I’m studying Buddhism and am stuck on some concepts. Can you write about “Identity?”
The Concise Questioner
You have a name but you are not your name. Your name applies-to and travels-with a certain consciousness that is moving through various states of being by attaching experience after experience. You are like a river. Your total capacity expands as you move through your lifetime. Sometimes dull flats, other times roaring rapids, but all of these various experiences are one river with one name and you are all of it. That river’s journey is your life.
When I lived overseas there was a little noodle restaurant I liked to go to. I would often have lunch there with a Philosophy Professor. One day I was listening to a group of students behind me. They were having an animated conversation in Japanese, but every now and then one of them would drop in the English word identity. I asked the Professor about this and he explained to me that the Japanese were Buddhists and therefore had a more fluid idea of identity than Westerners, and that meant they had no need for a word for it.
When I asked how it was possible to have no concept of identity he simply replied, “if I take a bucket to a river and fill it up, have I captured the river?”
“I think I’m going to need a little more clarification than that.”
He shifted his body around on his stool to face me more directly. “Would you say that you and I have become friends through our meetings here?” I agreed that we had become friends. “Would you say that you are friends with The Fishman?”
The Fishman. He was an angry, rude, mean-spirited man who was always at the restaurant when we were. He always ordered the same fish soup and he was always rude to everyone, so we had started calling him The Fishman and neither of us liked him at all. In fact we avoided him at all costs.
The Professor continued. “I agree, the Fishman is difficult. But imagine 10 years from now I write to you to say that I am coming to Canada and I wonder if you will pick me up at the airport, would you do so?”
“Of course I would! It would be great to see you.”
“Also imagine that in those intervening 10 years I began working on a big project at the University. Imagine that this project kept me at work very late and my wife began to complain about my hours away from our young children. And imagine that in avoiding her complaints I choose to stop for a beer on the way home from work. And imagine that I often return home drunk. And let us imagine that in my drunken state I mistreat my beautiful wife and she and the children feel compelled to escape from me. And imagine that the depression that follows leads me to lose my job and I become a bitter and angry person.”
I told him I was confident that wouldn’t happen. He continued. “Imagine that after leaving me, my wife is moving into her new home and she is struggling with something heavy. And imagine that it happens to be The Fishman who happens by and helps her. And her gratitude feels so good to him that he continues to do increasingly larger favours for her until he is acting very much like a husband would. And imagine that the gratitude of my wife and the affection of my children lead The Fishman to quit drinking and as a result he gets a promotion at work where he earns more money and can create a nicer life. And when he does, imagine that he asks my wife and children to move in with him, and because he is now kind and patient, they do.”
Again, I told him this all felt incredibly unlikely but I agreed it was possible, so for the sake of argument I went with it.
“Now Scott, imagine it is ten years from now and I am on the airplane. I am drinking too much because I am ashamed to meet you and tell you how my life has fallen apart. I consider lying to you. And to make matters worse, I look across the aisle of the airplane and just one row ahead of me sits The Fishman. He is smiling and happy as he flips through photos of my children. He is elated with joy while I am hostile and defeated. But the real question is, when the doors to the Customs Area opens and The Fishman and I walk out with our luggage in our hands, which one of us will you embrace as your friend?”
Ka-pow. I was thunderstruck. I suddenly understood the bucket in the river analogy. He was talking about how we’re not a person or a name. We’re a fluid identity that builds itself based on its beliefs about its experiences. I didn’t like people, I liked how they thought. A friend suddenly wasn’t a person; a friend suddenly became someone who agreed with most of my beliefs.
It was humbling and expansive all at once. And I hope it’s been a similar experience for you just reading this. Because this is is what identity is all about. You are made of your beliefs. Change those and you change yourself. Your identity is whatever you choose it to be. It’s just that most people make that choice unconsciously because they don’t realise it’s made out of changeable thoughts.
Do like The Fishman. Decide to become someone you would enjoy being. Don’t wait for some change to come over you, create that change by enacting the person you truly want to be. That’s all your identity ever was anyway—it’s a role you chose to play each day. Make that role conscious. Trade your script in for an improv stage. Trade predictability for excitement and joy. Don’t wonder if you can be that person, use that same creative energy to just be them.
Have yourself a wonderful day of testing the flexibility of who you are. Enjoy.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.