Thursday, November 29, 2007

Identity Crisis.

For the most part the issue of identity doesn’t seem like a critical matter. It’s an assumed given until circumstances and conditions begin to shift in unavoidable ways. Such times of crisis bring into sharp and painful focus the basis of our assumptions. A young person, almost overnight, moves from youth into the turbulent seas of puberty and suddenly the question of identity looms large. An adult having spent years building a career suddenly faces a job crisis and begins to wonder about what lies down the road. In the autumn of our lives we may look back upon our springs and summers and question in bitterness, the vacuousness of life. Such moments of crisis precipitate troubling questions about identity, stability and security.

Many years ago I read my very first book on Zen Buddhism by Alan WattsThe Wisdom of Insecurity. The book left me with a haunting and indelible feeling in my gut and forced me to question the basis of my own identity and security. I’ll never forget the primary message: The only thing that is secure is something that is essentially dead. Everything else is insecure. Why? Because life means change. Life is movement and anything that moves is not a good basis for security. Before going further please go back and read my posts on “The Wall” and “The Ladder”.

Twenty five hundred years ago Siddhartha came up with a solution for suffering and established the Four Nobel Truths: 1. Life means suffering 2. The origin of suffering is attachment 3. The cessation of suffering is attainable, and 4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering. At the very heart of the problem of suffering lies attachment—Clinging to matters we wish to retain and resisting what we don’t. Both are forms of attachment and both are directly tied to one legged ladders leaning against non-existent walls. And the pinnacle of the path is learning how to detach from shifting sands and experience the wall. In the west, crisis is to be avoided. Curiously our view is tied to our obsession with independence which has the unintended consequence of stranding us with no life raft when the storms arrive. It is one of the two aspects of attachment—resistence, the precursor of fear.

In the East, crisis is understood in a more realistic way, as both danger and opportunity. This way of understanding is even built into the Chinese orthography with two characters pronounced as “Wei Ji” (shown above) reflecting the balanced and realistic view that danger and opportunity are complimentary (two legged ladder). The truth of danger is that it does bring crisis and if managed properly can lead to extraordinary opportunities. But when the tidal waves of adversity strike, it sweeps us away from our independent moorings and we discover a choice: either we ride our illusions to the bottom or we switch to a different and more stable ship. In my next posting I intend to take the next step and begin to explore the nature of identity and the foundation upon which it stands.

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