Something happened the other day that really got to me - and then, the very fact that it had rocked me so much, got to me more. What happened was that I got a bill for a magazine I had not ordered. When I called them to find out what was going on, they told me that I had "ordered it online." Since I knew that I had done no such thing, I asked them to give me the contact information. They had the right name, address and phone, but someone else's email address. I pointed this out to them and asked to be taken off their mailing list. After hanging up, I felt rotten - like I have been invaded somehow. This person had masqueraded as me and gotten away with it. How could that be? The part of me that thinks of itself as unique and special was feeling quite bruised.
It took awhile for the edge to come off my irritation and for me to begin considering the event from a different perspective. What really happened? Probably someone got ahold of my contact information and used it to fill an online sales quota. That has nothing to do with me. They probably have no idea who "I" am, nor do they care. So why do I take this so personally?
We hear about identity theft becoming more and more common, but what are we really talking about? Is my identity the sum of all the numbers that make up my address, car registration, birth date, etc? Do those figures in fact define me in any way? Somehow I doubt it. What they DO is locate me in space and time. They say "Kenn is the person who is right here and was born at this time in this place." They are labels of events in the time space continuum, "identifying" me by notations of when and where, but they are not definitions of who I am.
This leads me to consider: If these are not my identity, what is? On a purely physical level, there are literally millions of tiny organisms that make up my body, and it is only the efficacy of their communal interface that allows me to breathe, eat and move - not to mention think and speak. This is a rather uncomfortable thing to really dwell on, but I cannot think of it as "me."
On a more esoteric level, I have three souls: The soul of my physical presence that is tied to this world; the soul that will return to my ancestors; and, the soul that will come back for other lifetimes, as it has before. Is the co-mingling of these etheric elements the basis for my identity?
By now my head is spinning. What is identity anyway? In mundane terms it does refer to those pieces of information that separate you from everyone else for the sake of legal purposes. My name, social security number, driver's license, address, phone number - all of these are saying in some way: "this is me - that is not me." So "I" am the one who makes this statement, yes? When I sit down to meditate, it is "me" who is taking a seat on the zafu; "me" who is seeking the inner Stillness; "me" who is observing the breath; "me" who. . . but wait! If I am the one observing, who is it that is observed?
So here we are at the real problem: We don't really know who we are. This is perhaps because our "self" is more mystery than fact. But it is this discomfort of realizing that we truly do not know who this thing called "self" is that keeps us grasping at the straws of identity. There is no "self" in terms of numbers or concrete object. There is only a wavefront of consciousness, arising from the vast and incoherent community of organisms, souls, memories, connections, preferences and loyalties that masquerades - for a little while - as someone we call "ourself".
Now - when I consider the copy of TV Guide I just threw out, I am somewhat more at peace.