Is Your Biography Your Identity?


   The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, wrote that our age has "reduced identity to biography.” In other words, this age has bulldozed us into the reductionist and limiting belief that, our sole identity is our physical, bodily experience through the span of a lifetime.

 And that’s it. And that’s all. No greater dimensions of substance or value exist.

 We are merely physical entities, paddling along in this canoe or that, until finally going over the falls and disappearing into nothingness.

 O’Donohue, with reference to Meister Eckhart, was writing that that understanding of identity is too narrow.

 There is more to us than that: "Identity is a more sublime and eternal presence." (John O'Donohue, Meister Eckhart, Selections from His Essential Writings p.vii)

 That is, there is a deeper identity within, deeper than the physical, a “more sublime and eternal presence.”

 The idea here is that you and I are a more than. We are more than the physical dimension. We are a deeper identity. We are more than our biographies. More than our life experiences and stories.

 There are manifold and ageless dimensions within each of us, calling out for acknowledgement and recognition.

 Put simply: We are more than we think we know

 It is my good fortune to live in a very quiet condo complex overlooking a rather large pond surrounded by carefully cultivated gardens. It's a place of peace and tranquility, usually...

 One evening not long ago, the serenity was shattered by the loudest music I've ever heard here, coming from a condo several floors above me. 

 The music was so deafening that I could not hear the television set. The sensory bombardment went on and on. I went outside to investigate.  

 I soon learned that a sixtieth birthday was being celebrated.

 The birthday boy, who I thankfully was protected from seeing, was, I was told, dressed up as Elvis and dancing around his living room! Hence the raucous sounds. 

 Well, bless him. I hope he had a good time.

 But I have a question for my neighbour about his special day. Likely, of course, never to be asked.

 I want to ask him: 'On that important day in your life, was there a moment in it when you felt yourself to be "a more sublime and eternal presence?'

 On your special day, did you experience yourself as more than a sixty year old party boy? Did you have a moment when you got past being Elvis?'

 On the Elvis impersonator's birthday, I hope there were moments when he enjoyed a reflective and intimate conversation with someone about what he has learned in his sixty years.

 On his sixtieth birthday, did he pause for a moment to ask: 'What have I become as a man?’ What is my identity? Do I have one? 

 A main current in Thomas Merton's thought was that much of the time we are all pretending to be something we're not. 

 We may not be dressed up to look like Elvis, but have worked hard to create some other persona over the years and have lost touch with any deeper dimensions. 

 We're all great fakes, thought Thomas Merton: "Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person, a false self." 

 It is all too often that spurious self which is on display at the social bash, or for that matter, wherever human beings gather. 

 Merton calls the packaged presentation the 'illusory person,' a "false and private self, who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love, outside of reality and outside of life.”  

 "Such a self," says Merton, "cannot help but be an illusion.”  

 Merton goes on to say that "for most people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which, Merton adds, "cannot exist.” 

 This sham of a life, "devoted to the cult of this shadow," is what Merton called a life of sin.” 

 For that surface self, says Merton, is but a shadow of something more real. It is false and illusory. 

 There is rather a hidden substance beneath the surface. Inside every human being, there is unmined buried treasure.    

 There is inner treasure, which, according to Meister Eckhart, is a "dimension of the soul that neither time nor flesh nor any created thing can touch.”

 That treasure is an "eternal inheritance" and "we are the custodians of infinite thresholds."  

 Thus there is indeed a deeper identity, which is so much more than we ordinarily or usually believe ourselves to be. 

 We are, as I repeat the theme, more than the life we have lived. We are an identity more than our particular biographies!

 According to Eckhart, as interpreted by O’Donohue: “There is a place in the soul that is eternal. Time makes you old, but there is a place in the soul that time cannot touch."  

 Which, says O'Donohue, is a "lovely thing to know about yourself." 

 Encouragingly, O’Donohue states: "Even though time will inscribe your face, weaken your limbs, make your movements slower, and finally, end your life - nevertheless there is still a place in your spirit that time can never get near." (J. O'Donohue, Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom p. 188)

 "You are", says O'Donohue, "as young as you feel. If you begin to feel the warmth of your soul, there will be a youthfulness in you that no one will ever able to take away from you."  

 O'Donohue is encouraging the seeker to "inhabit the eternal side of your life.  "It would be sad," he adds, "on your journey through life, to miss out on this eternal presence around you and within you."  

 It would indeed be lamentable to live a life in conformity with our modern culture’s downgrading measures of identity.

 This culture measures the worth and value of a human being in terms of "its idealogy of strength and image.” (O’Donohue)

 Our society is all about the 'outward show,' so that, for instance, the idea of beauty in our culture has been reduced to mere good looks.

 The pressure upon us is to be noticed and applauded by measures of "externality, image and speed.” 

 Whereas, in contrast, says O’Donohue,"real beauty is a light that comes from the soul.”  

 But, weighed down by the pressure, we may have trouble believing that hidden beneath the surface, is a domain of beauty, light and joy.

 And so, settling for less, we focus externally and neglect to look within. 

 A meditation teacher has said that "it is hard to recognize spiritual joy when all your past experience has come through the senses, from the excitement of desires fulfilled." (Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Inner Treasures, p. 18) 

 Nevertheless, it is possible, she says, "to experience a Joy within that exists without dependency.” 

 Gurumayi calls it: "A Joy that is whole. A Joy that is everlasting. A Joy that never decays. A Joy that is free from likes and dislikes. A Joy that places itself in the service of God, that never leaves His presence for a second. A Joy that is contagious, that is giving. A perfect Joy that really does exist in everyone's heart."   

 Which took some time and a struggle for this meditation master to learn. 

 Though taught by her teacher that she was a 'temple of Joy,' Gurumayi confesses that she did not believe it. 

 Over and again she was taught to “Turn within. You've got everything. Look inside.” 

 Her teacher, in particular, asked the students to cultivate the awareness: "I am perfect, I am pure, I am bliss, I am love."

 Gurumayi describes her struggle and breakthrough in this way: "I remember an Intensive my teacher gave in 1980. He talked about God or Shiva as the inner presence in each human being, the deepest, lightest, most vibrant part of us."

 He said: "Have this awareness. Repeat it to yourself: I am Shiva. I am perfect. I am pure. I am love."

 Now, says she: "On that particular day, I wasn't exactly in a sensational state."

 "So every time my teacher said: 'Have this awareness. I am Shiva. I am pure,' "I kept telling myself, No, I'm not!

 "I thought: "That's not what I feel and I'm not going to fake it!” 

 Nevertheless, her teacher kept repeating: "Have this awareness. I am Shiva.  I am love."

 And Gurumayi in response kept thinking: "Oh no. Not Again. Can't he understand? Everyone's heard him. Everyone's got it. I don't want to hear it again.

 Resisting him, and increasingly full of anger and frustration, the young woman who one day would bless so many people around the world exclaimed: "That day, it seemed, he just couldn't stop. He kept saying it and saying it, over and over and I kept feeling more and more horrible.” 

 She concluded: "That's not for me, at least not today."

 But then “finally, after what seemed like eons, I suddenly found myself hearing the same words being spoken inside me, I am Shiva."

 "The words started to ring inside me, and yet they were also beyond me - beyond my mind, beyond my state." 

 "They grew stronger and stronger, resonating through my entire being. I am the Self. I am perfect. I am love. I am Shiva. Hearing this, I went into deep meditation." 

 The shift had occurred. In deep meditation she felt herself going "beyond me, beyond my mind, beyond my state”, never to be the same again. 

 And thus affirming the theme of this article that we are more than our biographies

 We are a deeper identity. There is a surging life within, which when accessed, will change everything.

 In light of that, you can expect not to hear from me on my sixtieth birthday.  I'm likely to be somewhere far away from partiers and noise, in a hidden, undisclosed location.