what we really know—a prospect so terrifying that some clients bolt rather than face it.
If you can do this—get used to sitting still until you feel what you feel and know what you know—your labels will start peeling away like onion skins. Oh, it won't be easy. Your anxieties and neuroses will come yammering out of the walls like the Hounds of Hell. Your older sister's voice will mutter constant criticism. The person who broke your heart in 1987 will show up, more vivid in memory than in the flesh, to do it again. But just...sit...still.
Like Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, and anyone else who doesn't run from stillness, you'll find that your mental demons have less staying power than you thought. Eventually you will begin to sense a very deep self that defies all labels, a calm soul who has experienced your whole life—even that regrettable incident involving baked beans, a goat, and your mother's favorite hairpiece—without ever being dominated or extinguished. This is the you who wears your labels, who can toss the ones you've outgrown (or that never fit in the first place), who will always find another identity to wear when a familiar one disappears.
Step 2: Become The Experiencer, Not The Experience
All great wisdom traditions point to the knowledge that the essence of our true selves is not any fixed label but the capacity to experience. In the Biblical tradition underlying Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the One God of Israel tells Moses that His name is simply "I Am." The word Buddha means one who is awake, one who is aware.
As heavy as this philosophy sounds, it has a very simple and practical application. Try this: Go back to the first sentence of this article, remembering the label you gave yourself. Now repeat it, but instead of saying "I am a big fat loser" or "I am a powerful executive," say "I am one who calls myself a big fat loser" or "I am one who calls myself a powerful executive." This wording may feel a bit awkward, but (1) it happens to be true, and (2) it helps you detach from both negative and positive labels by inserting a layer of language between you and whatever identity you happen to be wearing at the moment.
Step 3: Practice Truth In Labeling
Remember Audrey, the Worthless Tramp? Changing her language ("I am the one who calls myself a worthless tramp") immediately prompted the question "Why?" Sitting still with this puzzle, Audrey was flooded with painful memories. She saw herself as a child, being taunted by a wounded father—and, for the first time, she also saw that her father's label for her was a lie. There were other identities that fit her much better than Worthless Tramp, like Precious Child and Healing Survivor. These labels weren't the whole, true Audrey, any more than Worthless Tramp had been. The point was that she learned she could apply, evaluate, and alter her labels deliberately. This insight instantly changed the way Audrey felt, and it would eventually change the way she acted. Remember: Our belief in labels, not the labels themselves, is what gives them the power to influence our behavior.
Susan became almost frantic when she first began to sit still. No wonder—the pain of accepting the truth of her age and releasing her Pretty Girl identity was a literal identity-death. As she grieved this loss, Susan noticed something odd: The Pretty Girl she had always been was dead, but Susan wasn't. She didn't feel old; she felt like an ageless awareness wearing a 65-year-old body just as she had once worn the body of a child or an adolescent. She didn't share one particle of physical matter with those younger selves—nearly every cell in her body had been replaced several times during her life—but the consciousness experiencing her life remained identical. Her personality softened and her fear of aging eased as she detached from the negative labels she'd always feared (Hideous Hag, Half-Dead Crone) and chose to name herself with other terms (Wise Woman, Beautiful Matriarch, Beloved Friend) that were much more accurate.
Knowing how to let go of any given identity without losing our essential selves yields a security we'll never get from fame, power, money, beauty, or any other personality prop. By stilling our bodies and minds, becoming the One Who Experiences, and playing with labels the way we might play with costumes, we can remain ourselves no matter what happens: loss or gain, pain or pleasure, fame or disrepute. Take these steps whenever, as the Indian poet Kabir wrote, "you are tangled up in others and have forgotten what your heart once knew." When the bad labels come at you glue-side up, or the positive ones are stripped away, remember to answer poet William Stafford's simple question:
"Who are you really, wanderer?" Why not remember today?
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