Who are we? Getting to grips with identity


Identity is such a rich and complex topic. Buddhism usually focuses on the self in its teachings and articulates it as an object. It is a perfectly reasonable direction to take but  if we want to challenge our personal experience of being a self, perhaps we ought to examine identity and the process of subjectification, which are far more tangible. We need to be more aware of the social formation process that participates in shaping our identity and our experience of being a self, otherwise, such discussion tends to remain at the level of the theoretical or abstract. Although Buddhism has a wealth of material regarding the nature and lack of self, I would suggest we need look further and wider if we are to understand the complexity of identity formation and our inseparability from it.

Exploring insights from philosophy and psychology and how Buddhism makes or doesn’t make sense in relationship to them whilst suspending bias is an exceptionally fruitful process for thinking afresh about identity if you are up for the task. You do not need to be a philosopher or psychologist to do so and there is a wealth of accessible material these days to get going with. Much of the content in this text comes from my reflection on the relationship between the values and ideals that I have picked up from Buddhism and how they stack up in relationship to other thinkers and theories. It is helpful to view Buddhism and these other views as being on an equal footing, in that they are all concerned with understanding ourselves and the world. It is additionally helpful to view them as theoretical tools; things to work with, to get your hands on and explore, pull apart, question, doubt, reflect on and contemplate. Rather than view them as in opposition somehow, or competing for acceptance, it can be far more interesting to view them as part of a matrix of perspectives, questions and answers, that inter-relate, as they all constitute aspects of our rich, shared, human culture.

Sociology provides a number of principles that can open up a creative-critical review of identity and fill an ideational gap too. The social formation of selves is a useful concept for expanding understanding of identity. Social constructivism is concerned with how groups, including societies, make sense of life through shared models of the world and of selfhood: models that are solidified through language and maintained through social ritual. These models of society are typically experienced as natural and are, at least initially, passively received. This leads us to the notion of socially constructed reality, whereby our social forms act to shape and valorise the world around us and all of the objects therein, thereby acting as a symbolic system within which we navigate the world of forms. Social realities can overlap or stand apart. Conflict between them can lead to the erection of opposing social realities that are visible in in-group and out-group variations. They can also stack together rather like a Russian doll, so that although two groups can seem opposing or distinct, they may be operational within the same larger social reality, which itself sits within a global social reality.

Crises often follow the destabilisation of the apparent naturalness and givenness of social constructions and the advent of postmodern thought and its current prominence in universities has led to a real crisis of identity in a number of western countries and a great deal of reactivity to current social orders. Social constructs are complex and a globalised world both challenges national and local identities and provides an array of globalised identities as potential replacements; many sit within a neo-liberal ideal of the atomised consumer. The ideological force behind these new, seemingly optional identities is often hidden or only partially recognised. Adopting one creates new and interesting challenges but it is important to appreciate that all of these identities are collectively formed and permit our participation in a social reality. As collective forms, much of what marks us out as being this way or that is shared and not unique and if a member of a given social reality strays too far from its customs and expectant behaviours, they may find themselves unable to operate in a given society. All of this does not mean that all of reality is constructed socially, although some do go that far, but rather that the norms of a given social reality are constructed and that the roles permitted within that social reality are solidified, celebrated (or condemned) by those in it. Social reality includes social traditions as well as ritualised action and the dominant forms of normal socially acceptable behaviour, which can be seen in the daily customs, shared mannerisms and codified means of managing everyday social interactions that we tend to automatically, and unwittingly, follow.

If we look at tradition as having been socially constructed to serve a specific purpose or respond to a specific set of needs, then its peculiarities begin to make more sense in the codified behaviours that mark it out as distinct. Traditions are, after all, meeting real human needs in most cases, however dysfunctionally they may be doing so. The key to understanding inculcation within a social reality is the degree to which it feels natural and normal and the extent to which we successfully fit in. A line of tension inevitably runs between that normalness and the other realities that contrast sharply with it and one can experience this most clearly after spending a significant amount of time living and working in a different culture. There is commonly a degree of inevitability about the current order of social forms wherever you find yourself, however. In engaging critically with social formations as realities that are constructed, we come to find that such realities are not fixed, but porous, and can be changed. Humans are social animals and the creation of such orders is an inevitable outcome of this but like all human constructs, they are, thankfully, changeable. There is an ongoing negotiation between a society’s forms and the encroachment of challenges to the hegemony of those forms and their foundational ideas. Examining the constructed nature of our social reality reveals certain truths about our shared circumstances and this allows for critical engagement with our lives and the norms of our society.  It also enables us to see the degree to which our human practice is solidifying an expectant identity within a given social order.

This concept brings up a number of fascinating questions that concern autonomy, individuality, free will and determinism, to name just a few. One inevitable question is to what degree we are socially constructed by the society we are born into and unique in the specific life circumstances that make up our personal history, from parents, to class, from education to friends. This leads us back to the age old division between nature and nurture although it seems obvious to me that both are involved. Since we are a rather stubborn species, it seems to take us a long time to realise that such dichotomies are indicative of co-existent oppositions or extremes with our messy human reality to be found somewhere in the middle. We are malleable in part yet formed and limited by our physical inheritance. But it is more complex than that, we are also formed by the geography we emerge in, the climate, the major themes that dominate our age, our parents’ class, the dominant political landscape, and so on and so on. The factors that form us are so numerous that combining and adding formation factors may be the most insightful approach to take. Looking into these factors, we find that they are all devoid of any essence but are nonetheless stubbornly active in the maintenance of our experience of being. These layers of selfhood pile up and present themselves at the door of a world in which individuality is reified and held as sacred. Yet, if there is no essential self inside somewhere and almost everything that we are lacks any absolute form of originality, to what degree do we exist as truly discrete individuals?  Searching for final answers to such questions may be a dead end for most of us and if we are primarily concerned with theory in practice and the effect it has then these questions act best as open lines of exploration and inquiry, opening our subjectivity to the world.

There is a contentious dichotomy between what is subjective and objective in the world of ideas. Individuals can swing from one side to the other and negating either leads to very real problems such as the solipsism that emerges from the denial of reality outside of human agency or social formation. The tension between the two can act as a dynamic of opening and closing for practitioners. I think it is additionally important to make a distinction between ontological claims about the world and statements about the range of potential phenomenological human experience. It is quite different to frame teachings and practices in one or the other: to claim that this is the nature of mind differs from stating that this is a potential experience of mind. One is prescriptive and deterministic; the other opens the door to possibilities and invites exploration. Prescriptive instructions subjectify those who receive them and are part of the social formation process within a given tradition. The value of practices and results, perspectives and models of selfhood within Buddhist groups are conditioned by the social formation at play.

Although I think that subjective claims must be squared with the best objective knowledge we hold about the world, as the sometimes controversial philosopher Paul Feyerabend argued, non-realist knowledge may be far better at serving people’s personal and spiritual needs. This implies that there is a strong need to explore the symbolic nature of human experiential reality as it emerges in response to human concerns and questions about life. This symbolic reality is always in relationship with the material world of physical laws that care little for whether we believe something to be true or not and the religious and spiritual cultures that dot the globe struggle with this immensely, as do we as individuals. In formulating new practices or approaching pre-existing practices afresh, the role of social formation needs to be taken into consideration and ideally we would seek to make it transparent by becoming aware of its historical context, birth and formation.  This allows its peculiarities to become more visible and situated with a time, place and culture.


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