The Buddhist Problem With Identity

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One of the hardest lessons that comes out of meditation is the realization that we never truly know who we are.  At birth you we are given a name, a religion, a nationality, and race.  Then we spend the rest of our lives defending a fictional identity. We have to shed our preconceived notions of who we are if we are ever to grow into something more.  There’s a natural hesitation that occurs when you try to give up your identity.  Without our identity, who would we be?  If we didn’t have all those labels to define ourselves, how would we know who we are?  If we didn’t have that Tinder-like description to give to people how would they know who we are?

The problem is that none of these labels do us justice nor do they fully describe who we are.  If I were to ask you to list ten things about yourself, the things you might put on the top of your list, might not even make it on to someone else’s because they don’t think that particular label is necessary to identify themselves. For example, I have a brother who is in the process of gender changing into a woman so pronouns are very important to her.  Dinner conversations when she is present often revolve around her correcting our pronoun slips, or the occasional calling her of her old name.  There is nothing wrong with this, however, on my list of ten things, I might not even list being a male because my gender is just not how my brain chooses to self-identify.  I might choose ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Jiu-Jitsu practitioner’ or ‘writer’.

Someone might label themselves as a homosexual while another might label themselves a Game of Thrones fan.  It’s all over the spectrum and anything is a possibility.  I could ask you to extend your list to name a hundred or even a thousand things about yourself, and I still might not learn anything truly meaningful about you.

I laugh whenever I tell someone I’m not a Republican and they automatically assume I must be Democrat as if those are the only two options available to me. In the geek community there is the age old debate about a person being Star Wars or Star Trek, while even the strictest and most diehard Star Wars fan has more than likely seen a Star Trek movie.  The same can be said about the Marvel vs DC debate.  A Raiders fan and a Broncos fan might be rivalries but they are both still football fans.

Labels by their nature separate us.

A nanosecond before the Big Bang we were all the same thing.  Somehow as the universe expanded we forgot this and came to believe we are separate.  We even go so far as to create Gods who were separate from whatever we were before the Big Bang, and therefor separate from us, and who separate us further from each other.

As Thich Nhat Hanh so eloquently put it, we are not the individual waves, but rather the ocean.  There are literally millions of more personality traits, physical qualities, emotions, beliefs and other aspects (philosophers call these traits ‘quaila’) I have in common with you, than what makes us different.  This is where compassion training comes in.  When we become mindful to being the water rather than the waves, it becomes difficult for us to pee in the pool.  It becomes harder for me to cut you when I know I will bleed as well.

Funny, intelligent, religious, bitchy, fat, charming, rich, kind, loving, slutty, wise, rude, homeless, sexy, dumb, hungry, tired, emotionally unavailable, heartbroken, passionate, bored, frigid…

We are all of these things and none of these things

Once we realize that we are not the beautiful and unique snowflake, but simply eloquent carbon and water, we can let go of the ‘you’ you’ve been conditioned to believe you are, and be who you really are.  Can you stop trying to change into who you think you should be and who you wish you were long enough to find out who you really are?

Don’t you owe that to yourself to find out who yourself is?





  1. Vanessa

    I love and admire your wisdom my friend.

  2. Phoenix


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