Recently I heard someone on the radio explaining the new crime of identity theft, and I immediately thought, Yes! Rob me, please! Take my identity, and leave the cash!
I can regard my entire dharma path as a matter of shifting identities, and it all started with me trying to run away from myself—the sentimental, histrionic drama of me-ness. The Buddha says that the false conceit of “I” or “self” is the bane of our existence, and I was indeed relieved when I began to see through the various membranes of personal identity. But what really surprised and delighted me is what I saw on the other side. It turns out I am not who I thought I was—I’m much, much more than that.
For the most part, we each live in our own story, and it’s pretty much the only one we tell, as though we have a scratch in our mental record and even the same lines get repeated, over and over again—my finances, my friends, my family, my stuff.
It’s too bad, because while each of us is lost in our private drama, we don’t notice that we are taking part in grand epics and heroic, noble projects. For instance, even while reading e-mail or shopping for socks, we continue to operate as cells in the great body of life on Earth, part of a fascinating, multibillion-year experiment in biology and consciousness. Whether we know it or not, we are always playing a role in the story of evolution, and to recognize ourselves in that role can be a skillful means of self-liberation. On our spiritual path it is useful to remember that, at least this time around, we are living our lives as animals.
Of course, in your own story you are always the star, but in the big story of life on Earth, you are just a bit player. In fact, an itty-bitty bit player, just a walk-on part. But that is the point. “You” can disappear into this grand perspective, like walking into a Chinese landscape painting and getting swallowed up by the deep gorges of bamboo forest and eternal sky. You can move out of the personal into increasingly large circles of inclusion and identity until finally you can point in any direction and say, along with the great Indian mystics, “Tat tvam asi,” “I am that.”
Whenever I ask people to identify themselves, most will come up with information about their gender, nationality, religion, career, marital and parental status, sometimes even personality (“I’m a happy fellow.” “I’m moody.” “I’m a Type A.”) When pressed to define themselves further, some will remember their identity as a mammal. But so far, hardly anyone has thought to answer, “I’m an earthling.” And not one person has claimed as part of his or her identity the phylum to which they belong. Come on, say it with me: “I’m a vertebrate, and I’m proud!”
Although we rarely think of ourselves as a vertebrate, mammal or earthling, these are the most defining aspects of our being. (Unless, of course, you believe in a personal, eternal soul.) Each of us is basically a mid-sized mammal, a very smart primate with well-prescribed ways of emoting, feeding and breeding. Who we are has relatively little to do with how we are toilet trained or any other aspect of our individual psychology, and a whole lot to do with the fact that we are members of a particular species at a certain moment in biological history. We are all Homo sapiens sapiens, playing out this particular scene together—the Holocene.
When I see myself in these epic stories, I find relief from my personal drama. I begin to access what evolutionary scientists and mystics alike would call “deep time,” where you experience yourself subsumed in awareness of history, biology, geology and even physics. All personal outlines fade into these big pictures.
The Buddha explained the effect to his son, Rahula, noting that if you take a teaspoon of salt and place it in a glass of water, it will make the water taste salty. But if you put the same teaspoon of salt in a lake, it won’t affect the water’s taste. Likewise, your drama will dissolve in the seven seas and the great ocean of space-time.
Zen master Eihei Dogen was one who loved to inhabit the big stories. He throws us lines such as, “The entire universe is the true human body,” or “Each moment is the entire world.” You could spend a lifetime working with either of those statements. Dogen’s teachings often point to the issue of identity, leading to his famous claim that when we see through our individual drama, we “will become intimate with (enlightened by) all the myriad things of the world.”
That’s what started happening in my own practice, organically. As I became less identified with my personal drama, I became more connected with the myriad things, and especially with the larger sangha of humans and all living beings.
In fact, one of the best things I ever learned from meditation is that I’m alive. I had forgotten, or never really noticed it. But through awareness of breath in meditation, I began to pay close attention to this mysterious quality of aliveness. Now my identity includes the fact that I am one of the living! I am a live one!
You too are a member of the sangha of the living. Welcome. Glad you could make it. Life on Earth is now appearing as (your name here) ___________ .
Over time, basic aliveness has become a primary place where I rest my attention. I use the metaphor of aliveness to describe the sensations of body and breath, so that now the experience carries with it a sense of identity with all life. I think of the poet Kabir, who instructs us to feel “the breath inside the breath,” pointing to the grand mystery that pulses inside each of us, and is common to all.
Occasionally, I will feel my breath and reflect on the calculation that in an average life we take about 13 million breaths. I sometimes pause to wonder which millionth I’m on now.
The path of meditation can lead us through a playground of shifting identity. S. N. Goenka told me to sweep my body with awareness, and slowly but surely I became familiar with my nose and my toes, and what poet Mary Oliver calls the world of “lime and appetite, the oceanic fluids.” This bag of bones and seawater came alive and started to take over from my ego as the foundation of my identity. You might say I was “born again” as an animal. I had joined another grand and venerable sangha.
The dharma path kept me shape-shifting until eventually I came to a shapeless shape, the ocean of consciousness, the “empty,” “shining,” “radiant,” “magic,” “luminous” awareness, as the Tibetans are wont to exclaim. And although it is often blissful in that pure awareness realm, “I” also get bored with it. I mean, how much radiant emptiness can you stand? And that’s when I take refuge and delight in my relative identity as part of the living mass of this planet. I just think of the aliveness as an intermediate step on the path to the deathless. As Thoreau says, “Shall I not have intelligence with the Earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
To witness myself in the story of evolution, I also feel a surge of compassion for the struggles of all life. Let’s face it, the basic rules on this planet are a bitch. But the phrase “May all beings be happy” has a deeper ring to it when I regard myself as in the same world as those who dress in feathers, fur, scales, leaves and bark. Besides, didn’t we take a bodhisattva vow along the way?
Seeing your dharma practice in the light of biological history is very forgiving. You realize that your mind wanders during meditation because that is part of its job, going over various scenes and details, seeing to your survival. When you find yourself full of fear or desire, you remember that you are dealing with a brain and nervous system that has been hard-wired for millions of years for these emotions, and that your species is just starting to understand itself. Then you can apply the mantra, “I’m perfectly human.” If you really need a good excuse, just say, “My DNA made me do it.”
When I sit in meditation as a human being rather than as an individual, I feel as though I am part of a collective effort on the part of our species to right itself, to find a new sanity. It feels as though we (the divine we) are half asleep and half awake, and just now (the last 3,000 years or so) learning how to overcome our instinctual aggression and fear for the sake of our collective survival. As Robert Thurman says of meditation, “It’s evolutionary sport.” In the light of that big perspective, I thank you for being part of this exciting project, helping us all to realize our precious human potential.