Identity and Change–An Impersonal Philosophy

Here’s another philosophical jaunt through the open writing of Morning Pages.


I’m sitting here dazed. I was blinded by light as I stood in line. My eyes are still swimming from it.

What if Plato’s metaphor for seeing the truth is singularly inept? By this, I refer to walking out into the light of the sun and escaping from the cave of ignorance in The Republic. What if it’s closer to bad faith? The truth of things is always right at hand, but we don’t want to look at it. Fearing the truth of death, we instead cover it over. We build up the soul in counterpoint to the ultimately impersonal–Death. Death comes for all in every moment. It does not respect us as individuals. Every moment dies. The secret here is that Death has a Janus-mask which has opposite faces–the old, stern, grinning skull alongside the crying baby’s soft face full of potential. Death is a Janus-mask with Birth as Birth and Death come together. Separating them is impossible. Each arising signals an eventual departing. Each departing brings a new arising. The Janus-mask covers the true face: Change.

All of this, Birth, Death, Change, is utterly impersonal. It all happens no matter what we want and, sometimes, despite what we want! However, these events don’t happen due to the consideration and judgment of our personal circumstances by some divine personage who denies or accepts our pleas. They simply happen. It’s nothing personal.

We try to cope with these changes by finding meaning behind them. We ascribe some personal consideration behind them that explains them away. These prayers were answered because God had mercy, but those weren’t because in his infinite wisdom He knew better than I did and is teaching me a lesson, etc., etc., etc. With such explanations, these events have a personal story rather than the mysterious unfolding of a cosmic emergence. They become known to me rather than questions, difficulties, problems that I have to grapple with. It’s a lot easier to cover over the difficult truth–Being is mysterious, and “I” am just another dying process in the middle of it that doesn’t know/understand the significance of the whole thing–than to face it. Facing it takes an existential courage: resoluteness. It takes a willingness to look at it directly and continue despite all the niggling stories, thoughts, and ideas that come up and try to make us look away. These thoughts and ideas churn on in desire, aversion, and ignorance, and they try to make the ultimate counterpoint to this Truth; they aim at building an edifice that will provide undying security from the impersonal cosmic process of Birth/Death/Change. The ultimate security?–A stronghold, a cut off piece of territory from the whole that asserts its independence from the process of change–the sovereign nation of “Self”. It is “identity” in the strong, logical sense of “A = A”. Here Death is denied and fought off, again and again, as the attempted castle crumbles day by day, made of sand–constantly built up anew while denying that this never-ending rebuilding occurs. Identity–a form of bad faith? In a sense, the ultimate form: that which chooses to misunderstand being by overlooking the ongoing impermanence of everything.


It’s been a while since I wrote the entry above. It came out so powerfully, much more charged than many of my posts while riffing off of Plato, Buddhism, Sartre, and Heidegger all in one go.

Please don’t misunderstand, however. I’m not saying that we aren’t individuals. If I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach. However, we grab onto our bodily existence as separate and emphasize this over and above the elaborate interconnectedness and interdependent nature of everything about existence. Your body is a product of an elaborate history that goes back to the Big Bang. Exploding stars, crashing asteroids, mass-extinctions, forgotten civilizations, and so many more moments have factored into your existence, and you breath air, shed skin, and digest other organic and inorganic matter that recycles into the Earth. Light from a nearby star powers your entire physical existence, directly or indirectly-it warms your planet, makes plants grow which feed animals (including you), and makes life on this planet possible. Furthermore, your body releases heat–IR radiation–some small amount of which vibrates out throughout the greater planet and universe. You are part of the cosmos. You aren’t separate at all. Not really. You are like a flower–growing from a seed, turning into a bud, blossoming into a wondrous natural emergence, slowly withering away, and falling off the plant. However, just like the flower, the flower is not separate from the sun that nurtures its growth, the water that falls as the rain, and the dirt which holds the rainwater for the roots and provides nutrients as well, also offering a place for the fallen flower to be shuffled back into the cycle of life. It’s all one interdependent arising. You are a process, an unfolding of the universe–a human becoming–not a thing, not an it, not a permanent identity.

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Our identities are concepts, impermanent by nature. Such concepts are clearly known in the cessation of ignorance. One does not enhance the happiness or compassion of the “I”; instead one sees through the “I” concept entirely. The Buddha said, “The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations [of wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and peace].” In the moment when conceiving stops–especially self-conceiving–we are freed from the selfish hungers, because we are freed from the constructed self-concept that sustains them. In this moment we are freed from what practitioners of Ordinary Mind Zen call “the self-centered dream.” This freedom is possible. Indeed, if we are attentive, we will notice that freedom visits us each time the mind relaxes out of self-sustaining tensions.

These specks of liberation multiply and link together as understanding grows. This is the alchemy of non clinging. Sometimes, too, there is an avalanche of awakening, which may be sustained by the steadiness of mind engendered by meditation. In the moment of liberation, we cease to cling to an imagined stability or security in what is always changing. We cease our quest for pleasure in what is painful and for an enduring identity in the flux of personal and social fabrications. In the absence of clinging something wonderful is possible.

Beyond the hungers and ignorance is a very high happiness. The self is no longer birthed, in this life or in others. More simply, we cease to believe in the dream of “me” that the mind continually weaves. In this joy, rapture and equanimity conjoin. Wisdom vanquishes constructed identities which liberates generosity and love from the anchors of self. There is acceptance without greed, discernment without rejection, and stability without the illusion of permanence. This is an ongoing moment in life’s process that the Buddha described as “beyond reasoning” and “sorrowless” and “the stilling of the conditioned–bliss.” Nirvana is also called the deathless. It is what my teacher Ananda Maitreya simply referred to as coolness. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk and translator, refers to nirvana as unbinding.

It is tempting, almost unavoidable, to idealize this unbinding. We take it to be inhuman, almost sterile in its purity. But logic and the very earthy stories of the Buddha’s later years tell us otherwise. Even when ignorance has vanished as a dominating force in our lives, we still have bodies, and they still defecate, age, and hurt. We still engage in relationships, and it is still complex. The body still hungers, and the mind still constructs. The key difference is that we do not react to the hungers of the body and heart, and we do not believe the constructs of the mind. We remain human–just not ignorant.

–Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 67-69.

May this help others see Truth without being blinded by their own stories.

Gassho!

Story-ing

Here’s another excerpt from Morning Pages that got to the heart of my walk along the Path of late.

Edit (7/27/15): I’m adding the end of a second and a third set of Morning Pages (excerpts) separated by second and third horizontal lines. They are both closely related to this post and add to it, extending the depth of the questions and ideas presented here.


That reminds me of story-ing. I finished, “The World is Made of Stories” last night. This small book is truly a seminal philosophical work presented in a simple style. I’m pulled back into hermeneutic analysis again. It’s refreshing.

I’m realizing that some of the most sound advice I ever provided was when I told my ex to be careful with the stories she told herself. She had some intense storying and revising of history. That led her down the path she’s on now, and I’m not sure whether she realizes all of this.

I don’t say these things in judgment. It’s not that her story is the “wrong” story, rather a story. All of our understanding is an interpretation–a story, and as all stories are, it is one that interprets things in a particular way, thereby drawing particular consequences. There’s nothing wrong about this, but each interpretation casts things in a particular way.

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We all tell and re-write our stories about ourselves. There’s nothing inauthentic to that. It’s a coming to grips with our place in the universe–a making sense. However, we should be aware of how we are creating a “self” through story.

I’m starting to think of the stories I’ve told myself, and I think with time, I’m moving away from standard ones. I’m moving towards those of the bodhisattva instead of the individual trying to get conditions just right for happiness.

Does that make all of my reading and writing a sort of narrative therapy? Perhaps it does. I’ve been gaining particular story-telling skills, stylistic usages, archetypes, and genres to help me re-story my-“self”.

The interesting thing about this as pointed out in the book several times is that this story is about unstorying, not-storying, de-selfing. The Buddhist path is about finding the “no-thing-ness” at the heart of existence that is the formlessness behind form–emptiness. The emptiness is the Truth to our existence and cannot be storied. It defies the personal security of identity built up in stories.

How do we balance that with living a storied existence? I’m not completely sure. That’s where the path of study and discipline continues to lead. I look forward to discussing that with others who walk this challenging Way, who tell this unique and beautiful Story.


I suppose that you could argue that this (the previous part of this entry talks about just writing whatever comes to the pen in jotting down Morning Pages) clears the mind as well. “The Artist’s Way” described it as though that were the case. There’s something to be said for this–letting juices flow and getting them all on paper. However, I think that simple expression doesn’t always make idle thoughts/feelings go away/come out for good. If they’re part of a larger pattern, expressing them as important could reinforce them.

We are storied beings, and the stories we tell ourselves can get stronger and more nuanced with repetition. Individuation is pushed as a boon in this culture–our story. However, this leads to our feelings of separation and loneliness. It’s a never-ending game to assert “my” existence. Samsara spins here, round and round.

So, ultimately, although I’ve tried to write simply and without intention toward pre-thought ends, I have tried to avoid letting this just be a space to spill out all my “me” stories–letting it instead be a place to express the ideas and discoveries that blossom as words run across the pages. The stories we tell are the patterns that bind. I try to let this be a space that is free of those patterns, but of course, at times, I throw these thoughts/difficulties/stories that I’m dealing with on the page. Sometimes, there’s much more difficulty to write around them than to simply write them.

Can this be done from simple awareness? Can it be an identification of the thoughts and stories at play without continuing them? “Thinking”? Can one freshly see that these stories are arising without clinging further to reactions which spin the story onward? Can these simply be mere thoughts passing by without becoming sold as solid, enduring truths? Can we experience this moment without clinging to “my” story?


As I hear the music, I think of “stories” again. We truly write the narrative of our lives for better or worse, yet we can’t control all of the elements–born prince or pauper, in America or Africa, raised in a religious community or by a small family of atheists–we can only control how we write our reaction to these elements–how we weave them together into our story. However, we tend to either overemphasize “My” Story–the aspect of myself in it–or act as though my interpretation is not part of it at all, as though meaning were just cast upon me–pre-written. In other words, we often overlook this act of story-ing and how it works in our lives. We then overlook how our stories are intertwined with myriad others. The world, our lives, are made of them.


May this make you aware of the “story” of “your” life and the deeper aspect that cannot be storied.

Gassho!