We think we are who we think we are
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

From a Buddhist point of view, our basic problem is that we don’t know who we really are and we identify with all the wrong things. We “think we are who we THINK we are.” If I say to you, who are you? You will start by giving your name and whatever it is you identify with. What do we identify with? We identify with our gender, our nationality, our social group, our educational level, our profession, our role as a husband or wife or mother or daughter or brother. We have many roles we play depending on the circumstance. We hold onto these roles.

From the Buddhist point of view this is our fundamental “unknowing.” It is a fundamental ignorance in which we identify with all these transitory states and don’t recognise our genuine identity.

Right now I am living in a household where there is a little boy. He’s two years old and very sweet. His parents are both scientists and he is very bright and because of the household he lives in he has a very strong connection to Asia and with the West. One of his favourite things is offering malas to the Buddha. Yet you can see even at this age how he is creating his own self image of who he is and how he will therefore relate to others outside of himself. He’s learning to put everything into categories. Because he is now in the process of concretising his identity, he is very much reaching out for those things which he wants and feels will make him happy and strongly objecting to anything he doesn’t want, which he regards as not being very pleasure making for him. See, right from the very start we begin this process of creating a persona for ourselves. Persona, from which we get the word personality, comes from the Roman and Greek masks which were worn by actors in the ancient dramas. They would always wear a mask that represented the character they were portraying, their “persona.” So our personality is the mask that we present to the world, depending on the role we are playing at that particular point. For example, you put on a different mask when talking to your parent than with your children. In your professional life you probably have different persona to that which you would reveal to your friends and intimates.

So we are endlessly playing different roles. In itself that’s not a problem, we have to play roles. The problem comes when we identify with those roles. It’s as if an actor not only brilliantly portrayed Hamlet, but he believed he was Hamlet. This is a problem. This is what we do for our whole lives. We not only play a part, but we begin to believe that the part we play is who we really are. When this fundamental aspect of unknowing becomes very strong in us, then of course, automatically comes the reaching out for anything we think will bring us pleasure and happiness and the pushing away of anyone and anything we think will bring us pain. We do this automatically. We just naturally try to attract pleasure and avoid pain, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional. This is what the Eight Worldly Concerns are dealing with, our automatic responses to the events that happen in our lives.

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