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Monday, May 5, 2014

Identity & Suffering

Buddhism sees suffering as the main source of all human problems and says that our suffering becomes our identity.  We suffer therefore we are, is the Buddhist catchphrase. There is a problem with this proposal because suffering really doesn't cause or produce one's identity.  It's the other way around.  Our identity becomes our suffering.

Even before a baby is born it is already beginning to develop its identity.  The fetus feels itself floating in amniotic fluid and bonds with its mother's voice.  When the baby emerges from the womb it already knows who its mother is and begins identifying with various sights, sounds, smells and feelings.  

At this point it has no ego an there is no duality. Soon the child will understand that it has a name and that its mother is another person. Duality is born and the baby begins to develop an ego with the understanding that there is also a father. As the child grows it learns that it lives in a house that looks different than the neighbor's house and so on.  With further learning and growth the child develops more identity and more of an ego. Along with the ego comes values. Duality becomes well established at this point and the ego (values) continues to grow. 

There is nothing wrong with having an ego but a problem may arise when the person believes that its values are better or worse than someone else's values and attempts to assert those values with force. That is how arguments, fights and wars are started.  Identity creates duality, duality becomes the ego, and the ego can cause suffering. 

Suffering can be abated through the practice of mindful meditation - observing thoughts.  Being able to see and understand egoic thoughts when they occur allows us to remain at peace with self and others.  Although the practice takes patience and persistence the rewards are well worth it.  This is elucidated in the ancient text Yoga Sutra by Patanjali.