Ian Cooper

Breaking the boxes

Ian Cooper
Breaking the boxes

Photo by Denis Ng

We like to put ourselves into boxes. If I ask you “who are you?” you might tell me about your family, your friends, your job, and your beliefs. You might talk about your passions, or your history and heritage, or your religion. I’ll notice the way you look, the color of your skin and eyes, the clothes you wear.

We call all of this our identity, and we use it to define ourselves and to put ourselves into groups with people we find similar. It’s a normal way of thinking — our minds do it unconsciously. Creating an identity and using it to compare ourselves to others helps us organize the world around us.

The thing is, identity also creates tremendous suffering.

Let me give an example. Say I define myself based on my ethnicity and the color of my skin. That’s something most of us do to some extent. It feels natural.

Here’s the thing though. The moment I define myself based on looking a certain way, I’m also saying that people who don’t look like I do are different than I am. I’m putting myself and people who look like me in one box, and everyone else in other boxes.

This again, might seem natural and harmless. But the moment I decide that you don’t fit in my box, you become competition or danger. On some level, I become afraid of you.

This applies to every identity we can come up with. The sense of conflict can be clear: if I define myself as a liberal, people with conservative beliefs become a threat. It can also be more subtle: if I pray to God and you to Allah, we might get along fine. But we might also perceive one another as vaguely foreign and strange, perhaps on a level below our conscious awareness.

I don’t have to tell you about all of the pain this can create. But here’s the rub: it doesn’t have to be this way. All of our layers of identity are an illusion, and none of them last forever.

At the heart of every religion is a simple truth: we are all one. Not just all part of the human family, but literally, one being. You and I are inextricably linked — drops of water in the same loving ocean. I’m a part of you, writing this piece to remind you of what deep down, you already know.

If we are all one, there is no competition and there are no boxes. If you and I look different, so do two leaves on the same tree. This doesn’t mean our identities vanish, but that we can start wearing them lightly, as costumes. We don’t have to take them seriously anymore. We can learn to let them be as they are, and to let them go as they fall away.

Ram Dass tells us to treat everyone we meet as though they are God in drag. Imagine what the world could look like if we really learn to do that.

Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.