Uncovering our true selves

When we hide behind layers of defensiveness, we can loose sight of our self worth, writes Martina Lehane Sheehan

I set out on my walk, breathing in the fresh morning air, reflecting on what a blessing it was to be living in the country with all its peaceful, uninterrupted walks. The more the clouds of mental activity subsided, the more the veils of separation dissolved and I felt part of everything around me; totally at one with the moment.

It was late January and already there was the first glimmer of spring in the air and a spring in my step. I made my way up a secluded road, birdsong the only sound. I walked mindfully, breathing in and breathing out, noticing each step, while also being aware that I couldn’t stay too long as I had to go to work soon.

I was lost in the reverie of it all when a tractor came up behind me. I jumped into the ditch and the tractor sped past me, baptising me with spatters of manure as well as a generous splash from the dirty puddle in the nearby pothole. The driver waved buoyantly as he continued on his way, while I stood aghast, covered in muck.

My morning mindfulness meditation quickly changed to a spontaneous mantra of profane words. I began to walk back, pounding the road in annoyance. I realised I had to be at work in 15 minutes so I would have very little time to get back home and change. There was no longer a feeling of spring in the air. The birds no longer seemed to be singing, in fact they seemed to be mocking me with their annoying chirping. The earlier feelings of being blessed were replaced now with feelings of being cursed; feelings of grace replaced with disgrace.

When I got home, I wiped the spatters off my clothes until there seemed to be no more muck visible. I wrapped a cardigan around me and another one on top of it, just in case. I sprayed my most overpowering perfume and rushed to work.

I had a presentation to give that day and I needed to at least look (and smell) presentable. I was still fairly new to the world of addressing large groups so it was daunting enough without having to worry about how I smelt. The opening talk went fairly well. We broke for coffee and walked towards the refreshment area, where I overheard someone say as she sniffed the air, “Do you get it?” Her colleague twitched her nose and replied “Oh yeah, I do. I smell it now, it’s very strong”.

I panicked as I tried to walk several steps ahead. During coffee I smiled artificially and chatted while keeping a safe distance from everyone. On the way back I bumped into someone, who suddenly cupped her mouth and said, “Oh no, I have to get out of here”.

Taking this as evidence that she was about to be sick, I was just about to run after her and apologise to her for the smell when I heard her say, “I didn’t realise the time, I have an appointment and have to go now”. I was relieved but continued to keep people at a distance for the rest of the day, just in case.

On my way back to the group after lunch I noticed, to my horror, a spatter of muck still evident on my left knee. I made a quick U-turn to the toilets where I wiped the spatter furiously with a damp cloth, making it even more noticeable. I went to the hand-dryer but discovered it was too high to dry my knee. Then I was hit with a ‘bright’ idea: I jumped up onto the ledge surrounding the sink, balanced myself on the side of the sink, leaned my leg across to the opposite wall and arched my left knee towards the dryer.

I managed to contort my body whereby one leg was now under the dryer, one hand balancing on the sink, with my heart hammering in fear that somebody would walk in and see me.


I was overcome with panic when I heard voices coming down the corridor. I jumped down just before two ladies came in. Red-faced, I smiled weakly at them as I straightened myself up.

I tried to reclaim some dignity and credibility as I walked towards the conference room, pulling my cardigan as far down as possible over the wet knee, which made me walk in a lopsided manner. I went back into the conference room, only to find that somebody had opened the windows.

I felt uncomfortably warm due to the layers of clothing I had kept wrapped around me, but most of all I was exhausted from the catastrophic thinking I’d been engaging in all day. Anticipating the worst, I began to read the evaluations, dreading all the criticism about the ‘smelly’ and ‘lame’ excuse for a speaker.

I read hurriedly, the lines blurring, until with relief I read: “the scones were lovely, we could smell the cinnamon from them when we went on our coffee break”; “the room was warm and comfortable – a bit too warm so I had to open windows after lunch”. They didn’t mention me at all. Of course they didn’t: I had kept myself removed from them that they didn’t meet me, only a brittle smile and layers of clothing.

Looking back now, I can see how symbolic the whole mucky episode was. I had started out that day light of spirit, filled with mindfulness and awareness of the beauty of life. When I was covered in the smelly mud, I lost awareness of the blessing and allowed myself to be dragged deeper and deeper into my own ‘stinking thinking’.

It reminds me of our journey in life: we come into the world, souls “Apparell’d in celestial light” and with an innate knowledge of our own beauty and the wonder around us.

Then we get spattered – with hurts, criticism and rejection. Those spatters begin to define us; we become increasingly self-conscious, and the more we identify with the spatters, the more we attach ourselves to them. As children we did not have the discriminative powers to assess if other people’s evaluation of us was accurate, so we took it to be our truth. We went into a kind of trance, in which we forgot our truth.

In this trance, we are susceptible to any remark or criticism in our present-day lives. Whenever a critical comment comes our way, it lands on the vulnerable spot, where it resonates to confirm our unworthiness. Because we fear more criticism, we create a safe distance around us; we hide behind layers of defensiveness, armouring ourselves with titles and possessions designed to hide our sense of inferiority and shame. This armouring, we believe, will ensure that others cannot pick up our ‘smell’. We spray ourselves with some artificial ‘fragrance’, in the form of grandiosity or superiority, in order to keep up appearances, which only serves to repress rather than heal.

In the book of Genesis we are told that we are created in the image and likeness of God. This should have put a spring in our steps, but before we even heard that good news, many influences endorsed our unworthiness and our flaws. Many of us remember being told as children that we should say an act of contrition and call to mind our sins before we go to sleep at night. How can one possibly go to sleep if they have to first call to mind their sins?

This cycle of wearing false selves is where sin thrives: if I lose sight of my worth, I consequently lose sight of yours, and eventually we have to find a way to compete, fight and prove another wrong.

Fig leaves

We are told that in the Garden of Eden they covered up by sewing fig leaves together to make loin-cloths. They hid, because they were afraid, but God called them out of their hiding (cf. Gn 3:8). Likewise, God is forever calling us from our own places of cover-up, the false self which tells us there is something fundamentally flawed about us.

Through awareness, we can begin to dis-identify with the outer layers of our persona and the upper layers of the mind. This allows us to turn compassionately towards what has shamed us, instead of employing denial and pretence.

Something beautiful can then begin to happen: the tightening around us begins to loosen and we start to attend to what is real; in fact, we ourselves become real.


*Extract taken from Whispers in the Stillness: Mindfullness and Spiritual Awakening written by Martina Lehane Sheehan, a psychotherapist and retreat director, and published by Veritas.