Once upon a time, a young man decided to pursue the path of enlightenment. He asked many people if they knew a teacher who could teach this path. Everyone in his village told him to seek out a particular guru in the next village.
He did so, asking the spiritual teacher to become his master and show him the path to enlightenment. "Certainly", replied the guru. "Here is what you do – every morning when you get out of bed, look at yourself in a mirror and ask yourself ‘who am I?’ If you do that, soon you will be enlightened."
"What?" cried the young man. "That’s silly – it would never work!"
"Hmmm," said the master. "OK. Maybe you should go see the master another village over. I hear he is even wiser than I am."
A bit disappointed that first master wasn’t able to help, and a little insulted that the man would even have suggested something so foolish, the young man went to the next village where he found the second guru. "Will you help me find enlightenment?"
"Of course!" said the second guru. "But I must warn you – the path is very demanding. You will be challenged in ways you can’t even imagine right now. Are you willing to give up everything you have and do whatever I say?"
"Yes! Yes!" said the young man. Finally! This teacher obviously knew what he was talking about. So the young man settled into discipleship with the second guru, dutifully performing every meditation, every prayer, every ascetic act demanded of him.
After five years of rigorous study and deep meditation, the guru said to the young man, "You have been a fine student, and done everything I have assigned you with excellence. Are you ready for the final instruction?"
Excited, the student assured his master that he was ready for this last step to enlightenment. His guru told him, "OK, here it is: every morning when you get out of bed, look at yourself in a mirror and ask yourself ‘who am I?’ If you do that, soon you will be enlightened."
"W-what??" sputtered the young man. "That’s it? You could have told me that five years ago!"
"You’re right, I could have – but you were not ready to hear, yet. That is why you came to me, instead of doing what the first teacher told you."
Beside being mildly humorous, this story has a couple of lessons for us, if we’ll hear them.
- the spiritual path is not necessarily complicated, or esoteric. Zen teachings work to drive this point home relentlessly: "Stop fooling around. You are living smack dab in the middle of Truth – just get it!" In other words, it is possible to come to spiritual realization without jumping through tons of hoops.
- as simple as spiritual Truth can be to experience, it usually isn’t easy and we often can’t get at it without significant preparation. This is why study, meditation, prayer, and ethical behavior are so critical to our development. Such practices are intended to give us the perspective necessary to recognize what has always been in front of us.
On top of that, the exercise offered by both teachers in this story really is useful as a pre-cursor to investigative meditation, which is related to meditating on emptiness. Try it the next time you look in a mirror. Look yourself in the face and ask, "Who am I?"
This is not a rhetorical question. Answer yourself. Who are you? There will be a lot of quick, easy answers: you have a name, you are a husband or wife, a son or daughter, a father or mother, an employee, a friend, an enemy . . . You are many things. When you have run through those obvious answers, which come easily and are just as easily dismissed as incomplete answers, keep going. Keep digging. See what you find. Where is the truest you, the ROOT you?
Do this every day. At first, you could feel a bit narcissistic, but you’ll soon realize this exercise is not even close to that kind of self involvement. (By the same token, any temptation to criticize perceived flaws will quickly fall away). As you continue searching for anything concrete on which to rest the answer to this question of who you are, your idea of self can begin to change. The storyline about your own reality will morph, possibly leading to a fresh relations with yourself, the world around you, and the Divine.
Ultimately, this is just another technique, as is meditation. But every time you use one of these special practices to make a shift in perspective, you become healthier. See where this one can take you.