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Are you for real?

November 6, 2013

When I had been a nun only one year, I was staying with some friends over Halloween in Newcastle – a mining town in the north of England. Feeling a little mischievous, I asked my hosts if I could play with the kids who knocked on the door even though I didn’t have any candy to give out. In this predominantly conservative, working class, Christian town I was curious how I would be received. When the door bell rang, I opened the door.

In front of me were three children wearing costumes – a girl about nine years old and her two younger brothers seven and three. The girl looked at me. Her eyes were as big as saucers and her face flushed with surprise. She gasped, “Who are you?” Standing there with my robes on, I asked, “Who do you think I am?” The girl was incredulous when she said, “Are you a nun?” But before I could say anything, the youngest brother piped in, “No, I can tell, you are just an old woman!” (I was horrified as I was only 30 at the time!) So I asked them, “How can you tell? What would you be able to ask; how could you decide if I am for real or just wearing a costume?”

This exchange is priceless and timeless. Certainly in conventional terms my authenticity as a nun was verifiable. But taking this reflection a notch deeper, to a level of genuine inquiry, how can any of us tell if we are just pretending, wearing costumes, playing dress up, going about our business enacting something according to prescribed notions? How do we know we are for real?

For me, one of the tell tale signs is the way I use my role – am I using it to push through and disregard basic needs of myself and others? Do I use it to hide from what is happening – afraid to touch the vulnerability that comes with not knowing and not being sure? Afraid of the intimacy that comes facing someone when there is nothing to hide behind? When I use whatever role I am in as a container to hold me as I challenge my sense of limitations of myself and others and to edge into the present moment, I feel a ‘dropped in’ feeling, where attention, values, aspiration and role become congruent.

We all have roles and responsibilities. Sometimes we are the cook, the mom, the gardener, the cleaner, the garbage man, the nurse, the facilitator, the debate judge or the counselor. Roles are changing constantly. In many ways all of life is a drama and theater production. There is no permanent lasting role; no place to hold on to- no way to find lasting security in who I am as a result of the role that I play. Seeing that the roles change, it is possible to do what is needed and stop identifying with these roles- drop attention into being fully present, engaged, alive while doing what is appropriate without holding on to the role itself. Am I doing the dishes to get them done, or doing the dishes just to do the dishes?

Strange paradox; not holding on to the identity a role provides or to using a role to get things done is letting go. Letting go is like dying, where I can’t locate myself either in an identity or in a functional result. In dying there is surrender into awareness that is beyond role, identity and result. Surrender into awareness that is beyond role, identity and result, then life is possible without battle. Living without battle is living fully. Living fully has in it the possibility to let go each moment. In letting go each moment, identity arises, function arises, is known and vanishes along with every other thing. My various roles are the platform where I engage with life. There is no certificate you get, no ordination process that guarantees your authenticity. Certainly decades of practice and understanding Dharma and discipline are a huge support. But in the end, there is nothing other than the present moment that you can rely on. For me, being for real is like this.

What about you?


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