One of the key understandings in mystical thought is the idea of identity. Words morph their meaning over time, and identity is a classic case.
We might think of the police knowing the ‘identity’ of a person they want to speak to. We would find it in fashion magazines for both genders in the context of a garment to reinforce our identity in line with a progressive trend.
Both these show how the word identity means either a unique description or a close bond through some sort of ‘mapping’ of properties by adoption. The central theme is that of a chosen closeness. If I buy a new car and feel very good when I drive it, I’m identifying with an object that adds to my identity and makes me feel good.
The car analogy is a good one – and a very good way of studying one of the 21st century’s fault lines – in the sense that, if ten miles down the road, someone deliberately races past our new sports car, we may well feel aggrieved that we have been deliberately ‘slighted’ and that our inflated identity, centred on the car, has been wounded.
At such times, if we could step back and imagine we were flying above our shiny new car and watching the whole drama unfold, we might be a little ashamed by how we chased after the errant teenager and nearly caused a crash by proving that our new vehicle was superior.
It’s easy to insert the word ‘ego’, here. We all know the difference between driving our shiny new car and the theoretical view from above it. In the latter we are detached because we can see a bigger picture. In the former we are somehow compressed into a smaller space where the red mist of anger is a frequent consequence.
Most drivers have had that ‘red mist’ moment; particularly men, with their overdoses of testosterone. Young male drivers have an horrific accident rate precisely because, after yearning to drive for years, they suddenly get wheels and have to prove to the world that they have always been a better driver than anyone else… or, at least, their mates.
When recalling full story of accidents of this nature, the accused often say they did not know what came over them; the red mist descended and they went to war. Going to war is a good link to what’s underneath of all this, and we go to war for our country – because it’s a primary part of our identity.
The path to self-knowledge begins with such constructs. When I see that my stupid reaction to the teenager overtaking me was a reduction in consciousness, despite the elation beforehand, I might begin to investigate how such identification is at the root of many of the negative things I do, and the cause of much of the energy loss that I might suffer on a daily basis.
This type of identification is inherited from lower levels of our evolution – but not too far back. In anything but an age of true plenty, the possession of objects of visible status was a sign of rank and personal worth. You were important if you had them. Modern advertising works very hard to keep this alive in our societies, and the cult of celebrity is an even worse example of how someone here today and gone tomorrow can be all but worshipped; as can everything they are seen to drive and wear…
When we have to add objects to our selves for that good feeling, we are showing that the self does not have enough worth. We want the object because it will signal to the world that ‘I’ have grown along some axis of importance. In this way we see that much of what we are taught, by education, by family and by employment, is based upon an inherited sense of worth that is not related to the unique and precious self with which we came into the world and this life. That self is taught that it can feel ‘bigger’ if it acquires ‘classy’ things. But such objects do not actually make us feel a lot better – In fact the gain is often way out of proportion to their true cost.
There is a paradox at work here, and the shock generated when this is seen can be, and should be, life-changing…
Here’s the first part of the shock: the things we use to define ourselves need not be physical objects at all. We can be attached to our likes and dislikes, our hatred, our politics, our favourite food… or even our suffering. Identification, seen from the most powerful height above that speeding car, is a label saying ‘this is me’. The flow of life’s events, over which we have little or no control constantly brings us up a filmstrip of images, smells, tastes and other sensations. This filmstrip was originally seen by us the infant as a passing show. We did not attach ourselves to its display until we became more conscious of the link between ‘me’ and that filmstrip. But, and here’s the key, we had to be taught that – by others whose lives were already bound up with the film. Once tied in this way, any change to what is being ‘viewed’ is capable of taking us into sadness, anger, hatred or a dozen other negative states.
The two perspectives are radically different: one is that life is happening; the other that life is happening to us.
To break free of this, whilst still retaining the hard-won discrimination of adulthood, is the work of mystical development, under whatever banner. To break the link with the filmstrip’s negative power we need to open up a space within ourselves and move into it, in the sense that, from then on, we watch both the filmstrip and our own reaction to it – without allowing identification to take place. We watch the flashy car, we register it as a quality thing, but we do not allow that habitual effect of ‘yes, that’s me’ or ‘I would be a better me if I had it’. We do this because we know the real value of an awakened Self.
To do this is to be at odds with the world, to a certain extent, though that can be viewed with humour, too. But in a time when the world appears to be on the edge of insanity, might not being at a slight angle to it be the saner option?
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost supervised correspondence courses.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com
©Stephen Tanham, Silent Eye School of Consciousness.