There must be a word for the sensation of being oneself. An appropriate word must exist for the ever-present, but sometimes violently acute, grasp on what it feels like to be alive, inside this one mind, this one body. “Self-awareness” does not seem to verbally do this heightened consciousness justice. It’s just too common a phrase. No, this feeling calls for a much more technical, even elegant, term. This intense cognizance that sometimes overtakes us, grappling with us, ungracefully pulling us to our knees – occasionally beckoning our gaze skyward, in awe, but almost never passing through without causing an utter ruckus between our ribs – must be captured by a word of great potency.
Mmm. Sentience. That may just have to do. Perhaps we can allow that to be the soldiering word that carries this burdensome and fascinating notion, for now.
Being cognizant of our own sentience, and our own ever-changing nature, is a dangerous art. It’s a state we are always in, whether we choose to see it or not. Isn’t that funny? Not “ha ha” funny, but ironic. Just as I learned the other day that the eyes see everything upside down and the brain has to flip the image right-side up, that the eyes see the nose in their line of vision but that the brain steps in and blocks out that needless obstruction, that the cerebral cortex’s entire occipital lobe is devoted to vision and how we take in the world…that we can see so much, and yet not even be aware of it…reminds me of this. That, in our purest essence, we are living, feeling, breathing organisms, always connected to the sensation of what it feels like to be just that – and yet we can block out that capacity for great introspection so much of the time. So much so, in fact, that we find ourselves utterly bulldozed by the self-analysis and soul-searching that periodically drapes itself over us like a thick, dark cape, blocking out the light of the rest of the world and closing us in on the sensation of feeling, knowing, and existing.
That we can ever feel as if we’re not powerfully rooted in our own sentience, every moment our heart is beating, makes me think of all the rigorous work the brain is doing up there in our skulls. It is always there, and yet it takes us by such surprise when we choose to look it straight in the face.
The way this alert sense of profound presence takes over can ease into our thoughts gracefully, or can arrive in the most alarming fashion – the reflection in the mirror catching us off guard, the date scrawled in the upper corner of an old letter leaving us palpably shaken, the memory of how things once were and simply no longer are gripping us with unparalleled intensity – it’s almost like a drug. Like someone slipped something into my tea and I’m on a trip; one that I’m powerless to, one that heightens every sense. Distinctly contrasting what was with what is, with artful and almost painful clarity. And such comparison never comes without criticism. It is an inherent flaw in the human psyche. I have yet to encounter an earthly being who can entirely detach from self-criticism. Although, I am hopeful that such celestially-blessed spirits exist upon this battlefield utopia we call “our world.” But, for most of us, the mental journeying back is peppered with comparison, and criticism. Hence the throb that accompanies such fleeting lucidity, a deep ache that seems quite the unnecessary accomplice to what could otherwise be, plainly and simply, a sober observation. Of one’s life. Of one’s memories. Of one’s existence.
I sometimes feel like I have been very different people, all in this one life. In this one body. Using this one brain. I feel like I have changed, drastically, again and again. Whether I meant to or not, I have changed, radically. I sometimes feel as if I don’t recognize myself, and sometimes I feel as if I can’t recognize the person I once called myself.
I understand that we are meant to change. It is not just in our nature, it is our nature. I understand that, in youth, we often try on different guises, attempt different scopes of existence. I understand that sometimes we come back home to ourselves, our core Selves, and sometimes we do not. No two stories are the same and neither are they intended to be. I think that’s what I’ve been experiencing, of late. A coming home to myself. Literally and figuratively. I’ve moved back to the area where I’m from. But it’s more than that, although related, I suspect. I’ve been tussling with a deep sense of familiarity, an ahh, there she is, inside the fibers of my own being. I see photos from my past and feel as if I’ve come round a circle, or through a labyrinth, back to that girl I once was. Even though so much has, and still is, changed. How could I feel the same as I once was, when so many years have passed, and I have done nothing to intentionally return to her? Nothing but release, I suppose. Release emotionally and spiritually, release the baggage that was burdening my forward motion. I suppose I didn’t expect the energetic homecoming to feel so sweet.
Bittersweet, really. Because I’m home, but I’m changed. It’s as if I’ve stepped into my warm, childhood home from the cold, but everything’s changed. The same house, but all the furniture in a different arrangement. Different food on the stove, different music on the stereo, a different feeling in the air. Same, and yet not the same at all. That’s how I feel. I am the same, and yet not the same at all. It’s quite unnerving. It begs me to question and inspect nearly everything I’ve ever experienced.
I find myself looking at old photos, scrutinizing, what was different then? What was better? What have I gained since then? How have I come to be better off? In what ways could I revert back or imitate this past version of this person I know as Sara, in order to suffer less now, today, in this current translation of me?
It makes me laugh. How I can look at a photo of myself, at 19, with a completely different set of rules, daily routines, and objectives. It puzzles and amuses me that I could look at her, this earlier edition of me – who is both inherently me and yet a me I no longer know, intimately – and think I could press a button and become her again, leaving behind today’s worries and fears, as if taking off one hat and donning another. As if she was free of worry and fear, as if she had less suffering, less struggle. As if it would be an escape into unfamiliar territory, rather than a return to terrain I’ve (both she and I, together) already traversed, successfully traveled through, come out the other side of…alive and stronger, wiser even.
It’s easy to both look back and think things were simpler, and yet to also look back and think man, I’m glad I don’t have to be there again. The mind is such a funny, fickle instrument. Casting shadows and light as it will, dressing up memories and editing their reality liberally.
The truth of the matter is we can never know if it would be easier to go back to an earlier time in our lives. Not as if to have a chance at a “do-over”, but rather to just escape the sometimes sharp and scalding experience of living, the accumulating nature that comes with the territory of being here for increasing turns ’round the sun. We can’t know if it would be, and even if we could know, it still wouldn’t be possible.
It is just not always easy to be human.
We grow wiser, yes. But we also grow wearier. We pine after times when things were (if only in our slippery mind’s eye) simpler, gentler, laced more amply with ease. And perhaps they were. But only because we had less of the perspective we have now. We had less of the preferences – agonizing preferences, truly one of the most basic causes of our suffering, and yet are lives are positively cluttered with them, are they not? – that we have now. We had less of the life experience. Less expectation. We carried less of the knowledge, were marked with less heartbreak and loss, knew less of the fear that comes with seeing firsthand. We’d had less of the sorrowful experiences that now weigh upon the seams of our soul.
But we also had countless fewer chapters, fewer messily filled in pages of our very own, personalized, little leather-bound survival handbook. We had fewer first kisses in our romantic registry that’d left us with unforgettably tingling legs. We had wished on fewer shooting stars. We’d wet our lips with fewer cups of bottomless tea and left marks on fewer rims of fragile glasses of sultry, aged wine. We’d locked eyes with fewer strangers. We’d taken less trains, read less books, been less acquainted with how actually wonderful disappointment can turn out to be. We’d not been as many times mystified by the cracks of lightning, the pounding thunder, the lightness of nourishing rain. We’d shattered the silence of a cold night with howling laughter fewer times, filled pages of journals with fewer tales of romance and anguish, seen less ravishing sights, had less “firsts”, been held in the warm cocoon of lovemaking fewer times.
We’d danced far less with the impossibly fleeting, but exquisitely breathtaking, nature of what it feels like to be alive, right now, in this moment. This moment that will pass and never come again. We’d not yet become so familiar with the breath-catching-in-our-chest feeling of anticipation for what will come next. The next moment, the next day, the next glance.
So perhaps being human, while inexplicably difficult and painful, isn’t so bad after all. Perhaps it’s the only reason we’re here. To learn how to do it, how to come home to ourselves. To become adept at befriending the many volumes of our own lives. To pull up a chair to our own stories, stand on two firmly planted feet at the helm of our own existence, use our every filament to see our purpose for what it is – to live. Without any expectation for life to be anything but what it is. Painful, but poetic, the latter of which matters more. Yes, life, in all its mystery and wonder. It is painful, but poetic, and it is unceasingly marvelous.