What Is In Your Name?

07/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

At a recent retreat with a group of people interested in living freely, unencumbered by past definitions of themselves, a revealing exercise was discovered. When a person said their own name and then said what that name meant to them, self-definitions from childhood were exposed. Usually, if not always, these definitions of themselves were negative to at least some degree. Even if names had been changed, the old name still had hidden power, and hidden power is the most insidious. Many of these intelligent, bright, aware adults were carrying old burdens of negative self-identification within them. When a friend repeated the question, "What is your name and what does it mean?" layers of excess mental and emotional baggage could be recognized and dropped.

Naming is an extremely useful aspect of human intelligence. With naming we are able to make important distinctions. Distinctions are necessary for our survival, as well as mental and emotional growth and well being. With more sophisticated naming we develop more subtle and sophisticated distinctions. But great powers often come with a high cost. As we develop our ability to make distinctions and generate names, we usually lose sight of the connection between things.

And this is a tragic loss, a loss that generates dissatisfaction, restlessness and worse.

Names accumulate meanings associated with their owners. Over time, derogatory meanings can become embedded in our self-identification. We begin to believe that we are what our names, or labels, say we are. Even if we rebel against them, our names can seem like a kind of map of our persona, a map that defines how we are separate from others.

In the willingness to inquire into one's own name, and with that inquiry the willingness to face unpleasant feelings, there arises the possibility to see through the name. We can see that the name has no substance by itself. We can see the unreality of the name per se, while the reality of oneself remains constant.

How burdensome these labels and distinctions are finally. All along didn't you know your name didn't describe who you are? And yet we spend much of life trying to accept a name as the symbol of our identity, or rebelling against one name and taking another in hopes that perhaps the new name will be a true description of ourselves. Some of us take animal spirit names, we accept names from our gurus (I did), and we have secret, special lover-given names that feel more like a fit for us. But if we tell the truth, no name can contain our true identity. Once we stop trying to name ourselves, and others, there is an obvious yet thrilling discovery. We are not actually discrete from one another, or from the "mountain" or "the ocean" or "the sky" or any other part of our universe. What were important distinctions for survival and power aren't needed at all in self-reflection.

As Alfred Korzybski pointed out eighty years ago, "The map is not the territory." If you only know the map you won't experience the territory. If we try to fit ourselves, and others, into maps and labels, we will miss the essential thrill of being aware of ourselves as inseparable from all life forms.

Why not try this game with a friend? One of you asks the other, "What is your name and what does it mean." Repeat this question for ten minutes or so before switching roles. When you are asking the question, be sure to include nicknames, and even hateful names you have been called. You can discover for yourself if you want to keep carrying around any old heavy baggage associated with any name at all.

Gangaji will be holding meetings and retreats this summer in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Baden-Baden, London, Dublin, and Dorset. Read more about Gangaji's events and catalog of books and videos online.