What brings about our suffering in life – when we get right down to it – is our terrible narrowness and rigidity, and identity is the narrowest and most rigid thing there is! Identity is so narrow and so rigid that it doesn’t actually belong in the real world at all – it belongs not to reality but to the world of names and designations, the world of definitions and evaluations. We like the world of definitions and evaluations however – we really are very fond of it. We’re fond of the world that has been defined for us by thought just as we are fond of having an identity – it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. We are fond of living in a defined world as a defined identity because this allows us to orientate ourselves, obviously enough – we can say who we are and where we are and what we are all about, and this feels good! This feels good – as no one will deny – but it also brings about unending suffering. There are two ingredients in this particular package, not just the one.
This is of course just another way of expressing the traditional eastern teaching-formula which says attachment causes suffering, which is more familiar to us but which at the same time tends to be understood in an overly simplistic way. It’s not so much that we are attached to things or people (although of course we are) but that we are attached to the type of orientation that we are talking about here – the orientation of knowing who we are and where we are and what we are supposed to be doing in life. If we can readily answer these questions then we are considered by all and sundry to be orientated and this is taken as a sign of good mental health. There’s no confusion here, we’re on the same page as everyone else, we are adapted to the world that we have been given to live in, and so on. This assessment of ‘orientatedness’ is only a measure of our mental health on a very superficial level however – it’s the appearance of good mental health only.
To be sure and certain of all our parameters in this way is actually a guarantee of suffering, as we’ve just said, and anything that is ‘a guarantee of suffering’ can hardly be said to be a measure of good mental health! We want to be defined in this way because that gives us our sense of identity, our sense of knowing who we are and what we are about, but this desire for security, when acted upon, prevents us from having any connection with who we are behind the narrative, behind the neat and tidy cover-story. We have been provided with an answer, an explanation, but it is a hollow one, a false or superficial one, and no happiness or well -can ever come out of it. No sense of meaning can never come out of this false understanding of who we are – how can a sense of meaning come out of this business of living life on the basis of who everyone else says we are, after all? That isn’t a recipe for a meaningful life, it’s ‘a recipe for mental unwellness’!
The problem is that we have, in our haste to have a sure and certain explanation of who we are and what life is all about, short-circuited the whole process of life – the idea (even if we don’t know it) is for us to quickly skip ahead to finding out the answers to the existential questions so that we can then get on with the important business of ‘living life on the basis of the sure-and-certain identity that we have thus acquired’. That’s where the real satisfaction in life lies, we imagine – not in this awkward feeling of not knowing ‘who we are’ or ‘what it’s all about’. That’s the basic idea but it just doesn’t work out as we imagine it should. It doesn’t work out the way we thought it would because there just isn’t any solution satisfaction or fulfilment to come out of living life on the basis of a spurious identity, an identity that ‘isn’t who we are’, an identity that is nothing more than a cheap gimmick. There isn’t any fulfilment to be had from this way of living life because being attached to a thought-created identity (of whatever sort) involves being fundamentally disconnected from what actually is true – which is clearly a situation that doesn’t bode at all well for us.
There is – undeniably – this very strong urge or desire to ‘say who we are’, or to ‘assert an identity’. When we do this then that feels good, there is satisfaction (of a sort) in it. This type of good feeling comes about not because we have achieved anything real however but because we have managed (successfully, it seems) to run away from something that frightens us. We are running away from ‘wide-openness’, we’re staging an escape from the Realm of Unlimited Uncertainty – which is what the philosopher Kierkegaard calls ‘the dizziness of freedom’. We want to be told who we are (or we want to believe in the story of who we tell ourselves we are) so as not to have anything to do with all those open-ended possibilities. Open-endedness isn’t good news as far as we’re concerned. We want to skip that, as we have said; we want to skip all that uncertainty and rush on to the logically unchallenging business of ‘living life on the basis of a defined identity’. We want the security of knowing what it’s all about so that we can just ‘get on with it’ in a mechanical or non-exploratory way, and the very big problem with this – which we are painfully slow to see – is that all of this business of ‘thinking that we know what we’re doing’ and then just ‘getting on with it’ is profoundly meaningless.
So there is this euphoric feeling of accomplishment or attainment when we assert who we are, or when we are rewarded by society by being given some honourable or prestigious identity, but the euphoria in question (which is the euphoria of winning at what James Carse calls ‘a finite game’) very quickly ebbs away leaving nothing behind but a dreadful sterility. The defined identity is always sterile – as we have said – it is always sterile because it’s an act of denial with regard to who we really are (or what life really is all about, which is ‘growth’). It’s nothing more than a convenient fiction that allows us to turn our backs on the ontological challenge that life is presenting us with. When we perform a manoeuvre that enables us to escape from whatever awareness we might have of how much bigger the universe is than anything we ever could have imagined then this feels good; we get great relief – but this isn’t the type of good feeling we get for any kind of a wholesome reason. Very clearly, this isn’t a ‘wholesome’ sort of thing at all! We get a rush of euphoria for sure but that is only the (very temporary) good feeling that comes from denying what we don’t want to know about. That type of ‘good feeling’ doesn’t really help us!
When it comes to identification then it’s very much a matter of ‘Marry in hast, repent at leisure’. We can’t live life when we are saddled with an identity – all we can do is go through the mechanical motions of asserting and reasserting that sterile identity over and over again in the forlorn hope that some good will come of it. All we can do is continue to move through the repetitive steps of ‘playing the finite game’ (which is consolidating ‘who we think we are’ when ‘who we think we are’ is a dull fiction) rather than exploring the possibilities of what we genuinely might be – uncertain though these possibilities may be. The possibilities that lie in store for us when we put all our money on consolidating the fiction of who we think we are add up to a big fat zero, whilst the possibilities that await us when we relinquish this comforting illusion (the comforting illusion of the Mind- Created Identity) are infinite. The possibilities here are infinite and that is precisely why we want to run away as fast as we can in the opposite direction, so to speak! We experience terror when faced with the unimaginable vastness, and comfort when we retreat into the pointless, tedious world of the small and the petty, and that’s why we continually engross ourselves in playing finite games in the way that we do.
Our fear of vastness is the same thing as our love of the mind-created certainties which we have surrounded ourselves, in which we have buried ourselves. Ontological terror drives us meekly into the welcoming arms of thought, in other words; the comfort we obtain from the act of believing our thoughts (however bland, however banal, however stupid or malign they might be) is the perfect remedy for the fear that holds us in its grip when we confront open-ended reality. Thought always creates a world in which there is no ‘open-endedness’ – the Mind-Created Virtual Reality is a world that contains no mysteries, no ‘discontinuities’, and that is precisely how we know it to be false (if we care to know such a thing, that is). How could we have ever put ourselves in this position where we have to accept the wretched banality of the thought-created world as being the same thing as reality itself? What kind of a trick is this to play on ourselves? Instead of life, we have to make do with a grey, pointless bureaucracy – the grey, pointless bureaucracy of thought – and that dreadful old bureaucracy won’t ever let us go (bureaucracies never do, after all). Because we are under the power of thought (which is the position we have put ourselves in) we cannot help believing that what the rational mind says is real actually is real, and so we are obliged to try our hardest to get thought’s bureaucracy to ‘work out for us’, which it never will. No matter what we do on the basis of the thought-created identity, things aren’t ever going to work out for us. We however are in denial of this; the conditions of the deal we have accepted require us to be in denial of this – if we are to continue believe ourselves to be this Mind-Created Identity then we obliged to ignore (or misunderstand) all the suffering that comes about because of this. We are obliged to ‘stick with our story’ no matter what, in other words, and this is of course always the way with denial…