Identifying With The Generic Identity

Self-observation is all about not getting sucked into our own (or other people’s) dramas. Dramas pull us in – that’s what they do. We lose ourselves in dramas – it’s like watching a film in the cinema and being so completely absorbed that you forget all about yourself. If my life was one long drama (let us just suppose) then we could lose ourselves in it the whole time, on a non-stop basis. We would in that case get so absorbed in it that we would completely forget ourselves! This is what Anthony de Mello is getting at when he says that we are all ‘asleep’.


Another way of putting this is to say that we get so absorbed in our reactions to the drama that’s going on that we think we are our reactions! So suppose you say something to me and for some reason I feel hurt by your comment, then it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to identify with this reaction, and get totally sucked into the drama of it on this basis. ‘Identifying’ means that I feel that I am totally right to be aggrieved by the fact that you have said whatever it is that you’ve said, and that you are totally wrong to have said it. There is this right/wrong polarisation that takes place which then get elaborated and reinforced by the thinking process. ‘She should never have said that,’ I might think, or ‘how dare you make a comment like that!’


The more we get sucked in by this thinking process more indignant or affronted we feel, the more polarised we get, and this polarisation of ‘right way versus runway’ is what identification means. ‘Identification’ means that we feel intensely gratified and vindicated if things go our way, and equally intensely annoyed and stung if they don’t. In this state of being everything is about the drama, everything is about the reaction, and so as a result of everything being about the drama (or the reaction) there is no actual ‘self-observation’ going on in the sense that we have been talking about. ‘Being sucked into the drama’ is the very antithesis of self-observation as we have said.


The process of identification, then, is the process whereby we think that our reactions, which kick off automatically, are us. The intensity of the emotional reaction is my own intensity; it is coming right from the core of me, it is expressive of what I care about the most. My outrage is expressing my deepest most heartfelt feelings – it is coming out of the very centre of my being (or so it seems). More than this, it is an expression of me. In this way we could say that I’m ‘prizing’ my outrage, my anger, my indignation, or whatever the reaction is; it is precious to me just as I am precious to me.


And yet at the same time my emotional reactions have nothing to do with who I really am – they certainly don’t define who or how I am in the way that I feel that they do. What they do define is a generic version of us and so what we have here is the situation where I am very intensely identifying with this stance, this posture, this attitude, and we are saying – as strongly as we can – that this is me. I am saying ‘this is my position and I’m sticking to it whether you like it or not…’


There is a huge defiance, a huge obstinacy, a huge stubbornness about this and just as long as we have any strength at all left to us, we will defend this position of ours – we will defend it until our last gasp, we will defend it till the very end. This obstinacy of ours is perverse however because what we are defending is not us – what we are defending (or promoting) is ‘the generic version of us’, not the true and unique individuality of who we are. What we are defending is the acquired ‘personality’ not our intrinsic ‘essence’, to use Gurdjieff’s terms, so getting pulled into the drama causes us to think that ‘we are who we aren’t’ and – moreover – think it very strongly! We forget who we are (which is not defined in the crude, black-and-white way, and cannot therefore be ‘defended’) and identify with a ‘generic identity’ instead.


The reason we call it ‘the generic identity’ is because it’s the same for everybody – when we look at anyone who has completely lost their temper and has become consumed by rage we can see that everyone becomes ‘the same person’ at this point. All the nuances (the nuances which tell of our individuality) are lost and all that is left is ‘the ego of anger’, which is a generic self. As Jung says, when we allow ourselves to be ruled by ‘the passions’ then we straightaway become ‘Everyman’

The more you cling to that which the whole world desires, the more you are Everyman, who has not yet discovered himself and stumbles through the world like a blind man leading the blind with somnambulistic certainty into the ditch.

This is without question the most ignominious fate that could ever befall us – Everyman is the graveyard of individuality, a horrific type of ‘living death’.


This isn’t just true for anger therefore – every jealous person is the same person (the same person which isn’t actually any true person), every greedy person is the same person, every confused person of the same person, every proud or arrogant person is the same person, every slothful or lazy person of is the same person. What we’re talking about here therefore are the ‘five poisons’ that are spoken of in Buddhism or the ‘seven deadly sins’ that are listed in Christianity. The reason there are seven cardinal sins and only five poisons (or Kleshas) because Christianity counts desire three times as lechery (luxuria); gluttony (gula) and avarice (and avaritia). The point is however (the point that we are never ever told) is that these are states in which we lose our true, compassionate nature and ‘become who we aren’t’. The consumer society in which we live is based upon the manipulation of our passions (greed, envy, insecurity, etc) and it operates by causing us to identify with the generic identity. The generic identity is predictable and easily controlled, after all! Who we really are (the individuality) isn’t.


‘Self-observation’ essentially involves bringing awareness to this process whereby we identify with the generic identity. We see it happening. What we are observing is the way in which we get caught up in the mind-created drama and ‘become who we aren’t’, in other words. The crucial point here is that when we have identified with the generic identity we can’t ‘observe’ anything! The generic identity can’t see anything truly; it can’t see anything truly because it sees everything from a false basis – it sees everything in a ‘generic’ way, it sees everything ‘from the basis of an unreal vantage point’. This is the great difficulty inherent in self-observation therefore – the ‘great difficulty’ is that inasmuch as we are continuously identifying with a generic identity, we are also becoming unconscious, and when we become unconscious we are also unconscious of the fact that we’re unconscious. We are convinced beyond any argument that we are conscious, as Gurdjieff says. We might think that we’re ‘observing’ ourselves but we’re not – we’re just getting lost in mind-created illusions…








Living In The Bubble

The usual way for us to be in the world is within a sealed bubble of ‘positive pressure’. This might sound like a strange way of putting things on the first hearing, but all that we’re saying here is that we go around in daily life continuously ‘asserting ourselves’. That’s what we actually think life is all about! ‘Our-self’ is an idea and we have to keep on asserting it because the thing about ideas is that if we ever take a break from asserting them, then they stop being there. It’s like ‘putting on an act’ – an act won’t act itself so if we stop acting it then it simply won’t be there anymore! There will be no act.


Keeping up the act is a constant effort therefore, even if we don’t feel it; keeping up the idea of who we think we are is constant effort, even though it’s an effort that we’re so used to that we don’t usually notice it. When we are able to successfully assert our selves then we feel good, and when we aren’t able to we feel bad, and this just about sums up all we need to know about the self. People go on and on about ‘psychology’ but – really – when we understand this point then we see all that we need to see about the rules that govern our everyday existence. Contrariwise, if we don’t understand this point then we don’t really understand anything.


When things are going well for us and we are able to ‘successfully assert the self’ then this because is euphorically rewarding we don’t notice the effort of having to keep up the positive pressure; we’re getting the payback so we don’t register the unrelenting strain of what we are having to do. When on the other hand we aren’t able to successfully assert our idea of ourselves and this situation lasts for any appreciable length of time then of course we are not getting the payback – we are investing all the energy but we’re getting nowhere, we’re fighting a losing battle and in this case the strain of having to maintain the idea of ourselves does start to make itself known to us. Not only do we have the original suffering to contend with, but there is also the suffering of being aware of the thankless task of ‘having to maintain the bubble’.


To exist is to suffer, which is a rephrasing of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. This – which is clearly the part we have to understand first in the Buddhist message – has always been particularly unpalatable to our Western sensibilities! No matter what else we might be interested in hearing about in the Buddhist teachings, we don’t hear this. We might be super-keen on learning all there is to learn about mindfulness, for example, but we don’t really want to be brought face-to-face with the First Noble Truth, and we don’t really want to hear any mention of it made in any mindfulness course that we might sign up for. But if we don’t take this essential teaching on board (which, as the First Noble truth, we clearly have to) what good is anything we learn going to be to us?


The suffering of existence is the suffering of having to keep on asserting the self, come what may. It’s rather like a heavy wheelbarrow that we have to keep on pushing ahead of us wherever we go. Maintaining the self construct is the task that we have to keep on labouring at even though we don’t know that we are labouring at anything, and this ‘invisible’ (or ‘unconscious’) task is suffering. The only possible pay-off is the sense of gratification that we will get when we do the job satisfactorily, but this is simply ‘the pleasure of a slave who is rewarded doing his or her job well’! And then following on from the suffering of having to keep up the positive pressure the whole time, other secondary sources of suffering follow-on from this – ‘positive pressure’ equals aggression and aggression always rebounds  back onto us at some stage. Aggression always rebounds on the winner just as it always rebounds on the loser; both are operating on the basis of aggression – successfully in one case and unsuccessfully in the other. There’s no such thing as ‘successful aggression’, in other words – not when we take the long view. It’s just like talking about ‘successfully stretching a length of elastic band’ – we can stretch an elastic band only by storing up potential energy in the fabric of the material, potential energy that will one day have to be released again.


Sometimes (generally within the context of religion or morality) we try to deny the positive pressure mechanism because we recognise that ‘blind self-assertion no matter what’ (i.e. self-assertion as ‘an answer to everything’) isn’t ever going to help anyone, least of all ourselves, but when we try this all that happens is that we find ourselves trying to ‘use aggression to defeat aggression’. We might well feel good about ourselves if we think that we are succeeding at the task, but really we’re doing the same thing we are always doing – we’ve just twisted things around so that it so that what we doing seems justified and laudable in the name of ‘morality’. The amount of suffering created is even greater when we engage in this type of deliberate morality however because all that we’ve done is add another level of self-deception into the mix – somehow we imagine that by getting aggressive towards own fundamental aggression we have somehow ‘improved’ ourselves and are ‘better people’ as a result.


Another way in which the fundamental aggression of self-assertion gets turned against itself is when we become self-critical or self-recriminatory – what happens here is that the ‘positive pressure’ gets flipped back on itself to become ‘negative pressure’. We’re going around recriminating against ourselves and giving ourselves a hard time. Instead of spraying out our aggression onto the world wherever we go we are directing it against ourselves; we automatically devalidate and repress all of our impulses instead of automatically ‘acting them out’. When we turn our aggression against ourselves in this way (and get to feel that we are unworthy or ‘bad’) we suffer a lot more (or so it would seem) than a person who is always assuming that the fault or error lies outside of them, and who feels good about themselves on this account, but the essential suffering is still there. It’s plainly visible in the first case whilst hidden in the second. We are just running over everyone else with the heavily-laden wheelbarrow instead of letting it slip back down the hill and getting squashed under it ourselves instead. The wheelbarrow is doing damage either way.


Ultimately, there is no difference between positive and negative pressure – something artificial has been created either way. On the one hand we have the ‘justified’ sense of self, and on the other we have the ‘unjustified or unworthy sense of the self’. Both modalities work equally well – the self can just as easily see itself as being ‘always right’ as it can as being always wrong’ – these are simply the two sides of the same coin, the two sides of the artificial or contrived sense of self. We can change our metaphor slightly at this point and talk about a heavily-laden rickshaw instead of a wheel-barrow (the difference being of course that we can sit on a rickshaw and pedal it like a bicycle). There are two possibilities here therefore: one is where we are cycling the rickshaw down a long incline and so the weight we are carrying is actually working in our favour – we’re at the mercy of our own momentum but going in the right direction so we’re happy! We can just enjoy the ride… The other possibility is the less happy possibility where the effort to cycle the heavily laden rickshaw up the steep gradient becomes too much for us and we slip back down the hill going the opposite way to the way that we want to. We lose ground rather than gaining it. Because we perceive ourselves to be losing ground rather than gaining it (because we’re moving in a negative rather than the positive direction) we experience dysphoria rather than euphoria – it’s the reverse of what we want to see happening and yet to our dismay we can’t do anything about it. What the rickshaw metaphor shows us however is that the movement in question is a downhill movement in both cases! The movement of the self-concept is always downhill, whatever happens always happens mechanically. The self is a mechanical thing and it can’t ever behave in a way that is non-mechanical, and mechanical movement – by definition – is movement that is downhill. A rule is being obeyed and this means that we are heading towards an equilibrium state – we’re not going anywhere new, we’re not going anywhere that’s going to surprise us, we’re only ever going to stay trapped within the gravitational pull of the equilibrium system.


The ‘pressure’ that we started off talking about is a rule – rules are pressure because we have to obey them ‘no matter what’. The rule here is that the self (whenever that might be!) has to be asserted, has to be propagated, has to be maintained. When we obey this rule, when we obey this pressure, then we’re heading to the bottom of the hill, we’re heading straight towards the ultimate equilibrium state. Reacting to the relentless pressure to assert the self – as we always do react – never leads to anything new, very clearly! It’s not supposed to lead somewhere new – how can a rule following the rule lead us ‘somewhere new’? The whole point of a rule is that it won’t lead us somewhere new. The whole point of ‘the Task’ is that we fulfil that task, not that we do something different, something unrelated to the task, something that will lead us in a direction that is unrelated to the all-important fulfilment of that task.


What we are really talking about therefore, when we talk about ‘the task of asserting the self’, is simply fear of the new (or we just say ‘fear’, because all fear is ultimately ‘fear of the new’). So are we saying here is that psychological pressure – of whatever sort – equals fear. Fear denies life.  Fear denies life because life is always new, because life is always about ‘becoming something different’. The pressure we are obeying is the pressure to avoid life therefore and it doesn’t matter whether the pressure in question is positive or negative. The true nature of the task that we are engaged in (without knowing that we are) is the task of avoiding life, in other words. Succeeding at the task is therefore perpetuating the basic problem, perpetuating the fundamental source of our suffering.


What we can’t understand is that life ISN’T a task, and that ‘being who we are’ ISN’T a task either. How can ‘being who we are’ be a task? How did we ever fall into the trap of believing such a thing? What sort of craziness is that? And if life isn’t a task then this perceived necessity to keep on struggling as hard as we can  to maintain the bubble of ‘the positively-defined self’ is the biggest (and most costly) misunderstanding that it is possible for us to make!