This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
The Freedom to be You
When I had first graduated from college, I interned at a company doing marketing, and then one of my first jobs was at an advertising agency. I learned the ins and outs of marketing and the ins and outs of branding, and I started thinking recently about how we as individuals do the same thing. We have the story that we have about ourselves, and then everything that we do when we interact with others revolves around maintaining the brand that we want them to associate with us. I may have a story about myself, which is, "I am an intellectual person and look at how I read". So, when I post a picture on social media of a book I'm reading, that's all part of my subconscious effort to brand myself as that type of person. The clothes that we wear, the way that we do our hair, the type of vehicles that we drive, the sports and hobbies that we participate in; all of these things are part of our personal brand. I think it's important to understand this, not because we're necessarily trying to eliminate our stories or to eliminate our branding, but in an effort to understand ourselves. When someone does something or says something, why does it affect me in a particular way? Oh, because it's inconsistent with my branding, and with what I want those people to perceive about me.
I encountered this first-hand when I was going through a transition in faith. I had this story about myself, which was that, "I am a good person. I do good things. I'm not the type of person who's going to intentionally do wrong. In its broadest sense, I'm not a bad guy. I like to be known as someone who's nice and friendly and who does the right thing." That was, or is, part of my personal brand. But, as I was going through a transition from one faith to another, members of my faith community were starting to view me as a heretic or rebel. At worst, as somebody who was doing wrong and, at best, as a naive person who was being misled by the adversary. I struggled with that because that was inconsistent with the story that I have about myself.
It really bothered me. A lot of my anxiety or consternation came from the fact that I couldn't convince certain people that I was still a good person. They had a new view of me, and the way they branded me was not the way I did. When I saw this in myself I was able to understand, "Oh, this is what's happening. This is why it bothers me. It's not so much that they're perceiving me from an incorrect perspective; it's that they no longer feel about me the way I want them to feel."
There's nothing I can say that's going to convince certain people that I'm still a good person, because, from their point of view, in terms of their belief system, I'm not. It was really helpful for me to understand that, "OK, this is a branding issue, and it's not that there's anything wrong with how they perceive me. The only thing that's wrong is that I want them to perceive me in another way, and I can't control perception. I can't control the story that someone else is going to have about me." What that left me with was the freedom to just be me, and that means allowing others to have a different story about me than the one I have about myself.
With that came a sense of freedom. I no longer felt this tremendous need to influence a person's view about me in order to make sure that that view is consistent with the view that I have about myself, because I realized that this just can't be done. We can't control the narrative that others have about us. But what I could understand was all the effort that was involved in trying to determine what that narrative is.
What are the stories that you have about yourself? What is the personal brand that you try to put out to your circle of friends or to the world at large, the story that you have about you? Because, somewhere in the maintaining of that story, you may find instances of suffering; instances of dissatisfaction that would constitute the second arrow. If somebody doesn't like the way that you are, you may find that it really bothers you, and the actual source of being discontented is the inconsistency that you're perceiving between the story you have about yourself and the one that others have about you.
Just knowing that may give you the ability to engage a little bit more skilfully with other people. The invitation here isn't to change your story or to change your brand. I think we all have stories, and the moment I decide that I don't have a story about myself? Well, that's another story. In the end, what you'll end up with is a greater sense of freedom and the ability to just be you: the you that has a story; the you that sometimes defends the story; the you that sometimes realizes, "That wasn't necessary. I'm going to stop defending my story." You can engage, freely, with the entire process of what it is to be you and what it is to have a story about yourself and what it is to feel offended when that story about you is misinterpreted or is inconsistent with someone else's perspective. These are all aspects of being a human; being a social creature that engages in social connection.
I want to echo the koan that I've shared before: "There is nothing I dislike." I think one of the keys to thinking about this koan is: how do we define "I"? Who is the I that can like or dislike something? Take that into consideration with regard to the concept of the you that has a story about yourself. Which you is more you? The one that has the story or the one that is in the storyline? It's not about becoming a better you. Befriend who you are. Get to know your story. Get to understand all the activities that take place when you're trying to influence that narrative for other people. With greater understanding comes a sense of liberation, and the freedom to be you. Thank you for taking the time to listen. Till next time.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.