Identification: Don’t Fall For It

“During the course of practicing, it is normal that you experience the different conditions of the mind.”                                                                                        Ajahn Chah

“What makes our ordinary state of consciousness problematic, according to both psychological and spiritual traditions, is unconscious identification.”    John Welwood


There is another act of violence in the news today. The headlines shake us to our bones. We are nevertheless reminded to “go high.” The Buddha, himself no stranger to unspeakable violence, reminds us “Hatred never ceases by hatred.”It seems impossible. Response that is not driven by the emotions of grief and fear and rage and hatred seems a reach too far. How can we bring wisdom to this? As we work to cultivate awareness and the capacity to wisely reflect on our experience of difficult emotion, we are asked again and again, to release identification. It is a journey for each of us. We can begin with softening identification: a preparation for inquiry.

As young children, identification was the norm for each of us. We took very personally the compelling arising and passing away of both pleasant and unpleasant emotion. Because of the limitations of our immature brains, as very young children, experience initially became coded primarily as about “me,” “mine” and “truth.”  I remember very clearly my own three year-old pain of loss; the mind insisted that no one else had ever experienced anything like that. My young life was ruined; I thought that I had to navigate it all alone and that I would never recover. As I recall now how overwhelming it then felt, I am reminded of these “rules” that all young toddlers seem to live by:

Toddlers’ Rules of Ownership

  • If I like it, it’s mine
  • If it’s in my hand, it’s mine
  • If I can take it away from you, it’s mine
  • If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine
  • If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way
  • If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine
  • If it just looks like mine, it’s mine
  • If I think it’s mine, it’s mine
  • If I saw it first, it’s mine
  • If I give it to you and change my mind later, it’s mine
  • If you are playing with something and put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
  • If it once was mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way
  • If it’s broken or needs cleaning up, it’s yours

We smile, recognizing the little ones we know. Immature brains do not have the personal capacity for wider and wiser awareness and reflection. As youngsters, each of us was entirely reliant on those capacities in the adults around us and the ways that they reflected ourselves – and external life – back to us.  It was through these adult reflections that, over time, we each constructed an awareness of “other” and, with maturity, the realization that others’ experience might be different from our own. Through these conditioned experiences, we each came to a sense of “myself” along with those arisings characteristic of “me” and “you” or “belonging to me” or “belonging to you.” As we grew, we came to identify with and adopt certain characteristics as our own identity: “Who. I. Am/Am Not.”  “Who. You. Are/Are Not.”

All of this is normal. It is how as humans we grow up and move through universal developmental stages into a coherent and integrated sense of a conventional self who can function effectively in the physical and psychological worlds of form: engaging in wholesome relationship, finding our own shoes in the morning, driving our own car without bumping into too many other cars, going to the market to buy vegetables and bread.

“It is like looking in a mirror and taking ourselves to be the visual image reflected back to us, while ignoring our more immediate, lived experience of embodied being… We…become prisoners of our own mind and the ways it has construed reality.   John Welwood       

Nevertheless, in the course of ordinary human development, we also became prisoners of our own mental constructions. Even as adults, we can remain stuck there: imagining that the way the mind thinks is the way it all is. We can maintain these sorts of mistaken identifications well into adulthood as we encounter our emotions. In this regard, the Buddha kindly called us “uninstructed worldlings” who, like children, don’t really recognize or understand the nature of our deeper reality.

“Uninstructed worldling” rules of emotional ownership:

  • If I experience it, it is “mine.”
  • If it is “mine” then it is also who. I. am.
  • If other people manifest certain emotional states, then it is also who. they. are.
  • Some emotional experience is “good/right/correct” and some of it is “bad/wrong/unacceptable.”
  • If I have “bad/wrong/unacceptable” emotional experiences, it means that there is something wrong with me: I am messed up, a failure, a loser.
  • If, as a meditator, I continue to have “bad/wrong/unacceptable” emotional experiences, it means that there is something wrong with my meditation practice.
  • I need to “fix” bad/wrong/unacceptable parts of myself, my experience, and my meditation so that “bad” emotional experience doesn’t arise.
  • If I – or other people – behaved properly, my experience would be mostly pleasant.
  • It is possible to have “good/pleasant” experience without having “bad/unpleasant” experience.
  • The reason I can’t let go and continue to suffer from “bad/unpleasant” emotions is because of _____________(that other person or situation or that thing that happened and damaged me when I was younger).
  • I should have gotten over this a long time ago.
  • If I have this emotion now, unless I fix or figure out something, it will always be like this.
  • I can “fix” this all myself.

As our more adult brains become capable of reflection, we can smile at this, too. In our meditation practice, we can come to realize that we are no longer caught. We have become more and more able to step back from identification and see how the mind functions. We become able to notice at more basic levels the internal and external signals themselves in their more basic and raw forms. We can learn simply to notice our own (and others’) tendencies to identify with the mind’s contents. We can take note of signals of unwholesome arising in moments of internal disquiet characterized by a lack of fluidity or by the dis-integration of balance and coherence that is characterized by extremes of overwhelm or rigidity.   Through this more mature reflection, we can soften our identifications and inquire directly into our experience. With healthy human development and our own willingness and practice, we can gradually become able to bring curiosity and reflection to our experience, loosening the bonds of identification and our certainty that what the mind perceives and the stories that it tells are “true.’ With respect to emotion, we can step back from being in and identified and come to know: “An aspect of the energies of having a human body/mind is arising; anger/joy/fear/sadness is arising. Human experience, right now, is like this.”  It is not “mine,” any more than that toy truck I so tenaciously clung to when I was two. Experience – pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – is arising, influenced by infinite causes and conditions beyond my immediate control. Like everything else, it is impermanent, lasting for a bit, then fading away.  We can discover directly that, without resistance, judgment and interference, all pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experience is transient and conditioned. Not to be taken as having some “real” existence beyond the momentary arising and passing away of causes and conditions. When we are able to bring a kind presence to all of our experience, awareness of appropriate and wise action becomes available: action informed by, but not driven by those emotional energies.

“Then the Blessed One, looking back at Rahula, addressed him: “Rahula, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”    MN 62  

On a very practical level, these reflections will likely still further reveal the ways that the mind and heart and behavior become more and more tangled when we consider emotional arisings as either “mine” or “not mine.” If they are “mine” it means something about me, which must be resolved or fixed. If not mine, I could mistakenly take it to means that, whew, I get a pass and don’t need to pay attention – and I can reject/exclude those nasty others.

Nevertheless as we grow in own willingness and practice – and with a little help from our wise friends and guides – we can gradually become able to bring curiosity and kind investigation to our experience, loosening the bonds of identification and our certainty that what we perceive and the stories that we tell ourselves are “true.’ This takes us to a still deeper level of reflection: awareness of phenomena/experience arising without ownership: the domain of our mindfulness meditation practice.

Release from suffering is won through a change in perception of and relationship to our human experience, not an eradication of it to arrive at some sort of sweetly spiritual and serene place that is “above it all.

“Holding onto anger as a personal possession will cause suffering. If it really belonged to us, it would have to obey us. If it doesn’t obey us that means it’s only a deception. Don’t fall for it. Whether the mind is happy or sad, don’t fall for it. Whether the mind loves or hates, don’t fall for it; it’s all a deception.”                                  Ajahn Chah   


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