On Identity

If you were to ask me who I am, you would expect me to answer, “I am Tim Orr”. After-all, that is who I am, isn’t it? Who are you? Well, you know who you are! In fact, we could ask the same question to every human being on the planet and the answers we would get would be the same; the persons name. Of course. This is obvious.

Have you ever wondered, as I have, why we give people names? Again, obviously, we give people names so that we can tell each other apart, so that we can distinguish between each other during communication. This is all very obvious, almost silly to write about, isn’t it? Or is it? Let’s talk about that.

Many eastern (as in Asiatic) religions and philosophies suggest that there is no “person” to name, that our conception of being a separate “Me, Myself and I” is a complete illusion! They suggest, in fact, no separate “I” exists at all! If you haven’t studied ideas like these, of course this idea sounds preposterous. All we have to do is look in the mirror to see who we are—right? Even people who have studied ideas like this find it difficult to swallow. I’m one of them!

But, what if I were to suggest that the cause and the solution to all human suffering is as simple as understanding, of realizing that our conception of having, of being a separate self, is in fact an illusion!? Sound’s pretty crazy doesn’t it? I admit it does, but as time goes by I am more and more convinced that it may be true. Here’s why:

Imagine for a moment that you and I meet a man who had recently suffered amnesia, completely losing his memory. If we were to ask him “Who are you” or “What is your name?” what would his answer be? He wouldn’t be able to answer, would he, because he wouldn’t know who he is—due to his amnesia he wouldn’t be able to remember.

Next, what if we were to inform him that all of his family had just died in a plane crash? How would he respond? First, he wouldn’t know what a plane is, let alone what a plane crash is! But second, and more important, without the memories of his family members, he would feel absolutely no sense of shock, sadness or loss. Without his memory of them, of course he cannot. His memory, then, absolutely determines his ability to feel sadness or emotional pain.

This example seems to suggest that our memories are responsible for giving us our identities, and for enabling us to feel emotions, especially the sense of emotional suffering, which is the greatest—the worst—of all human problems.

Our brains, like tape recorders, have been recording the events of our lives from birth. We learned who we are from our parents, who taught us our name by repeating it over and over until one day, we were able to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize our-selves. Our collected memories since birth enabled us to build and eventually achieve the recognition of who we are, giving us our sense of being separate and unique “individuals”.

Eastern religions and philosophies attempt, more than anything else, to address, to solve, this huge problem of human suffering. They suggest that the real problem is not the actual circumstances that cause the suffering, but rather it is the individuals perception of who they are during those circumstances that results in their suffering. They say that no separate individual “self” exists at all, that it is our memories that cause the illusion of coherence that we have, as having a separate, individual identity, giving us our sense of being an separate “Me”.

This may or may not be true, but what if it is?

Think about it. Would a traffic jam bother you if you had never driven a car and never experienced a traffic jam before? Of course not. It is your memory of being in a previous traffic jam that comes to mind and causes you to get upset. You remember that traffic jams caused you to be late for a meeting, or for getting home, stuff like that. It is the memory of that happening, and the contemplation of it happening again, that causes you to get upset—not the traffic jam itself. Right? Think about it.

The things that we experience today, then, trigger memories in us, and end up controlling how we respond to our circumstances. Most of Eastern thinking attempts to describe this process, trying to show us that the source of our suffering in life can be explained by these concepts. Do you believe it? Well, who are YOU to believe? Something to think about! It’s had me thinking about it for years.

One thought on “On Identity

  1. i believe this whole heartedly, and have for a very long time. Eastern philosophy is one of my favorite resources. But the real value of having this information is what an individual does with it. Knowing the ‘source’ of our suffering is only the first step.Thanks for a great post!

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