Where We Experience from:
How Identification Shrinks Us...
This is my best attempt in a simple secular way to clarify what identification is, how we do it, and what its impact is. (I'm writing for people not already over-exposed to good clear teachings on this - there are many accomplished spiritual teachers and rich voices in this territory, who live the truth of this more deeply than me). Nonetheless it's a process and a topic worth our attention:
Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa once opened a class by drawing a V on a large white sheet of poster paper.
He then asked those present what he had drawn.
Most responded that it was a bird.
“No,” he told them. “It’s the sky with a bird flying through it.”
How we pay attention determines our experience. When we’re in doing or controlling mode, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground—the bird, a thought, a strong feeling. In these moments we don’t perceive the sky—the background of experience, the ocean of awareness.
This teaching story is so simple. It points to space and how we take it for granted, and tend not to see it, focusing instead on 'content'. Yet learning to experience the space in which everything arises - to allow it a stronger presence in our experience - is a powerful thing. It allows us to move from a state of contracted 'Identification' to an experience of Presence.
What do we mean by Identification?
For many years in spiritual contexts, I came across the term 'identification,' knew it was important, but didn't really seek to understand it. In retrospect, like a lot of us, I think it was still too fundamental and automatic an impulse to have the space to see it as a phenomena.
Yet the perspective we experience from (the 'who' we take ourselves to be) is profoundly impactful: it can be the difference between a spacious, allowing ease when feeling bad, or allowing feeling bad to dominate our whole sense of self and identity for minutes, days or years, dictating moods, eroding our joy, limiting our capacity to experience. So if we become even a little more flexible in the intensity with which we identify, everything in life has more space - we begin to create the luxury of more tolerant, easy atmosphere in which experience - whether beautiful or difficult - arises.
Are we experiencing from Identification or Presence?
We are in a state of presence when awareness is primary: we feel spacious and relaxed, ‘empty’ of any particular agenda, simply experiencing. Identification is very different: When identified, we believe ourselves to be defined by the content of what we are experiencing: success, failure, humiliation, joy. We take ourselves to be the 'one' who is failing or succeeding, and, in that moment, narrow our sense of self to fit that belief.
This is a bad idea for two reasons. Firstly, as Daniel Kahneman reminds us ‘“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it’, - in other words, the emphasis created by the act of thinking itself contracts us. Secondly, and more importantly, when we identify – particularly with the conviction that something is wrong - we weave more suffering, because we attach to something difficult and make it dense.
When presence is primary, a great relaxation occurs, an expansion of capacity to meet life freely. The more often we experience this, the more our trust deepens that we can naturally tolerate whatever arises in our experience.
Identification is an activity, a mental action that I engage in to connect myself with something.
AH ALMAAS, THE UNFOLDING NOW…
But Identification is an extremely powerful force. It tends to occur both automatically and unconsciously, particularly when we are suffering. Sometimes the process of moving from a state of open awareness to identification is most apparent when waking: at first we are a blurry not-quite-self, gradually it dawns on us that we are in the vicinity something difficult; we wake further, listen to a few layers of thought, and as we do we sense the slow morphing of a depressed or worried self into shape. Now, we are a sad or anxious person, and so the day begins.
If we want to break this cycle, we need to understand how identification takes place: When we believe any particular quality defines us, we ourselves do something: we add a mental image to bare reality. Instead of merely feeling the sensations of anxiety, we believe the thoughts that it gives rise to and constellate a 'self-image' in relation to them. We do not see that we are adding a layer on top of our direct experience which traps us inside a shrunken (and often troubled) sense of self. Prior to this action, we are something else – something bigger and less particular: open and unrestricted - akin to Trungpa's empty sky.
True presence…doesn’t care what it is.
It is totally un-invested in itself.’
To experience ourselves as the space in which life is manifesting is to open out like the sky; to bring our sense of self back to something prior to definition or limit. This is not to reject difficulties, but to allow them to arise within a wider field. As Almaas writes, ‘The feeling is actually just a momentary wave, but we don’t see that. We don’t see that we are something bigger than contains this feeling...If you are sad, you could welcome the feeling, experience the immediate fullness of sadness, without identifying with it. And the only thing that can do that, that can completely pervade sadness, is presence itself…’
Yet Identification is so automatic and so swift a process, it is notoriously hard to transcend. Learning to attune more richly and more often to experiencing ourselves as Presence usually requires our commitment and some kind of meditation practice or discipline. This is why, if we want to challenge it, almost all of us need some form of meditation training. Through this, in a sense we are cultivating space and our attunement to it, learning to place our attention differently – on ‘the one’ who is experiencing, or on the raw sensations of our experience rather than on how the contents of our experience, and how they reflect on us.