Owning Who You Are
By Fax Gilbert
I found it somewhat ironic that in the winter of 1999 I was preparing to deliver school programs on Character Education. My previous classmates and teachers, all the way through the university level, would have been more than amused that I was in a position to guide young minds and hearts in the areas of responsibility, respect and honesty in order to strengthen their character.
I do school programs for a living and, at the time, all of my offerings were focused on the performing arts through programs such Mime, Masks and Magic, as well as State History Plays where I bring in costumes and coach kids to perform scenes from their state’s history at the end of the day while I narrate the action.
Several principals independently came to me about ten years ago to see if I could use my performance skills to put together a program on character to enhance their own initiatives in that area.
The huge government funded “Just Say No to Drugs” school programs were just winding down because kids just weren’t saying no or even maybe. Specially trained police officers would come to the schools equipped with joints, pills and drug paraphernalia in order to scare the kids. It worked fine with the younger primary grades, but the older kids just used it as a training session on what to look for when scouting for the best high.
So schools needed to take things to a deeper level–character education (how can you say no without a strong character). Which is where I came in. They needed somebody to deliver their message on developing strong character in a way that kids would hear. So it had to be entertaining as well as informational. Kind of a live forty-five minute participatory infomercial.
So after presenting a couple thousand of these character programs across the Midwest during the last decade, while at the same time having some consciousness recognitions of my own, I began to see similarities and distinctions between developing character and embodying consciousness.
Everybody has a different sense of what the words “character” and “consciousness” mean. Unlike the words “sunrise” or “video-recorder,” they’re very slippery and not easily boxed into a meaning because character is subjective and consciousness is subjectivity itself.
To me, character is the disposition to be present to whatever feelings or impulses arise, both uncomfortable as well as comfortable. This presence is not just presence as witness (consciousness) but an embodied open-hearted presence that has the potential to engage all of our being. In other words, consciousness is what registers or recognizes what’s there and character is the impulse to respond.
If a friend says something that makes you uncomfortable, consciousness is what allows for the perception, character is what you do with it.
Most of us have the disposition to ignore or actively dismiss discomforting feelings and situations in the hope that they’ll take care of themselves. Shifting into a recognition of yourself as consciousness, which is by nature free and uninvolved, can even reinforce the tendency to back away from the messiness of relationship with ourselves, others and the world
Mohandas K. Gandhi said that one of the causes of violence in the world is “knowledge without character.” This is especially true for spiritual knowledge. Many of us on a spiritual path have encountered teachers with vast “spiritual” attainment, but whose behavior was often self-serving, irresponsible, disrespectful and even dishonest.
Followers of these teachers would then enable the teacher by glorifying their actions with some cosmic signification. “ Swami wasn’t having sex with her, he was just sleeping with her to help her evolution.” or, “It’s a mystery why His Holiness does what he does. He’s just totally connected to natural law and the divine plan so it must be right,” or, “Guruji wants more money to test our devotion and worthiness before revealing even deeper spiritual knowledge.”
Somehow the responsibility for owning who we are as vulnerable, passionate, limited, creative, human beings is being abdicated in the quest for spiritual recognition and identity. Ironically, it is only through being responsible to all of who we are as human beings that divine consciousness can can incarnate fully into, and as, our hearts.
Character is the disposition that connects our consciousness to our heart. Character is the embodied consciousness that surrenders over and over again to the pain and poignancy of living from the heart of our being. Character is what takes responsibility for and respects who we are as both consciousness and matter, and character is that which trusts in the mystery of being.
This is not how I present character in schools (God help me), although, expressed more simply, the character message there is basically the same: lean into and not away from whatever it is that’s making us uncomfortable. Most of the fears, inhibitions, prejudices, inadequacies, and self-judgments we had growing up are still there, still waiting to be seen, still squandering our energy in maintaining these avoidances and still denying us full access to the present.
When teaching in schools, I don’t just focus on the outward expressions and definitions of character–honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring , citizenship, but also on inner markers as well. Character is more personally revealing when we discover what and why we avoid doing, speaking, feeling or being than it is when merely conforming to some external definitions and moral or ethical guidelines.
Strengthening character means becoming more sensitive to what our body is already telling us in any given moment, what it is telling us about ourselves and what it is telling us about others in relation to ourselves. One way that helps kids (and adults) understand our body’s inner language is to imagine that beside our heart is a spinning star. That every star has points on it and that whenever something needs our attention the spinning star touches our heart and we feel a little pinch, a funny feeling.
Maybe this pinch was caused because we hurt somebody, or noticed that somebody needed help, or because we were misunderstood. Whatever the cause we have a choice. We can ignore the pinch or we can feel it and try to resolve the disequilibrium that’s there inside. There may be good reasons for not acting–safety and trust issues, timing, lack of clarity and so on. However if we ignore the signal just out of habit or fear, then eventually, those points on the star will start to wear down and we’ll find ourselves living at a distance from our feelings and our heart and our humanity.
Character, the disposition to acknowledge that spinning star, can only be deepened in relationship, ideally in relationship with those of similar purpose. When there is a recognition in the mind or resolution in the heart, unconscious holding is relaxed, space is created and consciousness is embodied. The universal consciousness that I know is more vulnerable than an infant and closer than our breath. It requires safety and nurturance and an invitation to come forward and live in our hearts. Character is that invitation.