Every day we are assaulted with messages, images, slogans and sound bites that tell us of our inadequacies, the sad state of affairs that is you and me:
"With this product, you can lose weight. With this one, you can gain muscle. If your breasts sag, our bra lifts them up; if you have wrinkles, this cream irons them out; if you're sad, we have a pill that will make you happy; if you're too happy, we have a pill that will bring you down; if you're not as much of a man as you used to be, this pill will straighten you out (literally!). And everyone who's anyone has iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad, am iClear?"
And we participate in this maddening chatter unaware, telling our kids that in order to succeed they have to get the best grades, get into the right school and get the right job. We tell them that one day they must stop all this horsing around and get serious with their lives. We ask them who they are going to be when they grow up, warning them that life is all downhill after 22, declaring college the best four years of their lives. And finally, if they are lucky, they just might make something of themselves in this dog-eat-dog world. It's enough to stress you out completely—but of course there's a pill that can fix that too.
Is this how life really is? Is our identity simply conditional and fragile? Is who we are really defined by the things we own, our job status and the social circles we run in?
What it means to shine like the sun
The mystics, those saints and sages who saw through to the inner workings of reality, proclaimed something very different. A little background here: The word "mystic" comes from the Latin word "mysterium" from which we also get the word "mystery." Thus, a mystic is one who sees into the mystery. So what exactly did the mystics see? And what does their vision of reality reveal about who and what we are?
Here's what Thomas Merton said after decades of meditation and contemplation:
As if the sorrows and stupidities of the world could overwhelm me now that I realize what we all are. I wish everyone could realize this, but there is no way of telling people they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Shining like the sun. That's you. He didn't say shining like the sun after you can afford the new electric Chevy Volt. He didn't say shining like the sun after your bust gets lifted. What he said was, right now, in this moment, with all of your imperfections, with all of your challenges in the temporal, with all of your worldly failures and successes, you are walking around shining like the sun!
Merton goes one step farther with this concluding insight: "I am finally coming to the realization that my greatest ambition is to be what I already am." Wait a minute. What about worldly status and success and power? Merton saw through all of that and invites us to do the same. Can you imagine? What a lesson to embrace, to embody and even to teach—to declare to our kids they don't have to be someone, they already are someone. Now, the cynic will undoubtedly rise up and warn that this will poison our youth; they will be so inflated with their own identity that they will surely sit back and do nothing. Quite the opposite is true. This knowledge compels those it touches—Jesus, Gandhi, Saint Francis, Mother Teresa, Rumi and Hafiz—to walk with power, to use their talents for the good of all, without the drag of invented pressure to measure up to some arbitrary social standard.
You see (and it is a matter of sight!), what we are telling ourselves, the command to succeed and be someone, is just a story; it's a story based on expectations. It's temporal and finite. It is not who you really are. The Sufi mystic Meera wisely said, "You cannot play your role in time until you know who you are in eternity." And who you are is a drop in the ocean of divinity. Inside you is starlight. Inside you is the same infinite energy that created the universe. As the modern mystic Irwin Kula knew, "Everything is God in drag."
So the next time you're told you need to be somebody, rest in the knowledge that you already are. Hafiz implores us to wake up to this truth when he says, "I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being." Now what iPhone or iPad, what present-day pill or product can deliver that?