It is interesting to notice, in myself and others, the core identities we hold onto. The ones that seem so real, so obviously true, that we don’t even think of questioning them. And if the thought comes up to question them, or someone else questions them for us, our first reaction is to laugh and want to dismiss it. It seems too outrageous to even suggest that who we take ourselves to be, at a core level, is not who we are.
Beliefs and identities
Any identity is a belief or set of beliefs. We take an image, an idea, a thought, a story, as defining who or what I am, and more importantly what I am not, and then take it as real, as an absolute Truth, and living as if it is the Truth.
And any belief creates an identity. At the very least, it creates an identity as someone who beliefs that particular idea or story.
Any belief creates a split, and so tension and stress
Any belief also creates a sense of a split, it defines a particular area as true and anything outside of itself as false or not real (it boxes Existence in, and since all beliefs also are identities, we box ourselves as individuals in as well.) And a split creates a sense of tension, and of stress.
Even such an apparently innocent belief as “God is good” can be a source of stress. If God is good, why is that not my living experience at all times? What is wrong with me? How can I change it? Am I a lost cause?
Identities and shadow
An aspect of this split is the shadow. If a particular story or idea is true, then anything that falls outside of it threatens my belief in it.
I believe people should be considerate of others, so my own lack of consideration falls into the shadow. I am this and not that, so “that” goes into the shadow.
Identities and allowing some things as only second person
In other areas, the “that” may be perceived as good and desirable, so it doesn’t exactly go into the shadow, but is rather experiences exclusively as second or third person (we can say that the first person experience of it goes into the shadow.)
I believe I am (exclusively) a human being, so the experience of space is kept as third person.
I believe I am physical, so alive luminosity is second or third person.
I believe I am finite in time and space, so timelessness and spacelessness goes into third person.
I believe I am this personality, so awareness is seen as second or third person.
I believe I am form, so the void and formlessness is third person.
First person experience in the shadow, as a safeguard
For all of these, the first person experience of it goes into the shadow. And maybe for good reasons. It serves as a safeguard against inflation, adding the transcendent onto a personal identity.
If I take myself primarily as this personality (or this human self), and then add some of these qualities, such as luminosity, alive presence, of even infinite love, wisdom and compassion, then it may not look pretty. It is a bad case of inflation, of seeing myself as special, better than others, a chosen one, and all the rest that we may know from ourselves and also out there in the world.
As long as there is a strong (and unquestioned) identification with our human self, then it is healthy to keep a first person experience of these transcendent things in the shadow. We can still become familiar with it, even dip into a first person experience of it (or at least of no separation), and then return to a more safe second or third person relationship with it.
As the identification with our human self, or form in general, relaxes, softens, become more transparent, weakens, becomes more porous, then the first person experiences of it naturally comes more into the foreground.
Until eventually, usually after much work, the beliefs in any identity falls away, and whatever arises, independent of content, is just an aspect of the field of what is, absent of I and Other.
Selfless or Self
This is also why it may be safer to use a terminology of selflessness, rather than the Self, to describe Big Mind (Brahman, Tao, Spirit) awakening to itself.
As long as there is a sense of a separate I, we’ll take whatever can be seen as an “accomplishment” and add it to the identity of this separate self. We’ll do this whether we use the world selfless or Self.
But with “selflessness” there is at least a reminder built in.
Theistic traditions in particular emphasize humility to guard against this inflation. It is beautiful, especially in reading the writings of Christian mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila. There is a real sense of the differentiation between the personal identity and God, and then finally the falling away of any sense of separate self so there is only God.
A drawback here is that the apparent reality of the separate self may be emphasized in the process, and also that there is a strong identification with an identity as “humble”. In this path, those two are among the last identifications to be burnt through.