Recently I heard someone on the radio explaining the new crime of “identity theft,” and I immediately thought, “Yes! Rob me, please! Take my identity and leave the cash!”
I can regard my entire Dharma path as a matter of shifting identities, and it all started with me trying to run away from myself—the sentimental, histrionic drama of me-ness. The Buddha says that the false conceit of “I” or “self” is the bane of our existence, and I was indeed relieved when I began to see through the various membranes of personal identity. But what really surprised and delighted me is what I saw on the other side. It turns out I am not who I thought I was—I’m much, much more than that.
For the most part, we each live in our own story, and it’s pretty much the only one we tell, as though we have a scratch in our mental record and the same lines get repeated, over and over again—about my finances, my friends, my family, my stuff.
It’s too bad because while each of us is lost in our private drama, we don’t notice that we are taking part in grand epics and heroic, noble projects. For instance, even while reading e-mail or shopping for socks, we continue to operate as breathing cells in the great body of life on earth, part of a fascinating, multi-billion year experiment in biology and consciousness. Whether we know it or not, we are always playing a role in the story of evolution, and recognizing ourselves in that role can be a skillful means on the path of self-liberation.
Of course, in your own story you are always the star but in the big story of life on Earth, you are just a bit player. In fact, an itty-bitty bit player, just a walk-on part. But that is the point. “You” can disappear into this grand perspective, like walking into a Chinese landscape painting and getting swallowed up by the deep gorges of bamboo forest and eternal sky. You can move out of the personal into increasingly large circles of inclusion and identity until finally you can point in any direction and say, along with the great Indian mystics, “Tat tvam asi"—“I am that.”
When I see myself in an epic story such as evolution, I find relief from my personal drama. The Buddha explained the effect to his son Rahula, noting that if you take a teaspoon of salt and place it in a glass of water it will make the water taste salty. But if you put the same teaspoon of salt in the Ganges River it won’t affect the water’s taste. Likewise, your personal drama can be dissolved in the seven seas of life and the great ocean of space-time.
Strange to say so, but one of the best things I learned in meditation is that I’m alive. I had rarely noticed it, but through increasing awareness of body and breath I began to pay attention to this mysterious condition. Now my identity includes the fact that I am one of the living! I am a live one!
You too are a member of the sangha of the living. Welcome. Glad you could make it. Life on earth is now appearing as (your name here) “___________."
The path of meditation reminds us that we are alive by leading us from our heads into our bodies. We come down from the story of our life to the fact of our life. My teacher S. N. Goenka told me to sweep my body with awareness, and slowly but surely I became familiar with my nose and my toes, and what poet Mary Oliver calls the world of “lime and appetite, the oceanic fluids.” This bag of bones and seawater came alive and started to take over from my ego as the foundation of my identity. You might say, I was “born again,” as an animal. I had joined a grand and venerable sangha.
To witness myself in the story of evolution, I feel a surge of compassion for the struggles of all life. Let’s face it: The basic rules on this planet are a bitch. But the phrase, “May all beings be happy” has a deeper ring to it when I regard myself as in the same world as those who dress in feathers, fur, scales, leaves, and bark.
Now when I sit in meditation I can feel my aliveness, my mammalian condition, my species self. I also sense my practice as part of a group effort by human beings to awaken to a new kind of freedom and sanity. Meditation has been called an “evolutionary sport.” In the light of that big perspective, I thank you for being on my team, part of this exciting project, helping us all to realize our precious, collective, human potential.
This essay is reprinted with permission from You Are Not Your Fault, and Other Revelations: The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Wes Scoop Nisker, (Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint Press, 2016).