Who Are You?

I don’t mean the famous question from the band The Who, the one that sounds like it’s being answered by an owl.  I really want to know . . . who are you? 

When we’re faced with that question, we often begin with our labels.  I’m a teacher. I’m a musician. I’m an artist. I’m an insurance agent. I’m a carpenter. Even our name is really just a label. 

But do those labels answer the question? Who are you? Really? If you stop being a teacher, you don’t stop being.  If you stop being a carpenter, you still exist. You could abandon even your name and still be. 

Those labels are like nesting dolls, those Russian wooden dolls that, when pulled apart, reveal a slightly smaller version of the same doll, which can be pulled apart revealing another slightly smaller doll, and so on. In the same kind of way, we add layer and layer of identity until we forget who we really are and begin to identify with the shells.  

According to many great spiritual teachers, who you are is none of the things that you might use to uniquely define yourself. Those specific parts of your personality, your talents, your intelligence, your sense of humor, might be how you express yourself in the world, but they are not the essence of you.

Our lives begin as a purity of essence that quickly gets covered up. Our parents give us a name. They begin immediately to tell us who we are.  “You’re so pretty.” “Oh, what big eyes.” “Such a sweet smile!” We first know ourselves as seen through the eyes of our caregivers. They are our first mirrors. As we grow, we take on more identifying features. We get them from family and friends and teachers and television and bullies and . . . ourselves until we have completely covered that essence.  Many of us eventually reach a moment when we decide we want to know who we really are deep down inside. This is often initiated by crisis, a dark night of the soul, a collapse of our ego’s scaffolding. 

Advaita Vedanta is the school of Hinduism that focuses on non-duality. It holds that pure consciousness, what Hindus call “Brahman,” is the only reality.  That single reality, that non-dual reality, is unified Divine energy that is the life force in all creation.  There is no dual you and I or I and God. There is only one life. It is nature. It is Divine. It is you. It is me. 

Advaita Vedanta teaches that we are made up of five layers, called koshas. Kosha literally means “sheath,” or you could think of it as a cloak. Like nesting dolls, we wear these cloaks over our Divine Essence.  The first cloak is the physical body.  It is the dense material cloak. The second kosha or cloak is the energy body. This is the layer where the chakras and the divine meridians are located. The third cloak is the mental and emotional layer. The fourth is the wisdom layer. The fifth is the layer of bliss. Vedanta yoga often ends there, though some teachers add the sixth layer, and this layer is referred to as the True Self.

Uncovering this essence, our true self, is our spiritual work.  We are not in search of something because we already are that which we think we’re searching for. 

Who are you? You are pure love, pure peace, pure Divine Presence. You are this pure essence even when you can’t see it for all the layers covering it. You are the you are. I am the I am. 

To Be . . .

. . . or not to be. 

Should I stay or should I go? 

These two roads diverging in the woods . . . which one should I take? 

It often seems that life is just a series of choices and their consequences.  In retrospect, a choice can seem destined and profound, the initiating event of what came next.  Or perhaps it is married to regret and remorse.  Ideally, whether seen in the rearview mirror as positive bellwethers of future good or as negative gatekeepers to coming pain, our choices set the stage for everything else to come. 

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” about those roads diverging in the woods, is often used to demonstrate the beauty of not following the crowd.  The final lines of the poem say, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   But, these are perhaps the most misinterpreted lines in all of American poetry.  We think they’re saying “Ah, what a glorious rebel I have been, and it paid off.” 

But, you see, the two roads described aren’t that different from each other.  The poem says “the passing there had worn them really about the same” and that the roads “both that morning equally lay.” Frost’s final stanza starts “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence,” and that “with a sigh” is important. He’s actually writing about our tendency to romanticize the past, to look back at younger selves as courageous and daring rather than just . . . human, making human choices, and having no more idea than anybody else how it might all turn out. 

The rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness of our choices is often determined by the way we move through the results of our choice rather than the choice itself. 

But while we’re still on the front side of the choice, still standing at the fork in the road, is there any way to get a sense of direction? 

I was once faced with a big decision and unclear how to make it. My sister gave me some good advice.  She said, “Get off by yourself where you won’t be interrupted. Spend a few moments in meditation. Quiet your mind. When you feel completely settled within yourself, take your mind to the place where you have already decided on option A, and see how you feel.  Then clear your mind again and take it to the place where you have already decided on option B, and see how you feel.” 

So, I did it.  I followed her advice.  And you know what? I knew exactly what to do. My intuition, my inner guidance, my emotional self did not let me down. It sent me a clear message. 

Ultimately, though, whichever choice I made was mine. My choices are a primary way in which I co-create my life.  Should I stay or should I go? No one can tell me . . . but me. And by “me,” I mean the higher version of me that lives in the quiet places. 

I’ll be seeing you . . .

. . . in all the old familiar places, that this heart of mine embraces all day through. You know the song. It was written in 1938 by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, and it was recorded by just about everybody – Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, even as recently as 2020 by Norah Jones. It became wildly popular during World War II when it so perfectly captured the inner longings of those separated from ones they loved.  

When the pandemic began . . . I was in India.  Jaipur, India, to be precise, in the state of Rajasthan. It was my second time in India. On both trips, I had taken students for study abroad. We had ridden on rickshaws through Old Delhi, visited the place where Gandhi was assassinated, walked in and around the magnificent Taj Mahal, . . . but the part of India that reached into my heart was Jaipur. 

If you’ve ever watched the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, first and second, then you’ve seen Jaipur. Most of the filming for those movies was done there. 

When I think of Jaipur, yes, I think of the bazaar and the Hawa Mahal or Wind Palace and the Amber Fort, those places that tourists tend to go.  But those things only come to mind.  The parts of Jaipur that live in my heart are the drums of Rajasthani music, the ever-present incense, the mounds of marigolds at the flower market, the cold soft marble of the floor in my room at Ikaki Niwas, the smells of the dal and chapattis and samosas coming from the kitchen, that spring night when my friends and I ate outdoors under the stars just 24 hours past the full moon of Holi. 

And, of course, the people — both the ones I know and have grown to love, and the countless, nameless ones in the shops and on the street and driving tuk-tuks and pedaling rickshaws and selling mutton tikka on the sidewalk and waiting for the curtain to be pulled away and the god to be revealed at the temple, and putting sandalwood paste on my forehead in welcome, and bowing slightly with the prayer hands of a thousand Namastes. 

That is the Jaipur that this heart of mine embraces.

And just last night, without warning, for no reason, I was there.  I mean, I was in my house in the United States, but for a split second, I was distinctly and absolutely in Jaipur.  It stays with me still.  I could close my eyes right now and feel the marble and smell the incense and hear the drums. 

The English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, wrote about this phenomenon in several of his poems – the power of memory, the realness of memory, the way a reminiscence can hide in our spirit until it is called upon, either by our conscious mind or something that lives buried underneath it, and then it’s there.  Because once the experience has been ours, it is always ours. 

Wordsworth wrote a poem called “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” but it’s also known as “Daffodils.”  The first three stanzas describe a field filled with thousands of daffodils by a lake.  The last eight lines of the poem summarize the poet’s gratitude for this encounter.  They go like this: 

I gazed — and gazed — but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils. 

I hope to return to Jaipur one day.  To walk among the marigolds.  To see my friends again. To bow in reverence at the temple. But until I do, Jaipur, I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.