Attachment to Identity

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In a previous entry I discussed attachment to experience. Another attachment we may be holding onto that may make it difficult to move from one phase of our lives to another is an attachment to identity. Most recently, I’ve wrestled with the transition of my children from complete dependence on me to formation of their own independent personalities and social connections. It hasn’t been easy and I have in some ways “grieved” the loss of the little selves I was once totally responsible for. I so strongly identified with making their every meal, reading to them at night, and simply being the center of their world, that I’ve found it difficult to let go of the feeling of purpose that this all provided to me. The part that requires work is letting go of this attachment, realizing how necessary it is for me to do that, to allow my children to continue to grow and become adult versions of themselves. Should I not be able to let go of attachment of this identity, it will result in suffering for both me, in ruminating over something I can no longer have and for my children, who would feel me as a weight around their ankle on their journey toward adulthood.

Another significant attachment to identity I once held on to was being one of Jehovah’s Witness. Those who have never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot relate to the fact that active membership in this religion requires not just full immersion at the time of one’s water baptism, but also full immersion in every aspect of one’s life. You are taught that you shall have no friends who aren’t also Jehovah’s Witnesses, that anyone outside the group is “bad association” who must be avoided at all costs, unless one is trying to indoctrinate them. It would follow then that one should only pick a mate who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses also. Many Witnesses also find that their employers are also Witnesses. So often a Witness’s entire social structure is built upon connections with only other Witnesses. Second to that is the fact that the daily and weekly activities completely revolve around ones carefully selected by the leaders of the group. From the daily Watchtower guided scripture reading, to the weekly meetings and the requirement that a certain amount of time be allocated to studying Watchtower publications and going “door-to-door,” trying to convince others to believe as they do, there is no time left for any pursuit connected with one’s own independent mind or interests. As a Witness, your identity is entirely connected to being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Should one begin to doubt the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses then, one would have to be prepared to completely separate and let go of the identity they have known, which was all consuming. I’ve known some, like myself, who find themselves suddenly outside the tightly controlled group with no friends and no family, their entire social structure suddenly evaporated. The loneliness can be unbearable. The act of filling that void may take the shape of attachments to alcohol, drugs or undesirable and harmful relationships with other people. It took me many years to become aware and conscious of the reasons behind the attachments I formed and how to finally let go of them to achieve inner peace and happiness.

My greater understanding of the lessons my life has been seeking to teach me with regard to attachments came when I learned of “The Four Noble Truths” that Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. Now you do not have to convert to Buddhism to understand these Truths nor do you have to agree with everything Buddha taught; unlike tightly controlled groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhist teachings do not require that everyone accept all or none of it. Even Buddha himself said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I like the idea that one does not have to completely immerse themselves in a belief system but can take a teaching that resonates with them, as the Four Noble Truths have with me. I won’t go into The Four Noble Truths in detail here, but the Second Noble Truth deals specifically with the origin of the cause of human suffering, which Buddha taught is the “Attachment to Desire,” which can be a desire for things we want or a desire to avoid things we don’t want. The idea that we can let go of these attachments is key to our achieving happiness.

Whenever I contemplate the difficulty of letting something go, whether it be an attachment to an identity I no longer have or an attachment to an experience, such as having my once youthful body, I think about what those attachments represent, such as a desire to have my children or my body obey my every command (both a form of desire for power), and then I focus on letting them go. This is not easy work, and work that I’ve found comes only with daily practice and meditation. If you’ve struggled with feeling any suffering over the nature of your attachments, I strongly suggest that you read “The Four Noble Truths” and then reflect upon how these Truths may be relevant in your own life.

Image courtesy of http://www.tribalsimplicity.com

There Is No Ground

Rocky Ground HD Desktop BackgroundI recently read several books written by renowned Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron. In her works, she writes often of being “groundless,” or of living with uncertainty and the realization that there is no real ground underneath our feet. I devoured her works with great interest, knowing that for much of my life I more than anything craved ground under my own feet, and sought in earnest for anything that I could hold on to. My early life was full of chaos and constant change. My parents divorced when I was eight, and then my mother went from being a Jehovah’s Witness to an Episcopalian to a Born Again Christian before I was even 16. My father remarried and brought three more children into the world. We sometimes did not even live in one place for an entire year. I went to four different elementary schools, three different middle schools and two different high schools. In the midst of all these shifts, I desired more and more to have solid ground to stand on, something to count on, something that I knew would always be there, and yet I could not find it. When I was 15, I often found myself up on top of the hill behind our home at the time, praying to whomever might be listening for guidance, direction, and above all else, certainty with regard to where I was headed. I sincerely believed that someone greater than me would finally provide the answers I was seeking.

At 16, I traveled by myself to a town two states away to be with my father for two months. He had recently moved and I’d been missing him dearly. My father had remained a Jehovah’s Witness and I knew there would be an expectation that I would attend the meetings with him while I was there, knowing that there was no way they would leave me in their home alone. So while that was expected, what was unexpected was how in that first meeting I would hear what was indeed music to my confused ears. For most of their followers, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have all of the answers, and that day, at that meeting, I felt the same way. No more would I have to worry or dwell on the uncertainty of my own future. I quickly made a formal dedication to this way of life and never looked back. For the first time in my short time on earth, I felt I had a purpose in life! This purpose included going to three different meetings each week, preaching 90 hours a month to others, and ultimately serving in the world headquarters of the group in Brooklyn. I believed I knew exactly what each day would bring, and at the end of the repetition of all of this work was the grand prize of someday living in an earthly paradise! My hope was strong, the earth felt firm under my feet, and nothing could knock me off course. Nothing, that is, until I came to realize that what I believed and what I asked others to believe was not the truth that I once thought it was.

I was crushed, I was rocked, I bounced all over like an errant spring. Walking away from my beliefs meant no longer having a purpose, as well as losing my friends and family. There was no certainty about anything and I lived recklessly, as if I had no tomorrow to live for at all. There was no longer any ground beneath my feet, and I was terrified. Within a year of leaving the Witnesses I found another small piece of ground to hold onto when I found my first wife. Her life was ripe with turmoil and emotional disorder, but once again I had a purpose, to help heal her and see her become the person she was meant to be. Ultimately my actions never proved to be enough to help her and I grew despondent. We parted ways, and once again I found myself adrift in loneliness and despair. It would only take another year for me to find someone to latch onto once again.

In the years that followed I brought children into this world. I was never certain if I was doing the right things as a parent and I did not manage my finances well. I lived in constant fear of the groundlessness of the situation I was in, just dying for someone or something to show me the way out. I prayed to God endlessly for direction once again, much as I had done as a teenager. Sometimes things improved for a short while, only to plunge into chaos once again. I rode a fast running train of anxiety all through my adult life, seemingly moving from one disaster to the next, or at least that’s how I viewed it.

It is best to realize that our lives are generally in a state of flux. The stress comes when our lives do not meet our expectations or desires, when we are not flexible or adaptable enough to adjust to the constantly shifting sands that swirl all around us. We don’t have full control over what is happening, as w cannot control the actions of those we are connected with. By resisting the changes we experience, we actually can make the situation worse. How many times have we been told that when driving a car that is skidding off the road due to hazardous conditions that the best course of action is to steer into the skid? In addition, living with a higher level of chaos, disorder and uncertainty may cause us to crave that certainty on a much higher level.  We may stay in jobs that we are not well suited for, with romantic partners we really have no business being with, and follow religions that dictate and direct our every move. In other words, we may remain stuck in a situation out of an irrational fear of not knowing what may lie on the other side. While stuck where we are, we may fervently cling to a hope that things will get better. But if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, no amount of hope is going to change our situation.

Only by accepting our current reality and by acknowledging that there is no real ground under our feet will we be prepared to deal with uncertainty while maintaining inner strength and peace. We must not cling to hope as a crutch or an escape from what is really happening. By doing so we may not make the proper adjustments that will enable us to keep moving forward despite what is happening around us. However, we must realize that life does not owe us a thing. We are not entitled to be rich, or happy, or good looking or healthy. If at any time we don’t have one or any of these things, then our acceptance of the situation will make a huge difference between peace and despair. Life is more like a turbulent river than a calm lake. Make peace with the raging rapids as they move you along from place to place, while doing your best to keep your boat, and your head, above water.