August Monthly Ministry Theme: Identity

Buddhist Group A Buddhist Perspective 

By Nancy Thompson

Ministry Theme for August is Identity

Last month at a group meditation retreat, in silence, among people who aren’t familiar with me, I was known to some as the woman with coffee — coffee was something of a contraband thing, not prohibited but not provided. I brought my own. To others, who shared my assigned daily work of cleaning the community center, I was the one who obsessively went over the checklist each day to make sure everything got done. I was a meditator, a student, a roommate.

Without the usual social cues of speech and context, identity gets stripped down to behavior and appearance. Name and history and stories don’t mean much when you aren’t having conversations. And that’s part of what happens when you sit in silence — you get glimpses that identity is mutable, relational, contextual, rather than something solid that you own. The stories that we think define us carve habitual patterns that can be hard to break out of, but our minds are the only things forcing us into those ruts.

“If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.” —YongeyMingyur Rinpoche

In any given day, each of us has many identities — spouse, pet owner, parent, householder, employee, customer, etc. — even though we’re only one person. We can’t be all things to everyone but we can be many things to many people.

Seeing the multiplicity of identities and the lack of solidity in each one allows us to wear our identities loosely, leaving room for things to move in a different way. A boss doesn’t always have to be authoritative; sometimes listening to others’ ideas is appropriate. A parent doesn’t always have to know the answer — knowing how to look something up or being willing to try something we’re not expert at can be a good lesson too.

“Misfortunes and obstacles to practice do not exist intrinsically. For something to be a misfortune for me, I must identify it as such,” Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace says. If we refuse to identify something as an obstacle but see it instead as an opportunity or a challenge, we approach it differently. “We can then rebound from these calamities with courage and understanding, instead of wilting under their pressure,” Wallace adds.

The Buddha said that there is no solid, permanent self or identity — all we have are our actions, our karma. And we can always choose to act differently.  We can’t chose our race or whether we have a disability that affects how we move or other visible characteristics, but we can choose how we relate to that identity, just as others choose how they relate to that in us. Do we define ourselves by what others see in us or do we focus on showing them something that’s hidden? Do we chose to spend time with others who share an aspect of our identity or to vote in a bloc — identity politics — or do we cast a wider net?