Many of us have developed ideas about ourselves—what we might call identities—that artificially limit what we can accomplish in life. For instance, some of us have come to think of ourselves as shy or meek, and thus we avoid conflict and let others take advantage of us. Some of us identify ourselves as unmotivated, and thus we hold back from pursuing the education or careers we want for fear of failure. Still others see themselves as unsociable or unattractive, and have decided it’s hopeless to try to meet someone they’re attracted to.
We often forget what prompted us to buy into these identities, and even that we existed before we had these beliefs at all. When asked how they decided that all of these hurtful notions about themselves are true, many people will simply respond “I just know” or “it’s always been that way.” But there must have been some moment when we decided, or some period of time in which we gradually concluded, that certain beliefs about ourselves are true. At the very least, when we were embryos in our mothers’ wombs, it’s unlikely we were suffering from self-esteem problems.
I used to have many painful ideas about myself—most notably, that I was too shy or strange to deal with people, and that people generally just wanted me to leave them alone. Although I was attached to these harmful identities, on some level I knew I couldn’t have believed in them all my life. There must have been some point in time when I decided they were true. What was life like before I started thinking these terrible thoughts? I wondered. But each time I’d try to remember my experience of the world before these beliefs, my mind would simply draw a blank.
A while back, I happened to read about a Zen koan, or saying, that goes “show me your original face before you were born.” Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to this was “that makes no sense—I didn’t exist before I was born.” But I also noticed that, when I seriously pondered what I was like “before I was born,” I experienced a peaceful emptiness in my mind. Most importantly, all the negative thinking I usually did about myself, in that moment, disappeared as if it had never been there. For a few seconds, I was free of my limiting identities.
I was fascinated by the peace the koan brought me, and for a few months I regularly thought about it, hoping for a deeper understanding of its meaning. One sleepless morning at about four a.m., I finally came to a realization. In the words “before you were born,” “you” means your identity—the beliefs you’ve formed about yourself and who you are in the world. You “gave birth” to your identity when you made decisions about who and what you were. The purpose (or, at least, one purpose) of the koan is to show us we existed—we had an “original face”—before we adopted any beliefs about ourselves. We are not our beliefs, in other words—we are their creator and believer.
When we contemplate the koan, we get a firsthand experience of what life was like before we developed all these harmful ideas about ourselves. As I discovered for myself, that identityless state gifts us with a peace and freedom we rarely experience in our lives. At first, when we try to remember what we were like before we adopted our identities, we feel like we’re “drawing a blank,” not coming up with anything. However, we only see it that way because we’re so accustomed to having all these thoughts about ourselves, and in the identityless state those thoughts don’t arise. In fact, that calm blankness is who we were before we decided we were this or that.
I also recognized that, whenever I wanted, I could return to the peace of my “original face.” Whenever I started running myself down, replaying memories of difficult interactions with others, or generally thinking negatively, all I had to do was remember how I experienced life before I adopted the harmful beliefs. This memory gave me more than pleasant nostalgia—it actually put me back into the tranquil emotional state of my very early life.
In that state, life took on a joyful and effortless quality. Without all my ideas about my limitations as a person, the anxieties about relating with people that used to trouble me simply faded away. Spiritual teacher Osho‘s description of this state in Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously captures its essence well: “Just be what you are and don’t care a bit about the world. Then you will feel a tremendous relaxation and a deep peace within your heart. This is what Zen people call your ‘original face’—relaxed, without tensions, without pretensions, without hypocrisies, without the so-called disciplines of how you should behave.”
As always, I’ll offer an exercise to help others experience the peace this practice has brought me. If negative beliefs about yourself have been limiting you, try the following. When some harmful idea about yourself arises—for instance, “I’m too scared to do this,” “I’m not an interesting person,” “people are going to mock me if I try this,” and so on, pause what you’re doing for a moment. Ask yourself when you decided that this was true. Then, see if you can recall how you felt before you developed this hurtful notion.
You may, like many people, experience the feeling that your idea has “always been true”—that you’ve “always” been inadequate, unattractive, not smart enough, or something else. If this happens, ask yourself how you felt when you were an infant, before you were born, or—if those two questions yield the same answer—before you existed. As you inquire into how you thought about yourself further and further back in time, you’ll eventually come to a point where your mind becomes blank—where you can’t come up with anything you believed or felt about yourself.
Don’t give up here simply because you don’t think you can remember anything—allow the blank sensation to persist, and hold your attention on it. As you simply give the emptiness permission to be, you may find a sense of calm and focus pervading you. This is the experience of your “original face”—your natural state before you learned to label yourself in limiting ways. You can return to it any time you feel restricted by your thinking.