Monday, January 20, 2003
Identity, The Self, and the Snare of Significance
Why don't we know who we really are? Why are so many of us limited to the idea of being a person instead of understanding ourselves as limitlessness itself? Such questions are especially perplexing given the fact that we've never been anything else! What exactly is Maya's veil, this trickery that has us seeing snakes instead of ropes?
The process of identity forms the crux of the problem. We identify as the individual person we know ourselves to be. We have always known ourselves as this individual, and as much as we've changed over the course of our lives, we've always been just us. It's all we've ever known, and that's a clue to who we really are.
However, the sages tell us that we are not individuals at all, that we're never born and that we won't die either. A sensible person might not make much sense of this, but the sages insist it is so. Somehow, something that is not born and never dies gets born into a life that ends in certain death. It's as if the unborn gets stuck in being the born, like a child getting stuck playing with gooey bubble gum.
What we call "the mind" has evolved to do many things. It could be argued that one of its most important functions is to rank, to prioritize and label experiences and memories. We learned very early in our evolutionary history that some of our neighbors were stronger, and some were downright dangerous. If we wanted to survive we had to remember who to look out for and who to ignore. In essence, we learned what was significant. So the mind came up with a way to mark memories with varying levels of significance, and thus identity was born.
Significance, the mind's function of ranking memories with attached emotion, is the cause of identity. We (as individuals) are what we find significant, with the idea of being an individual person at the very top of the heap. This "idea of me," as Ramakrishna called it, is actually just a thought, but because it is the most significant thought in our heads, it clouds our perceptual capacity and we miss the truth that's as plain as the nose on our faces.
The reason it's missed is this: who we really are is perfectly insignificant. We rest in ourselves in every moment, whether we are awake or asleep, shining deep within our hearts. The mind has evolved to see the significant (that which brings comfort or hardship) and ignore everything else, so how can we expect it to see the constant yet unmoving, silent presence of what is often called "The Self?"
This tragedy is further compounded by that fact that almost all of so-called "spiritual" culture makes who we really are to be the most significant thing in the universe. We are led to believe that there's nothing greater than "The Self," that all the worlds arose because of it and that the entire universe rests on its being. That may well be true, but when the mind factors in and marks the inferred significance of this, it effectively eclipses the truth. We may as well have just blown off our foot with a shotgun!
What can be done about this? Perhaps not a whole lot, but if we endeavor to realize that what we are looking for is who we are right now, we might not waste so much time seeking something big and mighty and glorious -- that is, significant. We might do a bit better to seek out the small and quiet and quite unglorious, for that's much more akin to the wholly insignificant yet constant presence of this most significant of truths: we are all the One, The Self, right now.
[edited by Bruce Morgen]