Identity begins with the cry of the newborn infant — yearning, craving, hunger. This is the cry to be known, to be seen, to be heard. This is the cry for love, love that unites the physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual. As the infant grows into adulthood, this yearning takes the form of questions: Who am I? What am I doing here? How can I make a difference? These are perennial human questions that have been asked since antiquity. These are the questions of identity.
Today these are not merely questions for personal reflection. They are urgent. The urgency stems from the seemingly crushing list of crises facing our world today — from climate change to war, poverty, violence, and persistent forms of illness. Surely every generation has had its share of urgent crises, from basic survival — finding enough to eat, shelter, clothing — to threat of invasion, as well as the violence done from one human being to another, best captured by the “seven deadly sins”. This is nothing new.
What is new, especially in the west, is that many no longer trust the institutions that historically have provided guidance and direction. As a result, we see major changes in societal structures that until fairly recently have been slow to change. This is true in religion, government, economics, education, medicine, entertainment, and sports, to name just a few. In the past, each of these institutions were a foundational building block that offerred security. Our identity was defined in terms of the religion we followed, the political party we belonged to, the level of income we generated through career, the education we received, and so on and so on.
Today, all of these insitutions are in flux, and questions of “who we are” as a society have never been more urgent. From racial violence to war to climate change to ObamaCare, we are living through times that challenge our sense of who we are individually and collectively as never before.
For many (certainly not all!) of us in the west, we have plenty of food, water, housing, and access to education. Ours are not so much problems of basic survival. Instead the questions of identity that we face are questions about purpose: “What am I doing here? How can I made a difference in a world that is plagued with suffering? How can I find purpose without falling off into into despair that tells us that human society is ultimately doomed by its own creation? How can we survive this crushing anxiety?
Buddhism offers tremendous power, both in perspective and in actual practices that can be helpful. Buddhism suggests that before we dive headlong into tackling the world’s problems, that we grapple with our personal sense of identity. This requires deep faith, for it means commitment to an examination of self, looking at all the many pieces of who I am, and who I am not, while trusting that this inner personal journey will have value in contributing to a more humane society.
What happens when we take this inner plunge? First, we discover that my usual way of answering the questions “who am I? “what am I doing here?” emerges as a long list of roles, like: wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister, neighbor; and categories of identification: race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; and career choices. The answer to “Who am I?” becomes a statement, like: “I am a white female, of Russian and Irish descent, who is politically eclectic, a writer, dancer, teacher, wife, mother, and daughter.”
Each of these words captures some aspect of who I experience myself to be. But none of these roles captures all of “me”. When I am honest, I sense that even with this long list, there is some other “me” behind or beneath all of these aspects of identity. It’s not that any of them are false or untrue. They are merely the first rung to examine. To go beyond this rung is to tap into what Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron calls the “groundlessness” of our being.
Experiencing this groundlessness is not usually something that we welcome easily. Often it is triggered through an experience of deep loss. It may be the loss of a spouse, parent, child, or dear friend or companion; or the loss of a career, home, community, or cherished dream. We begin to experience groundlessness. It’s a feeling of “coming apart at the seems”, or “the ground shifting beneath us”, or “no longer feeling like myself”. We become overwhelmed with emotions like fear, anger, and sorrow.
This experience of groundlessness happens when our identity, or some part of our identity, is challenged, or we discover that whatever we are holding onto no longer exists, or is merely an illusion. We no longer know who we are and cannot imagine who we might become. In this shifting world of identity we are in a constant state of flux, seemingly unable to find an anchor in the world, or in ourselves.
Ironically, this state of groundlessness in which everything seems to be in flux, is exactly what science is telling us is the true nature of all things. This reality is poetically captured by John Philip Newell who writes:
All things come from you O God,
and to you we return.
All things emerge in your great river of life
and into you we vanish again.
At the beginning of this day
not as separate streams
but as countless currents in a single flow
the flow of this day’s dawning
the flow of this day’s delight
the flow of this day’s sorrows
your flow, O God,
in the twistings and turnings of this new day. (1)
This poem lovingly embraces the flow of reality; or to put it another way, reality is flow. It’s a beautiful concept, and conjurs up images of rivers and streams. Science echoes this deep mystical impulse, telling us in the language of “quarks” and “quantum particles”, that things are not what they seem. Physical reality is not solid and fixed but in a constant state of moving, of flow.
The theory sounds good. When we look at trees and plants and birds and human babies, we see that over time these living forms shift and change and grow. But science is saying more than that. Science is telling us that all matter is moving, and it’s moving, not over time, but right here, right now, in this very moment. In other words, the tables and chairs and the couch that are in the living room are moving. Now it’s one thing to hear a scientific theory expounded but it’s quite another thing to live into this perception. If I walk into a room and perceive the walls moving, I would probably be considered to be having in the midst of a psychotic episode. Welcome to the land of flow.
For most of us, when we look at tables and chairs and couches we perceive them as solid and fixed. Even when we look at living tree, for example, the tree appears still, motionless. Intellectually, we know that the tree, like all living things, is growing. But that is not what see with our eyes. To suggest that our eyes do not convey a true picture of reality is an enormous shift in how we view ourselves and the world. This shift is exactly what science demands of us.
We human beings don’t like this sort of change much. We didn’t like it when were told that the world is round, not flat. We didn’t like it when Einstein said that…………. We didn’t like it when the washing machine came along and changed time honored ways of doing laundry. When science, technology, or some other aspect of reality challenges our fundamental perception of how we view ourselves and the world, it threatens our identity — for identity is precisely how we define ourselves in the world. To change the world means that we must change. It means giving up some idea, perception, or ways of doing things that have been a longstanding part of our experience. My grandmother thought the washing machine was “of the devil” and until she died washed all her clothes by hand.
Most challenges to our identity are on a far more personal level, however. Loss is one of the most profound challenges to our identity. The loss may be through death of someone close — a spouse, partner, parent, child, teacher, or friend. Or the loss may be through the ending of a job or career, whether the ending came voluntarily or not. The loss may be economic, when we suddenly feel frightened not to have enough money to cover expenses. The loss may trigger feelings of despair, if we lose a sense of purpose. Often parents experience this when children grow up and leave the home. Some people look forward to life in retirement, only to discover that one’s sense of structure, purpose, and meaning has dissolved into a huge expanse of time, with no sense of how to use that time productively. losing a sense of purpose.
Any one of these experiences threatens our identity because the loss feels so deep, as if a very part of our body has been taken away. Initially we may refuse to accept the change but sooner or later acceptance comes. When we our identity feels threatened we touch what Buddhist meditation teacher, Pema Chodron calls the “groundlessness of our being”. Our experience of groundlessness happens when what we thought was solid, fixed, and unchangeable is now gone.
The very ground beneath us seems to break apart. This can be a terrifying experience. When something, or someone, or some part of ourselves is suddenly gone, we face the terror of facing the unknown, and may feel profoundly alone.
This experience re-ignites the yearning cry of the infant, no matter how old we are. There is no greater pain than to have this yearning remain unfulfilled. Yet beneath the cry of yearning persists the voracious hunger to live, to grow, to move beyond the experience. I know this pain, this hunger, this will to live.
I loved my mother dearly and was very young when she became ill. When she died, I felt ripped apart, as if my very body were being shredded. With every fiber of my being I tried to will her back, and as the reality that she was gone sank in, I sank into suicidal depression. As I grew into adulthood, I found much success in education and work, but there was an inner hole that no amount of success could fill. That inner hole was where groundlessness remained.
Buddhist meditation gave me a way of approaching that hole, learning to inhabit it. Slowly I learned how to breathe through feelings of groundlessness, and all the anger, fear, and sorrow that go with deep loss. As I learned to sink into my sense of identity as “a motherless child”, I discovered a deeper sense of myself as a child of God, belonging to the world, anchored in Life. The profound sense of loneliness that I had carried all my life began to lift, and I gained a sense of presence.
Though the details of this story are uniquely mine, the process of identity formation is not. The hunger that begins in infancy is a hunger that we all share, and our first experience of identity begins with the presence of mother. As we grow, our sense of identity is shaped through the totality of our experiences — relationships with parents and other caregivers, teachers, friends and intimate relationships; education in and out of school; jobs and career; travel; sports; entertainment and so on.
Deep loss often triggers a period of identity re-formation that emerges out of the sense of groundlessness. Moving through this process, we may find our inner being mirrored in images of hurricanes, war, and earthquakes. We hear the echo of our inner being in various kinds of literature, films, and other forms of art. This harmonic relationship between our inner terrain and exeriences playing out in the world around us is not accidental. Religious scriptures express practice to express this deep resonance between inner and outer reality, offering humanity a place to anchor one’s sense of self, our identity at the deepest levels of our being. Spiritual practice is the vehicle for nurturing the awareness of and trust in this resonance. As we let go the many forms of identity that we have collected, we learn to trust an inner authority. This isnot the ego, but someting deeper. We learn to trust more deeply the process of Life itself, Life moving thru us, Life as context that we belong to. A new identity emerges, more deeply tethered to universal Life.
21st century Christianity (like so many forms of religious and secular institutions) is going thru this same process of new identity formation. In the last seventy-five years, the institutional authority of the Church has been dissolving. This is a complex process of evolution in the west. While numerous explanations can be given for why, there is no question that is has happened. And for many Christians and others, this has been a terrifying process.
As the authority of the Church lessened during the last one hundred years, the institution has had to confront very real questions of “Who are we? What are we? What are we doing here?” This process of reflection has rippled through every level of the hierarchy of Christianity, from the smallest parish to the deepest reflections of the Pope; across all denominations, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and non-denominational forms of Christianity.
This is a process of institutional identity re-formation. Signs of new identity emerging are seen throughout Christianity: new ways of crafting liturgy, worship; use of new technologies; new forms of seminary education that train clergy; new denominations appearing; interaction between Christianity and other religious traditions, both in theological reflection as well as interfaith spiritual practices; in the endless books, journal and magazine articles and blogs about Christianity today —- what it is, what it is not.
If, as science tells us, everything is flow, is there some aspect of who I am that doesn’t change? If “I” am not the various roles that I play, nor my relationships, home, or job, who am I? In some sense, “I am my body”. But while I may think of “my body” as a solid thing — a collection of bones, muscles, organs, skin — these seemingly solid things are actually living structures, in motion with every breath. And how easily I ignore that “my body” is mostly water. “My body” is a potent example of “flow”. It turns out that “I am” is more of a verb than a noun.
And yet, the question remains, is there something beneath it all, even beneath the flow? In the fourteenth century, Catherine of Sienna grappled with this question and answered it this way:
“…. when I finally see myself as I am, I do not discover a little nugget of lonely selfhood…I discover myself being loved into existence.”
In a conversation with God, Catherine reports that God told her:
“…it was with providence that I created you, and when I contemplate my creature in myself, I fell in love with the beauty of my creation.” (2)
Centuries later, Evelyn Underhill echoes these same impulses:
“This is a secret that has always been known to men and women of prayer, something we can trust and that acts in proportion to our trust. Sometimes it is on our soul that He lays His tranquillizing touch and stills the storm; sometimes on the hurly-burly of our emotional life, sometimes on events that we think must destroy us or the people and causes we love and who are mysteriously modified by the Spirit that indwells and overrules them. We do feel sometimes as if we are left to ourselves to struggle with it all. He is away praying on the mountain, or He is asleep in the oat; the waves seem to be getting decidedly higher, the night is very dark and we don’t feel sure about our gear — we begin to lose our nerve for life and no one seems to mind. Certainly life is not made soft for (people of prayer); but is is, in the last resort, safe. The universe is safe for souls.” (3)
(1) John Philip Newell, Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pulishing Co, 2001), page 26.
(2) Catherine of Sienna, Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity, edited by Mary O’Driscoll (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2005, 2013), page 94 (Dialogue 135).
(3) Evelyn Underhill, Light of Christ: Addresses given at the House of Retreat Pleshy, May, 1932 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1945), page 71.