In “As You Like It” William Shakespeare wrote the famous lines:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
We all have multiple roles. We can at any time be for example, a father, a husband, a brother, a lawyer, a guitarist, a golfer, a gardener, a Rotarian, an Anglican, a believer in climate change, a neighbour, and so on. We move smoothly in and out of these identities choosing one for the immediate circumstances that confront us. We cloak ourselves in a particular identity but in s short while it might not be relevant at all. These are then relative identities being only “real” for the passing context that call them forth.
But of course this begs the question that if all these identities are in a sense only relative, what lies behind this changing façade that gives us a sense of continuity and stability? When we observe our minds at work, we see that behind all these identities is a state of awareness that incorporates them all but is able to rest behind them. This is the faculty that I have in previous essays called “The Witness”. If we are able to remain a little separated from these identities so that we don’t become totally immersed in them as we are often prone to do, we are able to play these roles without identifying exclusively with any. This gives us a certain freedom. We don’t have to be “this” or “that”. We are free simply to be.
You will have seen, I am sure, people who lock themselves into a role identification. This can be disastrous when that role is questioned or placed under threat. It is very noticeable, for example, when people identify with their employment role. If you identify yourself as a steel worker and the plant closes, you sense a loss of identity. What’s more if you’ve convinced yourself you’re a steel worker and have been so for many years and the only other steel works is on the other side of the country you find it difficult to imagine any other form of employment.
As you go through your daily life, being free to choose from your repertoire greatly increases your effectiveness. You might have been sitting at your desk playing out the role of manager when an employee tells you of her problems dealing with a sick child. You immediately jump into your parent role and empathise with her. When we move around our identities with fluidity and skill we engender a feeling of exhilaration. And, importantly, if we don’t invest ourselves too heavily in one role it helps us uncouple the unwanted shackles of self-image. As Shakespeare observed we are just actors who can play many roles on demand knowing that our true self is lodged in that faculty we have to watch the action without identifying with it.
But what if we were to dice the cheese another way? I could just as easily have defined the various identities not by the life role they took on, but the emotions they display. Thus each of us has the potential to play out the roles of happy person, sad person, angry person, compassionate person, jealous person, loving person, anxious person and so on. And just as from the standpoint of the Witness you are not essentially husband brother, lawyer etc, neither are you your emotions. To the extent that you can realise that you are not, for example, your anxieties, your anxieties then no longer threaten you. You are not now identifying with your anxiety but can stand back and observe it arising and know it is not essentially you. We know the ocean of life often has its surface whipped up into waves and when we are immersed in our lives at a superficial level these seem dramatic events. But the Witness is viewing life from the greatest of depths untroubled by the surface phenomena.
As you observe your life from the perspective of the Witness you begin to feel that what happens to your personal self – your wishes, hopes desires, hurts – is not a life and death matter anymore. As Ken Wilbur wrote, “…when the individual realizes that his mind and his body can be perceived objectively, he spontaneously realizes that they cannot constitute a real subjective self.”
It is often suggested that if we were to take such a detached view of life we would become a disinterested party and we would lose our ability to empathise with others. But really the opposite is true. When we are not distracted by our emotions and supposed threats to our self we are able to be in the moment and observe more objectively what is going on around us. When I am not distracted by my illusory hurts I can better see the distress of others.
Ram Dass and Paul Gorman in their delightful book “How Can I Help” make the following observation:
“If we persevere, our identification with the Witness grows while our attachment to being the doer seems to fall away. Quite remarkably moreover, we also notice we also notice that while our identification as the doer is falling away, much is still being accomplished. We’re still setting about our work, perhaps even more productively. It’s just that we’re not so personally identified with it any more. We see that in this state we’re less likely to be frustrated, to feel rejected, to doubt ourselves, to burn out.”
So then it is another of life’s paradoxes that when we are able to objectively view the world and disidentify with our place in it, the roles we play and the emotions we experience, we actually become more competent human beings and live more successful lives, lives filled with a greater sense of personal well-being.