5-minute read – From the day you arrive in this world, you start creating an identity. That identity becomes your jail – it is the constraint your mind builds around you. Your identity consoles you and keeps everything manageable and predictable. But it severely limits you. It has to die – you have to die to it – before you can truly live.
It takes courage to escape your identity because the escape path seems unknown and dangerous. Of course it would… it’s all you know. But freedom is achievable. Simple daily practices open the way. And the freedom is sweeter than you can ever imagine from behind bars.
What is this jail?
Identities include anything we human beings call ourselves. We generate a sense of belonging or pride through being identified with our set of characteristics. Ironically the more we identify – the tighter we’re locked up – the safer we feel. We are used to our jails and we like them. As long as we treat or jailors well they look after us.
Have you heard of Stockholm syndrome? It’s a contestable illness where hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity. Victims come to believe that if they hold the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be perceived as a threat, and so they are safe. We rationalise similarly with our identities – as long as we conform to them we cannot feel threatened by them leaving us.
Examples of our identities include nationality, religion, race, dietary choice, ideology, political or social stance, political party, profession, gender, sexual orientation and moral standing, and many other minor and major things we cling to as defining who we are.
So my jail is: White, South African, male, Christian, heterosexual, moral person, engineer and writer.
What is freedom?
Freedom is always an act of opening. Like the jail gates literally opening, freedom from your identity is opening to other identities. Sounds easy and mundane. You may think you do it all the time. But properly breaking out is radical. It’s breaking down the gates and running into a field where you have none of the secure space you had in the jail. It’s frightening. But it surely brings freedom.
This break is letting go and truly walking in the shoes of others. Rather than associating the self exclusively with any one or more identities, it is opening to all the categories people have created and enthusiastically embracing them.
It means re-evaluating and accepting as equally valid (or invalid) all identities that are not yours. And then identifying with them.
So my freedom could include fully identifying with being black, or gay, or being a totally untalented and poor writer.
What freedom could be yours?
The keys to freedom
The key is realising that we are all exactly the same under our identities. We may judge some identities better or worse than others, for example we say the policeman is better than the rapist. But deep down, the rapist, once free of his or her identity, can access something inside him or her that may be the same as the policeman. This something is the real self.
The epiphany of our likeness makes it a joyous human adventure to open to all humanity’s identities, understand where they originate, what drives them, and how they relate to other identities. It is through this adventure that we discover our true self.
It is through this adventure that the true breath of freedom, namely compassion, transforms our lives.
Identity and ego
All identities are merely creations of ego. They are attempts to reinforce our sense of self over others. We fill our sense of self up with these identities and we think they define ‘me’ over ‘you’, or that they can make ‘us’ better than ‘them’. It’s a psychological survival instinct – like the Stockholm syndrome.
We latch onto identities to build on the false and constraining perception of separateness. This perception keeps us certain, strong and dominant – it is secure, even if besieged, behind the castle gates.
The pervasiveness of ego is exactly analogous to jail, being separated from others, not being able to contact and touch fellow human beings and the rest of the world. Strong ego presupposes separateness. Severe egotistical self-absorption is like solitary confinement.
We are all denying ourselves freedom in the same jail, hidden from each other in our separate cells. We all have a feeling there’s something different outside the cell, something more free and open and boundless. But we’re scared to go out because that would mean leaving our cells – it would entail letting go of our identities and experiencing others.
This human condition is the most fundamental cause of pain and suffering, both internal pain such as psychological dissatisfaction, depression, neurosis and paranoia; as well as physical problems in society such as inequality, war and hatred.
Compassion is seeing our common pain.
It is realising that all identities are surface characteristics that develop as we try to make sense of our common human condition.
My identities are no more me than yours are you. I can see through mine. And I can see through yours… blurry… through tears of compassion.
Letting go of identities is natural with the movement of compassion. We are able to die before we die. In other words, we leave the constraints of our physical separateness (the jail of identity) and we walk out into the open and connected eternity.
There is one practice that is most important in helping us break free. It is meditation. Nothing fancy. Nothing esoteric. But simply intending to let go.
Find a mantra, or word, which is the symbol of your intention to let go.
Sit quietly for twenty-five minutes twice a day, and gently start mentally repeating your word. Whenever thoughts and emotions draw you out of the quiet, simply gently go back to your word.
You will find that this daily practice of letting go of thoughts and emotions, has you starting to feel free in your life, and starting to feel open to others – in compassion.
You may read my other blog posts for more information on meditation.