Self-Discovery Portal

Discovering Your Identity
by Art Ticknor

From a presentation made to a student-organized Perennial Philosophy course at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006:

Life is all about finding our identity. We typically approach that search in a haphazard way, like trying to find the right clothes to put on: become a ninja, a famous actress, a Watson or Crick, a Bill Gates, a Picasso, a Mother Teresa.

What am I? Life is also about disappointment. Rumpole, the British icon of novel and TV, as a young barrister "striking out" in his quest for romance after a dinner date provides an example: "I don't know what you think about being young. To me, it's a time for growing used to disappointment." You find your identity by disillusionment, a falling away of faulty beliefs. Leonard Whiting, who starred as Romeo in Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" at age 17 and whose career went downhill from there, stated candidly that his life was one of disappointment after having "started at the top." A friend who saw the pretense involved in believing he was, or should be, in control admitted that it was a huge relief not to feel responsible for making sure the sun came up each morning (an intentional exaggeration he employed to get the point across).

Two bald assertions: 1) the cause of your misery is not knowing what you really are; and 2) it's possible to know what you really are.

The Perennial Philosophy is all about identity – where to look for it and how to go about looking for it. We talk about finding our identity as if it's lost. Actually it's closer than our breath, closer than our thoughts and feelings. We find it by becoming, by recognition resulting from a change of being.

You may find that the angst cranks up after you finish school. You may have more free time – for anxiety and depression. You may keep your tank overheated (keep yourself busy and distracted), trying to keep ahead of the hound of heaven [the title of an amazing autobiographical poem by Francis Thompson]. I went through about a dozen years after I got out of school where I experienced periodic identity crises. When I was 33 I met a man, Richard Rose, who "rang my bell." I'd been scanning the horizon looking for a missing purpose or meaning for all those years. His message was that the answers are within.

I had found the direction I'd been looking for. I followed his advice and pursued the quest for self-definition to a successful conclusion. I "became one with" (knowledge by identity) what we are, essentially. This I feel sure is what Buddha pointed to as nirvana and what Jesus referred to as the kingdom of heaven. It's all that it's advertised to be … and vastly more.

The Persian mystic Rumi wrote:

The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, there would be no cause for worry, while if you remembered, performed and attended to everything else but forgot that one thing, you would in fact have done nothing whatsoever. It is as if a king had sent you to a country and you perform a hundred tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into the world for a particular task, and that is his purpose. If he doesn't perform it, he will have done nothing.

(From Rumi's "Table Talk," translated by Coleman Barks.) The purpose of life is to discover your real identity. The meaning of life will be answered when you find your identity.

Nick [the class organizer] had a question recently: "How does a man forget God?" The answer is that he does so through faulty self-identification.

Perennial Philosophy is a philosophy of action – a way of living your life. You're acting out a program, a play, which you didn't write. You're sleepwalking through life. Perennial Philosophy is a war against sleep – for those who are dissatisfied with being asleep.

How do we do it? Perennial Philosophy is a philosophy of doubt. Al-Ghazali, a Sufi master who lived about 900 years ago, wrote:

Doubt transports you to the truth. Who does not doubt fails to inquire. Who does not inquire fails to gain insight. Without insight, you remain blind and perplexed.

What is a man? If you're male, you would probably come up with a list of "positive" character qualities. If you're female, you might construct an entertaining list of "negative" qualities. My definition may be somewhat different: "a man" – I'm using the term generically here, not genderically – falls into one of two categories: complete or incomplete.

The incomplete man tries to make himself invulnerable by building a wall of security (which becomes his prison). He tries to run away from the fear of nonexistence. He tries to prolong his misery rather than get to the core of it. He tries to become complete by expanding his membrane of individual selfhood to include friends, fans, mate, offspring.

The complete man is invulnerable. He has transcended misery. He wants to help the incomplete man.

The incomplete person is trying to find his or her identity. Angst arises from not knowing the meaning or purpose of your life (or having the conviction that it's meaningless). As far as you know, despite possible wishful thinking, you will cease to exist before, at, or soon after physical death. You're on death row and have little if any certainty about when the guillotine is going to fall and erase that identity. Who or what are you at the core of your being?

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