Pico Iyer Journeys

Impersonal Identity

This is the place where all selves and words burn up, I say defiantly, triumphantly, as I settle into the silent Catholic hermitage where I spend much of my life. Names fall away, and with them all the divisions that names enforce. I look out on an ocean become a blue plate extending below me, the sky a great bowl of blue above, Steller’s jays landing on my terrace, rabbits disappearing into the undergrowth–and realize that it doesn’t matter who or where you are: this is who you are when the who (and the “are”) fall away.

So much of our time–my time, at least–is spent in drawing fine analytical distinctions: this and that and East and West. Male and female, old and young. Sometimes I can even convince myself that they all have something to do with what is true: breathing in and breathing out, taking in and giving back. I lull myself with the ebb and flow of movement, and hear in it the rhythm of growth and loss. I attach labels to myself–this is where I was born, this the color of my skin, this is where I work–and at certain moments, for an instant, I can almost believe that they have something to do with who I am. But “identity,” if it means anything, means communion, coming together, that self in us that belongs to something far larger than us, found in perhaps every other seeming self. And  from where I sit today, in a patch of light, the ocean 1300 feet below, spread out like a mat that reaches all the way to Asia, it isn’t the small self that impresses me, it’s the larger one that lies around it.

No terms in this place, no sign of anything man made. Receding hills to the south, mist wreathing in and out of the dry brown valleys. The ocean below. Brush that has been cleared to protect the place from fire. Up above, if I look towards the blue, blue sky, cloudless in early spring, a cross, as it happens, though it could be something else.

The problems of finding a true self in the midst of the many selves that we house, the voice beneath our voice, inevitably make up the center of many of our waking thoughts. We wish to balance our going forth with our coming hither, our thoughts with our deeds, the dictates of the spirit with those of the world. We hunger for direction and the truth behind appearances. We tell ourselves we’re not ourselves and that a fixed self doesn’t exist. But then we ask ourselves what self it is that’s saying we believe only in fluidity–and go round and round in circles. We only find our true self, of course, when we stop looking for it (and it finds us).

I tell myself–and feel it, at some level deeper than all words–that Buddhism, living in Japan, has taught me about the smallness of the individual, the virtue of defining oneself in terms of a community, a company, even a country, how much one finds one’s voice by losing it in a choir. Each year the autumn, so blazingly blue even as the first chill and dark of winter draw closer, teaches me about impermanence and the larger scheme of things, to which each individual plan and voice must bend. It ushers me into the darkness, the back-stage emptiness behind the world’s play of lights.

I tell myself that being in this psalm-filled space, for eighteen years, has taught me about the light that hides within that darkness, and made me less wary of words like “harmony” and “grace.” I come here in the spring, and when I look out on Creation–the word that I would otherwise never use for simple ocean, radiant sky–the soul feels like singing. The two perspectives turn around one another as the illuminated frame for chaos and the darker frame for beauty. They teach respectively the lessons of autumn and spring.

And yet autumn and spring are part of the same single round, and it is a round that takes them in and makes the terms quite meaningless. One does not think to call oneself a Buddhist or a Catholic when one is in love, forgotten; one does not think to call oneself anything. What remains when the last category or division is cut away is this: blue sky, blue ocean, the wheeling sun. And this, too: the moon above the hills, translucent, the planes and their beeping lights among the stars.

I come to a Catholic monastery to cut through whatever notions I have of Catholicism, one book as holy, this doctrine or its opposite. I come here to cut through whatever I might associate with Buddhism, too, its schools and fine distinctions. I come to step into whatever stands behind the person who is saying all that and the one who imagines himself a being in the world.

Does it help me with the definitions I offer to those who ask? Does it give me a clearer sense of what remains when illusions are burned away? Does it help me sort out the self I believe in today from the one I can feel when all longing is abandoned? It does, but only in the way a slant of light does, and questions themselves fall away. It could be snowing, it could be bright tomorrow; the sea, the sky, the deer emerging from the tall grass in the dusk, will still be here. The only thing I am is the moment and the sunlight pouring through this fleeting, empty vessel.

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