What Makes Us Who We Are? Unraveling The Difference Between Identity & Labels

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As a spiritual teacher, the question I’m most frequently asked is, "What is my purpose in life?" Well, doesn’t the answer depend on who you think you are?

My student, Andrea, who has been married for 40 years, is suddenly widowed and asks, "Who am I if I’m not Jack’s wife? I’ve never lived alone. I went straight from being a child to being a college student to being a wife. Who am I now?"

Or Charlie, who’s filling out applications that require checking off certain boxes. His mother is black; his father is half-Asian, half-white. What box does he check on the question of race?

How about Lindsay, who was raised Baptist but leans spiritually toward Buddhism. Her husband is Catholic but is studying the Kabbalah. What do they say when asked in what religion they are raising the children?

Who are we, really?

Born in the late 1880s, Ramana Maharshi was a self-realized sage from India. When he was 16 years old, he had a near-death experience in which all the various aspects of who he thought he was disappeared and he realized his true "self." He left home and took up residence at Arunachala, a holy mountain, where he stayed for the rest of his life. The main spiritual practice that he recommended was self-inquiry, in which the question, "who am I?" could lead to liberation.

So, how do you identify yourself? When asked who I am, my reply depends on who’s asking. If you’re mainstream, I’ll tell you I’m a lawyer and a social activist, both true. If you’re not, I’ll say I’m a spiritual teacher and energy healer, also true. I’ve never identified myself as female or married or Catholic or over 35. What does that say about me?

But what if I had answered the question of "who am I?" with "I am a citizen of the universe." Or "I am compassionate, happy, and love horses." Or "I fell 10 feet, almost died, but now I’m fine." All also true. Another set of boxes.

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There are so many ways to self-identify. And each answer puts you in a box that separates you from those in all the other boxes.

Recently a video ad for a Danish television station (Danish TV2) went viral. This brilliant piece, called "All That We Share," shows a large group of Danes from different social, ethnic, and ideological groups who were asked to regroup themselves in response to certain questions, such as, "Who were the class clowns?" "Who are stepparents?" "Who had sex in the last week?" "Who feels lonely?" "Who loves to dance?" By the end of the three minutes, you see that there really is no "us" versus "them." Beyond the boundaries of all the boxes that separate us, there is a common humanity in our diversity.

Are you the body?

Hope not! Why would you want to identify as an aging bundle of flesh and bones? Yet, how often do you say "my asthma" or "my knee" or "my weight"—as if you and your bodily condition were united at the hip (which might or might not need bionic replacement in the near future).

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Are you your emotions?

You certainly don’t want to identify as angry or as someone consumed by jealousy, greed, or any of the other "negative" emotions. And you don’t want to seem to have an overinflated ego by identifying as loving, compassionate, Boddhisattva-like, or blissed-out.

Do you identify as your behaviors?

Well, maybe at a 12-step meeting when you stand up and say. "I am an alcoholic" or "I am an addict." But internally, is that how you see yourself?

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Are you your mind?

This is a tricky one. In the West, we’ve grown up hearing "I think, therefore I am." But for those of us who meditate regularly, we know that there is something you tap into when your thoughts have been quieted, a realm beyond the thinking mind that feels far more real and far more connected to who you really are. It’s the place where all the walls of all the boxes of your identity crumble and you are no longer a separate wave upon the ocean but the sea itself.

That is your purpose here in Earth school: to learn who you are beyond all the labels, outside all the boxes. Hold the identity labels lightly; they will all die along with your body. Get down to the core, the spiritual heart, the sacred "self." Here, in the limitless realm of infinite energy, beyond the foibles of personality and the frailty of body, you are an eternal being, a spark of light, and one with it all.

Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your weekly horoscope, then try these three steps to getting out of your own way and finally getting what you want.

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