What some people call personal identity, and ardently cherish as an expression of their precious uniqueness, others call an accumulation of sense impressions and conditioning transformed into behavioral tendencies that now determine every aspect of one’s life even when we wish they wouldn’t. Culture is the personal identity of a group of people, but it’s just another conglomeration of historical conditioning expressed through the medium of groupthink. This is why, in my view, both personal and cultural identities are unconscious sources of tyranny. They drive us hither and thither — they drive the vehicle of our consciousness into insufficiently understood psychological territories where we stand in perpetual and often hysterical reactivity. Questions of personal and cultural identity furthermore force us into holding fast to specific positions in defense of which we must now fight because our sense of self is so deeply invested in these identities it can brook no dissent. Indeed, our entrapped sense of self can barely tolerate people from different backgrounds, let alone withstand a direct contradiction of its tightly held belief systems.
Believe it or not, this is what karma is: the accumulation of sense impressions, memories, and ideas that have gathered in our enormous psychic storehouse since time immemorial. These accumulated impressions coagulate into tendencies and we get so used to them that we start calling these conditioned tendencies “me.” But “me” is just a pile of images and ideas and emotions and memories and habits and preferences. We allow this conditioning by repetitious interaction with the same ideas and memories and histories and images to coalesce into an identity with which we become completely and hopelessly entangled, so much so that we can no longer willingly disentangle ourselves from any of it. This is why, year after year, we find ourselves facing down the same “demons” of yesteryear, the same memories of childhood, the same wounds of betrayal and loss. It’s because we never let go of any of this stuff, we just let it accumulate, and the more it accumulates, the tighter the hold of personal identity becomes on us. We actually celebrate this! “This is me! I am unique and precious!” we exclaim with joy. But we rarely stop to notice the dangerous degree to which our deep-seated identification with ideas, images, and memories from the past controls who we can or cannot be today, in the present moment.
Countless people these days can be found bringing an iron hammer down on each other’s heads in support of their personal or cultural identity. Any real or imagined threat to the hegemony and sanctity of either is enough to start a riot these days. Others are waxing eloquent about the many atrocities done to other cultures and how these atrocities should be reversed by privileging one cultural identity over another, presumably to balance the ledger books of history. I’m not opposed to finding ways to bring more harmony into our world. But I don’t believe that waging more war will bring peace. Because I believe that this insane and narcissistic focus on personal and cultural identity is one of the energetic systems that fund the machines of war. We are making war on each other when we demand obeisance for a personal perspective and belittle and devalue those who do not believe the same things we believe. Where is the humble sanity that stops long enough to ask: where did my ideas come from, anyway? Whither is my personal history? Isn’t everything an accumulation? Haven’t each of us accumulated our ideas over time? And isn’t it true that our ideas and what we believe is directly linked to where we are born and what we have been taught about life? Which makes the personal identity that emerges from this conditioning very small, usually one-sided, and therefore, limited, right?
Most people tend to circle the drain very nearby to the place they were born. Most people fall in line with the prevailing narrative of their day. They pick a side and stay there, forever. The longer they stay there, the tighter their idea of personal identity coils around their consciousness. Pretty soon, people are coalescing around each other and dressing alike, eating similar foods, building similar looking houses, worshiping the same gods, raising their kids with the same “values,” and effectively bequeathing to the next generation an entire cosmos of inherited identities and unexamined behavioral tendencies to which they will stay yoked for life. “This who I am, this is my cultural heritage,” they say with pride. This dynamic is true of every single subculture on this planet whether it be the hipsters of Brooklyn, the sister-marrying conservative Christians of the Blue Ridge mountains, or the Pussy Rioters of the Soviet Union (side note: the Soviet Union never went anywhere). This is what karma is, but it is also what a complex is: they both operate in us (personally and culturally) by using the mega-ton propulsion forcefield of our attachment to the past against us. So the solution is simple, yet daunting: disenfranchise the past, root it out of the psyche.
The accumulation of data and memories from the past becomes a life sentence forcing us to live our lives in a very particular and usually limiting way. If the validity of this conditioning comes under the threat of questioning, we say we are getting “triggered.” The power of these accumulated forces of habit and conditioning is so strong it affects everything we do in the present moment. We cannot make one single decision without it being directed in one way or another by the accumulation of tendencies and ideas we have gathered around us since time began. This is why to me, it’s laughable when people talk about finding liberation, or when they talk about decolonization. How can we decolonize the external world around us when our consciousness is fully colonized by our memory and history-driven complexes and our accumulated karmic residue? What we wear, how we do our hair, where we choose to sit in a conference or classroom — all of it and more is determined by the historical conditioning to which we have been exposed throughout life, and, according to many wisdom teachings, throughout countless past lives, as well. How, then, can we be truly free when everything we say, think, and do is colored by the ghosts of our past? In a word (or two words): we can’t. To be free, we must first disentangle ourselves from the enthralling (and deeply narcissistic) idea that our identity is something precious. Personal identity is very limiting, in my view. When we focus on it exclusively, we are limiting a potentially cosmic, universal, creative, and spiritual entity (i.e., you and me and others) and sticking it inside a tiny (and frankly, petty) little box. What’s more, we are not letting this being-in-a-box ever be free enough to live fully in the present moment. This little boxed-up person must live her whole life being pushed around by memories and the emotional typhoons they conjure up virtually every second of every day. This doesn’t happen on the conscious level, it operates from a layer beneath our immediate awareness, but it’s going full force every minute of our lives, even when we’re asleep.
I’ve come to see that the alarming levels of narcissism we witness in our culture are fueled by the way we are constantly encouraged to coddle and cultivate our emotions. But our emotions are energetic responses to the interaction between our accumulated karma (our conditioned reactions) and the ever-changing world around us. The world is driven by miraculously beautiful dimensions of complexity, it can never be stopped and forced into always giving us exactly what we want and need — there is simply too much dynamic and undulating flux for that. But we nevertheless continually fight with the world around us and demand that it should fall in line with our specific and, as noted above, limited personal stance on a variety of life experiences. Therefore internally, we are almost always in a state of conflict and friction. The world must give us what we want or we’ll have a tizzy-fit and throw a tantrum or ghost someone or disappear or write mean stuff on the internet, or beat our dog or our wife or our kid. This is how immature and stupid many of us are. But our emotions are rooted in our memories, and our memories, in turn, are like zombies that never die and continually eat our brains and cause us to turn into nastiness itself when sufficiently “triggered.” This zombie memory energy is what fuels the engines of our complexes and our complex-driven behaviors. Notice the term: complex-driven. The complex (which consists of memories and accumulated histories) is driving the vehicle of our consciousness (the ego). Accumulated karma, habit, and repetitious cycles of behavior are driving the events of our lives. This is the case everywhere, with virtually everyone. How can anyone honestly talk about free will under these psychological circumstances?
In his book Karma, Sadhguru (2021) explains how the dynamic unfolds in a double-dual reinforcing fashion, from inner to outer and from outer to inner:
Over time, this enormous volume of sense impressions begins to assume a certain distinctive pattern within you. This pattern slowly shapes itself into behavioral tendencies. A cluster of tendencies hardens over time into what you call you personality, or what you claim to be your true nature. It works in the reverse as well: Your mind shapes the way you experience the world around you. This becomes your karma — an orientation to life that you have created in relative unawareness. You are not aware of how these tendencies develop. But what you consider to be “myself” is just an accumulation of habits, predispositions, and tendencies you have acquired over time without being conscious of the process. pp. 9–10
But we cherish our memories! We look through our photo albums and celebrate the memories we shared. People love to put pictures of themselves and others on their walls, presumably over which to fondly reminisce every time they go to the bathroom. But we rarely stop to wonder why we spend so much time and energy keeping the past alive when the past is such a limiting and imprisoning threat to the present. Millions of history books are written, and millions of documents and historical artifacts are lovingly maintained. We do the same thing internally: we lovingly (or loathingly) carry our baggage of history and memory with us everywhere we go. “This is who I am,” we say, “tradition and culture and identity — these are all important aspects of human reality, they define who we are.” But how far this allegiance to a backward alignment takes us from the life that’s unfolding right before our eyes in the present moment! And how much energy we waste on managing these concretized standards of behavior (and the emotional frequencies attached to them) that continually drag us away from the only thing that is real: the present moment.
I wonder how free a person might be if they had no allegiances to the past, their own or others? How many people all over this planet are spending their days in varying states of agony rooted in personal and cultural history? How many of us wander along all day with the ghosts of our memories rattling around in our psyches, triggering us into this or that unconsciously driven verbal expression or action? And how many of us are responding in the same way to certain situations day after day after day, effectively going around in tight little circles and never noticing? To me, these are very serious issues that require rectification. To my mind, there can be no real freedom until each of us recognizes that internally, we are being driven by forces we barely understand. For some people, this is tolerable. They can live an entire life in a dreamlike state and die and it’s fine. But for some of us, only true freedom and a real understanding of what is actually going on here will suffice. So next time you find yourself defending your identity ask yourself an important question, the ultimate question so few of us can answer. Ask yourself: who am I? This one question can occupy you for some years. My recommendation is to know the answer before expressing histrionics in the name of personal or cultural identity.