The question of identity is a difficult one. Much is made of the personal quest for identity. We talk about it before we really know what identity is.
We all have a name, usually given to us. It acts as a receptacle, a pot into which experience can fall. All those events, a lifetime of them, happened to So-and-so, that person with that name. We are given passports, identity cards, health numbers, national insurance numbers… all sorts of references. What do they do? They pin us down, but they’re just labels. They make legal actions possible, but they don’t ultimately define us. They make person-to-person commerce possible, but we are not that commerce.
Sometimes, when we enter into other communities, we acquire new names. Actors generate new names for their public identities. Religious people are given new names to place them in a tradition, and separate them from their old lives. Sometimes society gives us extra pieces to our names, such as Dr, Sir, or Lord. All these things give others clues as to how they might see us, how they might treat us.
But we are not our names. That would be like saying that a pot of jam is its label. We say ‘here is some jam’, but the words only point, they don’t become. Whenever we use a name or a label, we are suggesting there is something present. But we are aware, hopefully, that the label we use is not the same as the thing itself.
If we are not our names, what are we? We can try to point out our parts – arms, legs, etc. But these can’t be us – they are just separately labelled stuff. In the end, the more we analyse what we mean by the labels, the more we have to admit that we have no idea who this is.
On a casual, everyday basis, labelling is enough. We meet others, introduce ourselves, lead a normal life. But on a spiritual basis, we become increasingly aware that no label is adequate. Presence is all we have, all we do, all we are. We can’t separate ourselves, isolate ourselves, from the universe around us. All we can do, all we could ever do, is… well, there’s no word for it.
Just for today, try dropping names, and just being present, wordlessly, wherever you are.