One of the more disconcerting effects of a regular meditation practice is the way in which it can undermine our solid sense of identity. Over months and years we notice that we are not our thoughts, we are not our roles in life, and we are not our bodies. Our emotions come and go, and something which seemed to overwhelm our entire life can be quickly forgotten as the next thought/emotion/distraction comes along. Nothing lasts, much of our experience seems to be the result of events outside ourselves, and our thoughts are often proved to be wrong or at least misguided. Most of our beliefs and behaviours are dictated by our cultural milieu, as anyone who has grown up between two or more cultures knows only too well. Who, then, are we? If you take away all these aspects of ourselves, which make us feel ‘this is me, this is who I am’, then what is actually left?

I wonder if this questioning of identity may be one of the reasons why many people, even those who’ve experienced the benefits of meditation, struggle with establishing an ongoing meditation practice. In theory it’s simple – just get up half an hour earlier, settle into your preferred meditation posture, and off you go. Twenty minutes or half an hour later you rise and continue with the rest of the day, knowing you’ve done something to improve your health, emotional wellbeing, cognitive ability, and interpersonal relationships. You appreciate life more, your brain is more active in the positive left-prefrontal cortex which elevates your mood, and you approach problems with greater equanimity and less anxiety.

In practice, however, it can be quite challenging to get into the habit of meditating every day. There may be a number of reasons for this, but a possible one could be that, for Westerners learning mindfulness meditation, it may feel like there is no framework to help us negotiate the questions around our identity which meditation can stir in us.

We do need to have a functional sense of identity in order to flourish in life, to feel grounded and present. Over time however, that sense of ‘I’ can become frozen. Meditation can allow our sense of self to flow freely, according to the conditions of life we meet. We become less rigid, and our sense of self may also feel more fluid.

It can be helpful, therefore, to be aware of activities which help to give you a strong sense of yourself, of being grounded without becoming rigid and caught in solidity. Some of these for me include writing, listening to familiar music, gardening and bushwalking. You will have your own activities which help you feel comfortable in yourself, without having to prove anything to anyone. Connecting with these activities on a regular basis, and consciously including them in your life, can go a long way towards grounding you in a sense of who you are – even as your meditation practice (and life itself!) unravels some of your more outdated assumptions.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three activities which help you feel connected to yourself. Make the time for at least one this week, and notice how you feel before, during and after it.

Anja Tanhane


Secret history

‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.’

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Last year I read the account of a young neo-fascist leader in modern Hungary who’d built a successful career out of denigrating minorities, including Jewish people. Life was going well for him – he had the respect and support of his followers, and he’d been able to use his marketing skills to spread their neo-fascist message to a much wider audience than previous leaders. So all was good – that is, until he discovered he was Jewish himself. His grandmother had been interred in Auschwitz, but after the war, his family had not felt safe identifying as Jews in Hungary, and it was only by chance that this man discovered the truth about his heritage.

Understandably, this led to somewhat of an identity crisis for him. He began to visit a rabbi and practise the Jewish religion. Because of his past actions, he wasn’t exactly embraced by his new-found Jewish community. His career in the neo-fascist movement was also finished. The story is a wonderful example of the absurdity of racism, of denigrating any group of people as being less worthy than us of empathy, of dismissing their suffering as irrelevant.

Our brain likes to make quick judgement calls. We want to know instantly – is this encounter safe for us, or dangerous? And unfortunately, because of our inherent negativity bias, it only takes a few repetitions of the message ‘this situation/person/group is a threat to you’, for us to unquestioningly start believing it. Before long, we begin to sit up and take notice of anything which seems to confirm this belief, and disregard the evidence to the contrary. We do this with groups of other people, but we also do it to ourselves.

Meditation can help to open us to our secret history – the aspects of ourselves and others we would rather forget or ignore. This process can be confronting at times, because it’s constantly challenging the more primitive parts of our brain to get out of its habitual defensive patterns and take the risk of more openness. Yet compassion and empathy are only possible if we are prepared to become more open, less judgemental. If we truly want to understand someone else’s secret history, we also need to be prepared to explore our own.

Weekly practice idea:

When you encounter someone difficult, ask yourself – what might their background story be? It’s not about making excuses for unacceptable behaviour, but to get beyond our tendency to make quick value judgements.

Anja Tanhane