My young daughter is at the age where she is continually proclaiming, "I am Gretchen." She has taken on her name to be who she is. Her being and the word "Gretchen" are now one, inseparable. Soon she will begin adding to her list of "I am's." Perhaps soon she will proclaim, "I am a girl, a chocolate-lover, a sister, a student, a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend, a Colier."
After that, she may add, "I am a blonde, an athlete, a member of a particular religion, club or clique, an American, a New Yorker, a vegetarian." And then later, perhaps she will be her profession, her ethnicity, her sexual orientation, her political party, her relationship, her psychological history, her memories, her desires, her opinions, her feelings, her thoughts, her beliefs and her personality. As we go on in life, the list of things with which we identify, consider ourselves to be one and the same with, grows infinitely long.
The problem with all of this identification is that whatever we consider ourselves to be then has to be defended. We are not okay if the items on our identity list are not okay. We stop being able to really see or meet the world because we must always be on guard, listening and watching with the aim of protecting who we are. With each additional hat that we put on and imagine ourselves to be, we get smaller and more constricted beneath it, more separate from our fundamental vastness.
Thus far my daughter, as she sees it, is primarily "Gretchen." And yet, to be a name is not that much of a burden, as a name is not that much to defend. If someone has a different one, we do not experience ourselves as in danger, in part because we did not choose our name to begin with. And yet, as time passes and we become more entrenched in and buried under our identities, we are more at risk, and have ever more to defend.
If who we are is inseparable from a particular opinion, one who disagrees with that opinion is a threat to our very being. If we are a particular profession and lose that job, we lose ourselves. If we are a political party or sexual orientation and we encounter different values, our survival feels threatened. If we are our relationship and the relationship ends, we have lost not just our relationship, but also ourselves. If we are a great talent and we have a bad performance, who we are is no longer. If we define ourselves as our emotional trauma, then experiencing joy is a risk to our very being. In other words, if we believe ourselves to be what we think, feel, do and are in relation to, then we are always in danger and always living in a self-protective frame, making sure, first and foremost, that our identity survives. Such are the makings of a life of fear and suffering.
Freedom and happiness appear when we realize that we are not -- fundamentally -- made of any of the hats that we wear, beginning first with our names. We are born as life itself -- the ocean that takes the particular shape of a individual wave -- for a short time. Soon after we appear, a label is attached to us in the form of a name, and then soon after, we forget that we in fact were before that word appeared. So, too, we were before we were taught to believe anything, learned anything, were in any kind of relationship to other things, before our body took a certain shape, or we experienced any particular history. We were before we were a story.
The question then is how to raise a child so that they can appreciate their individuality -- the experiences, thoughts, feelings, talents, memories and all the things that describe them, but at the same time, still retain their sense of self as that primary being that precedes all conditioning. When my daughter says to me, "I am Gretchen!" I tell her you are -- and -- the name we call you, is "Gretchen." While it means nothing to her, nonetheless, it is a start to this process.
Do we need to be the sum of our hats before we can take them off and realize ourselves as that which is hatless? Do we need to be the wave before we can realize our self as the ocean? Perhaps. It is important however to try and offer our children, from the very beginning, a sense of identity as life itself, free from all constraints, and all that needs defending. It is important to suggest that they are, which is not the same as being the sum of all the things they think, feel, and do. A connection to their ocean-ness, their preconditioned being, will ultimately protect them from the fragile identity defending that makes life appear and feel so threatening.
Pointing our children toward their fundamental I am-ness, the life force that they are before even their name, is like dropping them a path of breadcrumbs by which to come home to themselves. Chances are they will have to travel through and eventually shed an infinite number of "I am thats" along the way. But nonetheless, no matter how young, it is wise to offer our children an invitation to the presence that is behind their original name, and all the names to follow. In so doing, we are preparing them to remember -- and know -- their true selves, their fundamental essence, as infinite, indestructible and irrevocable, without the need for any defense, and so much larger than just a pile of a hats!