Our sense of self begins to arise in infancy, and develops until we have a solid experience of ourselves as individuals by the age of five. Over the years this identity gets fleshed out with our likes and dislikes, our associations and relationships, and our talents and shortcomings. We start to know who we are in relation to the world, and interact accordingly. As time passes we grow and change, our tastes alter, and some relationships deepen whilst others fall away. In relative youth it’s an exciting process – making our way in the world, building a life, and figuring out who we are and who we want to be. As we mature we may gradually feel more secure in our skins and less inclined to be swayed by the opinions of others. It’s often said that the best thing about getter older is no longer caring so much what people think of us!
But what happens when how we think of ourselves no longer fits? We joke about mid-life crises, but they’re a common experience. When, in mid-life, we reflect on where our choices and circumstances have led us thus far, it can bring us up short. Maybe we’re not living the life we had imagined for ourselves. Maybe we’ve spent a couple of decades rearing children who are suddenly flying free and inventing their own lives. Maybe we do live the life we’d imagined, but wonder whether, as much as we enjoy it, it’s what we want for the rest of our time here on Earth. Maybe the life we imagined doesn’t feel like we expected it would. What then?
It’s very easy to settle into the comfortable and familiar, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you feel fulfilled. But if you feel a nagging sense that you want something else – new adventures and more juice from life – then that familiarity can become a cosy prison.
It’s hard to challenge your own status quo, but more and more of us are reinventing ourselves as we get older – mid-life in 2018 looks very different from a century ago. So how do you embrace the myriad possibilities of a life only yet half-lived, without scrapping all that you hold dear? Hopefully there’s much of your existing life that you would choose again, and we all have responsibilities.
The key lies in disentangling ourselves from the identities we have constructed. Both Buddhism and yoga recognise identification with the impermanent as a major cause of suffering – the ‘I am’ bug. It gives rise to another major source of suffering, which is attachment. When we get our sense of self and security from things which are temporary – looks, job descriptions, wealth, even relationships – then of course we’re setting ourselves up for a fall. When we describe ourselves with a collection of labels, naturally we feel lost when the labels no longer apply, and naturally we panic and try to cling to those old labels like our lives depend on it; because as far as our egos are concerned, they do.
When we stick labels on ourselves we reinnforce this constructed identity. ‘I am’ is a functional part of everyday language, but it’s insidious and limiting when we use it in our own heads. It puts obstacles in the path of our personal evolution. It makes us vulnerable to identity-crises when the statement ceases to be true – for example when we retire.
To begin disentangling ourselves, we can become more conscious of habitual ‘I am’ statements, and swap them for less-limiting alternatives. For example:
I am a (insert job title here) becomes my work is xyz
I am a wife and mum becomes I have a husband and daughter
I am a vegan becomes I choose a plant-based diet
I am disciplined becomes I like to stick to a task
I am happy/angry/sad becomes I feel happy/angry/sad
I am a good cook becomes I enjoy cooking and it usually turns out well
Do you feel the difference?
When we drop the ‘I am’, it gives rise to the very interesting question: ‘if all of those things aren’t me – who am I?’ Great sages have pondered that one for millenia, but simply contemplating it can bring a sense of spaciousness and freedom to life.
We are alive with the potential to evolve and grow right up until we draw our very last breath. We can wear many different hats throughout our lives; try different things, explore new avenues and experiment with the huge variety of experiences that life has to offer. It’s never too late to try something new. It’s never too late to change your perspective. It’s never too late to grant yourself freedom from a limiting belief.
In the words of Aerosmith, life’s a journey, not a destination. You don’t have to let who you have been, hold you back from who you might become.