A petite, tow-headed, ten-year-old girl slumped in the last pew in the dark corner at the back of the old Methodist Church. Her feet didn’t touch the ground, so she curled against the bench as a shield against the physical discomfort of having to sit there quietly. Today’s sermon had already lost meaning for her. Instead of sitting inside a building listening to old words that in her mind had little relevance, she had to leave, to find solace under the sky, to sit under an oak tree by the creek that meandered through town. Making herself as quiet and as invisible as possible, she slipped out of the pew. She could feel the Pastor’s scowl with the entire left side of her face and body, though she steadfastly ignored it as she walked out the door, down the steps, and into the light of freedom.
It didn’t take long to get to the creek. She sat on the bank near a deep pool watching water warmed by the summer’s sun bubble past rocks. Her mind wandered and she closed her eyes. Sound, scent, sensation washed over her. Usually, her inner eye opened onto a similar scene, one from a past that felt like hers alone, though she had recently discovered that it was an ancestral place of prayer. This place was nestled in a wilder valley, its creek shadowed with heavy vegetation. There she listened to colder water burble over rocks, listened to different animals than the ones in her town rustling the foliage on the far bank, watched birds flutter from branch to branch. She found comfort when a sharper wind brushed past her, making her fine hair float around her head. Sunlight played against nature’s surfaces with a soothing exchange of color. This mental place was where she felt close to her concept of God. This is what she thought: Just sitting, listening to nature was more informative than stale words written by humans.
But today, when she closed her eyes to slip into the subtle world of her inner mind, she was on the top of a hill like the ones that surrounded the little town in which she lived. The hill was steep and the sky above was big. She found a stump to sit upon and looked up at the blue expanse above her. A flock of starlings danced in the air. They twirled in and out of fantastical, amorphous shapes like a gigantic organism responding to stimuli that pushed them one direction, then another.
She heard someone approach and looked to her left.
A youthful-looking, dark skinned man, dressed in a dusty, white tunic, tramped up the sharp incline toward her. His appearance was exotic, like he was from somewhere on the other side of the world. When he reached her position, he smiled and sat next to her, crossing his legs in front of him. He arranged his tunic and smoothed it with his graceful hands. He didn’t look directly at her. Instead, he watched the birds and their aerial display. She immediately felt a kinship.
Intellectually, she knew she should be alarmed, but she wasn’t. His energy was calm and focused. He smelled like sweet, wood smoke, and for some reason that soothed her.
He said, “Hi,”while watching the dance in the sky. His low voice seemed to rumble in his chest.
Alert, she replied timidly, “Hi.”
One of his eyebrows rose up as if he was surprised. “You don’t remember me?”
Something about him seemed familiar.
He sighed. Then, he bumped shoulders with her. “I want to tell you something,” he whispered.
She thought, Don’t tell me to go back to church. She turned to him with more than a little defiance and said, “What?”
He chuckled and said, “Not that. You are here to develop Self. That is why you came to this planet, in this Now. Do you know what that means?”
Of course she knew what he meant, she was smart for a ten-year-old. It was just that she was expecting admonishment for ditching. Furthermore, she was already a Self, like everybody else, wasn’t she? She spent a lot of energy trying to change that. Why would she want to develop it?
Intelligence had made her a target, so she was learning to hide it. Where she lived, smart kids were looked down upon. It was fine to be pretty, but not if you were smart. She worked to fit in: pretended she didn’t know answers in school, pretended to find humor in the antics of other children her age, pretended she was at least entitled to hover at the edge of the “it” crowd. Compliance was important for acceptance. Unfortunately, in her heart, she was as far from compliant as a person could get. All anyone had to do was ask her parents. Her entire Self didn’t fit in, and she didn’t like it. Why develop something one didn’t like?
Though she had not uttered a single word, he said, “I can’t say I disagree with your assessment, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? I would really like to see you develop who you are. That’s why you are here, to explore and grow your individuality, your Self.”
It suddenly occurred to her who she might be sitting with. “Have I died?” she asked.
He laughed and then he looked at her and said, “No.”
His smile was so warm, and his laugh so inviting, she decided that if she had died, she would want to go with him wherever he ended up going.
He shook his head and bumped her shoulder again. Still reading her thoughts, he said, “You won’t always feel so all alone. Developing your individual Self is what this World needs. I want you to do that, whatever it takes.” He shook his head, sadly. “Most people just stumble through life, never finding out who they are, what makes them happy, sad, scared, angry, ashamed. What makes them, THEM.
“What do you like, what do you dislike? Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be with? What do you like to do? When do you like to do it? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? What makes you, YOU?”
She crossed her arms in defense. He was asking a lot of a ten-year-old.
“I’m not asking, I’m telling,” he replied to her unspoken retort. He pushed the spot between her eyes with his forefinger. “That is your job. Develop Self. Individuality is everything.” He seemed like an authority on the subject. He patted her head and looked straight into her eyes. “I love you.”
She could see that love. She mumbled, “Okay.” It suddenly seemed like a logical thing for a child to do anyway, to develop who they were as a person. Who was she to question him?
He stood, brushed dried grass off his tunic, and sauntered down the hill. She watched as he disappeared into a beam of light and immediately missed him. Her soul felt deep longing for the first time. Her heart squeezed as if it was struggling to hold its shape, to beat the next beat, to keep her here on Earth.
She quietly woke up, sneezed, and sat up under the oak tree next to the creek that ran through town. She didn’t question what had happened. She believed it had happened. Now she just had to figure out what Self was and how to develop it.
Self is elusive. Finding It is still a struggle. This is what I think I know so far: It is not the same as Me. Self is something one holds inside as a pillar of assuredness and strength. It allows one to reach out to others without concern for Me. Me is the opposite. Me is wanting, Me has needs, Me is lacking, and it worries about what others think of it.
It seems Self is a journey, not a destination. It’s a practice: mindful, deliberate attention paid to as many moments as one can, a gathering of sensation, feeling, desire, and pleasure, with the understanding that even adversity is part of life and therefore a treasure to be experienced and gathered. It is not knowing, yet having deep knowledge at the same time. It is an act of generosity and a road to compassion. It is holding gratitude as a precept for life. Self comes in moments of clarity, flashes of perception that disappear as soon as one becomes aware of the ah-ha that comes with them because one has to live Self, not be Self. Self is weird.
However, as Self, life is FUN, especially on Earth. Earth is a playground, NOT a battleground. Filled with wondrous life, diversity has no boundaries. Surrounded by such breathtaking beauty and Light, it is sometimes achingly difficult to assimilate all the colors, sounds, and sensations.
When I, as Self, think about the diversity this planet offers, I feel joy, the bubbly, roly-poly joy of a playful puppy, ecstatically happy to see its person. I want to feel that all the time, but then Self disappears because I want to hang on to joy. Joy shatters my patience for a quest for Self. So each moment and whatever it offers, I refocus, attempt mindfulness, and open to the practice of awareness. Practice never ends. There is too much to learn.
Occasionally, like today, I remember the meeting on that hill and feel grateful that He caught me at a time when my questioning was clear enough to turn into Quest. This Quest has given me a compass with which to navigate life and a reason to share Story about that life.
Think about your quest for Self. Collect your joys, your troubles, your Story. Collect it all. There is Story unfolding right this very second. A story that becomes your Self.
I love that.
I love you.
May Peace find you today.