No-Identity Crisis

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Investigating your identity can show you what you’re clinging to.

“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” — Pema Chödrön 

Recently, I attended a great reading of the new book The Forever Marriage by Ann Bauer. During the Q & A, she encouraged anyone who felt stuck or curious about something they were writing to stop and write about it.

What a great gift this piece of advice has been. I journal just about daily and often my poems come out of those bits and pieces hashed together. But seldom do I go back when I’m stuck in a poem and reread it with an eye toward writing about it.

My past few writing sessions (you’re reading one of them now) have been devoted to exploring the recent poems I’ve worked on in order to find out what is going on.

I already knew that the recent loss of several different relationships had sent me inward to investigate “what went wrong.” When things I do or say hurt people, I always want to know, so that I can understand their feelings, apologize and sleuth out the unconscious patterns that I have that likely led to my doing what I did or saying what I said. I call it “putting it through my internal channels.” Not that I always come up with a definitive answer, but I usually figure out that in some way it was caused by fear.

Fear of loss, for example, is a big deal to me, as it is to most of us. I’d say it’s a pretty universal thing to be afraid of. As I’ve been writing my side of the story of what happened during recent events, I’ve noticed the strong threads they have to past events.

I’ve been working to let go of my past since I made a conscious decision to do so at 25. Now at almost 40, I’m still struggling. My search led me back to a conversation from some months ago with my friend Jane. She was telling me about the work of Eckhart Tolle — specifically his book, A New Earth. I went to my local bookshop, but they didn’t have that title. Instead, I chose his book The Power of Now.

I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe that we attract people and events (and even books) to our lives that we need. I definitely needed this book. Sure a lot of it is information I already knew, but I didn’t really see or feel it.

One of the key takeaways from the book for me is that time is a delusion of our minds and an attempt to avoid whatever is happening in the present moment. Tolle writes: “to be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time; the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. This creates an endless preoccupation with past and future and an unwillingness to honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be. The compulsion arises because the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”

The part about the past and the future shaping our identities is the part that I realize I’m working through. I’d say that I’m having a no-identity crisis.

In reviewing my work, I realize I’m writing about the loss of self. And, I don’t mean loss in a negative context. Loss itself is a false concept. As Pema Chödrön says, things come together and things fall apart. We want to get to a state of “nothing to hold on to” in order to be free of the fear of loss and the pain that causes.

It is necessary then, to lose my ego. Letting it run the show is definitely the thing that causes me pain and has caused pain to others. Chödrön writes in her wonderful book The Places That Scare You that “the fixed idea that we have about ourselves as solid and separate from each other is painfully limiting. It is possible to move through the drama of our lives without believing so earnestly in the character that we play. That we take ourselves so seriously, that we are so absurdly important in our own minds is a problem for us.” She also reminds us “self-importance hurts us, limiting us to the narrow world of our likes and dislikes. We end up bored to death with ourselves and our world. We end up never satisfied.”

Egolessness is not about not having a personality, it’s about having flexibility and curiosity. Chödrön stresses that it’s about cultivating the capacity to “relax with not knowing, not figuring everything out, with not being at all sure about who we are – or who anyone else is either.” It’s about not having fear of not having resolution. It’s about understanding that there is no resolution. Think about that for a minute. It blows my mind.

So, that’s where I’m at these days. I’m poking holes in my own identity. I feel broken open in a way that I’ve never experienced before. It’s really, really scary to challenge my very important version of the story, question my belief systems and challenge my assumptions.

One simple way of saying it and wrapping this up is to say that I’m challenging my assumption about losses. The people that have come and gone from life recently (and previously) are dearly loved and missed, but I didn’t really lose them because I never had them in the first place. I’m trying to really grasp that change is constant. I may talk to these people again, or I may not. The important thing is to focus on what is.

I’ve no idea what’s going to happen. All I can do is try to move away from the madness of time and focus on right now. I can choose to drop the story lines I make up about people and events to make myself feel bad or good, learn to recognize and stop my emotional chain reactions and just sit with the energy of each moment and cultivate compassion.

So, here’s to waiting and living in the present moment. Here’s to letting go. More important, here’s to understanding that letting go isn’t about loss. It’s about coming to terms with the idea that letting go and moving on isn’t about leaving a wake. It’s about leaving awake.

Heidi Wachter is the community engagement specialist for Experience Life.