A Case of Mistaken Identity?



“During our dependent and vulnerable childhoods we develop the psychological, behavioral, and emotional composite that we later mistake for ourselves.” — Dr. Gabor Mate


In zen, one’s “true self” is often explained as “no self,” or a self so interconnected with and interdependent on everything else in the universe that there’s no separate “there” there. This is sometimes called the emptiness of self.

Yet self also has a form. In the net of interdependence, each intersection of the shimmering strands of being creates a unique jewel, a form, that reflects the entire net within itself. It’s this identity — a zen-spirited word that manages to connote both sameness and uniqueness — that I want to discuss today.
According to Dr. Mate, many of us suffer a case of mistaken identity: we confuse an environmentally conditioned set of adaptations with our actual self. And then we compound the error by presuming that this self is fixed, even hardwired somehow — genetically, perhaps — and therefore beyond the reach of transformation.
The only thing more disturbing than such an assumed, immutable identity is the realization that it might not be accurate. Because if we’re not our conditioning, our karma, then who are we? I don’t think the emptiness of interdependence is a sufficient answer to this question, although it’s part of the truth.
“The emotional contexts of childhood interact with inborn temperament to give rise to personality traits. Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, [but] only coping mechanisms acquired in childhood. There’s an important distinction between an inherent characteristic, rooted in an individual without regard to their environment, and a response to the environment, a pattern of behaviors developed to ensure survival.”
Bearing our inborn characteristics, we develop in such a way as to ensure the best chance of thriving within a particular environment: a given place and time, family, class, culture. Then the environment changes, and sometimes we do as well. But sometimes it’s as if we never noticed the change in scenery. We keep doing the same things even if they aren’t necessary or desirable in our new environment. One of the reasons we do so is that we’ve adopted our adaptations as our identity, the essence of who we are, rather than a by-product of where we were.

Even our genes, the modern version of destiny, are sensitive to changes in our physical and emotional environments, capable of being switched on or off by various external and internal mechanisms. One of the most powerful of these influences is the thoughts and emotions that we choose to fuel with our time and energy.

How do we distinguish our true selves from our “convenience” selves? Inborn characteristics from environmental adaptations? Which is not to imply that inborn characteristics are good and environmental adaptations are bad. It’s recognizing which are which, and learning to work with them all to polish our moon: to continue becoming our best and brightest selves over the course of our lives.

Who are you, really?

And if you wanted to, could you change your self, and never be the same?





2 thoughts on “A Case of Mistaken Identity?

  1. Molly, this post was wonderful and most relevant for me to read at this time. I just finished reading a book called “The Key to the Problems of Existence” by Mikhael Aivanhov. In it he describes your lower case “s” self and upper case “S” Self in terms of personality and individuality. A good example of how the personality/ego is so delusive is that I was able to wake up every day at 5a.m. to sit zazen and still the concept of how fallible my precious little identity was managed to escape me. Much later now am I putting some emphasis on relegating the ego.
    It was a good reminder that a great deal of who we are is inborn and defines us in a great way. The job isn’t to annihilate the ego. I feel like our higher nature is inherent but overshadowed. Identifying with a higher nature in myself, I am able to more easily relegate the ego to a safe and contained operating space. Though I know this is an unending work of a lifetime, already I can’t believe how much idiotic stuff I don’t say these days!
    I like the question at the end of your post. If you wanted to, could you change yourself and never be the same? I now believe it to be true. Meditation, prayer, contemplation are the vehicles. Instant gratification tends not to be the fruit of this labor. However, I (and I think most people) have applied a great deal of effort and tenacity to frivolous endeavors at some point. And now I can at least take the skill of steadfastness I had cultivated and put it to the lifelong work of sifting, sorting, and selecting my thoughts.

    • You make many excellent points here, Martin! So all that effort invested in “frivolous endeavors” wasn’t wasted; it taught you tenacity! This is the symbolism of the rakusu and okesa: that delusion and enlightenment are sewn together, because the first leads to the second. So enlightenment depends on delusion. I wonder whether anything is ever really wasted. Certainly not if we make a continuous effort to learn from our experience. Henry James exhorted us to “try to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” I like this aspiration, and especially for spiritual practitioners and artists, I think it’s essential. We want to be noticing all the time. I also like the saying about the ego making an a terrible master but an excellent servant 🙂

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