what defines us?


We spend a lot of energy on the question of self; i.e., just who or what is this self I call me? Who, in fact, is the “I” who’s even asking these questions? Since that seems to be a fundamental question that all of us experience – from time to time, at least – let’s take one more stab at addressing it.

Nobody’s saying we will find or develop an answer, but we’ll put the question out there anyway. What obvious factors work to define us?

Environment – Do we live in isolation or in community? Do we live in a crowded city or in a sparsely populated rural area? Is it always cold where we live, or is it a more tropical climate? Are we under threat from natural disasters here than we would be in other areas?

Circumstances – Are we part of a family or do we live alone? Do we have sufficient financial resources to live as we’d like, or are we just scraping by? Is our neighborhood safe to live in, or must we navigate crime-ridden streets to get home each day? (Lately, this seems pretty much like a false distinction. Nowhere is “safe,” whatever that means.)

Belief systems, Religion – Do we subscribe to any kind of spiritual, religious, or even ideological belief system – one that gives us inspiration and courage and a felt sense of “home”?

Race and ethnicity – Are we subjected to prejudice based on our racial or ethnic background? Are we living with the legacy of past historical slights against our demographic group?

These are just some of the factors that seem to define the “I’s” that move and act in this world, in concert or in conflict. And these probably aren’t even the most important influences. These factors, and all the other things that make up our self-concept, exist outside of ourselves. They’re external factors, over which we may have varying degrees of control. Societal factors. Cultural factors. Biological factors. Political factors.

But doesn’t the fact that they do exist outside of ourselves imply that there’s something to which all of these influences adhere? There must be something around which these external influences conjugate to create all the “I’s” we know and love – all the “I’s” around us and, of course, the “I’s” within each of us. And might that something be what Zen people know as “our Original Face”? That which exists before the patterns get formed through life experience? Well, I don’t know.

Some would  argue that there’s no such thing as an “Original Face”  – that everything we are, everything that defines us, is externally, culturally conditioned. And it’s certainly true that we behave according to patterns learned from infancy and childhood. But who is to say which patterns form for a given person?

This may be one of the aspects of being – of practice – that Dogen refers to in his “study the self” quotation. He says: “The Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to realize [actualize] the ten thousand things.”

Where and what is that self Dogen is talking about? Again, the best answer may be, “I don’t know.” For now, let’s just say it’s the self we contact in our practice; it’s the self that lives our practice; it’s the self that is our practice. So, let’s forget it all, and just practice.