The Prison Cell of Identity

In these times of so-called identity politics and the myriad ways human beings seek psychological safety in numbers, it is time to take a good look at oneself. (Provided we’re one of those that seek freedom and have an inkling that this prison cell we find ourselves in is made up of our own thoughts, ideas and beliefs, of course.) Welcome to the living hell of identity.

In the end, identity is just the sum total of all the ways I see myself as a “someone.” It is the collection of ways I describe myself to others and to myself in order to create some sort of semblance and order to the chaos that is human existence. Who would I be if I couldn’t describe myself in accordance to values, politics, nationality, ethnicity, clothing, music, class, or all the things that I dislike and that AREN’T who I am – all the things I resist and am opposed to?

True spirituality brings this whole house of cards down; And real exploration of the self is to bring a sledgehammer to the walls that cement us into the beliefs that make up our identity and how we see the world. It is the willingness to question everything and hold nothing as holy. If the overarching experience of one’s path isn’t disappearance and more disappearance, less and less knowing, it’s not moving towards freedom. For freedom is absence: absence of knowing, of truth, of identity and of self.

For a lot of people, spirituality is to find a new comfy identity since they weren’t happy with the old one. For most of us, life and the world is horribly tricky, and rightly so, for existing in accordance with the expectations of a society that is just a huge collection of individuals all trying to fit in and be liked and getting things their own way at the same time, is impossible. It’s impossible to conform and please everyone, as so one becomes very displeased with oneself. To the mind, the solution is to only associate with those that “get it” – whatever that means to each individual – and to cushion oneself into this false sense of security while trying to prevent the outside world from penetrating it.

I reject this old belonging to the “normal” world and seek refuge somewhere, this time in spirituality. And lo and behold, I find a great truth about liberation or about the spiritual heart or yoga or Buddhism or I get born again! Hallelujah! Now I finally belong somewhere, and I feel safe! And here I stay until I die, holding on for dear life to the great master who espoused truth as it actually is, who gave the real answer, who told me how to live, what rules to follow and what the world is made from. I guess I never cared about living and about finding out for myself. I was only looking for a nicer prison cell to hunker down in. “This is me! I’m a yogi now! Real nice, for my mind is full of ultimate truth that I can preach so everyone can move nicely along to the Golden Age of peace and co-existence!”

As a non-Buddhist Buddhist would say: just more bondage.

A much more subtle form of identity arises through resistance. It is not my clinging to what I like that holds me down, but my opposition. This is so much harder to spot because there seems to be less intention in it, and in many ways it veils itself in an idea of being independent, which is an important development on the path to freedom. But in the background, our opposition to society, to certain politics, to systems of governance, taxation, education and on and on it goes means we become susceptible to counter-stories. If it goes counter to that which I don’t like, I like it. The enemy of my mind’s enemy is my mind’s friend.

And, boy, is there a lot of that going on these days. So many seem capable of believing anything they hear as long as it speaks negatively about The Great Satan they hold in their mind. Whole ideologies are born out of pure resistance. Nationalisms grow out of resistance. Even diets and lifestyles grow out of opposition to some concept of that which doesn’t work. Conspiracy theories are just a continuation of this very mechanic, for a lot of human beings seem incapable of independent thought when in the grip of strong fear and anger. And so I build my prison cell of identity from all the stuff I believe in, which is based on all that I fear, such as evil people and evil intentions (or spiritual bullshit that isn’t based on science!) The endless politics of our very own minds... “I might be willing to question everything, but this is true, I swear! I read it online!”

Oh, this nice cell I live in with such lovely furniture and painted in just my favourite colours (such as shades of grey that is the fashion at the moment). Identity goes on and on and true individuality is just another word spoken from a thought that seems true.

And hey, then awakening happens at some point when that sledgehammer is wielded strongly enough, and now I might find myself with another identity: I’m nobody. “It’s true, I had that experience and now I know! There’s no reality, it’s all empty, it’s all meaningless…”

The mind’s machinations are endless, and the journey is ever fresh. Do I paint the prison cell in colours that I like, or do I bring it all down every time I’ve built myself a new one?

(7 February 2017)

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Only I can undertake the journey that brings the soul home