Week 8 - Who am I: The Question of Identity

This week we listened to a talk by Jack Kornfield called "Who Am I? The Question of Identity” about how the practice of loving awareness allows a profound shift of identity from a small limited sense of self to spacious wisdom.

Here is the excerpt we read from Andrew Olendski’s book “The Unlimiting Mind:”

Of all the nouns we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than “myself.” It consists of a collage of still images— name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships— which are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another. The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It’s not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled together and transient as everything else.  Self is a process.  Self is a verb.

So: There is indeed a self, but this self is as impermanent, constructed, and dependent upon changing conditions as everything else. If one clings desperately to a particular definition of oneself, as so many of us tend to do, then one is sure to suffer difficulties. To lose something you are deeply attached to would cause distress for anybody. But if instead one can learn to be non-attached to a particular notion of oneself, and become able to open to new iterations of oneself, new possibilities of becoming a different person in various ways, then the lack of rigid self-identification is more a blessing than a curse. The person who was traumatized in the past need not be the same person who may be free of the impact of that trauma in the future. There may well be a person here now who feels unworthy or unloved, incapable of happiness, but that same person may be nowhere to be seen even a few moments from now. The person deeply caught in cycles of addiction today may be just a character in a story told by a healthier person tomorrow. The profound plasticity of self, if it can be seen for oneself in the moment-to-moment flow of experience, can be a spectacularly liberating experience.

Questions

1. Does this teaching of not self feel threatening to you or liberating?  Why?

2. What are some of the identities that you would use to describe yourself?  How does it feel to let them go?

3. What are some things that you believed about yourself that  affected the outcome of a situation?

Practices

1. Try practicing the Joseph Goldstein meditation: Busy Life/No Self.  It consists of three separate three minute meditations.  You can do one or all or break them up however you like.  Reflect on what this experience was like.  

2. Make a list of roles that make up your “identity” - spouse, mother/father, homeowner, career, etc., or qualities that you would use to describe yourself.  Do any of these feel like who you actually are? 

3. Look in the mirror for an extended period, trying not to see yourself in the automatic way you usually do.  Instead see the disparate elements that make up your face, hair and body.  Do any of these feel like who you are?  Do any of them look the same as they did say 10 or 20 years ago?