April 11, 2019

LEUNG | Letting Go of ‘I’

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I felt like a cliché. The college grad who faces a crisis over her own personal fulfillment, so she wants to leave the country and start a life abroad — but is too scared of societal pressures and whatever conditioned ideas of success she has, so she stays.

I’ve thought of these recurring thoughts and the idea that people don’t understand me, or no one knows how I feel. But the feelings of misunderstanding, isolation, longing and restlessness — they’re not new. People have felt these emotions over and over, by those who have lived hundreds of years before and those who will come after. This isn’t about big innovations or life-changing ideas. It’s the feelings and internal struggles we face every day. I am not alone in my conflict.

In 1994, photographers Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek created a project called “Exactitudes.” They documented and compiled unidentified subcultures, scanning the streets for people whose clothing seemed representative of their identities. The individuals were invited back to a studio to be photographed, wearing what they had worn on the streets. The photos were then arranged in a grid of 12, de-emphasizing the individuality and uniqueness of each portrait and placing an individual within others who are styled the same. The “individual” who seems to embody a particular stance against mainstream culture, or their own distinctive and original style, is placed against others similarly dressed: They are not as unique as they thought.

Perhaps it’s our fascination with the ego, our attachment to our sense of self. We find pleasure in curating our identities to express our own individuality. This “I” we attach to all things, however, produces a heavy weight to everything we do or say — all of them come with our upbringing, cultural values, relationships and environment. In 2016, Eddie Dreyer ’19 wrote an article on the problem of the ego and the benefits of going beyond those restrictive barriers in order to “free your soul.” When one thinks in relation to their own ego, it causes selfishness, disconnection from nature, feelings of inadequacy, lack of empathy for others, anxiety and excessive desires.

Living in a Buddhist country, Thailand, for five months allowed me to develop my own way of living, one that adopted Buddhist values with my own past experiences coming from the United States. When we think of anatta, or “no-self,” we began to unlearn the idea that there is an “I” attached to all things. The self is the source of dukkha, or things that are unsatisfactory or cause pain and suffering — the self in relation to desires, greed or power. When I learned about anatta, anicca (impermanence) and dukkha in Thailand — the three Buddhist marks of existence — it drove me to act both unselfishly and more kindly.

Letting go of “I am” made things hold less weight, and that starts from realizing how much what Dreyer describes as the beliefs your ego has adopted through your family’s cultural values, upbringing and how society has made you think is external and has no effect on your core. I learned that yoga, which was something I had enjoyed since I was young, works with the body through the process of “letting go.” Many Buddhist and Hindu beliefs find their way into yoga practice. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word for yoke, yuj, which is used to join cattle. To yoke aggressive cattle can be translated to calming the mind and bringing it under control.

We live in a society that prides itself on the individuality and uniqueness of people. We place a large emphasis on how we are able to create our own lives to meet certain goals we’ve set out for ourselves. But perhaps it is comforting to know that we are not alone in the uncertainties we face, the hardship, the pain, the desire to break free of a system. The de-emphasis on “I” in relation to how we think, speak and act unifies the commonalities of who we are, rather than makes us lose our sense of self.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears every other Friday this semester.