Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Identity




Generally speaking, everyone-- purported "spiritual Masters" included -- carries an unconscious conviction that we acquire an identity based on events.

This belief is so absolutely fundamental and reflexive that it is barely even questioned. It underlies almost everything that takes place in life, as though it were a natural force, such as gravity, that we must take for granted. It's so subtle, furthermore, that we usually don't even notice it.

On the surface, it seems impossible to separate our identity from events. After all, without context, ...without a story line, without the achievements and the failures, what are we? As Laurie Anderson put it in her song "Big Science" (from the album of the same name, 1982): "I think we should put some mountains over here. Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?"

Conversely, remember the verse from the Bible in which God told Moses to tell the Israelites "I am that I am." Here we encounter identity divorced from events. Never mind that God meets Moses on a mountain; the event, and the context, are ultimately unimportant. The sense of identity, alone, is the essence of God's message.

By now, I may know something about having an identity separate from events, but at the same time, perhaps I should admit to myself that I don't know very much.

It is possible to understand this question partially, and in fragments, and at the same time see that there is a possibility of understanding it in a much more complete way that I do not currently understand.

Who are we? We repeat the well-known mantra of Gurdjieffians: "I am. I wish to be."

But who are we?

Are we what we make ourselves?
Are we what events make us?
Are we simply, nothing more and nothing less, what God makes us?

The Zen Buddhists place this question at the heart of the practice as well: a man is asked to see his face--to know his identity--before he was born.

Gurdjieff's discussion of "identification" is about exactly this habit of acquiring our identity through events. The event takes place, and it defines who we are. We are an Olympic swimmer who wins (or loses.) We are a banker who makes or loses millions. We are a father, a mother, a businesswoman, and so on, each role defined and measured by perceived success or failure. Each one of these vocations or professions, in the hands of ego and personality, becomes a form which is co-opted in an attempt to create a value for ourselves. (The value of learning to play a role in the Work is related to the idea of fulfilling these functions without identifying, that is, learning to more clearly distinguish one's essential identity from outward life.)

Most of us rarely, if ever, get the chance to see what we would be worth if we were truly stripped naked and had nothing-- which is, in fact, exactly what is required if one ever wishes to see anything real.

Victor Frankl, unlike most of us, had the opportunity to find out what that is like when he was sent to a concentration camp during the second world war. Even when herded into a cattle car, heading towards what everyone knew might be death itself, he and his fellow prisoners discovered that they still had value. It is on the order of revelation -- identity comes before events. "I am" exists before circumstances arise, it does not need circumstances to validate it. Maybe this was the message God was trying to give to Moses and his people.

If I examine my fears closely enough, I see that every single one of them is based on some form of presumption that the events are what make me what I am. That mechanism is perpetually in motion, even though I know it's faulty. And here is another potential angle on Ashiata Shiemash's " the terror of the situation." We all have these little tiny fear generators in us that are perpetually trying to undermine our inherent, original Being.

Personality, it seems, has constructed itself strictly in the interests of parasitizing and perhaps even destroying our essence.

Why is that? Why is all of this necessary?

"Experts" from all walks of life will tell you that they can explain this problem and what causes it. Priests, psychologists, and gurus all have one answer or another. But no matter what you come up with, there is no definitive answer, and no "cure" short of an intimate and ongoing self-examination. Even that, of course, is not enough, but it's a start.

Without the proper nurturing of essence, we cannot get any closer to "I am."

Of course, I speak as though we were able to nurture our essence, and if we could do that we could "do." This kind of nurture only takes place with the assistance of forces that we do not have dominion over. Perhaps the best way of expressing it would be to say that the nurture of essence can only take place if the loving hand of God extends itself to us. ...Others, of course, might put it differently. But however you choose to say it, we need help.

The greatest mistake we make from day to day, perhaps, is in believing that our identity and our validity spring from events and circumstances, rather than from breath and sensation.

If we begin to see that breath is identity and sensation is validity, then perhaps we begin to know what it is to be an organism that lives, rather than a machine that exists.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this interesting post. For me it brings a fresh view concerning the possibility of what might be a life lived closer to the reality of who I am. It seems to me identity is 'in movement', that is an active being that has an attention-a three centered attention is an individual who has that particular identity. Furthermore earlier your mention of types, their true roles and the need of everyone's participation together as service to something beyond connects me to the other and a work that could be actually lived.

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