The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Meditation for the Original Sin of Identification

Humans are bundles of identification. We identify with simple things: our emotions, feelings in our bodies, thoughts. We identify with the patterns of those things, and call them “personality” and assume that we are our personality.

We identify more grandly. Perhaps we are a Muslim, and someone burns a Koran and we get upset. A person like us is hurt, and we are angry or sad.

Perhaps we identify with ideological positions. We believe in God, and someone says God doesn’t exist, and we are upset. Or, perhaps we believe there is no God, it’s impossible, ridiculous, and stupid, and when someone says there is a God, we get upset. (And yeah, I’ve seen this many times with more hardcore atheists.)

We want to use a group as slaves, on the other hand, so we decide they aren’t human. If they aren’t human, but sub-human, we won’t feel bad when they’re hurt. (Lack of pain from someone being hurt with whom you don’t identify is something that shows up, or rather, doesn’t, on brain scans.)

A terrorist attack happens in London, and Westerners are upset, but one happens in Baghdad, and we don’t care.

It’s all degrees of identification. From that which is close to us – from our daily sense objects of feeling, emotion, and thought in the body, to people living thousands of miles away or even ideas and ideologies.

One of the primary tasks for cultivating any spirituality worth the name is learning how to deal with this confusion. Generally, there’s two ways of doing it: Either you’re all of it, equally, or you’re none of it.

If you don’t identify, you suffer less. It’s that simple. If you have a bad thought but don’t think of it as “yours,” it bothers you less–if at all. Even pain is reduced if you don’t think of it as yours.

This is one reason why a major milestone on the path, in almost all traditions, is the realization “I’m not the body.”

But the key point is this: Less identification is less suffering. And, oddly, it doesn’t reduce the good things in life. It improves them. This has been my experience, and it’s the experience of advanced meditators I’ve talked to as well.

All right, all the introductory verbiage aside, here’s a simple exercise.

Find a sense object: It could be a thought, an emotion, or a feeling. (Nothing exists in consciousness except sense objects.)

Ask yourself this question:”If this was not here, would I still be me?”

Answer it.

Move on to another sense object.

And that’s the entire exercise. Do this over, and over, and over again.

Yeah, that’s probably going to be boring. That’s the thing about meditation, despite all the blather about bliss (which does happen sometimes) a lot of it is boring. What you’re doing is a directed inquiry into your actual existence and reprogramming what might be termed your subconscious. That takes repetition, repetition, and repetition, until suddenly something clicks, and a new way of existing takes place.

The difficulty of meditation is only in doing it right, and then doing enough of it.

Give this one a try if you’re so inclined, see what  you find out. Do enough of it, and see what changes.

Disclaimer: There are two particular psychological dangers to meditation: de-realization and de-personalization. These are dangers because the core insights of meditative traditions amount to “I am not what I thought I was.” This particular type of insight meditation aims directly at such a realization, and it can cause psychological problems if it goes askew, or in people who are already prone to these issues. If you have reason to think that might be you, you shouldn’t be doing this meditation.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 28, 2019


Thank God I Was Born Before Cellphones


  1. George Vockroth

    Good on you for the disclaimer. I believe the type of meditation you describe here is called “dry insight,” and focuses on only half of the reality of what is discoverable in meditation. The other half involves stabilizing attention to the point that one comes to rest in aware presence where identifications are recognized and simultaneously released from any compulsion to be acted out. In this way de-personalization and/or de-realization is mitigated in the ongoing formation – via ever more subtle recognition/release – of a wiser and more compassionate reality based identity. Thus might there be less suffering for oneself and others with whom one is involved.

  2. Gunther Behn

    This wasn’t the point of your post, but: Consider what it must take for persons to be so completely disconnected from harm done to others (watching a digital feed as something far below on the earth explodes comes to mind) that it doesn’t matter.

  3. s-b-t

    I had to chuckle a bit when I first started reading this. I live near Baltimore, MD, USA (after living in the city for 20+ years), and I couldn’t help but be perplexed with all the people who “love Baltimore” crawling out of the woodwork in defense of the city they love, nearly the instant Trump rattled off his comments about the west side.

    Not that I support Trump in any way of course. However the message he sent wasn’t his alone. In previous years, various politicians and personalities – plenty being Baltimore residents and people of color – criticized the city. These criticisms weren’t met with the same “I love Baltimore, how dare you,” etc. as they are now that this guy is the messenger.

    I suspect that most of these fair-weather friends are less fans of Baltimore than they are haters of Trump. It would be nicer (and more productive, even) if they admitted that, though. Bloviating that Trump is a racist and what not doesn’t improve city conditions in the slightest. Supporting the people, activists, and organizations that really do love Baltimore will, though, and moments like this only allow fakers to blend into the mix.

    My apologies if this meandered too far off-topic.

  4. DMC

    Very much of Religion as a whole boils down to “don’t be attached to the objects of sensory perception, as they are but transitory phenomena”.

  5. Eric Anderson

    My thoughts go immediately to memory encoding. The links between emotional responses and long-term memories are well established. As I’m sure we can all testify, we remember best the things in our lives that are associated with strong emotional experiences. So too, the feeling among those of us getting on in life of: “Where did all the time go? I was just in highschool!” Well, you don’t remember 9/10ths of it because it wasn’t emotionally encoded. It was just boring old humdrum life. And we forget it.

    And how might we study this? I just spent about 10 minutes going through the literature and it seems my question hasn’t even been approached.

    So, let’s say the meditator has achieved some minimal level of emotional arousement due to mastering the techniques Ian describes. Can we ask that person about what they don’t remember? Hmmm.

  6. Ian Welsh

    What happens, in fact, is that emotional responses to old memories/trauma/etc… lose a lot of their power. One is less and less controlled by conditioning.

    Not sure about the memory effects, though I suspect there would be some.

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