by Megan McDonough

The first time I attended class at a meditation center, I didn’t know what to expect, so I scoped out the room before I entered. Cushions and chairs were laid out in a circle on a maple floor so polished and smooth you could skate across it. People sat as still and quiet as statues in different positions. All had their eyes closed.

Walking across the floor in my socked feet, I decided to sit on a cushion. Sitting cross-legged seemed so meditative. I snuck a peek at my watch, and it said 6:00 pm. I was right on time. I waited for the class to begin. I closed my eyes and waited some more. I waited and waited. My back groaned and my mind wrestled with nothing. The open windows to summer called. Finally, I could stand it no longer. No matter how meditative that crossed-legged position looked, I was moving up to the chair. I snuck another peek at my watch: 6:30. Obviously the class had already started. Is this what we do for a whole hour? I squirmed and squiggled, trying to get comfortable. Can’t we meditate lying down?

Finally, the leader spoke. I now had something else to focus on besides my aching back. Buddha, the leader said, teaches us that when an enlightened person meets someone, they’re not seen as either superior or inferior. A smug little voice in my head finished the Buddha’s lesson by boastfully saying, “Of course, we are all equals.” My mind was self-satisfied with its conclusion.

Only the leader didn’t finish the story in this way. Instead, he said that the Buddha teaches us that an enlightened person does not see others as superior, inferior, OR EQUAL. My mind was caught off guard, and spent the rest of the meditation searching for understanding.

In most cases, when we’re describing who we are, we answer with roles and responsibilities. I’m a mother. I’m an account executive. A salesperson. A musician. An artist. That’s not who you are; that’s your job title. It’s a handy label that boxes you into some framework that the other person can relate to. Don’t ever confuse what you do with who you are. You’re much too grand to fit into a puny label.

Try this one on for size: You are that you are. If we must choose a label, let’s make it big, really big. Let’s just say: I am. A friend of mine who used to be a nun told me that this was how God described himself. I AM THAT I AM.

Descartes said, “ I think, therefore I am.” Or perhaps he said it in a more philosophically eloquent way, “I think, ergo I am.” Well, here’s a new rendition, “I am, therefore I am.” I am that I am; others are that they are. There is no superior, no inferior, no equal. It just is that it is.

You are neither the labels given to you nor the roles you have played, whether you have assumed them willingly or not.

Try this: Write out a list of 10 words that describe the type of person you are (caring, loving, patient, impatient, mean, etc.). Don’t spend a lot of time on it; just jot them down as they come to you. After you’ve done this, go through the list one by one and ask yourself, “When haven’t I been this quality?” You’ll see that you’re none of the qualities all of the time.

The second way to do this exercise is write a list of words that describe your nemesis, or at least someone you disagree with. Quickly list 10 qualities that come to mind about this person. After you’re done, go through the list and ask, “Have I ever displayed these qualities?” If you look deeply and honestly, perhaps you can say yes. We’re all human, and we can hold the full spectrum of human potential, from the most dangerous to the most exalted. It may be only a matter of degrees, but looking deeply, we can touch upon each piece in our own heart.

Doing this exercise can also spark the question, “If I’m not these things all the time, who essentially am I?”

This post is excerpted from “Infinity in a Box”, © 2003–2009, by Megan McDonough.

Since fighting this meditation, Megan has a new practice, and a new book called “Radically Receptive Meditation”, an open and receptive way of relating to your mind.

Megan Megan McDonough is CEO of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.

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