An exploration of authenticity and true self in a coaching session with Leo

There's a place I go, out past the cypress grove, past the standing Buddha statue with the smooth rocks. Go past the dancing circle and the makeshift soccer field, and follow the river. Keep weaving through the forest until you arrive upon a field of sunflowers or the like, a field which has been plowed and planted but not yet ready for harvest.

There, I kneel down into the puddles forming inviting pools of soft clay. I squat and gather handfuls of earth, feeling the pebbly particles coarse in my hands. Feeling the wonder of the earth producing clay, tingling with the energy of creation and joy. Here I am alive and one with the earth. There is an immediacy, a direct experience with the land, that escapes the contours of the mind. If such a thing as the true self exists, perhaps it is in this space created in this full presencing, beyond the pastures of the mind’s grazing. Liminal space.

Today, another person met me in this space, a man I’ve never met in person, who exists as much in my imagination as my physical space. His name is Leo, and he’s real, as real as a person who I’ve never met in person can be real to me. Together we touched a vulnerable and tender piece of myself that visits the clay field after a day of rain, that delights without shoes in the mud puddles formed after the morning thunderstorm. What’s in this field is immediacy, a touching of the earth without the barrier of human ego for protection. Here I can see that my true self is not constant but perhaps these fleeting moments of immediacy that transcend personhood. I am the earth, come from the earth, and belong to the earth.

What is true belonging? This is the question turning on my tender heart for the past few weeks. Sister Mai Lam suggested that belonging begins with authenticity, an honesty of being that springs forth from a deep acceptance of self. Without this authenticity, true belonging with self and others cannot exist. Leo suggests that a third piece to this question is self-expression: the manifestation of authenticity in the world.

When Leo asks me to imagine my life in one year, I am unable to spark joy until I speak of a big community house, one with a vegetable garden, tall deep-rooted trees, and rooms that invite creativity and light. An art room with easels for painting, a pottery wheel for clay projects, calligraphy pens and sheafs of paper on wooden tables. Light streaming in from the forest. A meditation room for sitting, a big bell and sitting cushions, Thay’s words on the walls. A library with reams of books, poetry, novels, Thay’s collection. Cozy chairs, blankets, quiet that settles into the walls. Noble silence. A kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden. Cereals and grains. Plums from the summer harvest. Strawberries and cherries from the corner store. All the spices and herbs I can imagine. I am crying imagining the warmth of this imaginary house, a place for pieces of myself to be fully celebrated and seen, a place of true belonging. A place to come home. Quiet, creativity, light, earth. That which nourishes this tender soul.

Leo asks me to describe the feeling in my body as I imagine this house. I place my hands in a circle in front of me. Surprise and curiosity arises in my body. Insight. I have created physical space with my hands, a place of safety and freedom where I can truly arrive home. Leo encourages me to open my hands even wider, creating more physical space. This physical claiming of space is expansive and terrifying, an invitation for more attention and vulnerability. I am deeply afraid. I see that I’ve created roles in my work and life that allow me to take up space, with the titles of sangha facilitator, practitioner, teacher. I feel entirely comfortable requesting space for the people I work with and work I do, but terrified to look at what space looks like for my true self. In the past, resentment and anger have arisen in me when I observe others taking more space than I believe is equitable. Today, when Leo asks about the feelings I have when I see others taking too much space, nothing arises. I focus on sensations in my body, any stirring emotions. Nothing. The thought being invisible arises. What is it to be invisible? My body is numb. I wonder if years of meditation practice has confused numbness with equanimity. Leo asks me about my anger.

What would my life look like if anger was my friend?

I don’t know how to answer the question. Leo asks if I can I invite just a tiny bit of anger into my body. I sense a glowing knot of fire rising from my core growing like a flower out of my head. I tell Leo this and he refers to it as a fire flower. For some reason I find this incredibly funny and laugh. It is good to get in touch with this joy, for it feels like we have been separated for some time. From the thought of anger arises this joy.

What does it mean to take up space?
What does it mean to ask for attention?

My joy reminds me of other moments of freedom and joy: walking to the beach off Green Gulch and swimming in the frigid ocean, spitting water through my teeth into the sunlight to create streams of rainbows. Jumping in mud puddles at Plum Village during a walking meditation after a thunderstorm. We explore these moments. They are without beginning and end, fragments of a life that is in progress still, and sing with a purity and wonder that resonate today. This immediacy, this purity of direct contact with the earth, the wonder and freshness of being alive. There is no separation between me and experience, there is no self separate from the natural movement of kneeling, of jumping, of swimming. Of being alive. There is an innocence and purity to this immediacy of experience.

I am floating in this expression of self that includes non-self, the great possibility of authenticity being direct experience with the present moment. I see too that nature holds this truth within her, the truth of where I come from and where I will return. The truth of true belonging within her folds at each moment.

If this is possible right now, what else is important? There is only the question of how to more deeply engage this immediacy in life.

The fleeting thought of the barriers of my ego arises. The barriers I create to immediacy as a means of protection. Leo encourages me. I can venture between immediacy and the roles I play in this life, and this can be its own dance. We talk briefly on other matters, but my body has reached its limits in this liminal space. Time has returned and a deep tiredness arises. There is no thought I wish to engage, no piece of ego left I wish to address.

It is time to go home.