Identify With Nothing

“You can’t even trade a single fart with the next guy. Each and every one of us has to live out his own life. Don’t waste time thinking about who’s most talented.” —Kodo Sawaki

The single biggest obstacle in my mindfulness practice is my ego. I have always tried to identify with things outside of myself for my sense of self-worth. I’ve come to terms with this thanks to my meditation practice, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still creep in. So, this post is not just about myself but about The Self, and how we obscure a true understanding of the self in favor of more shallow external signifiers.

Culture
For a while I identified strongly with the cultural stuff I liked— music, art, movies, etc. I valued these things not always for their own sake but instead for what their virtues signified to others. Was I just another pleb who loved ‘popular stuff’ or did I have a more refined sensibility? Was I just a run of the mill hipster or did I have extreme or obscure taste? How would I convey this to others in ways both subtle and tasteful enough to seem organic?

This is the trap of cultural intelligence. The hipster or the connoisseur convinces himself that what he likes, or loves, defines him. Not only that— he convinces himself that liking X and not Y makes him good. Finally, he denies this egoism vehemently and wonders why he feels unfulfilled!

Granted, stuff that is considered culturally ‘superior’ is often valuable, but that doesn’t mean we should identify with it. What I found was that I was only capable of truly enjoying culture when I let go of this sense of attachment and follow my gut. My tastes have become markedly less cool (piano music and Romantic painting) but I have certainly become more comfortable with who I am. Worth it? Yes, 100%.

Politics
Like most liberals and conservatives alike (in my case the former), I grew up never asking any genuinely penetrative ideological questions. I only questioned “the other side”— their character, their intelligence, their motivations. When you do this you basically just judge anyone who doesn’t think like you as inherently inferior. How egoistic is that? But of course you spare yourself from this judgment, lest you recognize the fragility of your own thought!

I bought in to our era’s uniquely subtle progressive brand of propaganda and social conditioning and I was, of course, as wrong as any other fundamentalist. I no longer consider myself a liberal, nor do I hold views inherently appealing to either side of the limited American political spectrum. Most importantly, I keep my actual opinions to myself, lest I be crucified by my virtue signaling readers.

This is another trap— the trap of ideological commitment. No matter how smart you are, as soon as you identify yourself with a specific ideology, your intelligence stops there. Why? You stop asking questions and start making assumptions. As soon as I realized that I was forfeiting my brain in order to feel committed to being “the good guy”, I quit. I started reading political and philosophical literature on every end of the spectrum rather than just the stuff that agreed with me.

This is how one cultivates real intelligence, by sparing nothing. Sometimes it means staring into the abyss. Other times it means staring into complete nonsense. But it’s worth the journey because it jogs you out of your conditioning. I now know that every political movement in history in every quadrant of the spectrum, from right to left to anarchic to authoritarian, believes they are doing the right thing. What varies is their definition of what ‘right’ and often a fundamental variation in their assumptions.

I love this. I have enjoyed discovering countless new worlds of thought outside of my cultural conditioning. Escaping the trap of ideology has taught me not to identify with my politics, but instead of be completely honest with myself, to read, and to observe.

Achievements
I am quickly learning just how slippery the slope of ambition is. When we yearn for the next accomplishment, we turn ourselves into mindless crackheads. We thirst for the next dopamine burst, whether from a new romantic partner or an exciting business transaction. People lose themselves in these goals because they inevitably become intertwined with the self. As soon as you identify with your achievements, you set yourself up for suffering and needless clinging.

Meditation has helped me detach from my achievements. Ironically, this has led to me achieving more than I had when I was obsessed with success. Instead of thinking I’m hot shit for accomplishing something or thinking I’m a failure for missing the mark, I simply tend to what must be done today. In focusing on the present, the future and past become irrelevant. When I am truly lost in the moment, whether it’s writing, cleaning the house, or working on my business, I find myself. This only occurs when I apply the meditative mindset of non-attachment and let things unfold naturally.

Meditation teaches us not to cling to anything. With clinging comes delusion. With delusion comes suffering. All that you can realistically do is focus on what you have to do today. Do it without seeing it as a means to an end or an obligation, but instead as its own form of meditation. With this attitude, life becomes a grand experiment in constant mindfulness. Sometimes we miss the mark, but we never feel like failures because we are unattached to the mark. Every ‘failure’ is a chance to learn, every ‘success’ a chance to be humble and skeptical.

To wrap this all up, I find it useful to contrast these two concepts: losing yourself and losing your ego. When you’re fully engrossed in the moment, you lose your ego and find yourself. When you’re always thinking about the next thing and acting and clinging mindlessly, you lose yourself and think with the ego. Meditation trains us to let go of the ego and to stop identifying with everything we do and everything we consume. It lets us exist as conscious agents of activity within the world without being influenced by its trappings.

A 240-page collection of my writings is available here.

Support Daily Zen with a small monthly or one-time donation.
Get Daily Zen delivered to your inbox.