Warrior Exam: Who Am I?
Last month I finished taking the ‘Basic Goodness: Who Am I?’ Shambhala course. This entry is an unedited reflection written the weekend following the end of the course. This post is the first of what will be a new series title ‘Warrior Exam’—inspired by a practice done at Naropa University in Boulder, CO.
When I was in my early twenties I often said: “Who you are and what you do should be one and the same.”
I thought I was quite clever and had ‘figured something out’ with this assessment. What I was saying was that whatever we did for work should have some alignment with who we are. But how I was defining ‘who we are’ wasn’t clear to me—if anyone asked I probably wouldn’t have known how to respond. I suppose I was operating on some notion of a personality and that one’s personality has some quality to it that comes out or should be expressed through one’s work.
But after years of meditation practice and contemplation of koans such as ‘what is this?’ or Madyamakha practices of searching for the ‘self’, I have come to see how the question ‘Who am I?’ does not necessitate a definitive answer.
That is to say, ‘Who am I?’ is not what I do, nor what I think or how I feel. Although it’s not NOT those things either. When I search for a self and don’t find it I’m not discovering that I do not exist, but that I do not inherently exist.
I have come to realise that as a teenager and young adult, so much of who I thought I was became wrapped up in how I was perceived. Not that I let others define me. I wanted the perception others had of me to be an accurate reflection of the perception I had of myself. If I thought of myself as an activist but I was working a retail job I considered mundane, I worried that this would give people the wrong impression of who I was.
It was incredibly important that I be seen. From my observations and personal reflections, this is a key part of understanding the root of suffering. As the four noble truths teach us, the root of suffering is due to attachment — one of the greatest attachments we have is to a notion of self. We cling to an idea of who we are, defining ourselves by our likes and dislikes, our beliefs, our careers, the people we know, how much money we make and so on. But all things being impermanent, and because there is no singular inherent quality that IS the ‘self’, this grasping only causes suffering.
I reacted badly when faced with someone else’s fixed notion of who I was when it was in conflict with my fixed notion of ‘self’. This is something which we can all relate to, regardless of our embodiment or experience. The best practice I’ve found for reflecting on the way a fixed identity causes us (and those around us) suffering is the simple identity of being a ‘good’ person.
When we identify strongly as ‘good’ it causes a lot of problems. There is the notion of perfectionism — if we are ‘good’ people and we see in ourselves something we equate with being ‘bad’ we think we have failed somehow. We have not been able to hold up the mantle of ‘goodness’ and so we are hard on ourselves. We resort to self-aggression, self-denigration, and self-loathing.
This is one aspect of ‘good person’ identity I struggle with the most. I am willing to see where I don’t always get it right, but I have a strong habit of resorting to negative reinforcements to ‘correct’ my behaviour. I am my own worst critic and therefore holding onto a ‘good person’ identity causes me to suffer.
Having a fixed idea of being ‘good’ and what that means in a solid, definitive way, can also cause suffering to those around us. The ‘good person’ identity becomes so important we employ all forms of self-deception is a grand old tool for ego protection.
Again, this is something which I have spent a great deal of time contemplating. While it’s easy for me to see my self-aggression (albeit difficult to refrain from), self-deception is insidious and far more challenging to address. As a someone on the bodhisattva path, I see self-deception as particularly important as it’s a habitual response which is more likely to cause suffering to those around me. Not that aggression doesn’t cause harm to people I love — my wife supports me in this practice by beseeching me to ‘not talk about her wife’ that way when I’m on a self-blame trip — but it does not cause the same kind of social damage self-deception so often leads to.
The ‘fragility’ we see when self-deception is pointed out to someone is a good example of just how slippery our ego can be when it’s trying to maintain our ‘good person’ identity.
We live in a world of social constructs that assign unfair advantages according to skin colour, class and gender. To some degree, almost all of us have an experience of marginalisation and an experience of privilege, since none of us is only one way and, as I pointed out earlier, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to who a person is.
In my specific experience I am given unearned privileges on account of having white skin, being born into a firmly middle-class family and speaking English. I experience marginalisation on account of being perceived as ‘female’ and/or a ‘woman’ and queer/gay. As a ‘good’ person I could assume that my experience of marginalisation means I couldn’t possibly have prejudice thoughts and beliefs. Culturally, as a Canadian born person, this runs even deeper as the education system has a strong bias of Canadians being accepting of multiculturalism and diversity.
On top of that, on a personal level, I consider myself to have a strong social conscience and interest in the recognition, codification and protection of human rights. Quick aside, when I say ‘human rights’ I do not mean the rights which a country or countries have determined as existing or not but the fundamental rights we have as human beings to exist, regardless of our embodiments.
But back to fragility.
If I hold onto a fixed view of myself as ‘good’ (or ‘woke’ or ‘social activist’) and someone points out an unendorsed implicit bias my knee jerk reaction is defensiveness. This was demonstrated beautifully in ‘Dear White People’ (Which if you haven’t watched it, go watch it. Please. Seriously.) During a party, a Black man says to a white man singing along to a song with the ’N’ word in it, ‘Please don’t say that’. Because this young white man sees himself as a good person in a very fixed way, he takes this polite request as an accusation of ‘badness’. He does not hear ‘Please don’t say that’, he hears ‘You are bad’.
This is white fragility; an imbalance in social constructs was pointed out and, rather than addressing a behaviour or getting curious and seeking to understand the fullness of the situation, the individual locks down on being a ‘good’ person.
Years ago, long before Black Lives Matter and the white fragility backlash of All Lives Matter, I totally made an ‘all lives matter’ remark on a post a friend made to Facebook. I can’t recall the exact details, but he was speaking about race issues in Toronto and problems faced by Mexican immigrants in particular. I was nineteen at the time and rather than paying attention to the over-all statement and specific problem he was commenting on, I wrote something I thought was oh so profound about there only being one race, the human race.
My friend’s response was not unkind but very firm. He told me that my remark was unhelpful and based on an ideal that wasn’t a reflection of the social constructs and genuine social problems faced by people who aren’t white or English-speaking trying to find a safe refuge in Canada. He pointed out that I was making an ideological statement that did nothing to address the problem — as if stating that race is a social construct would undo the tension, harm and racist attitudes caused by years of slavery, colonialism and legalised discrimination, much of it unaddressed and ongoing.
It hurt, and it was a blow to my sense of who I was (A social activist, not-racist, an ‘ally’) but I owned those feelings. I owned them and years later, when I saw ‘All Lives Matter’ popping up, I understood why this was pissing off so many people of colour just as much as I understood the simplistic and faulty reasoning (and fragility) behind the ‘logic’ of the phrase.
It also emphasised how important it is to not lock down around ‘Who am I?’ It is a question that ultimately has no definitive answer. ‘Who am I?’ becomes less about finding a single label like ‘I’m a good person’ or a complex selection of labels like ‘I am a queer middle-class activist non-gender conforming woman from Canada who speaks English, practice Buddhism and travels a lot, plus likes reading, meditation and cats.’
For me the question ‘Who am I?’ has become a koan: a question that cannot be answered with the conceptual mind. Who I am is made of parts that lean, that change and that cannot be pinned down.
When I embrace my sense of self as relative, I am open to thinking in new ways and considering how my embodiment, experiences and memories shape how I move in the world. And while it is unquestionable that we change, we all have qualities that are consistent to some degree. From the point of view of my qualities I can say I am curious, willing to learn, but also quite stubborn at times. My stubbornness can be an asset when I apply it to my intention to cultivate compassion, but that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly incapable of apathy. In short, my qualities are, well, HUMAN. Being human, any human, is complicated and changing, as well as changeable. Which means we’re not perfect but we’re also not total lost causes incapable of waking up.
The less I lock down around being one particular way, the more open I can be to expanding my awareness and connecting with the interrelationship we’e all in. The more I hold who I am as an open question, the more I can do the same for those around me.
Singularities do not exist; nothing is inherently one way. But everything relates, including the ‘self’, and therefore the self cannot be pinned down — yours or anyone else’s. As Zenju Earthlyn Manuel says: “There is multiplicity in oneness.”
Who am I?
I am multiplicity.
And so are you.
And so is everyone you meet.
This is the first in what will be a series of Warrior Exam posts. If you enjoyed this piece you’ll probably enjoy listening to my podcast, Everything is Workable.
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