Because it helps your friends find you on Facebook and wish you Happy Birthday.
One of the tenets of nonduality, is the idea that there is no “me.” Some schools of thought equate awakening with the dissolution of identity (though, in fairness, that can also be a definition of madness). Sometimes a radical awakening calls all identity into question. Usually, the better this feels to one, the less likely it is to be genuine. It is the ego’s job to defend you (itself) from change, and if it’s gone down without much of a fight, chances are that it has just coopted your spiritual awakening and is evolving another more spiritual identity for you to slip into.
Newly minted nondualists tend to go through a protracted period of personality nihilism characterized by answering every question or comment with “and who is it that is asking?” or “my ego has completely dissolved and there is no me here to respond anymore.” This is kind of like the “gee whiz” adolescent phase of nondual awareness. It is the time of clinging to cliches and regurgitating predigested wisdom pellets, like some homeopathic theory of awareness in which the wisdom of a lifetime is supposed to get passed on or communicated by a pithy quote. It’s a time in which the rest of us just have to be patient. It’s a phase.
Here’s what we can agree on, the ego or identity can trip us up. It trips us up when we mistake it for something more than it is. When we think we are that identity rather than the space within which that identity arises, we cling to it and that causes us to suffer. We suffer because we need the world to reflect back to us the identity we are projecting. We need to be recognized and acknowledged and validated. We need to control things we ultimately have no control over.
The ego is just a word that Freud’s English language translators used for his less-than-translatable German term of “I-ness” or the sense of self that had no easy English antecedent. So it’s just a convenient word for that sense we have of a self, separate from other selves. This sense of separateness can cause us to suffer when it leaves us feeling isolated and alone, but it can also be useful. It’s useful because our identities are how we connect with other identities. Sure they are both illusory, but they make life interesting. Have you heard the one about the two egoless, nondual guys who walk into a bar? Probably not. Because it would be really boring. This sense of a separate self can even be useful when dealing with the material world. When buying clothes, for instance, as much as I might want to deny that there is any separate me, I know that just any random size will not necessarily fit me. My size is not who I am, but it makes it easier to select clothing.
No, just having an identity is not a problem in itself. It is, after all, simply a construct. It is actually fairly easy to deconstruct this construct. When you really go looking for a self, you start peeling back layers of constructed identity. Initially you may start this deconstructing process through inquiry—who am I? You may begin it with the notion that enough “who am I’s” will get you to the real “I,” but you’d be mistaken. Every layer of the onion you peel back just reveals another construct.
Granted, some of those constructs can be very revealing and some might even be “more authentic” in some way. It might even be healing to work your way down through these layers. But, ultimately, awakening is not about healing, it’s about what is true, and any answer you find to the question who am I, will be another constructed layer, another transient “I” that you’re hoping to be a permanent and unchanging self. You’ll never find that self. You may, if you’re lucky find that original space or ground from which all sense of self arises, but the moment you “identify” with even that space, you will have turned it into something it isn’t
Realizing this layered nature of identity, it is tempting to want to kick identity altogether, like quitting smoking or giving up heroin. But there is no way to actually do this, short of retiring to a mountain cave of absolute solitude. I can claim to be egoless, but in the claiming I’ve just constructed a new identity: Tom, the ego free, nondual guy. There are plenty of self-acknowledged and self-recognized nondual enthusiasts that claim just that—that they have slipped the bonds of the lower realms of ego and ego constriction and now live in the rarified heights of egolessness. While it is particularly easy to point out how the ego that they want to claim is not there keeps showing up, don’t do it. You’ll end up getting sucked into a quagmire of semantics in which the self-proclaimed ego-free redefine perfectly good words to mean only what they want them to mean and the nondual wannabes will pile on with their nondual fortune cookie wisdom. Just be patient. It’s a phase they will probably grow out of.
The problem isn’t that there is an identity. The problem is that we believe that identity is actually who we are. When you recognize that an identity is a mask, a costume, or an illusion, you can pick it up or put it on when it suits you. It has social value and usefulness, but it must be held lightly and tentatively. You must take it off as easily as you put it on.
When I visit my mother, regardless of the issues I might have with her, I recognize that there is love between us. I recognize that she gave me life and took care of me when I could not take care of myself. I recognize at a deep level that she and I are one being arising as two transient forms to do some dance together that I will never fully understand. Why is it necessary that she affirm some realization I have had about the transience and impermanence and illusory nature of my identity? The answer is that there is no reason, unless I’ve just replaced an old ego identity with a shiny new spiritual one that must be validated. I think I can let that go. I think I can just be with her. I think I can even be who she needs me to be from moment to moment. Not because I believe it about myself but because she does and I can play that game for her.
An identity, lightly and playfully held, or an identity skillfully used doesn’t cause us to suffer because we recognize that it is not who we really are. Real freedom is when I don’t need you to recognize or acknowledge my transient identity or to validate my freedom from all egoic constraints. Real freedom is when I don’t take the identity you are presenting at any moment too seriously. Real freedom feels like love. Real love feels like freedom. We may all be one, but for some reason, a bunch of “me’s” from all over the world woke up this morning and decided to wish themselves a Happy Birthday. Go figure.