A Case of Identity

On Wednesday, November 28, 2018, our Wednesday-evening meditation group focused on who we are.

On a trolley ride in West Philly, I stepped into a Winter holiday oasis (see picture). Its riders were impacted: More so than usual riders smiled as they stepped into the car, they were taking pictures, strangers were talking to each other. There is a lot of potential “mileage” from the metaphor of this simple, effective transformation of this trolley car … such as karma, with the intention to bring joy to others by decorating the car as the source of HUGE impacts to innumerable lives including the riders and people who the riders interact with later, including my sharing this story with you! But also it can be used to illustrate a point about how each of us view our “self.” Like a trolley car, the self is made up of constituent parts – Is the core of the trolley the wheels, the lights, the seats, the floor, the ceiling, the horn? Where is the enduring essence of the trolley car? For us, how do we make choices about the parts of our Self to most identify with, cultivating the inner lights shining out of the intention to connect, to be present, and to bring love?!?

The concept of “self” is a fundamental part of the Buddhist exploration of our lives and what brings contentment. It is so fundamental because who I think I am has a profound influence on the choices I make, how I show up in relationships, and how much turmoil & unease I experience in my life. I/Me/Mine concepts are at the root of anger (“you did not treat ME with respect”), greed “I want more for ME”), and hatred (“they are different than ME”).

First let’s revisit the overall principle that the Buddha proposed that my contentment is much more a product of how I respond to the events of my life than the events themselves. In short each one of us will have a share of the eight worldly concerns of gain, loss, pain, pleasure, fame, insignificance, praise, and blame. They will happen. The major question is how will I receive them, how will I think about them, how will I respond to them.

The invitation in Buddhism that we explored the other night is to consider my concept of my self as just that: a concept! It is a construct made up of many components to which I affix a useful label: “me!”. The construct is a creation of evolution, arising from the impact of an organism having a sense of self to orient its energies and attention towards its protection, its sustenance, its abundance, its recognition. All of those things had survival and reproductive advantages so they were retained as parts of our human incarnation that each one of us enjoys.

And luckily each one of us has the faculties of mindfulness to explore that concept of self that many simply take for granted. By exploring the concept, seeing its lack of unity, inspecting its multiple constituent parts, and reflecting on which ones are most fundamentally me, I begin to notice both subtle and profound shifts in my orientation to the world and other people.

With systematic reflection, we can choose to go deeper past the superficial layers of “self” with a small “s” such as roles, appearance, beliefs & views, personality traits, intelligence. As we go deeper there is a sense of a “Self” that is in addition and independent of those other constituent parts. It is the part that we intentionally develop through meditation by cultivating friendly awareness, the awareness that holds the content of our lives (including its perceptions, thoughts & emotions) and is a source of love & compassion.

How to bring this realization into our daily lives? A daily meditation practice will strengthen your experience of the distinction between the knower and the known. A daily meditation practice plus systematic study of Buddhist wisdom will clarify that form & appearance, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are all content that are transitory whereas our awareness is the container in which these contents are known. By choosing to invest in ongoing systematic reflection like what we did together on Wednesday that shift will continue to be reinforced and it will be a primary source of influence for a healthy relationship to self and others!

Have you seen the movie “Memento”? If so, what does its main character have to do with illustrating the various sources of self?

The Dalai Lama published a clear and practical article on this subject.

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