Earlier this week, I was e-mailed by a reader who, after explaining a number of their faults and struggles, asked how they could “transcend themselves to become someone new and start again”. When we feel unsure about ourselves, or when our feeling of self-worth is such that we wish we were someone else entirely, it can appear impossible to believe, let alone see, our qualities, strengths and values – even though they exist in abundance.
Sometimes, a shift in perspective is needed. The writer Oscar Wilde offered profound and to-the-point advice for this kind of struggle: “Be yourself – everyone else already is taken.”
There’s an old folk tale about a stonecutter who was fed up with his lot. He found himself dissatisfied and tired with life. He desired to be more than what he was, to be someone great, to feel significant and important to the world.
One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house. Through the open gateway, he saw many valuables and important visitors. “How great the merchant’s life must be,” thought the stonecutter. He became envious and wished that he could be like the merchant.
To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined – but detested by those less wealthy than himself.
Soon a high official passed by, accompanied by attendants. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession.
“How powerful that official is,” the former stonecutter thought. “I wish that I could be a high official.”
Then he became the high official, carried everywhere – and feared and hated by the people all around.
It was a hot summer day, and the former stonecutter felt very uncomfortable even though he was being carried around. He looked up at the Sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence.
“Nothing is more revered than the Sun,” the man thought. “I wish that I could be the Sun.”
Then he became the Sun, shining fiercely down on everyone – scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and labourers.
Suddenly, a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “The cloud truly is awesome,” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud.”
Soon, he was the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, detested by everyone below.
After a short time, he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realised that it was the wind. “How majestic and free the wind is,” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind.”
As he became the wind, he began blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, and uprooting trees.
But soon after, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it: a huge, towering rock.
“The rock is such a magnificent presence,” he thought. “I wish that I could be a rock.” At once, he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth.
After just a few minutes of becoming the rock, he began to hear the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed.
“What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he wondered. He looked down and saw, far below him, the lone figure of a stonecutter.
In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), the mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages us to allow ourselves to be exactly who we are and invites us to “honour our uniqueness”. Through being kinder to ourselves and allowing the space for mistakes, we realise, like the stonecutter, that wanting to be anyone other than ourselves just leads to more dissatisfaction and discontent.
The only thing we need to transcend is the negative light through which we often see ourselves. Loving-kindness meditation can help us to do just that, leading us to see what we truly wish for ourselves and others, and encouraging the right kind of action to bring it about.
In practising loving-kindness meditation, we spend time mentally repeating phrases such as, “May I be happy”, “May I be free from danger”, and “May I enjoy well-being”.
It can feel strange and counter-intuitive at first; however, done regularly, the practice can help to lift us out of the rut of the negative thinking cycles we sometimes find ourselves in. It reminds us to let ourselves off the hook once in a while, and that no matter who we are, despite our flaws and faults, we’re perfectly fine just as we are.