It’s striking how little you need to exist. Every day we slip in and out of multiple family, social, and cultural identities, but then reduce ourselves to a government ID. And yet if you examine a day, just one ordinary day, it’s striking how little you exist at all. Just look at me.
From the moment I wake up, I do not exist at all. I’m just a door-opening appendage for the dog, and the dog needs to pee. Lilly doesn’t know my name at all, I have no idea how she sees me. Am I a packet of smells, an occasional yell, a scratching machine?
I have no name to this dog at all, and this is how humans spent 99.999% of existence. Just because we started giving ourselves structured barks a few million years ago, suddenly that is reality? Who am I to say the Beagle’s inchoate perception is incorrect? I’m the one picking up her shit.
My next identity is a relationship. Appa! Are you awake Appa! I’m up, putha, give me a minute, let me brush my teeth. Then the kids are banging on the bathroom door again, to tell me some dumb shit which they must tell me, because I am just an extension of their identity. They still don’t get the sense that what’s important to them might not be important to me. But again, who am I to assert perceptual hegemony? I’m the one still washing their butts.
Adults are supposed to be kings of the world, the fully-formed avatar of individual identity. In my experience, however, it’s just a lot of janitor duty. I don’t feel like I’m the king of shit, unless you mean literally.
Most of the day and, indeed, most of existence is like this. We are relationships. We are husbands, parents, coworkers, comrades, enemies. We are defined by other people, defined with other people, and yet we cling to one identity.
Since the Buddha people have been telling us this is illusion, that it just leads to suffering, but it sure feels real, especially under Capitalism. Capitalism requires (and thus creates) proof of this singular identity. And that somehow overpowers the evidence of our everyday lives. We think that we are our bank accounts, our citizenship, our private property.
Even though we are constantly sharing money, constantly organizing communities, constantly sharing resources, we’re made to feel like these are anomalies. We’re made to feel like these are just private choices made by discrete selves, and not completely different planes of being.
Everything from Descartes to Disney tells us to ‘be yourself’, to be your wallet, to be your individual freedoms and liberties. But most of the day is still lived with other people, without money, and with constant social responsibilities.
My wife (more than me) is constantly thinking about other people, what they need, why might bother them, and who we haven’t seen recently. This is a huge part of her brain space, an entire web of distributed identity. This distributed identity isn’t just something experienced by a discrete self. It is a self of its own. A social identity.
You can feel it. Think of your loved ones right now. It feels great when they’re doing good, but you can feel it when they hurt. When they die it feels like a limb is removed, it’s in many ways the worst pain a social animal can know. The social identity feels pain, who are we to say it’s not real?
I would rather lose a limb than my children. I would rather see my individual identity dismembered than lose part of my social one. Why is the individual plane of existence considered more real (and therefore) important than the actually important one? Because I need one username to access my Netflix account? Do you know how many people I actually have on my Netflix account?
Governments and businesses need individuals to be citizens and consumers, but that’s not who we are. We spend a fraction of our days voting or buying stuff, yet we live in a daze, thinking this is who we are. The Buddha said the self was illusion, but this is considered some esoteric knowledge. It’s not.
Just observe your own day, and see who you are. Are you not part of a family, a community, a culture, a history, a species, a planet? If you’re lonely, do you not have my voice in your head right now? You’re not alone really, we’re in a conversation right now. Even in the most isolated situations we can read or just remember the words of distant poets and prophets, connecting us to a web of humanity beyond both space and time. In our darkest hours, do we not often hear the voice of God?
This idea that you have to be you all the time is frankly exhausting. The Buddha said attachment to self leads to suffering and it does. It’s not natural. It’s not who we are. Animals and children naturally know this, but adults—in our miserable arrogance—have forgotten. We have to go the long way round, through reading or observation, but I’m telling you different planes of existence are readily found. Just walk through your day and observe who you’re with. Then understand, that’s who you are.