Authenticity and labels

I was seated at a large table at a social gathering recently where the topic turned to spirituality. People began describing their adopted spiritual paths like tourists flashing ID at a border crossing. “I am a Buddhist” was a common one; a couple of Catholics and converts to Judaism were also added to the mix. Then one of the group, a spiritual teacher of some stature, started talking about the authenticity of his esoteric path and its ancient lineage. Authenticity is a word that, when uttered, is frequently followed by something inauthentic. I was not let down in this instance, as the person in question displayed a formidable ego and total lack of self-awareness as he rattled on about the importance of humility and love in his path. There was nothing malicious in his presentation; in fact, his knowledge was impressive and informative. What was disconcerting was the massive, unconsciousness gap between how he perceived himself and how he expressed himself–his hot mind and his frozen heart.

I felt a pain in my heart for the man, for all those around me and for myself. The tightening feeling in my chest was due to the fact of how far we all can stray from our authentic selves. We travel that distance to avoid emotional pain and the feelings of anxiety that pervade our experience in this realm. I thought of all the times in my own life when I have hidden under someone else’s banner instead of facing my internal demons. All the -isms and the -ists, from Judaism and Buddhism to Taoism and Jainism–what do we really intend when we make those allegiances? Labels can be and often are a shallow and unexamined definition of what makes us whole. Is the experience of one teacher tens, hundreds or thousands of years ago enough to define us, us unique souls who don’t share a single fingerprint? In my own life, I have learned to appreciate and learn from all these great and ancient traditions while tending to my own map as revealed to me in my own psyche and heart.

I believe the purpose of a healthy path is to bring us closer to our own true nature. Too often I have unconsciously misused teachings as a veil to hide behind rather than as a cleaning rag to dust off my mind and heart. I have rattled off a passage from some scripture when the moment would have been better met through an act of vulnerability, introspection or just remaining in the unknown. We all have a gift to share with ourselves and others that only comes about by us being authentic to who we are. In fact, that is our gift to the world: consciously manifesting our own true nature, with curiosity, awareness and compassion.