What is this sickness called ‘war’? Isn’t it centuries of carnage on the basis of fabricated conflicts of interest, which are in turn concocted on the basis of an even deeper fabrication – that of ‘identity.’ The narrow vision of “Us versus them” is, in my understanding, a mental illness.

Decades ago I was conducting workshops, and I offered an experiment in my groups in which the participants would be allocated an identity by me as the facilitator (playing God, if you will).  The premise of the experiment was that we don’t know what our identity is, in ordinary, everyday terms, unless others help us in forming and confirming it. All identity is formed interactively. The purpose of the exercise was to bring various sequences of behaviour forward which would illumine how identity is dependently formed and is dependently maintained.

[It would take up unnecessary space to say, here, how I did this; but, briefly, it involved putting coloured dots on the participants forehead, where they couldn’t see the dot, while others could; and then giving appropriate instructions involving what methods they could and could not use to find out their identity. For example, no words or other obvious symbolic gestures. Originally, I myself participated in this exercise in a workshop with Douglas Edison Harding (1909-2007), in the early ninties. I then adapted it to my own varying purposes.]

Our social identities are formed in interaction with others. The experiment was meant to convey a sense of real-life situations, obviously. For example, a baby is normally born without identifying with its skin group, its language group, or its native culture. Her/his/their enculturation is a fact which the baby can’t think about until much later – well after ‘identity’ has been set in train. Yet, immediately after birth (and even before), everyone around the baby begins ascribing a particular kind of identity on such bases; as I said, long before the baby has any self-consciousness of either of themselves as speakers of language, or of themselves as enculturated – long before we could think of our society’s methods of designating our existence and our inheritance. Waking up is in part waking up to how we’ve been formed by our culture. Beyond that, waking up is activating ways of relating that  connect us to a deeper ground than culture.

Back to the workshops. There, I only offered the participants four different identities – one of four colours which corresponded to the four corners of  whatever room we were in. One unexpected insight we got at the time happened because on one occasion I contrived something that they wouldn’t expect. I arranged it that there were a few people in the workshop who couldn’t be identified by the others in the group. I gave them  a colour which didn’t match those of the corners. Their ‘no-identity’ status meant that they didn’t fit the pre-existing categories, which were symbolised by the coloured dots in the four corners of the room. Everyone else negotiated the experiment ‘successfully.’ Afterward, when everyone reported their experience of the experiment, those few differently-labelled people reported what it was like not to find their place in the available groups.

They reported that it was disconcerting, even frightening, to not find a place for themselves in the whole group. In the course of everybody seeking where they ‘belonged,’ these people went through the attempt to belong in a pre-established group, and they found that they were rejected by each of the four groups. Even in such an artificial circumstance, this felt destabilizing. These non-fitting people found themselves gravitating to the centre of the room, and – here’s the message for the purpose of this essay – there they found each other. They gained solace from belonging to the group of non-acceptables in the centre of the room. The recognition that they had this in common with each other met an implicit need to belong – even in this artificial setup! They could belong there together, identified as those who didn’t belong to the bigger order.

Let’s notice though, it was an identity which was still formed in relation to the whole group. Even the outsider depends on the normal people for their identity as an outsider. Look around us: the politicians of every political colour harp on about the faults of others because they are nobody without those others. I am asking, “How do you think you can you be yourself, by defining yourself in distinction to others?”

In relation to the workshop participants (to whom I bow in recognition of their bravery), what is of special interest to me,  is that their fear arose on the basis of their thinking – not on the deeper basis of existing-as-Such. Is it really a big deal that I don’t fit in with pre-existing categories of thinking? Can I perhaps think freshly from my present situation, without moulding the situation to be a another version of the old order? If I recognise my existing-as-Such, isn’t there a place for me anywhere I am, even in death?

In the workshop, at the end of the exercise, the people who were united in their ‘outsider status’ at the centre of the room, they still thought they absolutely needed a label which could operate in the pre-established order – the order which depends upon others’ mirroring your identity. They were trying to go on in the old way. Hence this specific kind of  ‘need for another’ guided them to feel a unity with the other non-fitting members, and to establish a ‘new’ social position. Identity, under these circumstances, is still not other than fabricated. I pointed out that this is what the disempowered in any of the world’s disadvantaged districts were doing.

(Lest I be misquoted, I am not saying that the difficulties of the oppressed are their own fault. I’m talking only in the context of a much subtler and broader issue in the world, that of identity; but one which has devastating consequences just the same. Indeed, if our everyday, egoic identity didn’t keep society’s structures in place, would there be such a group as ‘the disempowered’? Wouldn’t the care for oneself and others which emerges from disidentifying with the false, wouldn’t that care ensure the ending of structures of oppression? Of course, it does. Care that’s not mired in loss and gain, acts intelligently.)

If one doesn’t privilege this merely socially constructed mode of identity, enjoying others goes with the living fact that I and they exist-as-Such. It was said, “Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ (Fromm, 1956). IN my view, love-as-such says: ‘I love you because you are.'” It is in the mode of experiencing-as-such that we know we and the other are actual. It is not possible to maintain our fictions in this mode, so love with the actual do you become that harmful behaviour dies out, with our fictions.

What was further interesting, as I conducted this experiment on a number of occasions, was how the non-fitting group could rouse antagonism (albeit mildly aggressive) toward the ‘normal’ people, toward the people who’s place was conventionally acknowledged. ‘Us versus Them’ seemed to arise out of a subtle resentment that ‘I am not  included among the normal.’ Furthermore, it felt empowering to be united as the ‘misfits.’

All of this identification, of course, is a fabrication, whether the identity is ‘normal’ or ‘outsider.’ Its basis is in the mental act of comparing.

Dear Reader, if right now you attune to dwelling in your situation – include above, below, all around, and in the middle, as your ‘situation’ – in its raw, living, unlabelled immediacy, is it comparable to anything, really? Aren’t all comparisons after the recognition, and hasn’t the recognition already changed it, moved it on to something else. When you start  looking for comparisons to that initial immediacy, then it’s changed.

Experiencing as such is Such. By the capitalisation I mean to say it’s incomparable. It’s simply itself – livingly. (If you do get that, it’s good to then check your body for the magical feelings of innate warmth and aliveness, by the way.)

Insecurity has its roots in false identity. Two beliefs or views which feed this insecurity can easily be named. They are at the root of most, if not all, wars. Firstly, to our cost, we identify with what is transient, what is contingently and rapidly changing; that is, we identify with what is insufficient by nature.

So, being a changing being who is dealing with a changing world, I grasp at changing things to alleviate my existential anguish. Is that going to work? What could better define the madness at the root of war? Especially given that, secondly, when I’m identified in that way, I have an unconscious belief that I exist in the way I think my ‘self.’ Believing that this is so, I believe that I can be annihilated. In other words, ultimately we fear our identity will be negated and annihilated by any other who is different.

This concocted mode of living is one which generates beings lost in thought. Such a way of life will never penetrate to the knowing at the heart of experiencing-as-Such. It can never satisfy us.

Even so, it is powerful. It can lead us to destroy ourselves and the other species with whom we share this beautiful planet. Perhaps that is what the insane presidents and generals want, given their manifestly high level of dissociation from reality. These lost creatures. It is undoubtedly a miserably deficient way to live, to struggle so. I’m reminded of ‘I know the truth‘ by Marina Tsvetaeva. She knew another way:

I know the truth — give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look — it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

– from Tsvetayeva: Selected Poems, by Marina Tsvetaeva.
English translation by Elaine Feinstein. Original Language Russian.