The awakened person sits on the top of a hundred-foot pole;
She has entered the way but is not yet genuine.
She must take a step from the top of the pole,
And worlds in the ten directions will be her complete body
Starting at quite a young age, one of the fundamental human tasks seems to be to figure out who we are. This includes features like what we like and don’t like, how we’re different from other people and things, what we want to be when we grow up. I remember how, when I first took up meditation in my teens, I began reading about finding no-self. The idea that I needed to dismantle my identity was something I didn’t really question, it seemed clear that it was important, but I determined that I wasn’t ready for it yet. I was a useful person who was still trying to find out what a self might be for me. I really didn’t want to chuck it all before I had an idea what it looked like. In retrospect, I think this was a good call, since discovering who I am continues to be quite a profound journey.
I engage with the question of who I am every day, all the time. Sometimes this feels deep and insightful, other times it's like being trapped in ancient TV re-runs. It's a cool thing when it happens that who I am will shift abruptly, for instance I might feel something to be inside me that is normally outside of me; a tree branch I’m looking at might be as much a part of me as my arm. Or I will know myself differently, with more appreciation, without having done anything different to deserve it. Or I'll discover something to be true that I had hidden from or overlooked, and the world will seem bigger. Other times, though, because I’m sitting still and paying attention to my thoughts, I’ll be telling myself stories about what I just did or said, or about what my role is, or if I did something wrong, assessing whether I’m approved of or admired, whether I approve of myself, who is my friend and who isn’t, or who loves me. And then I’ll just notice the way I’m always making myself up, over and over, creating this "me".
It’s a remarkable process, going from the automatic relentless familiarity of those thoughts, to the noticing of it. And then there’s another remarkable moment in which I ask myself if I could do without it, and could I stop? Just for a minute, just to see what it’s like, do I dare? It’s a moment that feels surprisingly risky, as though I’m a waitress with all the dishes piled on my arms, and if I did this they might all be dropped and broken. It’s not a trivial question, what I need to hold and what I can let go of.
I had an experience recently where I began to ask myself what I really wanted. I was wondering about depth, about having a life of discovery and uncovering buried things, and I wondered if that was what I truly desired. I noticed that there’s a part of my mind that thinks it only wants to have a “good enough” life. I tell myself that I want to get this next project finished and out of the way, so that it’s good enough, sophisticated enough, respectable enough, safe enough, that I can relax and get on with my real life. But when I go after the “good enough” goals, the world seems difficult, I feel tired, overwhelmed, a bit nauseated and defeated. And I decided that’s because “good enough” is not really what I want. When I really want something, I work like a beast to accomplish it and that’s fun, but it’s really hard to work away at something I don’t actually want.
So, as far as holding things and putting other things down, I find that I can put down the stories I make up about myself, at least long enough to find out what my life is like. I can risk finding out what I really want. Depth and discovery are only that, finding out what this moment is really like.
The woman in the koan is me/you/us (koans are like that, they are always me, every part of them), and stepping off the pole, it’s not really falling at all. The world in the ten directions is me then. As someone noticed, that’s how I can tell I’ve stepped off, because the world has become my complete body.