What Identity Does the Mind Dwell On?

Yao Xiang Shakya

Yao Xiang Shakya

There are preliminaries or what might be called the first rounds of being alive where we learn different identities about who we are.  Birth brings us into the world in ignorance where we begin to construct many false, temporary, changeable identities that we grasp and attach to thinking each one is real. As we might imagine it begins with gender, as in it’s a boy!— it’s a girl! But is this gender who we really are? Thereafter we are labeled many other names—healthy, good, sleepy, fussy, colicky, small, big, strong, sweet, pretty, cute….the list is endless. Over time the list of labels are put together to form a personality with traits which we begin to believe are true and real. We take on the personality as an identity and become somebody with a name and a particular form.

There is no doubt this happens….but is it your true identity? There is no doubt that the name and form with traits acts a certain way in the world….but it is a temporary, changeable and therefore false identity. Yet, we seem to get attached to our false identity as though it were true and real….as though it was everlasting and permanent and unchanging.

We know when something is false by the very nature of it being temporary and changeable. It rises, appears and then vanishes which makes it unstable and unreliable. It is apparent and not true very much like the character in the film Truman. The main character thought he was in a real world, as a real person, with a real life until he found out he wasn’t. It is the same for us. We think we are in a real world, as a real person, with a real life. We believe I am a doctor, lawyer, teacher, mother, father, daughter, male, female, educated, uneducated, black, white….and on and on the list goes. These labels are roles and functions in the apparent world….not your true identity.

All false identities begin with I am and we fill in the blank with all the myriad possibilities from gender, to age, to beauty, to occupation, to relationship and so on. It is natural to do so. In fact, the community in which you live fosters the construction of a false identity by asking…. who are you…. over and over again…name, age, social security number, gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, occupation, nationality, education….these labels (names) are functions in the temporary world and will never be complete or completed because they are changing. They come and go, are unstable, are measured differently depending upon the one who is measuring.

A step on the spiritual path is to realize for yourself that these labels (names) are not your true nature.

Do you think you are these functions?

There is no doubt that these functions are taken quite seriously to the point it determines worth and value and status for one’s life. But taking something seriously and declaring value and worth does not make something true.  As an example, many if not most cultures say men, being of the male gender makes one  more valuable than women, being of the female gender. We can take each function and do a similar measurement….youth more valuable than age, beauty more valuable than plainness, one occupation more valuable than another, blood relationships more valuable than unrelated relationships and legal relationships more valuable than non-legal.  And to be honest even in a spiritual community this question arises in terms of lineage, master, practice and such. In fact, in any community measurement seems to float up in some form or another based on the functions, based on the persona or role of a living being. We want to know your name and the form and shape of your life in order to peg you as someone, somebody who might be important to us or not. In other words, we divide the apparent, temporary world along the lines of name and form.

This phenomenon is coming from ignorance. When either you or the other believe that the filled in blank is true in the sense of your true identity you place a variable value on the answer and on the person responding. You do it in regards to yourself as well as others.

When you believe these false, temporary, changeable identities you suffer and so do others.

The external, apparent temporary world is appealing, insistent, alluring and seductive because it offers us a chance for the winds to blow (1) pleasure and pain, (2) gain and loss, (3) status and disgrace, and 4) praise and censure our way. Of course we are gamblers by nature because we think we will be able to roll the die and get pleasure, gains, status and praise which will offset pain, loss, disgrace and censure to such a greater degree that we will find happiness. Time and time again we throw the die, spin the wheel and bet on one side over the other. When it doesn’t come up as we hoped, we suffer. And this happens time and time again. But we keep gambling….some of us until we die. This process is also ignorance…. we believe we know how to win and control the world based on what we know and control. The more we know, the more we control the better the odds.

When we know the world is rigged we recognize the winds blow both pleasure and pain and we begin to see where we are and have an opportunity to stop gambling. We sober up. We begin to investigate and study what is really going on here. We see no matter what we do, we can’t quite hit the mark.

Most of us know this by experience. It’s pretty easy to see it. Take any experience in life and examine it. If we identify with the name and form of the experience, we are dependent on an unstable, temporary and unreliable world. And in this place we think we can get the results we want….results that will bring lasting happiness.

Here is a concrete example. Let’s say there is a person whose main aim in life is to belong, belong to what, god only knows. But they have an inner yearning to belong…to fit in….which they feel will mean they are in the right place, feeling good. They may find a place that feels right, giving a sense of feeling good and they join up. It could be with a partner, having a family, an organization, a job….and for some period of time they may indeed feel as though they belong, and they may feel right. But when things change or don’t go the way they need for them to feel as though they belong….or….fit in….they are in danger of losing the sense of feeling right and good and things go south. In fact they risk depression, despair and brokenness.

I once knew a woman in her 80’s who came to see me in despair, depression….she was broken because she had lost her place in the world….her husband had died and her daughter moved away….and without them she didn’t belong and didn’t fit in. Her age, although she did not think so at the time, was a blessing….because at her age it was difficult for her to conjure up and imagine finding another husband or adopting a daughter. Left bereft she had to face the suffering of the worldly winds, face her false identification as a wife and mother and look elsewhere for who she really was. As one might guess, it was one hell of a battle for her.

All of this whirling in suffering comes when we carry our self forward, the ME-somebody in some false identity which we ignorantly believe is the be-all and end-all that will bring contentment and happiness. Falling in love or starting a new project often is full of promise and we think this time, this lover, this program will bring satisfaction and peace. But what happens is we experience the attachment of hope for a better love, a better body, and a better job….putting aside the truth that the blush of the blossom falls and weeds pop up no matter how much you are attached and no matter how much you dislike something.

As long as we identify ourselves as separate from the Divine, as free wheelers who can do anything, who wield the knowledge of good and evil as the way to the Divine we will suffer the blossoms falling and the weeds popping up. Just about everything rankles us when we are in this condition.

The story of Adam & Eve is all about misidentification as being somebody separate from God and separate from each other. Prior to this false identification they were with God; not separate from God or each other.  In Zen the same principle holds true. We misidentify as being somebody or a know-it-all body which may take on the name and form in an attempt to make it stable and solid.

The with of Zen may be experienced as Buddha nature or emptiness or as Ayya Khema states, being nobody, going nowhere. In each of these realizations no matter what label is used it is not the free-wheeling ego that is with God….the ego is the one that goes after the false identities over and over again.

We experience the realization of our true identity when we no longer rely on the false ones.

The ego identity is a function of the mind. It helps you go to the market, to the bank, dress yourself, tie your shoes, speak a language….and it also gets you in trouble with greed, hate and delusion. When the ego grabs a false identity it is akin to Adam & Eve eating the knowledge of good and evil. The ego is up to being a bad apple or polishing the apple to look good.

Now you may not agree, which of course is not a problem; because whether we agree or not, our true nature continues with or without our agreement. And it continually tries to make us aware of itself.

Each of us is called, pulled, bonked on the head to see our true nature, but as we know not all of us listen, turn and follow it. This condition is important to consider. And we can start on two levels to find out for ourselves. The first level is to examine our aim in life.

What is your aim in life?

This requires time and honesty.

Many have been conditioned to go after the good life. If this is you, then you might want to go to the second level and see if you are actually living out the life with the knowledge of good & evil as your guide or if you are living out your life with the eyes of Buddha, God or Clarity (poor, empty)….eyes where there is neither attachment or aversion, eyes not looking for something for the me.

The second level is to examine pleasure and/or pain. Anytime you experience pleasure contemplate what the mind is dwelling on. And secondly, anytime you experience pain contemplate what the mind is dwelling on.  And who is it that is dwelling on the pleasure, who is it that is dwelling on the pain?

In order to know who we are, we must know our aim and we must know the root of our pain and pleasure.

To summarize what are some steps to take….

Do you think you are the functions of life? Study and examine this in your own life.

What is your aim in life? Study and examine this in your own life.

When you experience pleasure or pain what do you do? What is the mind dwelling on? And who is that is doing the dwelling?

I looked too hard for things that aren’t there

Yin Cai Shakya

Yin Ts’ao Shakya


while practicing deeply with

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,

suddenly discovered that

all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,

and with this realization

he overcame all ill-being.’

‘Listen Sariputra,

this Body itself is Emptiness

and Emptiness itself is this Body.

This Body is not other than Emptiness

and Emptiness is not other than this Body.

The same is true of Feelings,

Perceptions, Mental Formations,

and Consciousness.’

-The Heart Sutra Thich Nhat Hanh

The greatest thing the late Ming Zhen Shakya taught me was the importance of living in a productive, fulfilling way in daily life. This teaching helped me overcome my tendency to cling to metaphysical thinking. Eventually it became the vehicle for my ongoing awakening. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for it!

Like so many others, I “looked too hard for things that aren’t there” not only in my spiritual practice, but also in life. And after finding nothing, I abandoned the superfluous “looking” altogether. Allow me to illustrate with several antidotes from my daily life.

At Work


I had a challenging day at work. It was one of those days where there were several things on my To-Do list. While working diligently to complete every last item on the list, in a timely and efficient manner, my boss, without warning, calls and tells me to drop everything immediately.

The Executive VP needs something done and he needs it to be done now!

You know what I mean, an urgent request with an alarming deadline followed by the inevitable question, ‘can you make this happen before the end of the day?’ My answer? Well, my answer is always yes, maybe a bit quixotic but still a yes. It comes from my desire to do my best and to do it on time.

And heaven, by god I soldiered through it and delivered the goods with enough time left over to for my boss to review the work. Before he handed it off to the executives he made sure that human beings would actually be able to decipher it.

Voila! It was on time and it worked. Yahoo!

At Home


By the end of the day when good-old Miller Time came around, I went outside, sat down in one of our big, plastic Adirondack chairs on the porch, cracked-open a cold one, and watched my dog frolic in the yard.

Sure, it was a challenging day, with unreasonable deadlines, but I got the job done and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment. As I sat outside in my chair, watching my dog chase the squirrels that are forever zigzagging and whizzing by her, I thought, I worked hard today. We can pay the rent, and am enjoying a rest in my backyard where I imagined my twins to come will play. I felt good. 

When Miller Time was over, I went back inside to cook gumbo for me and my wife, and our two babies who are growing inside her tummy. That took me from feeling good, to feeling great (it always does).

On Facebook®


After dinner my wife and I retired to the living room sofa, to relax and catch-up on what we’d missed on Facebook® while we were both at work.

That’s when I went from feeling great to feeling like I wanted to choke people.

A friend of mine had posted a link to an article on Vice.com, entitled “Millennials On Spirit Quests Are Ruining Everything About Ayahuasca” and it caught my eye as I scrolled-through my newsfeed. I should’ve just chuckled and continued scrolling, but I didn’t. Nope. Like a jackass, I clicked on it and started reading. I won’t go too deeply into the details of the article here, I’ll just give the premise and leave it at that-

 Apparently, upwardly-mobile young adults who feel unfulfilled in their lives are traveling to South America to hang out with Native Peoples and drink the hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca, with the hopes of having spiritual visions. This, in-turn, has brought a lot of unwanted attention to the afore-mentioned Native Peoples, and such attention is becoming a threat to their culture.

 Like Cain, the anger rose up, and from that anger I formulated a comment which I left on my friend’s post. It read something like this-

“What’s this vision quest bullshit? Really? These people need a vision quest? What sheer stupidity! Let me tell you something. There is nothing, nothing more to life than working hard, raising your family right, exercising, and fly fishing (or whatever task you prefer to master). If you’re looking for anything more out of life than that you’re a rube, because it doesn’t exist. Period. Full-stop.”

Ugh! I know, the less a man makes declarative statements the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect. But as no one fully understands the workings of karma I was blessed with an experience while washing the dishes not long after I’d posted the comment.

In the Kitchen Holy Place


It’s no accident that I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning. I suppose I could be described as “Old School” in the sense that yes, I believe the old adage that “a man’s home is his castle,” but I take it to include my wife and my forthcoming twins. I do my very best to make it our castle. But there’s one stipulation: The kitchen is where my best Dharma work is done.  This translates into the kitchen is my holy place.

It’s where everything is cooked up, eaten, washed, dried and put into place. It’s a place of refuge where my consciousness is cooked, chewed, washed, dried and put straight. It’s a mortar and pestle where cause and effect, karma, and the whole universe are ground down and changed in the ordinariness of cooking, eating, and cleaning.

Everything is fine, there.

Those words came to me, after I finished doing the dishes, while I stood there looking at the clean countertops and the empty sink, which all seemed to glow in absolute perfection in the evening sunlight which beamed through my kitchen window. I knew the sink wasn’t perfect because I washed all the dishes that were in there, and the countertop wasn’t perfect because I wiped it clean.

I saw they were perfect because washing the dishes washed me off, and wiping-off the countertop wiped me clean.

I stood there, giddy…giggling as the experience occurred.

My consciousness, indeed, me, arises just the same as dirty dishes arise from cooking and serving dinner. And for some ineffable reason, this realization makes me suffer less, and gives me a deeply-abiding peace and joyfulness unlike anything I’ve ever felt.

Zen, lovely in its inherent simplicity, gives everything in the here-and-now to experience this joy. The beloved Heart Sutra is a lens to contemplate and follow the Eight-Fold Path in a life in-which to practice.

What more is needed?


Equanimity comes from the experience of keenly discerning that without dirty dishes and dirty countertops, a clean kitchen cannot exist, and if your kitchen is clean, sooner or later the need to eat, along with literally everything else, contributes to the arising of a dirty kitchen.

It’s life… and it’s all fine… this not looking for things that aren’t there.