Who Am I? - The Paradox of Identity
"Who Am I?"
The question I started to ask myself when I first experienced an unexpected spiritual awakening in the foothills of Himalaya four years ago.
"Who am I?"
"Am I my names, my identities, my mind, my thoughts?"
"Also, what am I doing here?"
"What is my purpose on Earth?"
"Where am I going?"
All these questions of self-inquiry started to flash through my mind like a hurricane when I came back from Rishikesh. I meditated a few times a day and became a bit obsessed. I also became a vegetarian (something I never thought I could do, but it just felt right at that moment). That was when I started my journey inward.
We live in a society that is obsessed with labels and identities.
We identify ourselves with our names - Sophie, Michale, John Smith.
We identify ourselves with our nationalities - Chinese, Australian, Indian, American...
We identify ourselves with our jobs - a lawyer, an entrepreneur, a banker, a yoga teacher.
We identify ourselves with our roles in the family - a mother, a wife, a daughter.
We identify ourselves with our religions - a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jewish, a Christian, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Sufi...
But are these identities the essence of who we are? Can we really be defined by our names, our jobs, our religions, our roles in the society and family? These outer identities perhaps help to shape us into who we are, but are they the essence, the core of our true beings? If not, then what is our true essence? If any of these outer identities change, will that change who we are too?
I also like to label and identify myself with something too, knowing that this is the rule of the game, the rule of the system, also for the sake of convenience and the fun of it. To live and exist in this world (not to renounce it), it is inevitable that one has to identify with something.
I probably have used more than five different names since birth. I was given a name at birth like everybody else. My birth name was given by my grandmother from my mother's side. Then it was again changed by my father as the Chinese characters of my original name were too complicated 廖慧雯 (pronounce Liao Huiwen, we put surname before family name). It was quite a challenge for me to write out my name correctly when I was just a little girl, only starting to learn how to write Chinese characters. Under normal exam condition, when I finally finished writing my full name, some other students might have finished answering a few questions. So my father thought the spelling of my name was a disadvantage and he decided to change it. He chose a homophone, to simplify all the characters but still keep the same pronunciation, my name then became 廖卉文, much simpler in writing but with the same pronunciation, and denoting similar meanings.
I was given an English name by my very first English teacher. She decided to choose the name 'Wendy' because the pronunciation of Wendy sounds similar to my Chinese name.
Secretly I did not like that name much. It was too common, and some people like to associate it with Peter Pan when you told them your name was Wendy. When I moved to Australia and discovered that there was an ice cream shop called Wendy, people would mention about ice cream too when you told them your name was Wendy.
Despite my personal dislike with this name, I still adopted it for many years (I did not think I had a choice), all the way through primary school until after I graduated from University.
Then one day I finally grew terribly sick of this name, I decided to call myself Angelique, because I love French and it sounded beautiful! I first heard of this name from an Indonesian movie, where the protagonist introduced herself as Angelique and I thought to myself, 'Wow, what a beautiful name!'.
When I first went to Osho ashram in Pune, I told people my name was Angelique, and they all thought it was spelt as Anjali, as everybody assumed that I was a sannyasin already. So naturally, I was given the sannyasin name Anjali, which means Divine offering. In many ways, I felt Osho had personally chosen it for me.
And one day I met another Osho sannyasin in Mullumbimby, when I first went up there for Deve Premal & Miten's Ecstatic chant weekend, she told me that I belonged to the family of love, so I ought to put Prem (means Divine Love) before my Sannyas name. I thought what a great idea, I loved it, hence the name Prem Anjali as my spiritual name.
However, no one in the West understands what Prem Anjali means, unless they are also familiar with Indian names, so I chose Anjali Love as my everyday name. Who knows, I may choose to identify with other names too if I feel like it in the future.
It is empowering and fun to choose your own name, instead of just using another name given by other people. I feel much more comfortable with my spiritual name, but of course, when I go back to China, I will still be identified with my Chinese name (I actually chose a new Chinese name for myself), and with some of my old school friends, they would still call me Wendy. Although personally I don't feel identified with all those names that were given to me, that's all fine too, a name is in the end, just a name.
I was born in China and lived in Australia for many years, deep down I don't feel the necessity of identifying myself with either of these countries. Although we do have to put something down when we fill up a form or tell people about it when asked, "Where are you from?"
That's just the rule of the system, the rule of the game.
I like to think of myself as an Earthling coming from Earth (although sometimes I also like to think that I may be an alien, coming from another planet -as in my debut novel I'm currently writing).
In many ways, I see the concept of nationality as a grand illusion, especially for world travellers, for people who like to immerse themselves in different cultures. I was born in China, raised in both China and Australia, used an Indian name, love learning French and Spanish, love Japanese cuisine, love travelling and learning about different cultures. I like to consider myself a global citizen, a citizen of the world.
When it comes to religion, I also don't like to think that I belong to any particular religion, but perhaps all of them. I see beauty in each religion. I went to churches, read some stories from the Bible. I went to temples, burned some incense, chanted mantras and bowed before Buddha. I went to Mosques and singing praises to Allah. I went on a Sufi pilgrimage and participated in a Sufi sema. Now I also became interested in Judaism, because lately, I've seen a lot of signs associated with Judaism, as if the Universe is trying to remind me "hey, don't forget about this ancient religion too." And I am also interested in Paganism, deeply fascinated by Mythology and Agonsiticism, although it is not considered as a religion.
I can label myself as belonging to any particular religion if I wish, although the forms of religions are different, I see that the essence of religion is similar. The fundamentals of all religions are love and compassion, they all try to promote peace and love on Earth, it is only people's minds and misinterpretations that result in conflicts.
I'm not a Buddhist, nor Hindu, nor Muslim, nor Christian, but I can also label myself as a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian - this was exactly what I did when I went travelling.
When I was in Iran and Turkey, I was a Sufi. (In many ways, I do feel that I'm a Sufi at heart)
When I was travelling in Malaysia and met some devoted Buddhists who joined me for lunch. I told them I was also a Buddhist. They smiled and nodded in approval.
When I was in a church, I became a Christian, or maybe a Catholic depending on which church I go to.
I can also become a Muslim once I am in a Mosque. And perhaps a Jewish if I happen to be a synagogue (although the Jewish people may frown upon that).
All these religions seem no difference to me (again, although the outer forms are different, but if you can transcend the form and see beyond, if you dig deep and look into the essence, you will find many similarities shared among them). One does not necessarily better than the other, it is just what you identify with, what resonates most with your heart.
I feel my identities can be highly fluid, I can expand them at will. I particularly enjoy this fludity and expansiveness, at the same time having lots of fun experimenting and exploring. One perhaps should not avoid attachments when it comes identities, but instead, one can multiply our attachments. It will probably be a better world, imagine if we all identify with all religions, all countries, if we all transcend the forms and limited boundaries, then there will probably be no conflicts, no wars.
Sometimes our identity can limit us, but identities can also help us to expand, to tap into the infinite possibilities, once you understand that all is illusion, all is a game.
The enlightened Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi used his well-known method of self enquiry, of asking the question 'Who I am' to guide his disciples to find the truth. The path of Jnana yoga, the path of wisdom and knowledge.
In Yoga Vedanta, there are four paths to enlightenment. Some seekers already have a strong belief in God and require no other system than to love God with all their heart, which is the path of religion and Bhakti Yoga (in many ways, I find this is similar to Sufism). Others also have belief, but still feel a need for a more systematic approach and are drawn to Raja Yoga (this path is best summarized by the Indian Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, under the title Astanga - 8 limbs of yoga, and also Kriya yoga). Some seekers feel they need to do good and selfless deeds, which is a path of Karma Yoga. And there are those who, at times, feel the need for more outside assistance, making them good candidates for Religion, Shaktipat and Siddha Yoga. Finally, there are those seekers who want to believe but have a greater need to understand - seekers who have lots of questions and need solid answers. These seekers are the best candidates for Jnana Yoga or introspection.
Even though these four paths appear different, there is really only one Yoga, one Union. We may be drawn to one Path more than the others but they complement each other. As the saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome,” so all Paths lead to Enlightenment.
According to Ramana Maharshi, the I-thought is the sense of individuality: "I" is the Self; “I am this” or “I am that” is the ego." By paying attention to the 'I'-thought, inquiring where it comes from, the 'I'-thought will disappear and the "shining forth" of "I" or Self-awareness will appear.
This results in an "effortless awareness of being," and by staying with it this "I" gradually destroys the vasana (behavioural tendency) "which cause the 'I'-thought to rise". When the vasanas disappear, the mind, also comes to rest, since it centres around the 'I' thought, and finally the 'I' thought never rises again, which is Self-realization or liberation
This method is also adopted by Mooji, a devotee of Papaji who was a devotee of master Ramana Maharshi.
Ramana Maharshi was born in Tamil Nadu, India. In 1985, an attraction to the sacred hill Arunachala was aroused in him, at the age of 16, he had a death experience where he became aware of a current or force which he recognised as his true "self" and six weeks later he left his uncle's home and journeyed to the holy mountain Arunachala, where he took the role of a sannyasin, and remained for the rest of his life.
He soon attracted devotees who regarded him as an avatar and came to him for darshan ("the sight of God"), and in later years an ashram grew up around him, where visitors received spiritual instruction by sitting silently in his company asking questions. Since the 1930s his teachings have been popularized in the West, resulting in his worldwide recognition as an enlightened being.
Ramana Maharshi approved a number of paths and practices, but recommended self-enquiry as the principal means to remove ignorance and abide in Self-awareness, together with bhakti (devotion) or surrender to the Self.
Whenever I read a story about some Sages abandoned their material life and went away into a mountain or a forest to obtain enlightenment, there was something touched deep inside my heart.
I admire their fearlessness and utter devotion to the path.
"Ah, sometimes I wish I could do that. Abandoning my material life and hide away in the Himalaya to obtain enlightenment." This 'I' thought.
"But then I also know the limits of my mind and my body. I enjoy worldly pleasures. Alas, the path of renunciation would be too extremely difficult for me, for my physical body and mind." Again, this 'I' thought.
I do love Ramana Maharshi's teaching and I do adopt the method of self-inquiry whenever I see a thought arise, particularly an unpleasant thought - Who is this I that is behind this thought? But I know my path has to be in this world (it is this 'I' again, my 'I' is particularly strong). That's why I follow Osho's teachings.
Osho teaches us that to remain in the world but not of the world. Money is not an issue, sex is not an issue, nothing is an issue to reach enlightenment as long as one remains in awareness in whatsoever one is doing.
"Life is a game, the game of the games, the ulmate gate. It has tremendous meaning in it if you take it as a game and you don't become serious about it. If you remain simple, innocent, the game is going to impart many things to you."
"One can be in the world but not of the world."
In fact, very little people have actually obtained enlightenment by abandoning the physical world. There was only one Buddha, one Ramana Maharashi and maybe a few others.
I love living in the world. I have a deep love for existence and also enjoy this game called life. I enjoy reventing my identities, trying out new experiences and exploring the Unknown, but also understand that all is an illusion. I know one day I will live a nomadic life, I will roam the world freely. My home is where my heart is.
I live in this world deeply, but not of this world.
"My trust in existence is absolute. If there is any truth in what I am saying, it will survive. The people who remain interested in my work will be simply carrying the torch but not imposing anything on anyone. I will remain a source of inspiration to my people, and that's what most sannyasins will feel. I want them to grow on their own - qualities like love, around which no church can be created, like awareness, which is nobody's monopoly, like celebration, rejoicing, and maintaining fresh, childlike eyes. I want my people to know themselves, not to be according to someone else. And the way is in."
Hmm, let me stick to Osho on this one, my beloved Master.