Seeing from the Essential Self
Martha Beck


I was once lucky enough to have lunch with the mother of Chris Burke, the actor who has appeared regularly on TV shows such as Life Goes On and Touched by an Angel and who happens to have Down's syndrome.  I also have a son with Down's syndrome, and Chris's success has been a source of hope and happiness in my family for a long time.  His mom is an absolutely lovely woman, very kind and funny.  Over lunch, she told me about Chris's career:  He's booked solid for speaking and acting jobs more than two years in advance, travels constantly to keep up with his engagements, and is mobbed by well-wishers and autograph seekers wherever he goes.

Naturally, hearing this made me practically effervesce with admiration.  "At the moment the doctors came in and told you Chris has Down's syndrome," I asked Mrs. Burke, "would you ever have dreamed he was going to be a famous TV star?"  I thought this question was rhetorical; naturally, she would have been completely unable to believe that her poor retarded baby would ever make good.  But Mrs. Burke didn't bat an eye.

"Of course," she said, a bit quizzically.  "Why not?"

I could tell this wasn't revisionist history.  From the moment he was born, Chris Burke's family really had seen the truth of his talent and potential.

I have no doubt that his generalized other is based on this limitless, optimistic, and clear-eyed love.  Does this mean Chris has suffered no failures, disappointments, or humiliations?  Of course not.  Does it mean everybody, literally everybody, loves and admires him?  No again--a lot of people while away their pathetic little lives pelting people like Chris with rocks and insults.  But his benevolent Everybody does mean that Chris Burke feels, and projects, enormous faith in himself and complete acceptance of others.  It means he handles criticism thoughtfully and well.  And it means that he lives in a virtual ocean of positive feedback, coming from literally millions of people.  He firmly believes every one of the positive statements above applies to him and that Everybody can see it's true.

One reason I can see my clients the way Mrs. Burke sees Chris is that my essential self tends to come out when I'm doing life design.  As this occurs, it becomes impossible for me to see the false, social-self version of the person sitting across from me.  The more you integrate your essential self, the more you will perceive both yourself and others in this way.  When the curtain of social judgment pulls back, it reveals the most amazing beauty.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was a college art student.  Every few weeks, I'd join this or that group of artists, and we'd all pitch in a few bucks to rent a studio and hire a model.  Most of the people we got to pose were college students with bodies that matched the social ideal--slender, fit, perfectly proportioned.  (After all, who else would risk standing naked in a room full of strangers?)  And then, one day, we got somebody really different.

She looked well over sixty, with a deeply lined face and a body that was probably fifty pounds heavier than her doctors would have liked.  She'd had a few doctors, too, judging from her scars.  Shining purple welts from a cesarean section and knee surgery cut deep rifts in the rippled adipose fat of her lower body.  Another scar ran across one side of her chest, where her left breast had once been.  When she first limped onto the dais to pose, I felt so much pity and unease that I physically flinched.  But we were there to draw her, so I picked up a pencil.

The thing about drawing is that you can't do it well with your social self.  You have to bring out your essential self, which doesn't know anything about social stereotypes.  And so, as I began to draw this maimed old woman, the most amazing thing happened.  Within five minutes, she became a person of absolutely wondrous beauty.  She didn't look like a supermodel; she didn't have to.  Her body, in and of itself, was as beautiful as a piece of polished driftwood, or a wind-carved rock, or a waterfall.  My essential self didn't know that I was supposed to compare the woman to various movie stars, any more than it would have evaluated the Andes Mountains by judging how much they looked like an Iowa cornfield.  It simply saw her as she was:  an exquisite sculptural form.

When this perceptual shift happened, I was so surprised that I stopped drawing and simply stared.  The model seemed to notice this, and without turning her head, looked straight into my eyes.  Then I saw the ghost of a smile flicker across her face, and I realized something else:  She knew she was beautiful.  She knew it, and she knew that I'd seen it.  Maybe that's why she had consented to pose nude in the first place.  Knowing that a roomful of artists couldn't draw her without seeing her--I mean really seeing her--she may have decided to give us a gentle education about our perceptions.

If you feel a bit isolated or scared, and your faith in yourself isn't exactly earthquake-proof, you must learn to do what Chris Burke and my Mystery Model seemed to do naturally:  replace your hypercritical, limiting, lying Everybody with an Everybody who sees you as you really are.  Once again, find yourself a pencil and prepare to do a little work.  You're about to learn what it feels like to search for your own North Star with Everybody on your side.

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