“The individual and the universe are inseparable, but the curious thing is, very few people are aware of it…We confuse ourselves as living organisms who are one with this whole universe with something we call our personality.”
At the age of 17, I went to New York City for the first time. One of my first stops was a sketchy basement photo studio in Greenwich Village where a friend of mine said I could get a fake ID for $50. His only advice to me was “don’t use it in the city”, since bars and nightclubs were used to getting scammed and could spot a fake from a mile away. Where I lived (Colorado), however, the liquor merchants were more naive and willing to believe that I was indeed a 21 year old living at 179 Spruce Drive in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
When I got back home, news quickly spread of my ability to procure alcohol. Suddenly, I found myself with many new “friends” asking for hookups. I was always happy to oblige, since I quite enjoyed flaunting America’s puritanical restrictions on alcohol, as well as earning a small commision for each transaction.
I also had great fun inventing a past that I knew wasn’t true. I practiced and tweaked the details of my story in case liquor store owners became suspicious and started asking what I was doing so far away from home, or why I didn’t have a Colorado ID.
It didn’t matter whether I said I was just passing through or that my grandparents lived here, as long as I was convincing. To do that, though, I really had to believe what I was saying, like an actor going on stage and putting on the mask of his character.
What I didn’t realize until I travelled in India years later was that the little game I played of hiding behind a fake ID is actually a metaphor for what most of us are doing moment to moment on a much deeper level.
On my countless teenage beer runs, even if I would have been completely honest about my origins or presented a ‘real’ ID, I still would have been playing a role. Like everyone else, I am actually so much more than my address, birthday, or anything else printed on a piece of plastic.
In India, many spiritual masters (notably Ramana Maharshi) made the question ‘Who am I?’ the centerpiece of their entire teachings. When I began to hear this over and over again, I couldn’t understand the obsession with what seemed to be a relatively straightforward and obvious question.
I was pretty sure I knew who I was, but when I started really looking into this- when I started pondering whether even ‘true’ information on government sanctioned ID really encompassed ‘me’- it lead me into a contemplating a mystery that was profoundly destabilizing.
When you start going down this road (which you can examine more in-depth here, with my article on highexistence), it culminates in the understanding that you- yes you sitting in that chair looking at a screen- are what many traditions call God.
I like to imagine an ID with that:
(Feel free to print this out and show it next time someone asks you for ID. You wouldn’t be lying!)
The ways in which I identify myself- name, age, personality, habits, beliefs- are superficial labels that change over time. I can put them on or take them off in different contexts. They don’t truly encompass the totality of who I am.
Beneath all the social convention, like everyone and everything else, I am expression of a far vaster energy that has no beginning and no end, that goes beyond the mind’s ability to conceive. If you want to call that God, fine, but just remember that you’re using a word to communicate something that goes beyond all words and concepts.
When people ask how old I am, I like to joke “31…plus or minus 14 billion years.” The atoms in me have been dancing around, in one form or another, for quite some time now. And it just so happens that in their present arrangements (which isn’t really an arrangement so much as a pattern), they’ve found a way to become aware of themselves.
How is it that these atoms in my body- the very same ones that form rocks and trees and stars- managed to regulate my heartbeat, temperature, digestion, and also give me a sense of being ‘me’? Where the impetus for their existence and the intelligence required for them to come alive came from defies comprehension.
A good metaphor to imagine this is a light bulb drawing energy off an electric grid. Sometimes when people start to tap into the source of what they are, they get their minds blown.
But for others, who are more prepared to accept the reality that they are not who they think they are, this realization is profoundly liberating. All of a sudden, the energy and tension that went into preserving and defending your personality- into that fake ID- are freed up. You’re like an actor who finally realizes he’s not required to stay in character all the time.
This isn’t to say that this suffering and drama won’t arise or that you won’t be able to take care of practical affairs (as Alan Watts jokes, realizing you’re God is no excuse to forget your zip code).
You just begin to see it all in a different context. You still get caught up in the fun of playing yourself, but you know it’s a role that you don’t have to identify with completely. You understand that social identity is only a partial truth- one that can be very useful when filling out tax returns and owning property- but one that you needn’t be fully invested in all the time.
I realize this may sound very abstract. When I started contemplating these teachings, they really drove me nuts; I just wanted someone to tell me what it meant in simple language (read all about the madness here!) So next week, I’ll take it down (or up) a notch and try to do just that.