Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Identity is an elusive concept. How often do you ever stop to consider
‘Who am I?’
Try for a moment to really focus on this question. Try asking it once, and then again, and again. What answers arise?
Are you your name? Are you your job description? Perhaps you might say ‘‘I am a mother’, or ‘I am a brother’, or a wife, a lover, a daughter, a son.
It’s actually a profoundly mind-bending question to answer and as you may have found, the more you keep asking it, the more and more tricky things get.
I was at a thought-provoking event this week where the topic was exactly this – ‘Who Am I?’, given by friend and mentor, Andrew Wallas. He asked for a volunteer from the audience to come and sit opposite him, setting an important part of the process out from the beginning, that they were both required to look deeply into each other’s eyes and try not to look away at any point. He began by asking simple questions such as “Can you hear my voice?” and ‘Is my voice clear to you?”, to which the reply was always, yes.
But then he began to ask questions such as “Who is hearing my voice?” and “Who are you?”. Each time, the audience member found it more and more difficult to answer. “Me!” often came the reply. It was awkward to watch because we all knew that these simple questions were actually incredibly difficult to answer. The more it continued, the more the audience member struggled to dig that little bit deeper – and as I imagined, each time she did – she took her eyes off her subject, just for a moment, breaking the circuit they both agreed to hold. Almost always under scrutiny, we are never who we think we are and the time the sequence finished, we all knew the point Andrew was making - when we really begin to examine ourselves, we are nothing, or you could say, even more poignantly, No Thing.
What I found that quite wonderful was the analogy of identity as a drop of water before it enters the ocean. The minute a drop is no longer a drop - but part of the ocean - is the point it loses its identity. But what it gains as a result, is feeling more a part of the whole.
I felt a similar discomfort to that audience member at a wellbeing festival a few years ago. I walked into a tepee and was asked to sit down opposite a man I’d never met before and look deeply into his eyes for the duration of the exercise. This time it was for 30 mins each (which felt like a lifetime). The only question we could ask over and over was ‘Who are you?”. I was not prepared for this at all and felt foolish, silly and wished the ground would swallow me up. For most of us, we just can’t imagine our lives without all the things that make up our identity – family, friends, cars, houses, jobs, partners, hobbies, personality. Yet it’s a complete illusion, because when we look for our identity, it doesn’t exist. And that’s too frightening a prospect for most of us to shine a light on.
Our DIY Prison
We feel safe, yet we also confine ourselves with our identity. In Western culture (as with many), we’ve been conditioned to rely upon the external world for our sense of identity. And in doing so, we give away an enormous amount of personal power and responsibility. We of course create these for understandable reasons over our lifetime – often to help us cope with the world around us. Yet so often we define ourselves through a very limited number of roles, or traits – swapping them around, depending on who we are with and presenting the best (or the worst) sides in order to fit in, protect, or preserve ourselves. As Andrew Wallas said in his talk
“We’re each living in the prisons we’ve created for ourselves – yet we never stop to even check if the doors are open!”.
What prison have you built for yourself, with the restrictive identities you’ve created? Have you checked to see if the door of your prison is perhaps open? Could you walk out? And if you did, would you seek to be the water drop entering the ocean, sensing the immense freedom as you let go of all that defines you? Or would you just walk through into yet another prison, another set of identities that keep restricting you, or feeding your ego?
What makes you forget yourself? What melts those prison walls so that you can walk freely upon this Earth? Do you twirl on the dancefloor on a Saturday night, or spend hours amongst the roses, meditate on mountains, walk among the trees of a great forest, or dive into the ocean in the early morning sunlight? What lights you up so much that you forget yourself? What takes you to that place where you become No Thing?
It has been said by the great sages who have passed through this world that we are beings of light – simply energy inhabiting a physical body. That our true selves, the one with no identityat all, exists somewhere deep, deep inside each of us, if only we slowed down for long enough to just experience what that feels like. Rather, we stay busy; burying ourselves beneath fears and learned behaviours.
So instead, what if you began to recognise your power without them? Could you find your true luminosity, your ability to transform from the water droplet into the deep ocean that exists within each one of us and begin to live your life less full of labels and restrictions, but instead with appreciation, potential, fulfillment and grace.