The Hidden Gifts of Living Through a Pandemic – Finding the Answer to the Question “Who am I?”

In my recent article ‘COVID-19 – How Meditation can benefit your Mental Health’ accessible on https://shashidubey.com/covid-19-how-meditation-can-benefit-your-mental-health-during-this-pandemic/, I spoke about the benefits of meditation and other effective practices to support mental health during the experience of living through this global pandemic. In every situation in life however we find that there is learning, be it in good and in not so good experiences. There is an old saying which tells us to seek the good in every situation and especially in situations which may not appear too good – ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’.

This global pandemic has caused the entire world to stop, to slow down, to take time to reflect on how we are living our lives, our relationship with each other, our relationship with nature and Mother Earth and most especially our relationship with ourselves. In the quiet of a world stopped in it is tracks during lockdown only essential frontline workers continued to leave their homes and go to work albeit in very challenging work environments, the majority of us stayed at home. In this enforced quiet all normal day to day travel and social activities ceased as well as attending the workplace. Too many of us go through life without taking sufficient ‘time out’ to enter quiet reflection and be in stillness awhile. The impact of the Coronavirus ironically gave us such a gift. Within all the initial adjustments to being confined to our homes and ensuring safety for ourselves and our families, the enormity of a shared experience such as a global pandemic made it somehow easier to bear – we were and still are, not in this alone.  Therefore, while we were separate from each other physically during lockdown -we were together in common purpose and experience, each doing their best to protect themselves and each other. Many people experienced loneliness and depression and the effects of these experiences will play out in their lives as mental health concerns for some time to come.

The scale of the pandemic and the fragility of life against the bacterial world of pathogens has brought the reality of our mortality to the fore and in conceiving this reality we automatically reflect on ‘how I am living my life’, ‘how do I serve others’, ‘how do I love- myself and others’, eventually arriving at the fundamental question of ‘Who am I?.

The majority of us human beings have at some stage in our lives asked ourselves at least one or more  fundamental question – ‘Who am I’?,  ‘What is my real self?’, ’What is my fundamental identity?’. When someone asks you “Who are you?” most people proceed to give a reasonable honest answer detailing what they are doing occupation wise or education wise or and family wise. But what the majority of people do not do is share the things which are fundamental to who they are as a person for example, their poetic, philosophical and religious understandings and special gifts which make them unique, the things which make them one of a kind. So, in answering the question of ‘Who are you?’ we draw a boundary between what ‘is you’ and ‘not you’. When you answer the question you simply describe what is inside that boundary line between “this” and “that” and then recognising your identity with “this” and your non-identity with “that”.  In setting boundaries for ourselves we create a world view of ‘separateness’, within ourselves and in relationship with others and this world view becomes our reality. If we are to feel separate within ourselves without connecting with our core essence as spiritual beings, we are denying the fullness of our human life experience and fulfilment of our life mission and purpose.

The most interesting thing about this boundary line according to Ken Wilber an American philosopher is that it can and frequently does shift. It can be redrawn. In a sense the person can remap her/his soul and find it in territories never thought possible previously. There is much written by both mystics  and ordinary individuals throughout the ages and in the current times, of experiences which shift the self-identity boundary to include the entire universe, identifying with “ one harmonious whole” and sensing the vast ocean of  divine Love which holds us all lovingly in our existence.

William James the foremost psychologist and first educator of psychology in America, repeatedly stressed that “our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all around, parted by veils or delicate screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness which are entirely different”

Meditation as a regular practice, offers us the opportunity to go within, to connect with the inner silence and sense the connection with All, feeling at one with the universe , with all worlds, high or low, sacred or profane then the personal sense of identity expands far beyond the narrow confines of the mind and body and embraces the entire cosmos. R.M. Bucke a prominent Canadian psychiatrist referred to this state of awareness as “cosmic consciousness”. The Muslim calls it the “Supreme Identity”, supreme because it as an identity with the ‘All’. In general terms is referred to as “unity consciousness” -a loving embrace with the universe.

The experience of the supreme identity is widespread in today’s world and is now known as “The Perennial Philosophy”. There is much evidence that this type of experience or knowledge is central to every major world religion – Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. We can therefore justifiably speak of the “transcendent unity of religions” and the unanimity of primordial truth.

Unity consciousness or supreme identity therefore appears to be the nature and natural condition of all sentient beings however as humans we progressively limit our world and turn away from our true nature in order to embrace the boundaries we set upon ourselves in a modern busy world.

Our originally pure nondual consciousness is therefore forced to function on several different levels, with different identities and different boundaries. Quantum physics recognize that there are no boundaries, that reality can no longer be viewed as a complex of distinct things and boundaries. Rather what were once considered to be bounded “things” turned out to be interwoven aspects of each other, everything and every event in the universe appear to be interconnected with every other thing and event in the universe. The world appears as a territory of “no boundary” to modern day physicists often called the “seamless coat of the universe”. The great theologian Teilhard de Chardin speaks of this seamless coat as “Considered in its concrete reality the stuff of the universe cannot divide itself but, as a gigantic atom, it forms in its totality the only real indivisible…..it is entirely interdependent. It is impossible to cut into this network, to isolate a portion without it becoming frayed and unravelled at all its edges.”

This concept of modern physics of the world being a giant atom resonates with the Buddhist doctrine of the “Dharmadhatu”, which means Universal Realm or Field of Reality. In the Dharmadhatu, Each and everything simultaneously includes all (other things) in perfect completion, without the slightest deficiency or omission, at all times”.

Many scientists now agree that the basic theories of modern physics exhibit all the main features of the Eastern World view and resonates with much of the writings in the Gnostic Gospels. In essence Eastern philosophy view reality not as boundaries and separate things but as no-dual network of inseparable patterns, a giant atom, a seamless coat of no-boundary.

So might the answer to the fundamental question of “Who am I?” be answered by the expression – “Tat tvam asi”. The Hindus say, “You are That. Your real Self is identical to the ultimate energy of which all things in the universe are a manifestation”.

Namaste