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.
We are like rivers. As more and more tributaries contribute, our total capacity expands as we move through our lifetimes. Sometimes dull flats, other times roaring rapids, but all of these various experiences are one river with one name and each of us is the entire river.
That river’s journey is our life. People often think it goes downhill as we age, but that’s not true. It’s true that it needs some slope (some problems to solve) to create our flow through time, but that’s just a fact about flow. No slope, no flow, no flow, no life.
But that all feels abstract, so let me tell you a story. One of the times 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 sitting with him, and 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 something that they thought was a weird myth.
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. No, I did not want to be friends with The Fishman.
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.” Now I’m frowning.
“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.”
That is not where I thought this was going. “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 then bam, he nails me. “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.” I’m getting an inkling of his point.
“And imagine that the gratitude of my wife, and the affection of my children, lead The Fishman to quit drinking. And imagine as a result, that he gets a promotion at work where he earns more money and can create a nicer life for my wife and children.
“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 flying toward you. 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.” He looks down, as though he feels shame. It actually affects me.
“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 looks through photos of my children.”
“Now he is elated with joy, while I am hostile and defeated. So 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 realized our ego’s don’t like people, they just approve of how some of them think. My soul could like anyone, but I’m only willing to like the ones that think pretty much like me. So everyone –even The Fishman– always existed in a perpetual state of being a potential friend. The world had just gotten better.
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. We are made of our beliefs, and we make others of our beliefs too. Change those and we change the ourselves and everyone else around us.
Our identity is whatever we choose it to be. It’s just that most people make that choice unconsciously because they don’t realize 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 we choose to play each day.
Make that role conscious. Trade your script in for an improv stage. Trade repetition and 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.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.