There is no shortage of anxiety and depression running through the country right now. Everyone is doing their best to cope with the seemingly incessant assault on our basic decency and humanity. Unless you have decided to go off-the-grid and live in the woods somewhere (and who could blame you?) you are bearing witness to, and sometimes directly affected by, the persistent violence and cruelty going on all around us. Since we can’t individually go out and stop all the drama ourselves, or create lasting peace and equality overnight, we need to find ways to cultivate some inner peace on this journey, to help keep us centered and disengaged from the drama as much as possible, so that we don’t all lose our minds in the process. People are waking up in great numbers, and many social movements are well under way, so there is definitely hope for the future, but how do we best deal with the onslaught of human drama, conflict, and division right now?
There are of course many ways to approach this issue, but for now we are just going to talk about one. It’s neat and tidy and it goes like this: “Don’t take it personally.” My shamanic teachers have been issuing the reminder for years, a helpful tip for when we are going through tough times, being mistreated, having difficulty in relationships, or enduring any drama, really. But what does that mean? I must have heard this for the first time about 7 or 8 years ago, and I have to say, it has probably taken me about that long to fully understand it myself. In fact, I only recently had a bit of a “light bulb” moment where I finally felt real clarity about it. Let me try to explain.
You are spirit. Hopefully you already know that. If you don’t, that’s okay. The point of this is not to try to convince you. Perhaps you simply don’t like the word "spirit". That’s fine, too. You can substitute consciousness, awareness, a soul, a being - whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter to me what we call it- I like spirit precisely because it is broad and non-specific to any one tradition- but it doesn’t matter in the end because what we call this aspect of ourselves because it is undefinable anyway. Suffice it to say there is an animating force that is in your body, but not of your body. It is your “I AM presence”, the part of you that is aware that you are aware. This aspect of the self is sacred, divine, holy - a gift from Spirit. Our culture does not reflect this truth, that everyone is spirit (at least not yet), but deep down inside, everyone knows that they are. Whether or not they consciously know it, believe it, or ever act like it is a separate issue. But we all come from spirit, and we all go back to spirit. In truth, there is nothing but spirit.
As spirit, you are perfect, whole, and complete. You are love itself, and you are loved unconditionally. As my friend Mikki Baloy recently wrote, “There is nothing wrong with you.”
And yet, as spirit, you are also having a very real (seeming) human experience. That is why you are here. You came here to learn, to experience what it is like to be a person, in a body, traveling through time and space, with your very own set of limitations and challenges, likes and dislikes, quirks and foibles. Being human is not easy for us- the lessons and challenges are often very difficult- as we get sucked into so much drama time and time again. Therefore, this process ends up taking us many, many lifetimes to master and complete.
One of the biggest lessons we all learn, if not the biggest lesson, is how to deal with suffering. This is one of the biggest questions we ever ask, something we all wrestle with and come to terms with in our own way. Why is there suffering? As Ram Dass says, “Within the spiritual journey you understand that suffering becomes something that has been given to you to show you where your mind is still stuck. It’s a vehicle to help you go to work. That’s why it’s called grace.” So ultimately, even the suffering is part of the process designed to awaken us, to help bring us back home, to show us who we truly are.
Now let’s look a little closer at what it means to be a person, to have a personality. The word “person” comes from the Latin word persona which means “mask”, referring originally to an actor in a play. Today, this word has been integrated into our modern language as “person” meaning “human being”. The meaning has changed, but the origin of the word gives us a helpful clue as to our true nature. The “person” you are is not who you really are, it’s the mask you are wearing, or the role you are playing in this lifetime. You come on stage when you are born, you grow into your role (and often get trapped by it) over the course of your lifetime, and then at death you leave the stage. When the mask comes off, you remember who you are in truth once again. You know you are spirit. Each lifetime, we try on a different mask, or perhaps more accurately, a full costume, woven together with many layers (body, mind, emotions, etc.) It’s quite an elaborate disguise! We of course set it up this way to try to make the game as interesting as possible.
Alan Watts explains it as a game, too:
“It’s like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the same place. God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside of God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.
“Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it -- just what he wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self -- the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.”
Now that we have established that we are all spirit with a mask on, the reasons why we shouldn’t take anything personally begin to reveal themselves. Once we've had the deep, personal, and profound revelation that our mask is not our true self, the truth comes into focus. When someone attacks you, is unkind, or mistreats you in any way, they are not attacking the real you, the spirit-you, but rather they are attacking your mask. This is why we ought not to take it personally.
This is further complicated because they see your mask through their mask. Human relationships are very challenging and complicated for this reason. We are not only dealing with other people’s masks and false projections, but contending with our own. Even if we have realized that we are not our masks, there are still plenty of times in life where we forget that, and get sucked back in to thinking we are. In those moments, we are operating as distorted views of ourselves attacking our distorted projections of others. No wonder we create so much drama!
As spirit-made-flesh, you are the embodiment of unconditional love and acceptance, so at that higher level, you are incapable of attacking another spirit, for the simple reason that love does not attack love. Spirit sees only spirit- or other aspects of Self - all connected, all one. Spirit is outside of the illusion, operating in truth. Only the ego, which is the person who operates within the illusion of separation and division, who thinks they’re on stage, engaged in a drama, can attack another person.
It can also be helpful to remind yourself that when a person attacks you, they are letting you know that they have forgotten, even if only temporarily, who they are in truth. They are under the spell of their own persona, and they are attacking you from that place. In these moments, one helpful practice is to take a breath to remember who they are, to focus on the truth behind their mask, and silently say, “I know you who are in truth, I know what you are in truth, I know how you serve in truth. You are here, you are here, you are here.” This is a way to work with them at a higher level, to bless them by seeing them as spirit, and to give them a way out.
When we do take any kind of attack personally, we are signaling to ourselves that we have also temporarily forgotten our own true nature. When we become defensive and/or fight back, we end up reinforcing the illusion of separation, and making it worse, so to speak, by perpetuating the drama. We can use the same practice on our self, “I know who I am in truth, I know what I am in truth, I know how I serve in truth. I am here, I am here, I am here.” I use this all the time, and it really works to bring me back to center.
Ultimately, “Don’t take it personally” is just another way of saying, “Don’t confuse your true self with your mask.” That’s not quite as catchy or concise, but that’s the underlying message. I hope you found this exploration helpful. The more you take time to remember and remind yourself that you are spirit, and that everyone else is spirit as well, the less inclined you will be to take things personally.