Should you develop a healthy ego-identity or transcend it?
It’s Wise Wednesdays!
I’m back from the desert. Thank you for your patience. I hope you’ve had a great couple of weeks and welcome to new members!
“We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings.” Maya Angelou
Last year, I wrote a Wise Wednesdays on cultural disruption. The underlying premise was that having multiple country origins could enable a greater flexibility of character and better adaptation to new situations.
Personally, I’ve tended to dread conversations about where I am from because it takes longer than I would like, although it’s always interesting to see how the assumptions people make based on appearance can quickly come undone.
IDENTITY AND THE EMOTIONAL CYCLE OF CHANGE
Moving countries (Algeria to UK in Yorkshire) as a teenager and losing some of my cultural reference points, although confusing, I believe eventually helped to enhance my adaptability to new situations because I was forced to let go of anything like a coherent identity.
I did stick to spiritual principles and practices which gave me an anchor and meant that having specific cultural reference points was less vital.
Theories of migration talk of different potential outcomes including rebelling against your new host culture, becoming marginalised, complete integration and the middle-way where a miscegenation occurs and a new mix emerges from a healthy two-way interaction.
You can see that these processes and potential outcomes of migration find their counterparts in the emotional cycle of change that we experience as humans throughout life. We face a new situation, we undergo a change in our view of the world and ourselves, and emerge anew.
As with any change, a premature abortion of the process can lead to stunting in our emotional and psychological growth; and a feeling of stuckness or unfulfilled potential.
UPGRADING YOUR IDENTITY
This trip to Algeria (camping in the desert) gave me a different experience to the previous times (staying in cities). The latter tended to reinforce my perception of the unfulfilled potential of the country for various reasons including comparison to my urban life in the UK.
One of the members of the trip was a highly knowledgeable academic on Algeria and shared a deeper understanding of the history of North Africa. This provided meaning and a pleasant sense of belonging to something beautiful and ancient if not timeless.
For example, the idea that the people of North Africa have repeatedly been exposed to new cultures and integrated what’s best from them whilst retaining certain core values including connection (to others and the bigger picture) resonated very much with themes in my life as a person and in my work. Isn’t that what we do when we are living life to the full and prioritising learning and contribution?
On some level, I think that the change in my perception of my country of origin from seeing it as underdeveloped and lacking, to enjoying it for its rich and unique history reflects the evolution of my own self-perception from feeling I’m not enough, I’m falling behind and always having to do more (fuelling the overachiever trait), to accepting and celebrating myself as I am and creating from the opportunities available to me in the moment.
Lessons from the desert. You’re not defined by a single trait…One member of our trip was visually impaired, yet I rarely related to her as such because she didn’t. She never allowed her physical impairment to define her on this demanding trek and showed rare courage and inspired us to step out of our assumptions. We all contributed to helping her create an experience (for example, by guiding her hand to trace rock art and describing it in a mindful manner) and as a result created a wonderful experience of connection, depth and going beyond perceived limitations for ourselves in the process.)
IDENTITY VERSUS RESPONSIVENESS
But how does this square with transcendence of the personal? Are we global citizens or local identities?
As I learned when studying Social Anthropology and later in Zen, the answer to dilemmas is always both even if it seems paradoxical. The very nature of thought is that it is relative - it’s an interpretation. So if any idea is true, its opposite will also be true under different circumstances or within a different framework.
There are few if any absolute truths. Any attempt to hold onto a truth or an identity too tightly opens the door to confusion and suffering at a later stage. What is now true will inevitably collapse and morph.
Identity can be seen as a loose collection of reference points from which we can respond in stable environments i.e. by relying on behavioural habits that are well suited to our current situation. So in that sense, identity and responsiveness overlap.
However, everything in life is impermanent. If you look closely at each moment of your life, practise mindfulness and are open to uncertainty you’ll know that each moment is truly different. In that sense, habits take away from the deeper experience and possibilities available in each moment. We miss the detail and unique quality. However, our culture doesn’t support spontaneous living and it takes a lot of effort to step into a true openness to each moment in life.
Interestingly, both Buddhism and neuroscience suggest that we are not coherent, specific identities but clusters of responses – and this is a good thing in terms of creativity and fulfilling our potential (see the last Wise Wednesdays). Indeed this conception of who we are matches up to the (ever changing) reality of life more closely.
In summary, barring full out living in the moment, using identity as a basis for responsiveness and self-development is helpful as long as you don’t hold on to it too tightly.
Video: 3 signs your identity isn’t real.
CULTIVATING, LETTING GO, RECREATING
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate in economics said: if you believe in free will then use it. I would extrapolate and say: if you believe you have an identity then develop/cultivate a good one - with the caveat: don’t hang on to it too tightly. The inevitable upgrade will come and you’ll need to recreate yourself in line with the seasons of life, your changing circumstances and the dreams that are yours to bring forth into the world.
Of course, it can be frightening to let go of who you think you are because more often than not, a period of uncertainty and ignorance ensues. It can feel like you might go mad and lose your mind and go mad. There’s a void and it can make you feel very uncomfortable. But when it’s time, it’s time. If you’re unwilling to let go of what seems true when it’s expiration date has come, you’ll find yourself in confusion and stuckness.
The letting go and recreation could be as fundamental as a long held personal identity like being a loyal child. For example, I worked with a bright doctor who saw herself as the successor to her parents in running the family practice and was only able to pursue her own dreams once she gave herself permission not to fulfil that role; and become the intrepid explorer. The letting go could also be of an isolated assumption you make about something e.g. yoga isn’t my thing.
You might spend a lot of time trying to find the right approach or solution to something in your life and get nowhere. If that is the case, why not dig deeper and look at which identity – or cluster of assumptions - you’re holding on to that doesn’t fit with what you want?
Equally, if you feel ungrounded and confused, what new identity – or cluster of assumptions - could you take that would represent an evolution for you? Could you become a leader, a healer or a guide in your family or professional community?
How about others? Could you help someone else let go of an old identity that they are stuck in by reinforcing healthier assumptions and reflecting back new character traits that are emerging in them and that enable them to become a better version of who they are?
As long as you don’t hold on to it too tightly, your identity can still be a healthy set of reference points from which to embody the best you can be at this stage in your life.
Of course, in the end, you can be anyone you like, as long as you are prepared to deal with the consequences…
Have a great week,