Several years ago I spent 9 days meditating alone in a dark retreat. Not just dark: utter dark. In a basement room of an empty house I covered all the windows and lights and put tape over all the cracks. I had a cooler with one peanut butter sandwich for each day, pieces of cheese, some salad, cookies, and fruit. I tied a rope between the room and the toilet in the bathroom down the hall so I could find it even if I was in an altered or confused condition. In that dark room I experienced a wild range of states of mind. Having disconnected from all choice, responsibility, and role, in one sense I became like a child. I encountered utter vulnerability and helplessness but also a roaming, iridescent wonder. I was visited by all the lingering interpersonal conflicts and resentments in my life, and I struggled to disadhere from the sticky heat of blame and judgement.
There were times when truly frightening visions formed out of the blackness—remnants of recent sci-fi I’d watched—that tested and perhaps tempered my ability to stay grounded in sanity. There were surprisingly powerful currents of devotion and humility. Most impactful was the contrast between an agitated, petty, insecure, defensive mind and a lucidity of presence. During and after spells of turbulent emotion and deeply settled sessions of sitting meditation, I felt held, supported, and cared for by an inarguably kind Universe.
I emerged from that retreat feeling closer to the essence of what I am, yet also having enlarged and energized the question, “Who am I?” Imagine you were by yourself in a lightless place. No reflecting surfaces to see your face by, not too many thoughts going on, untethered from memory, having a reprieve from fantasy. What would constitute your identity? A Zen teaching says, “The dark makes all words one.”
Dear reader, please allow me to be direct: Who are you? What’s the unadorned, inner experience of being you? A kaleidoscope of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions? An experience of your body and its pleasures and pains? Is it the experience of having thoughts, feelings, perceptions, having a body and its pleasures and pains? This very sense of being someone—what is the most raw form of that? Sensing? Thinking? Breath? A beating heart? What’s the feeling of being you?
Try and put some words to it. Maybe it has various layers or textures—shifting, liquid-like, subtle. How could you describe them? Even where words seem inadequate, make an effort to find some. Tap into your poetic sensibility, need be. Or speak with matter of factness—there is something to being a somebody, so we should be able to say something about this somebodiness.
Here’s something I can say: It ain’t easy being somebody. I’ve always felt it like an unbidden thing, having been born, bound to this body and stuck with my mind—without, as far as I can remember, having a choice in the matter. I remember in my pubescent, hyper-hormonal, libidinally tortured times, I would with wet eyes curse G_D for having thrust me into an utter confusion of self-consciousness, desire, and aloneness. If we knew before hand and had a choice about whether to dive into this identity crisis, I wager the world population would be smaller.
‘I·den·ti·ty: the fact of being who or what a person or thing is’- the definition makes the fact of being who or what a person is seem evident and unarguable. I am arguing that it’s not so evident and unarguable and that everyone in modern times is born into a crisis of identity. We do not necessarily slide into easy affiliations or simple categories or self-definitions we can slide into like a well-fitting coat. It can take until middle-age or beyond, after much reflection, struggle and friction against internal and external narratives and ideas before we settle into a clear sense of who we are and to whom we belong. Though often presented as a contemporary persons burden of individuality, this identity crisis can be revisioned and lived into as a boon and an opportunity. The question ‘who am i?” may rise up from our amplified individualism yet it can also rise beyond an egocentric quandary and bloom into a new and,I believe, vitally necessary, border crossing of belonging.
In this chapter we’re going to explore the personal experience of identity and the ways that we do identifying. A lot of what we read in current discourse is a third person perspective on identity and its social consequences. That’s vital. But here we’re diving into a first person and second person contemplation of these issues based in the good news vision of the meditation traditions—the heart-mind is profoundly, even wondrously, malleable, and we can be prime shapers of ours.
So we’ll look closely at the internal act of identifying ourselves and others, and the granular consequences of this act, inside and out. Identity is both something we are doing and something being done to us. This doing can be done and received differently. We’ll touch on the intricate nuances of defining persons, as well as the intimate interdependencies between peoples’ perspectives on themselves and what they perceive in others.
I will be inviting you into questions. Most of us have been trained to think that the point of a question is finding an answer. (The right one, of course.) The right answer = approval, survival, and success. Sex, safety, and chocolate! I’d like for you to enter these questions with me to spark curiosity and curiosity’s afterglow. I’d like to inquire with you into that which we rarely inquire into. I believe an unquestioning stance towards our mind and life is a key element in a diminishment of the joy and richness of our existence.
These are not shallow, casual questions. So as you read and encounter them, I invite you to stop reading for a few minutes and spark the question into your open mind, asking from that part of you that these matters of identity matter to. And spark it again. And simply let the question reverberate. Perhaps you revisit it. Perhaps one of the questions haunts you or sticks to your ribs. Asking to spark curiosity, trusting the effect of that. We’ll use the power of inquiry to enter and explore these ‘facts’ of self and self-definition directly, lucidly and fresh.
With touching into and communicating the intimate feeling of being you, much depends on when you’re asked. Or perhaps, since what follows addresses more than time, much depends on context. We are inter-activated. Being with one person brings forth one part of us, being with someone else another. The felt experience of identity arises relationally. Particular manifestations and presentations of ourselves are pulled forth in tandem with the moment, it’s mandates, moods and myriad presences. When spending time with your family, for example, the memories you have with them going way back shape forth your sense of identity differently than when you are with a new connection. This is part of the excitement of travel or dating—to some degree we are being known newly and knowing others newly, and the thus the feeling of ourselves and others can be more lively.
Whatever clarity, confusion, or fidelity you have to being you—where does that come from? Do you decide who you are and who you are not? Did your family decide? Does what family you are born into decide? In the context of culture, does your skin color, sexual organs, national origin, religious heritage, tell you who you are? We’re identified regardless of how we identify ourselves. Other people are particular somebodies, so therefore we’re a particular somebody. We know ourselves in contrast to the myriad others our distinction-detecting minds detect. Identity causes identity. Someone identifies or is identified, for example, as being Syrian, 2nd generation American, female, queer, Muslim, an artist—we see that and hear that, and because we swim in the ocean of identities, it’s reflected back to us and we cannot escape self-definition. Or can we? And do we want to?
Is there even a question of who you are apart from the activity of contrasting between you, your people, your beliefs and values and other individuals, their people, and their beliefs and values? When you are alone with no other people to reflect back a sense of yourself, when a moment of quiet mind dawns, or when you are consumed within an uncivilized landscape, is identity relevant? How relevant? It’s a hardly asked question because we’ve been a somebody since the first time we said ‘me,’ perhaps even before. It’s the air we’ve always breathed and the water we’ve always swam in, the drama and dilemma of personness.
There may be times when our concepts of identity become irrelevant, like baggage for a journey we’re actually not on. When is it necessary to stand firm in ownership of an identity, to embody our best of this or that label or to defend it from another’s idea of what it represents? It seems clear there are times to challenge, denounce, or try to influence the ideas others have about us or the groups in which we belong. How do we discern these times?
I remember myself as a kid, in a moment when some other kids were making fun of Jewish people. I kept silent in the midst of the innocent meanness and narrowness. I’m of Jewish heritage, and I would never tell people that I was. I was afraid of disrupting harmony. I had no Jewish friends. I was afraid of rejection and anti-Semitic violence. My Mother and Grandmother lived in fear of attacks from white supremacists, and that fear had been transmitted to me. I didn’t have the skills or courage to speak up for myself or my people. I wasn’t even sure, and am not 100% sure now, what it means to feel or think ‘these are my people’.
When I was 8 years old, my closest friend’s sister told me I was going to Hell because I was Jewish and not a Christian. It was troubling and confusing, though ultimately clarifying. I learned something about emotional trauma caused by narrow dogma. That incident not only made religious identity repulsive to me; for better or worse, it made all identity repulsive.
I didn’t understand at that time what it means to have the option to conceal, reveal, or inhabit an identity—the option I usually had in relation to Jewishness. But now as an adult, more clearly seeing the societal nets my BIPOC brothers and sisters have no choice but to live within, I see this ‘option’ as a nuanced, complicated, and complicating privilege. Sometimes concealing or revealing who we are—or lacking that option—is a matter of life or death. We are continually asked, Who are you? Sometimes it’s verbalized by a human mouth and sometimes not verbalized, the curiosities and concludings of others brewing kinda privately. We suspect we’re being defined and identified because we know our own tendency to define and identify. And yet, in a broader sense, the life situations we encounter continually ask us who we are, and people can’t help but answer with their actions of body, speech or thought. Our response to each moment enacts who we are in that moment. Situations emerge as paths, like mirrored corridors, where whichever response we choose (or don’t actually choose because of autonomic habit), present something of ourselves to ourselves and something of ourselves to the world. Desired or not, this a place of fertile self-discovery.
I went through a period of my life where I was continually responding to some of the people I lived with from a tight-hearted, don’t-want-to-be-bothered place in me. That place in me, that person in me, was sad, afraid and not attended to. Whatever maturity and kindness I had was locked away in a vault I couldn’t access. Ideas I didn’t know I had about myself—such as being awake, compassionate, et al—were revealed and put into perspective. I was waking up with judgements circulating and vexing my mind like a defective mantra. My body would contract, my jaw stiffen and my shoulder bones and breastplate seemed to curl inward when I would talk to the people I was in conflict with. The resentments that had taken up residence in my clenched jaw and rigid chest of course came with me into those conversations so that no matter how diplomatically I tried to speak, something else was being said. I couldn’t shake it loose. There was a wide gap between what I touched in meditation and who I was in certain interpersonal situations.
For all the pain of those days, they were revelatory and generous. In hindsight I saw a wider bandwidth of who I am, who I was being, and who I wanted and want to be. I wrote a one-line poem that I tacked next to my bedroom door to remind me of the dilemma and appreciate the process I was interpersonally and vocationally woven into: “All the times you didn’t choose love.”