Daniel Erway (aka Nirmala) on Identity Formation
To see through the “me,” you first have to take a good look at it and see what it is made of. When I ask you How are you? just notice right now what you refer to for the answer. How is this “you” that you call “me” doing? Do you refer to your thoughts in talking about “you”? Or do you refer more to your feelings or to your desires? After you’ve discovered the various places where you look to describe “you,” just check to see if these thoughts, feelings, and desires have the qualities of something that is true. Do they bring relaxation and quieting of the mind? Are they deeply satisfying? Or are they accompanied by contraction, busy-ness, restlessness, and dissatisfaction?
When someone asks you how you are, and you tell them what you’ve been thinking about or what you think about something or how much or how little you have understood or learned lately, then probably a lot of your identity is formed around your mental processes. Or, if you go to your feelings to answer this question—have you been happy, sad, frustrated?—your identity or self-image may be formed more strongly around your emotional experience. We also try to form a “me” out of our desires. If that is the case, you are likely to describe how successful you have been in achieving your goals and getting what you want when asked how you are.
An identity can’t be formed around a thought, a feeling, a desire, or an experience because these are constantly changing, often into the opposite thought, feeling, desire, or experience. How can a thought ever be “you” if it is gone in the next moment? This attempt to form a “me” out of thoughts, feelings, and desires is like trying to make a sculpture out of clay that is too wet: you shape it, but when you take your hands away it goes back into a blob. No matter how many times
you try, it goes back into a blob. The clay is just too wet, too fluid.
Despite the impossibility of forming an identity out of thought, we still try. Those who are identified with their capacity for thought believe that they are what they think. Consequently, they are very interested in what they think. It defines them. However, ideas and opinions are difficult things to pin an identity on because, whether we like it or not, like wet clay, they are constantly changing. This is something many writers can attest to who have written fervently about something, only to find that their ideas changed after the book was published.
Trying to form an identity out of an emotion is equally impossible, whether it is a good emotion or a bad one. We try to make a “me” out of an emotional experience, such as feeling depressed, by saying, “I am depressed,” even though there are lots of moments when that does not apply. What happened to the depressed person in those moments? The same is true if, for example, you try to form an identity around “I am happy” or “I am loving.” Then, you have a real problem when that
happiness or those loving feelings slip away, as they eventually will.
Our desires are just as slippery as our thoughts and feelings and no easier to form an identity around. Nevertheless, we cling to them because they make us feel like somebody. Our desires give us some definition: I am somebody who wants a big house in the country, I am somebody who wants a family, I am somebody who wants to go to college. Having a want gives us a false sense of being real. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are some image of ourselves in the future. This image can never satisfy, however, because it is just a fantasy. It has no more solidity or truth than a photograph.
So far, we have been talking about identification with certain internal experiences—thoughts, feelings, and desires—but there is another place where identity forms, and that is with the body. Even when the other lies have been seen through, there may remain some identification with the experiences of the body—with the appearance of the body or with the sensations related to the body: how your clothes feel, the temperature of the air, the sounds hitting your ears, the light coming into your eyes, and so on. When there is still a sense of “I am the body,” we may try to make this flow of sensation into a “me” and attempt to manage it by resisting certain sensations and grasping after others. And yet, the appearance and sensations of the body are also always changing.
Beyond the Self-Image
This attempt to form a self-image out of thoughts, feelings, desires, and sensations is a constant effort; you’re never done sculpting this wet clay. Any self-image is there one minute and gone the next. You’re never satisfied. You’re never quiet. You can never rest. It turns out that the “me” has all the opposite qualities of truth. The “me” is a lie. We build this elaborate structure we call “me” out of what we think and feel and desire and sense, but it’s all made up. Once you subtract
all the lies, you end up with the truth, and what is left is nothing—emptiness. Underneath the self-image, there is nothing! When you are finally willing to admit to the emptiness beneath your self-image, it is such a relief! It’s so real.
When we first land in this place of no self-image, it feels empty relative to the busy-ness and effort of identity formation, so we conclude that this can’t be the truth—it’s nothing. Besides, there is obviously nothing for “you” in this emptiness. So, we go back to our old ways—back to believing that our thoughts, feelings, and desires are who we are and that managing them correctly will make us happy. Many dip their toe in nothingness and freak out and run back to their more familiar reality. To the mind, even a lousy self-image can seem a lot better than nothing.
Often, just out of exhaustion with the self-image game, which can never be won, there comes a point when you not only recognize the emptiness but you allow it. You allow this nothingness at the core of your self-image. When you do this, you begin to experience the emptiness as it is, rather than your concept of it, and it turns out to have all the qualities of truth. When you allow that emptiness and stay in it, it becomes full with a truer experience of the world. When there is no self-image and no suit of armor in the way, sensory information flows very freely, and truth becomes obvious. Whatever is happening now registers right in the emptiness. Because your self-image is no longer monopolizing so much of your attention, your mind becomes more spacious and clear. You see everything more clearly.