I will never forget the moment when one of my colleagues leaned over my shoulder one evening on our shared van ride home. There were eight of us in the van. I was sitting on the bench seat in front of him. We were each against the left side windows of the van; he always sat behind me or was it that I always sat in front of him? Either way, we – all eight of us – worked at different places in the University, but we van pooled from the University where we worked to our neighborhood drop-off place (there was no rail option through the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina at that time). It was a great arrangement that we had with the University to commute in together. I used the entire 2-4 hour (depending on traffic) round-trip commute to do my work. I thought it was great.
But one day, my colleague who was an accomplished and rather famous electrical engineer said to me, “Why do you do your university work every day on our way home from work?”
I proudly explained to him that I was very busy with my job and there was always work to do.
I saw him smile a half smile as he leaned way over the back of the seat bench to show me the novel he had been reading. He was really enjoying it and he asked me if I ever read anything not related to my work.
“Why no,” I proclaimed in defiance and pride barely looking at him out of the corner of my eye. “You know what I do for the University. I am way too busy to read anything for pleasure, unless of course they are magazines that have to do with cooking, wine, or gardening.” I laughed lightly thinking that this response would suffice him, knowing full well that all my magazines from Food and Wine, Wine Spectator, and Southern Living had piled up into very tall, untouched piles in the corner of my living room.
As if he knew this unspoken truth, his half smile became a full smile. “Why not?” He inquired further still leaning uncomfortably over the bench seat. “Why do you not take more time to explore something that is of interest to you?”
Growing in irritation with him because his inquiries were cutting into my work productivity time, I put down the pen and assessment plan I had been critiquing and turned around to actually look him in the face to respond (note that I hadn’t until just then turned around to respond to him because I was too busy to do so).
“I am too busy right now.” I retorted – the irritation within me apparent now to the entire van of people. “Some day, I will read what I want to read. Some day, I will go to the gym. Some day, I will take the community class I want to take. But not now; I am just too busy.”
My glare must have affected him for he sat fully back in his bench seat behind me. His smile became even wider and he opened up his novel and positioned it in front of him as if to continue to read, but before he did, he glanced up toward me one more time. Our eyes met – I was sure mine showed anger while his were full of peace. And he said softly and without judgment, “If you don’t start now to take time for that which you desire, when will you ever begin? Everyone is too busy, Marilee. Everyone…” And with that, he peacefully returned to reading his book.
His wise words cut through my soul like a hot knife through butter. I knew he was right and I didn’t know what to do about it. I wanted to give myself time to do something other than work but I didn’t know how. Tears began to well in my eyes as I turned back around to return to my work. I wanted to put his voice, those words out of my mind, and fortunately, I never have been successful. I hear his voice to this day – many days after choosing in some moments but not in others to be something different than I was then, whenever I think I am just too busy to care for myself.
Often, one of the underpinning notions of providing ourselves with permission to explore who we are may be that we are simply too busy. We are too busy taking care of others, working on projects given to us by others, or working on projects assigned to us by ourselves. We, in essence, have occupied our waking moments (and for some of us, our sleeping moments) on external factors in our lives or what Deepak Chopra and many other psychologists (Travis, Arenander, & DuBois; 2004; Travis, Haaga, Hagelin, Tanner, Arenander, Nidich, Gaylord-King, Grosswald, Rainforth, & Schneider, 2010; Venkatesh, Raju, Shivani, Tompkins, Meti, 1997) call the practice of object-referral. We spend our time here – differential to objects outside of ourselves, rather than investing time in getting to know ourselves – in discovering internal factors that influence our perceptions; in engaging in the practice of self-referral.
If we chose to believe, just for one moment, that our relationship with ourselves was the most important relationship we could develop – that it was the most important task we could engage in – then our commitment to self-care and self-discovery would be a top priority in our day-to-day. As such, we wouldn’t be standing in a moment of deep self discovery, realizing what we need (self-referral) and then just as quickly turning our back on learning more of how to get that which we need in exchange for something we think we are supposed to be doing (object-referral).
And as I sat there situating myself back into the work I had before me on that van ride, pondering the beautiful awakening I had just been given by my colleague, I realized that I experienced so much more joy, peace, and love when I am aware of who I am in relationship to that which I am experiencing (self-referral) as opposed to only focusing on that which I am experiencing – such as experiencing irritation for denying something that is actually true or tension thinking I am suppose to keep focused on doing something rather than discovering something. When I remain focused on the external – as if it is external to who I am or who I am becoming (object-referral), I experience stress and tension, irritation, and disease.
To drive this point further home, in order to fully enjoy life and all it has to offer, I need to invest in getting to know who I am and who I am becoming so that when I experience everyday moments, the way in which I relate to them begins with my relationship with myself (self-referral). When I operate out of self-referral, I do less blaming, shaming, and demanding of others and myself, and more inquiry into realizing that I am able to be with myself in just about any situation and thus, experience peace, love, and joy if even for a brief moment.
On the van ride, if I would have been aware of who I am and aware of who I am in relationship with myself, I would not have been irritated by a colleague who was lovingly trying to coach me back into relationship with myself. I would have recognized that I had fallen out of relationship with myself and his inquiry would have been seen in love and joy and peace, rather than in anger and annoyance. I let his inquiry – even an inquiry centered in love –define me as an angry, annoyed person too busy to invest in her own self.
An example a recent practice of these concepts is the moment that occurred last week after realizing that a hacker had accessed one of my personal online accounts and had gained personal and financial data. When it came to my attention that the hacker had done… well… what a hacker does; the deed was completed. I found out after the fact. My loving relationship with myself requires peace. Thus, my loving relationship with the unknown hacker also requires peace. Upon learning that my account was hacked, I experienced fear, blame, anger, more anger, regret, blame, more fear, and finally forgiveness – first for myself for not having been more careful about which online accounts I engage in and then forgiveness of the hacker after reporting what I knew of the hacker’s identity to the proper authorities.
Who am I? Love. Who am I in relationship to the hacker after having gone through my range of emotions and after having reported the hacker’s actions to the proper authorities so as to avoid this event from occurring to another in the future? Peace. Who am I in relationship to this event? Still me – as Love and peace; not me as a victim. I am not a victim; being a victim would be me practicing object-referral where an event (the hacking) or perspective (such as that of the authorities to whom I reported this crime) is allowed to define who I am. I am only Love. I am not a victim. I wouldn’t be able to be in this space if I didn’t know who I am and who I am becoming; I wouldn’t be in this space if I didn’t know how to practice self-referral.
So, as you experience life, ask yourself the following questions that will allow you to remain in or return to self-referral, as opposed to object-referral.
1) Who am I?
2) Who am I in relationship to myself?
3) Who am I in relationship to [insert any person in your life]?
4) Who am I in relationship to [insert any event or situation in your life]?
And as you answer these questions, then ask yourself whether you are allowing the other person (whomever it may be) or the event in your life (whatever it may be) to define your relationship with yourself or to define who you are. Or are you defining your relationship with yourself and your relationship with all the experiences you have in your life? Are you defining who you are?
How fun is that?
Marilee J. Bresciani, Ph.D., is a professor of higher education and the Founder of Rushing to Yoga Foundation. Her now more than 24 years of professional work has been committed to changing the way that America talks about quality of higher education. In order to keep from going crazy about trying to get the American public to care about what students are actually learning and how they are developing, rather than other indicators that have nothing to do with that, she has engaged in yoga, meditation, and self-referral. Marilee’s mantra is “I teach what I need to learn.”
Tagini A, Raffone A. (2010). The “I” and “Me” in self-referential awareness: a neurocognitive hypothesis. Cognitive Processing,11(1). p.9-20.
Travis, F., Arenander, A., & DuBois, D. (2004). Psychological and physiological characteristics of a proposed object-referral/self-referral continuum of self-awareness. Consciousness and Cognition, 13 (2). p.401-20.
Travis, F., Haaga, D.A., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Arenander, A., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., Grosswald, S., Rainforth, M., & Schneider, R.H., 2010. A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice. Consciousness and Cognition, 11(1). p.21-30.
Venkatesh S, Raju TR, Shivani Y, Tompkins G, Meti BL. (1997). A study of structure of phenomenology of consciousness in meditative and non-meditative states.
Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 41(2). p.149-53.