The question of identity is one that reaches to the core of who we think we are, obviously, but it also has a bearing on how we view the nature of reality and our place within it. It’s unfortunate then how we often misinterpret our identity, mistake it for the mask of what we think we are, or even what we think we’d like others to think we are. We parade this mask every day and we sell it on the world’s stage, trying to convince even our own selves it’s the nearest thing to who we think we really are.
When seen through the eyes of this mask, however, the nature of reality becomes distorted, our vision clouded. It renders us vulnerable to seduction by things we should value the least, vulnerable to injury from things to which we ought to be naturally impervious, and it renders us prone to discarding as worthless the keys to unlocking a deeper understanding of the authentic nature of our selves.
When tested, when challenged by life, our imperfect mask can slip, it can tear, fall apart, disintegrate. If we identify too closely with the mask, we imagine it is our own selves under threat, our own selves tearing, falling apart in the face of the seemingly insurmountable pressures reality imposes upon us. We see it as a battle for our lives against a myriad unseen foes. It can be a terrifying experience.
We lose our footing, and we fall.
It’s important then that we pause occasionally, lift the mask and look beneath in order to get a glimpse our original self, our immortal and indestructible self. We needn’t worry; we are none of us as ugly as we fear – unlike the mask which is guaranteed to be a misshapen parody of our life’s potential, our true self. Seeking our original face, remembering who we really are, and being content with that, is the only way of being truly grounded in the world and, being grounded, impervious to its storms.
I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of now” again, a much thumbed copy, one I borrowed from a colleague who has already loaned it out to various people, countless times, but always seeks its safe return. In its current condition, you wouldn’t get ten pence for it in a charity shop, so battered and creased it is, but I take its fragile state as a testament to its resonant power, that people want to come back to this precious little book, time and time again, in order to refresh themselves, and remember who they are.
Like many spiritual teachers, Tolle is at pains to point out that we are not our thoughts. He tells us it was Descartes who coined the phrase: “I think, therefore I am”, but he urges us not to listen, that who we are is actually not defined by our thoughts at all. A more accurate phrase then might be: “I think, therefore I forget who I am.”
This is a difficult concept to grasp in a culture where we are taught from an early age to identify very strongly with ego consciousness. Ego is easily bruised, and then we find ourselves pointing fingers at the bruiser, seeking redress or even financial compensation for our woes. I’ve read and written about, and pondered on this over the years, but reading and writing, and pondering aren’t the same as getting it. I’m still in the process of getting it, and it looks like being a lifelong journey.
When we sit down to meditate, we are immediately confronted by the rush of our thoughts, chattering, nagging, slipping in under the radar of awareness, so that suddenly we wake up in the middle of our meditation, realise half our time is already gone and we’ve been lost in a storm of anxieties, instead of forgetting them – which is what we originally sat down to do.
Once in a while though, we catch ourselves. We say, no, I don’t want to think about that right now, and we brush our thoughts gently aside. They always come back, but in the between times we eventually become aware of a mysterious part of our selves observing our thoughts. This silent observer seems to sit in the background, watching their ebb and flow from a perspective that is one step removed from the self we think we are. This observer, this silent watcher, is clearly a part of who we are and it’s interesting to note how disconnected from the material world this normally hidden part of our selves is.
To this mysterious, and possibly higher self, all the worldly goings on are no more than froth; all the wars and the famine and the strife are no more than the fleeting interplay of a moment’s light in the deep, dark stillness of eternity. Finding our way into the unambiguous presence of this almighty sense of inner knowing is one of the hardest and most ambitious adventures any human being can undertake but, unlike climbing Everest or voyaging to the moon, it is an adventure open to any one of us.
Such existential musings have been brought into sharper focus for me recently – this business of who I think I am. It started when I saw some of my self-published novels for sale on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace. They were being sold under my name, but I’ve no idea how they got there or who was really selling them. For a moment, it was like staring at myself from across the threshold of an alternate reality – and even though I knew someone had simply stolen them, my sense of identity had been sufficiently shaken to make me think again about who I am and what my purpose is in the world.
The novels – three in all – were the sum labour of about five years work – pleasurable hours gleaned in the evenings and weekends of my day to day life. I’m not saying they’re great novels. They are what they are, I write the way I write, and when I’m done with my stories, I give them away. Certainly, they are of personal significance to me, but only in so far as the events and dialogues they describe are the roadmap of a personal psychical journey. They plot my trajectory from the immature and egoic masks of youth, to this middle aged guy who sits blinking up now into the starry skies of an evening, partially unmasked at times yet still, it seems, none the wiser for any of it.
That someone else came along, cut and pasted those five years into a hastily cobbled e-book, called themselves Michael Graeme, and tried to make a few bob by pirating stuff I give away for free, should be neither here nor there to me – that is if I’m thinking straight and can avoid my ego feeling bruised. Even the fact that I have to prove my identity, and my legal right to call my thoughts my own, to the almighty Amazon, again, should be of no account to me,… that is if I am sufficiently secure and grounded in the knowledge of my own identity.
On this matter, the muse quietly takes my ego in her arms. She soothes away the angst with the warmth of her embrace, then she brushes off the dirt and reminds me I am not my thoughts, not my words. I am the silent watcher, she says, and like her, always a few steps removed from the tangled web of collective hope and expectation we mortal beings cling to, and which we call reality.
My mysterious Amazon doppelgänger did not make that journey. Their actions betray only the fact that they have not evolved emotionally, spiritually, or philosophically very far at all in human terms. Their life’s journey has been perverted by a misidentification with a mask they take as being the most fitting, but sadly one which makes them only ugly to the rest of us.
One of the hardest things to grasp in the quest for maturity, and a sense of groundedness is that the right thought, the right deed, is right whether anyone bears witness to it or not, whether you profit personally from it, or not, whether the intrusive cameras of that reality TV show are switched on, or not.
The existential contract outlining this, our three-score years and ten of material reality, requires no verifying witnesses, and the presence of only two signatures, in order to make it valid and spiritually binding – our own, and that of the eternal sense of being rising beyond even the silent watcher of our thoughts.
I am, but what I am none cares or knows (John Clare, 1848) – we are each the self consumers of our woes. For “woes” here, we can read “thoughts”, which are for ever poised ready to warp into woes at a moment’s notice. We must all try therefore to remember we are not our thoughts, otherwise we end up consuming what we perceive to be our only self. This in turn results in a distorted vision of reality, one in which we see only a barren wasteland of broken promises and ruined hopes – or to quote John Clare again – the shipwreck of our life’s esteems.
But much as I revere John Clare, it really isn’t like that.
The times when reality comes most sharply into focus are the times when we are thinking about it the least, when our thoughts are stilled. Then a truer vision comes rushing in, presenting the nature of all things in their sublime glory – not as separate, but as an integral part of who and what we think we are.
It’s always been this way. It’s just that we’ve forgotten.
Good night all.