Insight 13 - Plateau #3:
Identity and Attachment
Before moving on to examining awareness in greater depth, let's take a moment to notice the ground we've already covered.
Our "base camp," where we started our journey, was the common-sense, materialist understanding of who I am: my body and the set of subjective experiences contained within it, including my bodily sensations, my thoughts, and my feelings.
Although we may not have been aware of it at the time, this understanding also comes with collection of other things.
For example, my bodily sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant, and unpleasant sensations can be short-lived or chronic, mild or acute. My thoughts may include ideas that are interesting or unhelpful, memories that can be happy or unhappy, opinions that may be true or false, and a variety of other stories, including judgments, resentments, problems, false beliefs, and doctrine. My feelings may be pleasant or unpleasant in a variety of ways, and in each individual feeling may be manageable or overwhelming in its intensity.
As long as I am all of these things, my very being is like a small sailboat floating on an ocean that, at times, can get quite stormy.
But as I begin to see all of these things as distinct from Who I am, that little bit of distance can potentially provide a tool that wasn't previously available to me: detachment.
Consider why this is so. Detachment is only possible when I can see that there is a distinction between myself and something that I am observing.
As a workaday example, suppose I own a collection of sports cars that I bought one by one in my teens and twenties. During that time, I rebuilt them, restored them, maintained them, raced them, and otherwise enjoyed them. Also, during that time, I met and married my wife, we had two children, and we bought a house.
Now I'm 30, and the cars are no longer really a fit for the life I'm currently living. It makes sense to sell them so that my wife and I can better support our growing family.
This is no problem at all if I am a person who has a collection of sports cars. I simply sell the cars, hopefully for a good price.
However, it's a big problem if I am a person who, to some extent, believes that he is a collection of sports cars.
For example, suppose I unconsciously equate the cars with my youth and vitality, both of which are tied in with a collection of memories and feelings that I consider to be inseparable from Who I am. Now, without quite realizing it, my identity is bound up with a whole cluster of objects, thoughts, and feelings.
It may sound silly in this particular case, but to the extent that I identify myself as this cluster, I am to some extent, how we say, clusterf*cked.
And if you thought that last example was silly, wait until you hear the next one.
Did you ever see the movie Aliens, the second movie in the Alien franchise? In it, Sigourney Weaver plays Ellen Ripley, an astronaut who finds herself repeatedly faced with fighting a particularly ferocious form of extra-terrestrial.
(Spoiler alert!) Toward the end of the movie, Ripley is fighting with the massive alien queen by using a mechanical loading machine that she's climbed inside. Without the machine, she would be no match for the queen; however, with it, she's able to push her adversary into an airlock. Unfortunately for Ripley, the queen pulls her into the airlock as well.
At this point in the fight, though, Ripley plays her final card: She crawls out of the loading machine and scrambles up the ladder to safety. Metaphorically, she detaches herself from the machine, which is not her, but just a tool that had been useful when she was fighting the alien, but now is no longer so. Detaching herself in this way enables her to blow the queen out of the airlock.
Notice how detachment works in this story: Because Ripley is distinct from the machine, she has the capacity to deploy it in a given set of circumstances, and then detach from it when those circumstances change.
This capacity to deploy and detach isn't limited to external objects, such as a car collection or even an awesome 22nd-century mechanical loader.
Consider a personal attribute, such as intelligence.
If intelligence is something that you happen to have – Lucky me, I have a certain amount of intelligence at my disposal – you can call upon it whenever a particular situation calls for it.
Flipside, you can put it away when it's not called for. For example, in the presence of someone who may know more than you do about a particular matter, rather than feel pressured to be or appear brilliant, you can simply listen and ask questions – which, by the way, can be a great way to learn and get even smarter.
But to the extent that your intelligence is part of your identity – I am intelligent – you won't have that luxury, because how can you detach from you? In this way, your intelligence may not only not be an asset, but might also become a potential shortcoming. At times, you'll feel challenged to defend it, and perhaps pretend to be smarter than you really are.
Before moving on from this topic, let me hasten to add that freedom from attachments does not necessarily imply a lack of preferences or even non-negotiable items in your life.
Consider the choice to live in the city rather than the country. If you’ve made this choice out of self-identification as a city person rather than a country person, you're probably setting yourself up for suffering. For example, just meeting someone who enjoys living in the country could trigger a host of defensive reactions, in which your way of thinking is right and the other person’s is wrong.
However, if you've made the decision to live in the city without making an identity out of this decision, you're free to enjoy this choice and allow others to enjoy their own choices. Additionally, you're free to choose otherwise, to detach from this decision if circumstances change – for example, if you fall head over heels in love with a person who lives in the country.
So, now, a small exercise before we move on:
Imagine a volume bar, the type that allows you to turn phone or computer sound system up or down, from Setting 0 (no sound) to Setting 10 (loudest volume).
Now, consider Setting 0 to be the unattached understanding of yourself simply as awareness. At this setting, you are completely comfortable in this moment identifying yourself as pure awareness, with all feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and external objects identified as not you.
Similarly, consider some setting toward the middle the bar – say, around Setting 5 – as a sort of default setting. Here, your self-identification is roughly aligned with the common-sense conception of I as my body, including thoughts such as memories and plans, and feelings such as fears and resentments.
Now, consider Setting 10 to be an exaggeratedly attached identification of self to include virtually everything in your known world – what you might call the narcissist’s perspective.
If this Setting-10 way of perceiving feels difficult to imagine for yourself, then think about how a person in this state might experience life.
At this setting, anything that seemed to challenge your vast supply of possessions, relationships, beliefs, ideas, or feelings would threaten you to the very core. The tiniest slight, imagined or otherwise, would result in a torrent of pain and, likely, send you into a reactive salvo of rage and abuse. Your family would quiver in fear in a constant attempt to please you, or risk the direst consequences. Your coworkers might do anything to avoid or placate you. Even a person who happens to sit next to you in a restaurant might wish to change tables, or just finish their meal quickly and leave, to avoid the toxic cloud of negativity all around you.
We don't have to dwell for too long at Setting 10, though. One descriptive paragraph is plenty!
The exercise I want you to do is to consider to what extent you can control the volume bar. Starting wherever the bar currently is, can you slowly slide it down toward Setting 0, just as an experiment? As you do, your identification with the things that you now see are not you begins to drop away.
First, external objects, including things you own, are simply identified as not me. They're still there – they haven't changed in the slightest. They're just not you.
Next, as you turn down the volume, your body comes into focus as not me. It hasn't disappeared. You still have access to it. It's just not you.
Now, you turn down the volume a little more, and you see clearly that the stream of thoughts running through your mind at the moment is also not me. You don't need to change them, or turn them into "nice thoughts," or make them go away. You just see that because you are aware of them, your thoughts are not you.
And now, you turn down the volume even further, and you understand that your feelings – which you may locate inside your chest, abdomen, or throat – are also external to who you are as awareness and, therefore, not you.
Finally, for good measure, you push the volume bar all the way down to Setting 0. No sound. Nothing left to identify with. Nothing outside yourself that's you.
And yet, you're still here. Aware.
You are awareness.