Previously I wrote two apparently unrelated articles. The first was on Waking Up, which was basically about how clinging causes pain. The second was on the perceptions of others.
I will now connect those two articles using the thread of personal identity (I also use terms like self, self-hood and self-image to mean the same thing). In this article I will define identity, discuss its role in our unhappiness, relate it to clinging & the perceptions of others, and discuss how to handle it in order to be happier.
On some level I exist. If I stub my toe, I feel pain. Additionally, if others stub their toes, I do not feel their pain. There is clearly something unique about me in this regard. However, if someone asks who I am, I may reply with my job, my attitudes, my achievements, even milestones in my life. None of these things are me; they are things I do or believe. However, I manage to identify with them so strongly, that they become part of my idea of who I am, my self-image, my created identity.
This expanded identity causes most of my pain because now if any of it is challenged, I take it as a personal attack and react with fear, anger, worry, etc… For instance, the raw experience of breaking my leg is painful enough, but when I add my “identity” as an athlete to the mix, the pain is magnified. Now I angst over what my broken leg means for ME the athlete. I wonder if I can still run as well after it heals. I worry about the conditioning I will lose while I’m healing, and so on. Or take beliefs; if I identify with beliefs — no matter how noble — then when others attack them, I feel personally attacked. Or take a common insult; being called an idiot hurts more than a physical injury — a case where nothing (words) attacks nothing (my self image) yet causes great pain.
My happiest times involved complete absorption in what I was doing — when I forgot myself. Likewise, my worst times were when I was the most self-conscious. In fact, any really painful event that I can recall involved a very strong element of self-consciousness; humiliation comes to mind.
Note: Identifying with something is not the same as caring. I can care without identifying. I can value something and strive for it without making it part of my self-image. Not identifying does not mean abandoning values.
Identity may actually be a more fundamental drive than happiness! When faced with the choice of happiness or preserving a self-image, many choose identity and therefore deny themselves obvious avenues to happiness, like dropping pain-causing attitudes, making significant life changes or letting go of the past. I’ve had the sad misfortune of directly witnessing this.
Identity invites clinging. Part of it is via worry over what events mean for my self-image. Part of it is The Narrative. My identity is built out of my thoughts which includes a running commentary about where I am and what it means. I’m the guy who at the age of 5 did so and so, at the age of 20 had some dramatic experience which “defined him” and so on. To stop clinging is to abandon the narrative on which identity is built, and this can seem like a type of death.
Since identity is a mental construct, its existence or absence is up to me, and at times I spontaneously abandon it. However, it’s often treated as something real, so I want to tackle that. There are 3 (not necessarily related) angles from which to approach identity: as a stable entity, as the experiencer and as the chooser. Each one of these can be cast into doubt — if not totally undermined — quite easily.
If the self is stable then it could never have changed throughout my life, otherwise there would have been a point in my life when I literally did not exist. So I think of all the things that I consider “me” and ask myself if they were the same when I was a child. If it changed, then clearly it is not me. Obviously my job, social position, thoughts, attitudes, appearance and even memories have all changed. What’s left?
If the self is that which is aware of experience, then I cannot witness the self; so I look at every experience, memory, etc…. The very fact that I can witness it means it’s not me — and this includes the “sense of self”. What’s left?
If I think the self is that which chooses, then I contemplate free will. A scientific worldview seems to preclude it as free will requires something to stand outside material interactions. Yet my body and brain are material, so how does something arise that’s independent of that? However, if this is not convincing then I just ask myself if I would have made the same choices, hold the same attitudes, etc… if my environment growing up were different. Would I really be thinking these thoughts, writing these things if I grew up in another country, in a bad neighborhood, or to abusive parents? I don’t believe so. I realize that even “my” most private thoughts were at least shaped — if not determined — by this. I see how people try to get children out of bad environments before they join gangs and realize they too are implicitly acknowledging determinism. If I truly was free, then nothing could constrain my choice. So there is no chooser or at least a constrained chooser that is a part of the environment. What’s left?
In all the above cases, the one thing that’s left as a candidate is consciousness itself, or an observer. But even this is rife with problems; how do I explain unconsciousness, like falling asleep without dreaming, or even things I don’t remember? Heck, how much of my life DO I remember?
Yet, this still seems like the best candidate (which is saying something). But this is something I infer. After all, I am not aware of an observer; I am only aware of stuff, and it’s from all this stuff (including a very special type of “stuff” I’ll get to in a moment) that I infer a something that’s aware of stuff. Basically, I could just say “reality” or “all” and it would be every bit as true. Everything is an experience. Maybe the experience is from a “first person” perspective, or maybe it’s the experience of interpreting marks made on a paper along with the experience of related thoughts. But this is the universe, and nothing else is experienced; it’s just inference.
This leaves me with a few choices. There is no self, the self is the observer, or the status of the self is unknown but it’s not the stuff I normally took it to be. All these leave a much smaller self which is less prone to attack and the resulting negativity.
Earlier, I mentioned that inference from stuff can lead to a belief in a self, and there was a very special type of “stuff” that played a big role. That stuff is other people. I observe others, note similarities with me, and infer similar consciousness. Once I do that however, my perspective of my consciousness as reality is demolished for now I acknowledge there are others out there with their own perspective. This in turn provides fuel for arguing that I am also an observer. My sense of self is affected by others and this may explain why my greatest irritations are in dealing with others. I’m more upset when someone hurts me than when an inanimate object hurts me. I find it easy to be “self-less” when alone than with others. In all these cases, it may simply be that my identity is stronger in that situation, and hence I experience more pain.
So I can be happier (or if you prefer, less unhappy) if I diminish my experience of my identity. I can do this in a few ways. I can do the exercises above (wherein I dismissed all candidates for identity); the key is doing it rather than reading about it. I can also simply watch whatever I experience without judgment. As long as I’m watching, I’m feeling a separation from the experience. I can see that even “my thoughts” and body are not really “me”; I feel like I’m watching someone else. The key here is to keep watching and not cling or flee, for to do so is to imply that this experience is “me” or attacking “me” and I’m back to the self again. It’s ironic that to separate from the self, I have to be willing to accept everything, including thoughts that may seem contrary to this.
At first glance, it’s odd that most of my pain may be nothing more than an identity crisis, yet on deeper reflection this seems sound. The more I look at it, the more I think my happiness is inversely proportional to my identity; or to put it another way, identity and pain might just be synonyms.
Before closing, I want to point out an apparent contradiction; the notion of a “universal self” as in Hinduism. In Hinduism, one identifies with everything and experience bliss as a result. This seems like a huge identity, but this is not incompatible with the above. The key is that this identity does not come into conflict with anything, for it is everything, whereas the identity I normally adopt is big, but not all encompassing, so it conflicts with a great deal. So one can demolish identity so there’s nothing to be attacked, or expand it so that it absorbs all as part of itself — including potential attackers.
There’s a surprising amount of work that criticizes personal identity. Not all of it agrees with the above, but my concern is with undermining the pain caused by identity rather than full agreement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention David Yerle’s blogs on the subject (and his blogs in general). I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this article came shortly after he wrote his latest on identity; in fact, his comments have often gotten me to think and provided fuel for at least one other blog.
A major theme in Buddhism is about undermining identity to find happiness, and a good treatment of this can be found here.
David Hume also denied the existence of a self.
Ken Wilber’s No Boundary is all about eliminating the boundaries on ourselves which cause pain.
Finally, Derek Parfit has done quite a bit of work on personal identity.