The Identity Trap: Suffering or Transcendence?

At birth, our identity—our answer to Who am I?—is simple: human. Yes, most of us have a discernible gender, which historically was also a given, but today is considered “assigned.” And, we now have some flexibility to change that later in life through medical intervention and the re-selection of pronouns. We also enter the world with other markers of identity emanating from our inheritance of genes, skin color, and ethnicity, but this is also true: at the moment we come hollering into the world, we are as close to a clean slate as we will ever be for the rest of our life. The twist I am proposing here, which is contrary to what most Americans practice in our slice of Western culture, is that in the latter stages of life we should, in order to achieve a sense of what I call “sweet peace” prior to death, seek a return to that clean slate.

As we progress through the four quarters of life—preparation, achievement, actualization, and transcendence—we add and subtract identifiers through everything from the clothes we wear, to our affiliations and associations, to family and personal relationships, to the knowledge and beliefs we call our own. This constellation of identifiers are a mix of self-selections and social impositions. We decide on many of them by ourselves while others are laid upon us by society, about which we can either embrace or reject, but about which we have little say. This reality is complicated further by the fact that our identifiers define our self-perception of who we are, which is seldom, if ever, the same perception others have of us, and about which we have limited awareness. The construction of our identity is a messy process, but is widely held by psychologists as critical to our mental health and general well-being. The answer to Who am I?, drives much of our decision-making that plots—both directionally and strategically—the arc of our life. The search for meaning and purpose—Why am I here?—is heavily influenced by our constructed identity, whether curated or imposed.

By day two of our life, the process of identity construction is underway. Throughout the early years of the first quarter (preparation phase) of our life, our parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, coaches, and friends are the key influencers of our identity. During this phase, the scales of which identifiers are self-selected and which are imposed tips heavily in the direction of imposed. Socialization and indoctrination are the dominant processes in our lives until we gain enough of our own knowledge (acquired empirically and experientially) to tip the scales to a more balanced mix of self-selected and imposed. Our identity is first expressed in a major decision when it is time to leave home. For those who go to college, the decision of which one to attend is influenced by a number of factors: location, cost, academic orientation, etc. But if we hold those constant, the predominant criteria is the goodness of fit between our identity and those who already attend any particular school. On visitations, just watch your child as they walk the campus. They have one question on their minds: do I fit in with these people? Do our identities jibe? The question you ask upon returning to your car, “What did you think?,” will be based on if they see themselves with those people in that place.

As we enter the second quarter of our life—the achievement phase—identity becomes perhaps more important than in any other phase. This includes the years of early twenties to midlife when we stake our claim on the world. When our principal modality is striving. We work; we partner; we make decisions about where to live; we have children; we declare membership in churches and political parties; and, an array of other social, community, and professional organizations. Our list of identifiers naturally peak during this phase of life and provide the capacity to affect two critical contributions to our well-being: belonging and differentiation.

Belonging is a natural and powerful motivation of every human being. More than fitting in, as described in the kid going off to college, belonging is about being adopted into a group (broadly defined) and also about adopting the norms and belief systems of that group. More than an element of our identity, belonging to groups acts to both clarify and limit that which we believe in. Our perspectives and our minds are narrowed by belonging, which in this period of our lives (often described as hectic and complex) serves to simplify our world thereby reducing life’s many sources of anxiety. In the achievement phase of life, belonging has significant benefits for safety, security, and general well-being.

Personal differentiation is also made possible in this phase through our identity. What makes us special? Attractive? How do we stand out? Why are we preferred to other human beings? Companies spend millions of dollars on differentiating their products and services from those of their competitors. As individuals, we do the same thing although most of us prefer to be subtle about it unless our last name is Kardashian. Still others of us stubbornly deny we are seeking differentiation even though the Birkenstock sandals or Nike running shoes on our feet are just another identity marker that yes, defines who we are. Differentiation is natural and inescapable. The Holy Grail of marketing, as I used to advise my clients, was whether or not a product or service found its highest value in contributing in a beneficial manner to the identity of the customer. If it did, both stable demand and price inelasticity (the customer will buy regardless of price) were assured. Ka-ching $!

As we enter middle age—the third quarter and the beginning of the actualization phase of our life—we begin to evolve from striving to thriving. Identity remains important, but we need more than the fruits of striving to achieve a higher state of well-being. This is when meaning and purpose come into higher consideration. Belonging to groups often becomes tiresome. Acquiring status symbols lose their shine. We begin to realize that our prime—at least physically—has passed. Maintaining our physical selves takes greater effort but, the good news is, our mental capacities and capabilities begin to contribute more to our well-being to compensate. It is when we begin our transition from what British psychologist, Raymond Cattell, identified as fluid intelligence to crystalized intelligence, commonly known as wisdom. For many, the actualization phase is the most rewarding of their life. The things we find meaningful in life—from careers to children to our spiritual sense of being—begin to be realized; they come into fruition. Success becomes defined as having a durable sense of standing in the world we claim as ours. Striving, plus this sense of meaning, produce thriving.

Sometime in this third quarter (usually late in the quarter) something else occurs that defines the balance of our lives—that either set up the possibility of transcendence in the last quarter, or send us on a path of physical, mental, and emotional decline into a fourth quarter of suffering where we languish rather than rise to achieve liberation and, ultimately, sweet peace. We either recognize the constraints of our constructed identity and work to shed many of its aspects, or we allow it to harden in a manner that narrows our world further, foreclosing any hope of liberation. Those who fail to recognize that liberation-cum-sweet peace is only possible if we rise above ourselves by shedding our once useful (but now detrimental) identity, will be chained to a treadmill that is no longer moving. They will hit a wall of irrelevance and, too often, spiral into a life of bitterness and depression.

My lesson in this regard came fairly early in my third quarter, but the revelation it provided was not apparent to me until I had completed many years—fifteen-plus years—of reflection. It was my participation in the two-week Wilderness Skills Course at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming that set the stage for my revelation. In the first few days of the course, which navigates a piece of the Wind River range of mountains, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I wanted to go back to Lander and drive away. My motivation for attending at forty-one years old (by far the oldest in the course) was to not only learn wilderness skills, but also learn to follow. Yes, not lead, follow. The contrarian in me thought what better place to learn to follow (after being a leader in business for the prior twenty years) than a course where everyone else was trying to learn to lead. (That part worked out spectacularly well.) When the two weeks came to a close, I was weirdly overwhelmed with a desire to stay in the wilderness and skip the bus ride back to Lander. The revelation that took so many years to kick in was that I had discovered a new sense of euphoria having been stripped of my identity and allowed to form a durable relationship with nature that could not care less about my carefully crafted identity.

In the years that followed the NOLS course, I began, slowly but surely (and largely sub-consciously), to shed my identity. Weirdly, it started with no longer wanting logos on my clothes which, for someone into sports and recreation where logos are everything, was especially challenging. Then, dropping my memberships, affiliations, and associations with all manner of groups, including political parties. My appetite for things—for superficial ‘stuff’—also declined as my wants and desires waned. Moving from Texas to Colorado also allowed me to drop many aspects of my identity just by the act of relocation. Today, I am much less defined in my identity, but also less encumbered to explore life in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. Rather than becoming, I can focus on just being. I am, slowly and deliberately, erasing my slate. Nowhere as clean as the one on the day I was born, but cleaner than it has ever been since. To be clear, I have not lost myself. I still know who I am. I still engage with the world, albeit in a different fashion. The irony is that by shedding the things I allowed to define me, I know myself, and have created the space to honor that self, more than ever before. If others find me perplexing, so be it. It’s my life, not theirs. And, I can set that self aside to sit in a seat of greater awareness to appreciate much more of a world that is both disturbing and enchanting.

The above thesis and framework were developed and synthesized studying a number of cultural anthropologists and psychologists as well as spiritual teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Singer, Jeanne-Marie Mudd, Joan Halifax, Adyashanti, and Joseph Goldstein. This is my path to transcendence which, I have to say, has lit many light bulbs for me in the last two years. Probably more so than in any other intellectual/spiritual process I have engaged with in my previous six decades. I feel I have found my path to transcendence. That said, all, or some, or none of this may be applicable for your path. One of the things I have learned is that such pathways to transcendence and sweet peace are as individualized as fingerprints. I share it in the chance it may be beneficial to you, but take it or leave it as you wish.

What I can say is that calm is my new joy. After a great deal of tumult and pain in my life during the last two years, I have found a place of equanimity. The disturbances and discontents that inflicted others no longer afflict me. FOMO (fear of missing out) has been replaced by the equanimity of missing out. Let the rabble roar. If you have triggers, they are yours, not mine. My awareness is elsewhere. My mind is sucking up knowledge like a kindergartner. It is a very different me than the one I left behind. No burdensome expectations or obligations, no doubts, or fears, or anger. Moreover, no hurry. Death will come when it will and I will welcome it in the same manner I welcomed life: with a sense of optimistic curiosity. Whether it is a door or a wall doesn’t matter, because I have my sweet peace in this world and it is simply magnificent.

By |2023-12-01T15:46:00+00:00August 2nd, 2022|General, Recent, Spiritual|0 Comments

Steel Thyself, Part II: Mindful Meditation

In addition to solitude summits (Part I of this series) that are designed to affect a deep and honest questioning of one’s knowledge, beliefs, and circumstances, another beneficial practice to steel thyself is mindful meditation and embracing the present moment.  The simple fact that you are reading this post qualifies you as someone who cares; who possesses a moral compass seated in your cognetic system.  The current Age of Deceit in America is likely disconcerting to you and may have even tipped you from moral outrage into a period of moral suffering.  As the Zen priest, Roshi Joan Halifax argues in her book, Standing at the Edge, “when we are angry and emotionally aroused, we begin to lose our balance and our ability to see things clearly, and we are prone to falling over the edge into moral suffering.” Moreover, such disorientations that arise from suffering make us vulnerable to the deceits and nefarious techniques like gaslighting regularly deployed by perpetrators like Donald Trump who seek to exploit us and oppress us.  Practicing mindfulness contributes to clarity in the here and now, fosters openness to affect creative liberation, and strengthens our focus to discern truth from deceit. A clear vision and a strong mind/heart/body connection is fundamental to steeling thyself.  Practicing mindful meditation affords a time out from the deluge of distractions that degrade our capacity to recognize truth and find purpose in the present moment, which is the only moment that matters.

I have been accused of having the mind of a Border Collie: in a state of constant stimulation.  If your disposition is similar, quieting the mind to develop awareness of consciousness while suspending judgment can pose a significant challenge. Nevertheless, having the tenacity of a Border Collie also portends the capacity and discipline to succeed in chosen tasks which, at the very least, is a useful delusion when it comes to practicing mindfulness.  (I am, therefore, I can!)  As with solitude summits, practicing mindfulness is harder than it sounds, but also holds extraordinary benefits from simple relaxation to mind-expanding clarity.  Think of it as you might working out to strengthen your body; mindfulness meditation aims to enhance your quality of mind—to strengthen the head and heart connection that comprise the cognetic system—the nexus of wisdom and morality that frames our soul.  The neuroscientist, atheist, and author, Sam Harris also suggests that “cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”  There exists power in simplicity, and mindfulness is, simply, “clear awareness.”

Fortunately, mindfulness training is now much more accessible than travelling to the Far East to sequester oneself for days at a time in a state of mute deprivation under the watchful eye of a Buddhist monk, or subjecting oneself to either synthetic or organic narcotics—however effective—before the myriad of research issues associated with their use are available to determine appropriate formulation and dosing.  LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and MDMA (Ecstasy) hold the potential for a number of breakthroughs in alleviating suffering and expanding mental acuity but, as journalist Michael Pollan argues in his groundbreaking personal and journalistic research in How to Change Your Mind, mind manifestation through the use of psychedelics remain in the pioneering stages today due, in no small part, to their politicization in the 1960s  that shut down further research as President Nixon tied them to the political threat of counterculture hippies, which resulted in psychedelics’ unlawful status and a research gap that is only lifting, slowly, today.  In the meantime, there are apps like “Calm” and Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” that provide streaming meditative tutorials and sessions to affect conditioning of the consciousness.  As with physical conditioning, benefits of meditative mindfulness are only available to those with the discipline to do it!

Stated simply, meditative mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s consciousness on the realities of the present moment, while suspending judgment of those thoughts that appear and recede.  As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, meditation begins with relaxation and its end-game is the realization of a “tranquil heart and clear mind.”  As a novice myself, I can attest to the fact that achieving a relaxed but concentrated state of pure awareness is, in itself, an accomplishment of significant benefit.  Relaxing the body and clearing the mind—preferably daily—produces a welcome sense of calm.  The “Calm” and Waking Up” apps offer daily meditations that generally last around ten minutes.  Once you become proficient in these short meditative sessions (which will seem long in the beginning but will eventually seem more like two minutes than ten), you can advance to significantly longer and more involved sessions.  As Thich Nhat Hahn suggested, “In the first six months, try only to build up your power of concentration, to create an inner calmness and serene joy.  You will shake off anxiety, enjoy total rest and quiet your mind.  You will be refreshed and gain a broader, clearer view of things, and deepen and strengthen the love in yourself.  And you will be able to respond more helpfully to all around you.”

Sam Harris underscored the importance of living in the present moment with the observation that “The reality of your life is always now.  And to realize this … is liberating.  In fact, … there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.”  For my own mental health, I like to think of the present moment as my refuge from all those things that bring me worry—that are of deep concern, but are either in the past or future.  Just take a moment and enjoy the now.

By |2019-11-17T14:47:04+00:00November 10th, 2019|General|0 Comments

Shall We Read?

When my now nearly thirty year-old son was a toddler, his incessant demand was “Shall we read?” Or, phonetically, “Shall weeeee reeeeeed?!!”  His favorite, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is probably why I still cringe at cottontail roadkill.  My daughter also acknowledged the family affection for books when, at “Bring Dad to School Day” in third grade, she was asked to introduce me and, in typical Dallas fashion, was also asked to describe what her father “did” since there were so many impressive dads who were doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and investment bankers.  The look on her face—an ashen moment of utter terror—revealed the fact that she really had no idea what her father did.  She rallied, however, and with rosy cheeks stood upright and proudly proclaimed, “He reads!”

Fortunately, reading literature has survived the onslaught of digital disruption as both electronic and printed books remain in high demand throughout the world.  Although social media has sucked too many hours out of our day with substance no more rewarding than the junk mail the Post Office insists on shoving in our box, I suspect those lost hours will gradually be reclaimed once we realize the intellectual calories offered by social media approximates those in junk mail’s close cousin, junk food.  Spend as little time with social media as you do your USPS junk mail and you will be better informed and maybe even happier.  Junk is, after all, junk.

Read now more than ever! is my prescription for transcending the flood of “truthiness” emanating from the lying peeves who have hijacked our Federal Government.  Facts and critical thinking, when properly applied to put forward an argument, or simply weave the threads of an intriguing narrative are, thankfully, flourishing.  Publishers still have acquisition editors to weed out much of the crap.  As a writer, I know that writing well requires reading well, at a ratio of about fifty pages read for every one written.  Currently, I am in reading/research mode for a new book project tentatively titled “American Deliverance” that will attempt to provide a pathway to right the ship of American values, including tools drawn from Stoicism and Buddhism,  such that we can move forward—individually and collectively—beyond the banality of stupidity and avarice that has become a Twitter-shower of toxic distraction.

Recently, I have read four books (all 2018 releases) that I recommend here below to, perhaps, add to your own reading list.

  1. The Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham, describes the discriminating courage of predecessor presidents and civic leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, to remind us that throughout American history we have tolerated and survived treachery similar to what is occurring today to, once again, rise to a higher and clearer embrace of American values. (Full disclosure: I know Jon; Jon is a hero of mine as a presidential historian.  There exists no person more thoughtful, studied, and fair-minded than Jon Meacham.)  Like the standards set forth in the “Sermon on the Mount,” it remains unlikely we will ever achieve perfection in our pursuit of American ideals, but we can (and likely will) recover from our current predicament to form a more healthy and, yes, hopeful future for our children and grandchildren.  Meacham’s Soul of America reminds us that decency is more durable than any tweetstorm.
  2. Our Towns: a 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James and Deborah Fallows, provides proof that, notwithstanding the trolls in Washington D.C., America is doing much better than we might think. This should be required reading for anyone engaged in civic service, especially municipal leaders at all levels.  For the rest of us, it’s like a pain-free road trip through both familiar and unfamiliar towns that, coincidentally, share several factors of success even where doom was the odds-on favorite.  Jim brings his decades of journalistic prowess to bear on the essential question: What makes American towns American?, while Deb’s scholarship in theoretical linguistics provides insights about our chosen words and phrases that reveal our cultural dispositions.  From 2013 through 2016, the Fallows crisscrossed the country in their Cirrus SR22 airplane to study forty-two towns, doing deep-dives with locals to identify what makes America tick.  Spoiler alert: Tocqueville was on the right track.
  3. Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, by Joan Halifax. This is a book for people who care, and who, inevitably, risk tumbling off the edge of their empathetic perch into darkness as they face the challenges of being a good human being in the age of too many bad ones.  Halifax is a Buddhist priest and head teacher at the Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We share an appreciation for the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn who, together with the Dalai Lama, are the only two Buddhist teachers I have ever been able to comprehend.  I can now add Halifax to that list.  In a spiritual practice loaded with abstractions, Halifax is able to distill those abstractions into accessible utilities designed to coach well-intentioned public servants and caregivers to survive the traps and pitfalls that altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement and compassion hold for those of us who actually give a damn about this world and those with whom we share it.  Unfortunately, good people often suffer depression and anxiety at levels that meet or exceed those for whom they serve.  Halifax shows us how to walk up to that edge, stare fear in the face, and prevail.
  4. God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright. Wright and Meacham are fellow Pulitzer Prize winners.  Wright won his for The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Meacham for his portrayal of Andrew Jackson.  With the exception of a couple of years in the late 1980s, when I resided in Washington D.C., I lived in Texas from 1982 through 2016.  I remember when church was something people did before brunch where the Bloody Marys flowed until the Dallas Cowboys kickoff when Shiner Bock beer took over.  Big hair, big boobs, big balls and big bucks were fun until they weren’t.  In the early 2000s, the weird marriage of Tea Party libertarianism, white Christian rectitude, and pistol-packin’ chauvinism drove Texas into a soup of stupidity and cruelty where it remains submerged today.  My affection for Texas—which was considerable—dropped as fast as the rise in its perplexing pride of ignorance.  The state’s leadership today are a group of gun-toting, Bible-pounding, pasty-white, bigoted men who believe Alex Jones of Infowars (in Austin) just might be the next messiah.  Wright, a liberal lifer where armadillos roam, illustrates Texas’ history of mystifying mesquite-flavored madness that whirls from El Paso to Texarkana to Houston back up to Amarillo and everywhere in-between. And, he shows how the state will likely flip back to its bodacious fun-loving self once this period of righteous conceit (Ted Cruz!) is flushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Enjoy your summer!

By |2018-07-12T19:37:55+00:00May 30th, 2018|General|0 Comments
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