Consciousness Without Identity — Path to Enlightenment or Expression of Privilege?
One of the fundamental questions we ask ourselves, as human beings, is who am I? We want to understand who we are and why we are here. Naturally that question often leads to answer about our identity. When we claim an identity, we assert a sense of self that is fixed — something that roots us as a presence in this world. Yet many spiritual traditions teach us that nothing is fixed or unchanging or constant. The only constant is change; impermanence governs our world. As a result, who we are is also in flux. Even if we perceive some aspects of ourselves as not changing, such as gender identity, race, and sexual orientation, we also age, discover new interests, let go of old habits and create new ones.
The spiritual path thus asks us to recognize that we are never a coherent, single self, but an ever-morphing constellation of qualities and conditions that can only experience the present moment. Our efforts to define ourselves, to fix the self into a single, coherent “thing” over time, are ultimately unavailing. Instead of striving for identity, spirituality says that we can embrace a different way of thinking about the self, one that embraces difference and change rather than striving to be fixed and coherent. Can we be in the world without trying to pin ourselves down with certain categories? Can we have a consciousness without an identity?*
In this piece, I explore what it means to reach a state of consciousness without needing to claim an identity. I also explore whether this state, considered in the spiritual world to be part of the path to enlightenment, is also an expression of privilege. Yet many people, particularly black and trans people, have been denied access to their identity, have been told that their identity and thus their existence are inferior, and have been told that do not belong. It is therefore important to ask: Is a path that invites relinquishing one’s claim to identity easier for those whose relationship to identity isn’t marked by pain, trauma, and oppression?
Our Conventional Approach to Identity
Let’s look first at how we typically approach identity. Our conventional models of identity are built on separation. This is the idea that we are autonomous individuals, separate from each other in time and space. An important part of individuation is seeing yourself as a separate, autonomous entity with free will. Identity is a claim to being me and not you in a particular way. When we proclaim an identity, we are also trying to establish a coherent and continuous sense of self, with traits that define us. We declare to the world, “I am _______.” We fill in that blank with traits that align us with some people and distinguish us from others — gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, for example. Some of those categories seem malleable; others seem more permanent. And we have multiple identities, some of which express our associations, preferences, etc.
To claim one’s identity, to say, “This is me!”, can be a powerful and beautiful expression. It is exhilarating when we accept who we are and proudly claim that truth to the world. Those identities are important, psychologically and socially, to our wellbeing. All of us wants to have a sense of self, to feel that we belong. We all want to be authentic, to be our true selves.
The downside is that, the ego always feels a bit threatened. The self is always changing, and from moment to moment, the ego struggles to maintain this sense of a coherent, singular self. The ego believes that our identities are necessary for others to perceive and understand us, and therefore are necessary for our existence. Yet our identities often feel like we’re grasping at something that isn’t solid, like sand falling through our fingers. As a result, to ward off this fear that we aren’t who we say we are, our egos respond in two ways: by expanding our identity, and by defending our identity.
First, our identity becomes this ever-expanding category. More and more of our self is made to be congruent with and an expression of our identity. Our identities may extend to our hair or clothing, to the ways we carry ourselves and how we speak, to what we think are appropriate emotions, and then sometimes even to the products we buy. In this way, identity can become all-consuming so that every aspect of their lives must connect to this identity.
Second, because our egos believe our identities are necessary to our survival, we tend to cling to our identities and defend them constantly. In that way, we are often on alert for where our identity is being undermined or disrespected. It can sometimes feel like we are in a constant state of vigilance, looking to where our identity is ignored so that we are not seen and therefore do not exist. Identities thus function as a defense mechanism against being rendered invisible and unseen, or worse still, subordinated and subjugated. When we defend our identities, we feel that we are defending our existence. For many people, their identities are, in fact, under siege — racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are alive and well in our world.
From Separation to Oneness
The fundamental problem, from a spiritual perspective, is that these efforts at defining ourselves as an identity are never sufficient to the task of understanding who we are. Our identities are always partial claims to the fullness of our being. The truth of who we are — the infinite self or divine being occupying a human body in this world — is not dependent on these identities. All of us have emotions, desires, expressions, and tastes that exceed the rigid categories in which we often box ourselves. We are always changing in small ways, and so our sense of who we are, what we are capable of, and how we want to express our selves, is also always changing.
Seekers on a spiritual path will, at one point or another, come to recognize the fluid, almost ghostly nature of the ego that craves solidity. When you embrace the ever-changing nature of the self, as a mirage created by the mind, that shift in consciousness comes with its own experience of bliss, peace and joy as you let go of so much psychic energy bound up in trying to be “me.” As the boundaries of your ego dissolve, your heart opens, and you connect more easily with others, because the walls of your mind are not being held up to protect your identity, your sense of self, any longer. That is the path toward enlightenment.
But not everyone is a seeker, and this kind of relinquishing cannot be forced on someone who is not ready. Indeed, many people might respond and say that, without identities, we would be invisible, lost, and forgotten, or worse still, we would not be able to resist annihilation, because those who are afraid of difference would then be able to eliminate that difference. Identities, from this perspective, are necessary shields against repression. In this way, identities, as we currently understand them, are primarily defense mechanisms against erasure by another person who sees us as a threat. We resist letting go of our identities because we believe they are necessary to protect us from those who are threatened by difference.
This approach to the self is also rooted in the fundamental fear that in a world without identity, we would all look the same; we could not be unique or different. Many people believe that the absence of identity would lead to homogeneity and the eradication of diversity. That is also not true. Identity is always an effort at consolidation and coherence. It eliminates difference from within us and suppresses the many aspects of our lives that are constantly changing.
Identity, as the ego sees it, is the expression of a mind that believes in separation, that we are separate, autonomous individuals. On a relative, everyday level, this is true. On another level, however, this is false. We are not autonomous, but entirely interdependent. We are like cells of a single organism, working together to create our world. Our lives are never lived in isolation, nor are we that different. Our fundamental needs for material support and emotional wellbeing — for food, water, shelter, companionship, and love — are shared by all of us. The spiritual path is about recognizing this common, shared humanity. This is the basic concept of oneness. We are equal, interconnected, and never truly separate from one another, even if we occupy these physical bodies and exercise free will.
An enlightened consciousness recognizes this inherent oneness. But oneness doesn’t mean the end of difference. All differences — not just the categories we currently recognize and hold onto — are respected. If we were living in an enlightened state, we would regard other people’s differences as equally valid expressions of the infinite possibilities that a human form can take — but without reducing them to an identity. As you awaken and let go of the survivalist mentality that characterizes most of humanity, then others’ differences are no longer threatening to you, and yours are not threatening to them. Nor, then, would you need to engage in the kind of defensive protectionism of your existence, because however you expressed yourself would be seen as a valid expression of your humanity.
The absence of attachment to identity actually allows us the freedom to express ourselves in new and different ways, including the freedom from the ways we have expressed ourselves in the past. The most common categories of identity (i.e., gender, race, sexual orientation, national origin) do not need to be erased. But they do not need to be regarded in opposition to one another, as if we were distinguishing each other in some meaningful way. From this perspective, identity is no longer based on opposition. That is the touchstone now of our identity-based consciousness: I am this, and this is not that. And that is a threat to me, so this is a better way of being, and that should be eradicated.
As you awaken and as your consciousness opens and becomes more and more expansive. You regard everyone’s expression of their humanity as equally valid. You do not judge someone as better or worse or attach value to the kind of expression they have. You see the identity categories for what they are — constructs of a human consciousness that attempts to separate each individual and render them visible according to certain traits. You see how identities are used to defend and justify those differences, by elevating some and subordinating others, which in turn what creates our need to defend to ourselves. Once we relinquish this approach, however, we can see our various traits as part of a constantly transforming divine being whose capacity for expression and change is far greater than our limited categories would suggest. Then we can let go of identities as the anchors that root us in place in the world.
The Role of Privilege in Relinquishing Identity
Some readers may wonder, however, whether it has been easier for me, as a white male, to relinquish my ego’s attachment to identity because I have never had that identity threatened or denied.** The short answer is yes. With respect to my race, I fully acknowledge that I have benefited from white privilege. I have never had to face any question about my right to belong, my capacities or my basic humanity because of my skin color or features.
That does not mean my relationship to identity has been entirely free of challenges. As a gay man, my right to belong, my masculinity, and the value of my relationships have all been challenged, at different points and in different ways. No one person’s experience is ever interchangeable with another’s, so I don’t pretend to speak for all gay white men, but I know what it means to feel like an outsider whose best approach to survival was to mask my desire or to feel the pain that my capacity to love another would always be regarded as somehow inferior to a heterosexual love relationship. A particularly painful episode involved an ex’s mother saying, with complete sincerity, as if that softened the blow, that our love could never be quite as real or deep as that of a straight couple.
This does not mean that racism may be equated with homophobia, as if the experience of one could substitute for the experience of the other. My point is simply that my white privilege makes it easier for me to release any attachment to my racial identity, since my racial identity has not been a source of pain or trauma for me. By contrast, my sexual identity has allowed me to experience what it feels like to be told, for example, that I am not a man, God doesn’t love me, and that I would never experience true love. What this means is that, in my own way, I have had to contend with clinging to and defending my identity as a gay man to feel like I belong in this world.
It is also important to acknowledge that working towards relinquishing an attachment to my identity does not mean that these aspects of myself are eradicated. Even as my consciousness evolves, I in no way deny my history as a white, gay man, nor the extent to which all three of those categories intersect in varying ways with both privilege and social opprobrium. They are my history, my lived experience, and my mind and body carry those memories around with me. So with respect to personal experience, none of it is to be denied, pushed aside, or ignored.
But I continue to see consciousness as an ever-evolving awareness that is not necessarily defined or limited by that past, even when that past remains a part of that self. And so if someone were to say, is Patrick gay or straight?, I would answer that I am “gay.” But for me, gayness is not some core characteristic that requires that every part of my life somehow serve as an expression of that characteristic. It is not a claim to belonging in such a way that my relationships, my personal presentation, my spirituality somehow need or must be an extension of being gay. And I don’t regard my place in the world as requiring that gayness be fully accepted by everyone. I know that I belong because I am alive and here on this planet. My own sense of belonging does not depend on the permission of everyone else in the world. That is helped, of course, by the great strides that have been achieved through social activism and litigation, resulting in gay marriage and the decriminalization of gay sex.
At the same time, it would be naive to ignore that white privilege has played a role in my capacity to feel a sense of belonging and to detach from identity. White privilege has allowed me to live in this world without my skin color or features being a barrier or source of stigma. At the level of individual consciousness, everyone struggles to feel like they belong. In fact, I would say that straight, white men feel internally a similar threat to their existence — so many men I have worked with never feel like they are “real men” and perceive their status as “real men” to be under constant threat. It is that core sense of not belonging, of feeling threatened, that all humans share that leads to the kinds of identity categories we have — internal fear and threat are projected onto the other. If we did not feel the need to hide parts of ourselves or to defend who we are, our concept of identity would be very different.
Yet that doesn’t displace the fact that, particularly for blacks, Latinos, and trans people, their identities are subject to considerably greater attack. No one can deny the systemic discrimination that makes people’s place in this world more precarious. Indeed, for many such groups, their lived experience is one in which identity seems like a critical foothold, something to hold onto and defend at all cost, because, simply by virtue of their race or gender identity, their lives have been denigrated, questioned, and threatened with bodily harm.
That is why, for those who are on a spiritual path, privilege becomes a duty: to the extent that I enjoy an easier relationship to race, the privilege it affords obliges me to let go of it, so that the privilege isn’t something I, as a white member of our society, seek to protect and defend. The fact that it may be easier for me to detach from my own identity as a white person makes it my responsibility to do so so that white privilege isn’t something that needs to be protected and maintained.
Indeed, the very categories of race that we use today have a historicity of their own — as creations designed to catalogue and place in a hierarchy the diversity of human expression. White people needed race (and still do) to protect their own fragile sense of belonging in this world, and have used it for such deleterious ends, to dehumanize, torture and suppress others who were not deemed “white.” As such, it is entirely understandable that those whose humanity has been questioned should speak up and challenge their oppression and discrimination by claiming pride and power in that identity. That has been equally true for the LGBTQIA community, with our emphasis on pride. And when communities face literal death from police brutality and racism that says that black lives don’t matter, it is a natural and powerful response to say that black lives matter. But those are responses to a model of identity by a dominant group that requires and demands that the other be rejected.
An Enlightened World?
What I am advocating is a model of identity that recognizes that our oneness doesn’t mean that our differences cease to exist. They don’t cease to exist as a means of defining our place in a world that needs defending — because our places in this world shouldn’t need defending or justification. To achieve this as our lived reality would require a massive shift in our collective consciousness to an entirely different way of conceptualizing our differences.
Achieving that shift in consciousness is indeed a process, and indeed might even seem aspirational more than possible or even plausible in our world today. For that reason alone, this is not a call to eschew identity politics. The need to champion the rights of and pass laws in defense of certain groups — remains a necessary tool to ensure that peoples’ lives are protected. Instead, I am saying that privilege begets responsibility: The burden is on the dominant group to let go of their own attachment to identity — white people need to address white privilege, straight people need to address heteronormativity, and men need to address patriarchy. When the dominant group that benefits from the identity structure releases its attachment to that identity, and thus to the benefits of any hierarchy or stratification based on that identity, the need for the minority identity to protect itself, to defend that identity from attack by the majority, will lessen and ultimately disappear.
Do I know exactly what that this kind of world would look like? I do not. But it bears repeating that it doesn’t mean the erasure of the many characteristics that we associate with men or women or black people or white people or gay people or straight people. We wouldn’t be reduced to some sort of dull conformity or sameness. Those differences, however, would not serve to separate us. Whites would not be white to differentiate themselves from blacks. Straight people would not uphold heterosexuality to protect themselves from homosexuality. Cis-people would not feel a need to defend their gender identity from trans people. Men would not need to suppress women to feel like men. And the minority identity holders would not need to bolster their identity to protect against erasure or invisibility. Rather, all of these characteristics would be options reflecting ever-expanding possibilities of what it means to be human. And those differences would be a source of awe, wonder, and curiosity, not fear or disgust.
What those pieces would mean for a sense of self would also be different. How we thought of ourselves and others — our very concept of “identity” — would shift dramatically. We would approach each other with great curiosity and respect for our “fullness” — all of the characteristics that are part of our individual psyches and lived history that don’t neatly fit into preconceived boxes and labels. But what would it mean to say that I am black or white, gay or straight or male or female. Perhaps those very categories would shift, evolve, and perhaps even disappear, to be replaced with something else; after all, “sexual orientation” and “race” are modern constructs. I would see you, and you would see me, in our complexity, as different ways of the Divine taking form, without reducing each of us to a discrete set of categories, and without erasing our differences or pretending they didn’t shape the course of our lives. In this still-emerging world, our very existence would be rooted in the belief that our humanity, our right to belong, and our basic goodness are not up for debate or negotiation.
Our identities would not need to be regarded as something that guarantees our existence, separate and distinct from each other, in a simple binary. For example, rather than dividing ourselves up into a few, distinct races, we would see multiplicity in skin tone and morphology. Rather than dividing the world into men and women, we would see those categories as but two options among the various ways in which our bodies can take shape. Rather than attaching to difference as a means of separating and differentiating ourselves from other, we would celebrate and respect and continue to multiply our many differences, beyond the kinds of categories we currently use to understand each other.
We do not, of course, live in an enlightened world. So this is not a call for everyone to jettison their identities or act as if they don’t exist. That’s the same kind of naive thinking that leads people to say that “they don’t see color.” We can’t ignore that identities exist. They are already a part of our collective consciousness. But they exist because we have created them. Their historical evolution makes them malleable, but that kind of transformation takes time. Rather, consider this a call to hold them more gently. Hold them gently, for yourself and others, because most people still do need the life raft to feel that they belong, and no one’s spiritual growth can be rushed. As we progress on the spiritual path, as we deepen our relationship to the Divine, we come to worry less about self-preservation. The natural result of that shift in our minds is that our grip on our identities, as the anchor that guarantees our presence here, loosens and softens.
This is the promise of the spiritual path, and why it is incumbent upon us to wake up to our true nature. And whatever privilege each of us has should be in the service of that awakening. For as we awaken to our true nature, as utterly perfect and divine creations capable of living in unity with the rest of the world, we can regard our identities as a kind of a stepping stone, a way of claiming our place in the world until we realize that we no longer need to do so. We don’t hold onto them as if they were life rafts in the ocean of life. We see them as more playful, as wonderful expressions of who we are right now, recognizing that we are not bound or limited by those identities. We come to embrace, and help others embrace, the fundamental truth that we all belong in this realm. Not because we claim an identity and demand that others see us as such. Rather, we belong — as do all of our differences — simply by virtue of being alive.
*An earlier version of this piece was published in Oracle 20/20 in May 2018.
**A portion of this essay is based on powerful and insightful feedback from a reader who wondered whether it was easier for me, as a male with European features, to relinquish my sense of identity. The reader also raised the question of what kind of relationship she could have with identity when her lived experience of oppression in the United States as an African-American had deprived her of an authentic relationship to her own culture and cultural history. For readers interested in our exchange, please visit the original article, https://authenticthought.net/2018/06/05/true-meaning-of-consciouness/, and the comments. I am grateful to Dr. Free for her sincere and heart-felt reflections and engagement, which greatly contributed to this version.