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How Meditation Changes Your Identity

Until last month, I’ve been wearing eyeglasses since I was 7 years old. I liked them at first because they made me look like Brainy Smurf, who was clearly smart.

But as I grew older, so did my nearsightedness. By my awkward teenage years, my glasses became coke bottle telescopes.

While contact lenses helped with my looks, they didn’t change that I was more or less blind without them.

But through corrective surgery, 35 years later, I can now SEE.

I wanted to share some of my process with you because I feel it sheds light on how we create our identity and how meditation can facilitate our transformation.

But first, let me back up. I need to give you a little background.

Perception

When I was around 13 years old, it dawned on me that people saw me through a lens that was not of my making.

What does that mean?

I’m an Asian-American male who grew up in a predominantly white upper middle class suburb of Detroit. In this cultural environment, there wasn’t much reflected in our shared media that looked like me.

That didn’t bother me initially until I realized others didn’t have much reference to place me either.

To overly generalize (and unfortunately, not that much), the scant images of an Asian man in mainstream America were either that of a mysterious ass-kicking martial artist or a nerdy/goofy worker bee.

I wasn’t that pleased with the selection, but I definitely gravitated towards the former than the latter, and the thick glasses weren’t helping me on this spectrum.

I discovered meditation and the landscape of consciousness about the same time.

I didn’t really know what I was doing at all. I was just compelled by an agonizing scream inside telling me there was more to the world that I could not see.

Within a few years, through books, conversations with my best friend, and some guidance from my plucky kung fu teacher (I know, the irony kills me), my inner vision started to open up in flutters.

New Vision

When I arrived at the clinic on the day of my surgery, I had to sign multiple waivers. Each of them confirmed from a different perspective that yes, I understood there were no ultimate guarantees re the outcome.

Yes, I understood that I was electing to undergo a non-reversible procedure with my only set of eyes. And yes, my guts were lurching with each line and box I initialed.

The hour before the actual surgery I was sitting in a quiet and luxurious pre-operation waiting room. The warm lighting was low and my chair was a big soft recliner. But I was actually on an express train with the brakes ripped out roaring towards a yawning abyss.

I thought about what brought me to that moment.

Two years ago, I went on a 5-night solo retreat to mark my 40th birthday and call forth a new vision for the next decade. Since then, I continue to be surprised by how my life has flourished in almost every dimension.

I saw deeply how becoming stronger in any one area (physically, professionally, spiritually, etc.) empowered the other areas because confidence cannot be contained.

As success started to compound over time and I became fortunate financially, I got the idea for the eye surgery a few months ago.

That I could manually transform a core aspect of my physical and psychological make up was audaciously compelling. I could engineer a change where my life would never be the same again.

Seated in that big puffy recliner waiting to go under the laser razor, that moment had finally come. Taking the same posture as I do in my meditation practice, I let go into my decision to carry me through these uncharted waters to the other side.

The actual procedure of cutting away a small portion of my corneas was painless and took altogether less than 15 minutes. The next days were more uncomfortable and revealing.

Imaginary Perception

While I could “see” immediately, I kept thinking I had either had my glasses or my contacts in. I’d catch myself and then marvel that I was seeing through my own eyes for the first time in decades.

But I’d forget again and have to repeat convincing myself that I wasn’t looking through some kind of corrective lens.

I had to contemplate after multiple rounds of this back-and-forth. It struck me how the image I held in my mind of myself shaped my experience to a more profound degree than I appreciated.

More than just a habit, I was surprised to see how challenging it was to accept that I could really see. Even when I’d look in the mirror, an obstinate and irrational thought jabbered: “you’re wearing contact lenses.”

If my mind could fixate so doggedly on an imaginary perception so contrary to reality, it led me to examine other images I see about myself: my body, my capacities, and my place in the world.

How real and substantial are they actually?

In light of this surgery, the array of self-images that normally go unnoticed have started to feel like some kind of spacesuit I’m walking around in. As I realized when I was a teenager, many of these images were given to me.

Even back then, I knew they were insufficient to reflect who I truly believed myself to be.

My former spiritual teacher once used the metaphor of letting go of a false self-image like a turtle deciding to leave its shell and the exhilaration of feeling rain on its exposed body for the first time.

In these recent days, I’ve appreciated how that expresses the vulnerability I’ve been feeling. It feels both raw and freeing to not know how to see myself.

Meditation has been essential to my integration process. It is a miraculous place where I can shed this spacesuit of images and ideas and rest in who I really am. And that is uncharted territory and an adventure in high gear.

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