We live inside a giant illusion. Other than the basic bodily functions that keep us alive, most of what we do and are is defined by thought. This web of thinking is so dense and so near to us that it becomes invisible, like the water in which a fish swims.
Many beginners seek to dispel all of their illusions but, without the water, a fish cannot be a fish. If we’re among a bunch of strangers who find themselves stranded on a desert island, none of us previously existed in each other’s consciousness. We are no one. We are all fish out of water.
But the moment we meet, the identity we believe in for ourselves (eg. tall, female, attractive) begins to compare itself to someone else’s form of existence in relative terms. So we’ll meet a shorter, wiry, younger male, or a middle-aged, plump, female parent.
With only physical features to start with, we begin to communicate. We share ideas about who we are. We have no idea if others are presenting an identity that others back home would agree with or not, but most of us will, in most cases, accept someone’s assertions about who they are.
If, on our shipwrecked island, someone says they have survivalist training, then the rest of us will tend to recognize that label as representing a useful set of skills which are not included in our labels of say, lawyer or nurse. Suddenly, someone who was only short, wiry, young and male, is now a fire-starter, hunter and shelter-builder.
We still need them to volunteer for that identity moment to moment. But if they believe in it and we do too, then we will feel comfortable complaining to them if there is no fire, and they will feel guilt about not having it made.
But can we see how that complaint and the conflict between us will be made from the illusion about who that person is? Without both of our agreements about who each other is, we can’t even find a basis for a disagreement. Even wars are fought on that basis.
Where it gets tricky is, just because someone says, “I have survivalist training,” that does not mean that forever going forward, that person can be taken for granted to make all of our fires.
We can even create a test and make them our ‘official’ fire-starter with ‘official’ obligations, but our piece of paper or their previous promises will still mean nothing unless a person agrees to continue to play that role in our society in the present.
Over time, the longer we stayed on our island, the stronger our beliefs about our identities would become. As we increased in numbers we would increasingly feel the need to define what a fire-starter is, and to agree on who our fire-starters will be.
Likewise, with those that make our food or our lodging. We would make people into chefs by eating their cooking. We would make them engineers by giving them tests and letting them build things if they pass. We would even give some the right to control others for the purposes of safety, and we will call those people police, or guards, or a military. But each role will be made of thought.
Over time, through this myriad of interwoven beliefs, society is born. It becomes so pervasive that small children won’t even be aware that these identities and their power structures are strictly made of beliefs.
Since most people around a child will share certain beliefs and presents them as ‘reality,’ there is no reason that a child would not shape their path to align with what others define as that reality. For instance, what Canadian kid ever says to their parents, are you sure I’m a Canadian?
The paradox for the student is to accept that, even though identities about national identities can lead to wars built from opposing ideas, we nevertheless need these comparative identities and contexts in order to be anyone at all. Even peace cannot exist except as the absence of war.
We must simply accept that we are destined to suffer any time we get overly earnest about our beliefs about what, or who, or even where and when we are.
If a student commits suicide over failing the test to become a lawyer, it is not the failure of the test that lead to the suicide. It is not deadly to not be defined as a lawyer. A suicide is merely the failure of an individual to realize that when one identity ends, another begins. And to think that happiness is contained in one particularly identity, but not in another, is false.
Each identity will, in each moment, enjoy however much happiness they cause to exist by appreciating rather than wanting. There is no path we can take, or label we can have, that avoids the challenging, painful parts of life. There is no identity that spares us from the struggles of being. There is no identity that exists outside a context. All contexts and identities are thought-based.
We are all on stages, performing roles for one another. To enact the drama we need to take our role seriously. But to remain healthy we must remember that our identities and those of others, exist strictly as ideas that we are free to change any time we are aware of that freedom. Healthy couples stay together precisely because they both stay aware that the other can leave.
It is it worthwhile for us to look at our lives to see what identities we have that we feel do not suit us. And likewise, we should ask what identities we are demanding from others against their will.
By being more aware of ours and other’s assumed roles, we can better come to understand that our conflicts are often strictly based on those thought-based roles, and not in the character’s who are playing them.
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.