The so-called self is a construct of words and memories, of fantasies which have no existence in immediate reality. The block or stoppage which so many of us feel between words and action, between symbol and reality is actually a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it.Alan Watts
Who are you? Are you a man, woman, or gender-neutral? Are you straight or queer? Are you Black, White, Asian, or Latino? Are you a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Jain? Do you have a high school diploma or did you graduate from university? Did you grow up in the U.S. or another country?
When I ask a person “who are you?” these are the questions I usually get answered. All of these questions feel very relevant when talking about one’s self. And there was a time that I would have similarly answered the questions.
But do the answers to the questions above really answer the question of who you are? You might disagree, but in my experience, they do not. None of those answers help fully answer the question of what it feels like to be in this sensitive human body. None of those answer what it means to be self-conscious and know that one day we will die.
Of course, measures of identity like race do affect how we experience reality. Any cursory observation or study of police bias can tell you that. And identity is needed especially in politics. It is how coalitions are formed and rights are won. But the downside of identity is this: labels give us a sense of safety and security. You might ask “what’s wrong with that?” Well, nothing. We all need a sense of physical and psychological security to self-actualize.
But Buddhism tells us that our attachments and our lives are ephemeral, including our identities. Life is impermanent, first and foremost. Buddhists try to practice non-attachment because suffering is created by attachment. And attachment to our identity is just another attachment to let go of daily. Additionally overidentifying with anything can cause us to intellectualize everything. The present moment is just the present moment. Reality is just reality. It is us who continue to label everything and separate reality. As Kierkegaard once said, “once you label me, you negate me.”
There are many ways to practice non-attachment, but I find 3 meditations particularly helpful. So to start…
- Concentration Meditation- Concentration meditations or Samatha meditation are the bread and butter of Buddhist meditations. Everyone begins here because we all suffer from a monkey mind, a mind that jumps from tree branch to tree branch, never able to focus on the here and now. The most common concentration meditation is counting or focusing on the breath. The instructions are simple enough. Sit and follow the in and outs of your breath.
Of course, I wish it were that easy! Any novice meditator will tell you that trying to follow your breath more than a handful of times can feel impossible. Our minds are so cluttered with thinking. But with some practice, something starts to happen: you get better. You find yourself concentrating for longer periods of time. And if you practice long enough, you become less self-conscious. Identity is largely created by thought. If you are concentrated on your daily life more and more, you will think less and will be less prone to ruminations and thinking rabbit holes. Once you get better at concentration, you can move on to other practices such as…
- Tonglen- My favorite practice is Tonglen. Again, it is a very simple practice but takes time to master. Instead of me explaining, I’ll let Pema Chodron, one of my spiritual gurus, explain it.
Why is Tonglen effective for non-attachment? It’s pretty simple: by sending out compassion to others, you are loosening the bonds of selfishness that comes with identity and the “I.” You become less concerned about your needs, and you see everyone as some who is suffering and who needs your compassion. It is something I try to practice everywhere: on walks, on subways, on planes, with people I am angry at or hate. It is hard sometimes. But in a world that is so divided it is much needed, I believe.
- “Who Am I?” Meditation- This meditation is a bit advanced, but I’ve found it very useful. In Zen Buddhism, it is called a koan study but this type of meditation is also found in Hinduism.
The essence of it is to ask over and over again, “who am I?” or “who is the observer?” I found this wonderful post that describes the meditation succinctly:
“Choose a question that speaks most deeply to your longing. Sitting in an upright posture, settling into your breath and body, breathe your question in. You can ask, for example, “Who am I?” And then breathe out, “Who am I?” However you frame your inquiry, stay with it. If your mind wanders, gently return to your question.
The discursive mind, our companion ever since we developed the capacity for language, enjoys being in charge of everything, and will rush in to give obvious answers: “I’m a woman, I’m Melissa, I’m sixty years old, I’m a teacher, a parent, a wife. I’m horrible, I’m wonderful.”
Every time one of these answers arises simply set it aside and ask again. Eventually, this kind of answer stops coming, and may be replaced by a feeling of profound wonder. This feeling, sometimes called “great doubt,” is highly valued in Zen. If you are not working with a teacher, at this point in your practice you must be your own Zen master. Patiently and firmly redirect yourself away from intellectual understanding and toward immediate and intimate experience. Don’t settle for anything that doesn’t completely satisfy your longing.
In this state of great doubt, something surprising might reveal itself to you. As you continue to set aside all your conventional answers, you also set aside all of your expectations and explanations. The mind will want to turn your experience into theories and memories. Don’t let anything turn solid.
Keep asking and don’t give up. Eventually you will learn to live a new kind of life—one that is continually surprising, profoundly ordinary, and full of wonder. “
Something strange begins to happen if you practice this enough. Every moment starts to be filled with the question “Who am I?” And the self, your identity that you’ve been building up since you were born, starts to feel more diffuse. You are somehow everything and nothing. It’s hard to fully explain in language. But with enough practice, your life begins to transform into something else.