The Problem with Identity

Reading Time: 10 minutes

“I stand before my highest mountain, and before my longest journey, and ,therefore, must I descend deeper than I have ever before descended.” (Nietzsche)

“The crucial element I wish to consider here is that element of a life which we consider to be an identity; the way in which one puts oneself together, what one imagines oneself to be…This invented reality contains a great number of elements, all of them extremely difficult, if not impossible, to name.  The invented reality has struck a certain kind of bargain with the world; s/he has a name, we know what s/he does, and we think, therefore, that we know who s/he is.  But it is not that simple.  The truth, forever, for everybody, is that one is a stranger to oneself, and that one must deal with this stranger day in and day out – that one, in fact, is forced to create, as distinct from invent, oneself.  Life demands of everyone a certain kind of humility, the humility to be able to make the descent that Nietzsche is talking about.”  (Excerpts from James Baldwin’s “The White Problem” – 1963)

James Baldwin speaks of the capacity for freedom when we do not become attached to this thing we call ‘identity.’   He speaks of identity as a creation that can arise within and something that must also be allowed to dissolve a be created again each day.

I posit that identity, particularly, the identity assigned by an external source (society), is both a source of deep suffering and also holds the potential for deep personal freedom.   Before I speak of this idea, consider two very important experiments that tap into the heart of human identity – The Stanford Experiment and Blue eyes/Brown eyes Experiment: 

The Stanford Experiment (Philip G. Zimbardo, 1971 )

Dr. Zimbardo created an experiment to test the phycological effects of perceived power using the setting of a mock prison at Stanford University.  The initial experiment was set to run for 2 weeks and 24 random white male volunteers were vetted to reduce any chances of physiological instability or disfunction.  What happened became a deep investigation of human identity. 

The men thought to be most stable were assigned the role of ‘guards’.  The ‘prisoners’ were arrested without warning (after they consented to the terms of the experiment) at their homes by fake police.  The ‘prisoners’, like actual criminal prisoners, were anonymized by wearing uniforms, being assigned a number rather than a name, having their heads shaved and personal belongings removed.  The guards were asked to ‘assure law and order’ was upheld.  

The first night, the ‘guards’ began to harass the prisoners, and it escalated quickly from there.  One the second day, there was a prison rebellion, which was put down by the guards with force including using chemical repellents.  After the rebellion, the guards decided to use physiological punishment as a means to control the ‘prisoners’ since they could not bring new ‘guards’ in to constantly watch the disruptive ‘prisoners.’   Within 3 days, the first prisoner had to be released because of emotional distress.

The experimenter, himself, played the role of the prison warden and within these first days, he began to lose his former identity and take on his new role.  In addition to the volunteers and Dr. Zimbardo, there are approximately 50 people who visited the ‘prison’ in some capacity – some curious professional colleagues, some families of the ‘prisoners’, a priest.  None of them thought to demand an end to what had become a place of torture for the ‘prisoners’.

On the sixth day, graduate student Christina Maslach was invited to conduct interviews with the volunteers (as she saw them, not as Guards and prisoners, as they saw themselves).  She was the first person to raise the alarm on the ethics of the experiment, and it was terminated on that day.  Extensive reflections have been written on the meaning of the experiment and why is went so wrong, so quickly.    One thing that is very clear is that human beings very quickly take on the identity assigned to them and our behavior can almost immediately conform to the expectations of that identity.

Brown eyes/Blue eyes experiment (Jane Elliot, 1968)

Jane Elliot is an anti-racist educator who was so deeply impacted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that, on the day after of his murder, she vowed to dedicate her life to awakening white Americans to the monstrosity of white supremacy.

She had all white students in her classroom, and they had often spoken of racism.  The children were sympathetic the the plight of Black Americans.  She asked them to do an experiment with her to help them really understand what it feels like to face discrimination.  She told the children that, for the day, children with brown eyes would be ‘superior’ to children with blue eyes (smarter, kinder, and other qualities though to be positive).  Since they were ‘superior’, they had access to certain privileges like more playground time or extra food at lunch.  The blue eyed children had restrictions placed upon them like not being able to use play ground equipment, not drinking from the same water fountains, etc.  So the kids could identify the blue eyed children from a distance, brown eyed children placed a collar on their necks.  The experiment was reversed on the second day (blue eyes children being ‘superior’).

This children, particularly on the first day, quickly began to denigrate their classmates.  The ‘superior’ children quickly became arrogant and mean.   They also saw improved academic achievements.   At the same time, the children in the ‘inferior’ group saw a decline in academic performance and became quickly subservient to the ‘superior’ children.  

“I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.” (Jane Elliot on the results of her experiment)

The experiment did not end in the classroom for Ms. Elliot.  The children were tremendously touched by the experiment and were asked to write about it.  Some of their writings were published in the national news.  Her entire community turned their back on her.  None of her fellow teachers would speak to her (accept one), her parents lost their business in their small town, and she received many death threats.  She continues to do anti-racist programs and lectures for children and adults.

When white supremacy defines ‘Identity’

What is important to note in both experiments is that they are both considered ethically unsound – not, necessarily because of the premise of the experiments, but rather because of how quickly people in the experiments assumed a new identity and began to behave monstrously towards others, committing what may be permanent psychological harm.  These few shocking days of experiments revealed that identity does not exist unless we believe it does, and if that identity has been placed upon us by another, it has the potential to rewrite even our own fundamental ethical foundations.

We, at least in the United States and Europe (the cultures of my birth and my life experiences), each have within us a monstrous subroutine called white supremacy, which assigns us an identity from birth.    This subroutine is has been inserted into our programming from the first breath and many of us have never learned how to disable it or even recognize that it exits.

I should be clear here, that no one actually benefits from white supremacy, even ‘white’ people – ‘whiteness’ being a socially constructed identity for people who are perceived to benefit from this illogical belief system. White supremacy is a dysfunctional ideal rooted in delusion and is detrimental to any stable society.  Its founding idea is that some people (defined at ‘not-white’) must be exploited in order for the ‘white’ people to prosper, and, therefore, there will always be a need for creating  an exploited class. 

If a group of ‘inferior’ people cannot be found to serve as the exploited, an exploited group must be created, either by conflict or societal dogma (which will, inevitably, lead to conflict).  

Remember, the form of white supremacy in the roots of the United States and Europe arose from European Christians as they came across people when they moved away from Europe to ‘discover’ a world that already existed.  As Christians, it would have been in conflict with their values to slaughter and oppress the people they came across in far away lands.  However, to declare these people as ‘other than fully human’ was a way to avoid the conflict of the Christian teachings and slaughter of God’s children.  Once large groups of people were determined not to be fully human by the Europeans, these same people became the people to exploit. 

Colonialism was logical extreme of the Stanford Experiment and Jane Elliot’s experiments.  Europeans defined themselves to be ‘white’ based on relative appearance, but this definition of ‘whiteness’ had more to do with access to power than appearance, and it made the Europeans brutal in their conquests.

Naturally, there have always been exploited people.  The ancient myths and stories are full of tails of slaves, the poor, and royalty, often the most exciting stories occurring when one secretly steps out of their place – prince disguised as a slave to win a beautiful woman’s heart, etc.  However, the creation of ‘race’ as a construct at the time of colonialism took this exploitation to a new level as those in the exploited groups can now be identified by physical traits and so their fate became inescapable from birth.  

It should be no surprise that as ‘race’ became a social construct, we began to see the poor and working class ‘white’ Europeans begin to rise up against their oppressors. They began to believe their identity as a privileged group as they began to see themselves as ‘white.’  So, those freed from the identity as ‘oppressed’ took their place as ‘oppressors’ and demanded their autonomy.  This concept is most beautifully expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence in 1776:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

However enlightened these word may read, the system that arose from them were tainted with white supremacy – many of these men, themselves, held enslaved people hostage and the freedom of hundred of thousands of people in the country were seen as negotiable.  These men, who did not come from a royal line, were now demanding the right to their own destiny because, although they lacked parentage, they were, at least, white   

The philosophical, economic, and social systems that arose at these times became dependent on cheaper labor, social oppression, and assumptions of white superiority.  In 2020, we have become trapped by these social and economic systems, and with each explosion of protest against it, unravels the twisted knots of exploitation more and more, but what is beneath the unraveling is not yet clear.   Can we even conceive of a system not based on systemic exploitation?

Identity as our Gateway to Freedom

This takes us back to the identity that James Baldwin spoke of; it is a broader sense of identity beyond the specific identity of relative ‘whiteness’.  I argue that dedication to any particular, externally defined, identity has the capacity to distract us from our highest values.    

The Stanford experiment shows us what can happen when we create an identity that purely serves a social function (‘Guard’ or ‘prisoner’) and Jane Elliot’s work shows us what happens, even to the most innocent, when our society amplifies these identities based on assumptions of superiority.  The insistence on societally constructed identity, because identity only exists within relation to the external, is the path to destruction.

As Jane Elliot pointed out, those who perceive themselves to be advantaged by the subroutine of white supremacy can quickly become “Nasty, vicious, discriminating” people.  The rage and hatred white supremacy feeds within one has impacts on all of their relationships and in their communities (to the point of genocide)  and even on their personal health.  On the other hand, those even those oppressed directly by the ideals of white supremacy are running this subroutine in their minds leading to significant impacts on heath, economic prosperity, even intellectual achievements, and personal relationships.   

“You will always remember the first time someone reminded you that you are Black.” (John Boyega, 2020)

Remember, one does not get to chose which side of the white supremacist construct one lives on – Whiteness or Blackness will be defined for you by the world around you.  Society, in innumerable ways, demonstrates to us where we stand; and if we do not challenge it, we begin to believe it.  Those who are perceived as ‘white’ will be told as such by the reaction of society, and those perceived as ‘Black’ will also be told.   In this way, our deluded ideals created by European Christians from the colonial era are defining identities in 2020.

It is time to rewrite the subroutines.

The foundation of the spiritual traditions, as I have studied them, is to free us from the identity placed upon us that we have come to believe.  As we practice, we begin to see, hear, taste, feel, smell these subroutines on a deep level – our nervous system been wired to it.  However, once it is seen, it creates a bug in the system, short circuiting the power of the programming.  

Our identity is largely the result of the impressions that our world and our cultures imprint upon us, like a block of marble, slowly chipped away until a form appears – we think we are the sculptures, but were were only ever the marble.  The highest journey is to become free of the illusion that we are this identity that has been created for us and come to terms with the foundation of who we are, beyond culture and impressions of life. 

What Baldwin asks us to do it to ‘create, as distinct from invent, oneself’.  Invention is only converting what already exists and converting it.  What he proposes is far more radical.  In order to create, from scratch, you must have already destroyed your socially anointed identity.  Not only is he asking the we create our identity but that we recognize this identity as a temporary construct that needs to be degraded regularly – identity is only ever a fictional tool for societal interactions.

When we let the identity die, in each day, in each moment, we can truly become free from the confused entanglements of human history.  This freedom allows our actions to be rooted in our fundamental values, rather than the dysfunctional ideals of power and exploitation rooted in the identities placed upon us by our societies – the monstrous subroutines.  The only way to come up with new solutions to ancient problems is to work from such a place.  As a result of the death of identity, we automatically become more compassionate towards ourself and others.  As Zen teacher Hyon Gak Sunim once told me, “compassion is not a choice; it is what arises naturally when we are in touch with who we really are.”   

When we chose to turn towards the stranger within us each day, as Baldwin suggests, and recreate our identity over and over, we have found a gateway to compassion and freedom, not just for ourselves, but for our societies.

These words are in no way a guide to this unraveling of your own identity but rather a long winded invitation to ask yourself, “If I am not this identity, who am I?”

Within the illusion of life,

Death is the only reality,


is Reality the only death?

Within the reality of imprisonment,

Illusion is the only freedom,


is Freedom the only illusion?

(Dr. P. Zimbardo)

Where does the mind go when there is no more air left to breathe?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I would like to continue the notion from the previous post of “life has its own restraints.”  As previously stated, when people are oppressed and denied freedom of will, then, for peace of mind, one attempts to sort out purusha from prakriti.  

Purusha as the existence of pure being becomes distinguished from the physical worldly existence of prakriti which is encumbered by “its own restraints”. 

Anything in the physical world is impermanent and subject to change. The human mind is considered to exist in prakriti and it, too, is subject to change. Ignorance arises from the steady attachment to the physical world of change without any awareness of the eternal state of pure being. Yoga is the practice to refine the ignorant, distracted, and confused mind to its misperceptions in the realm of prakriti. 

Existing in ignorance of purusha gives a perception of separation rather than union of all life. Having ignorance leads to desires such as materialism and wanting power over others rather than recognizing our shared common humanity. 

White supremacy is a shared commitment to ignorance in the belief that the color of skin entitles one to certain material privileges. 

White supremacy is an ignorant survival mentality that sees the limited resources in the changing world of prakriti, and lacks the imagination to see the creative potential of unlimited possibilities through change. The system of white supremacy murdered Mr. George Floyd over an alleged counterfeit $20.  Loss of life in exchange for an extra $20 to retain in the white supremacy bank account. Mr Floyd cried out for his right to his breathe. “Life’s restraints” in the form of oppression denied him his breath. Mr. Floyd called out to his deceased mother indicating to me that his mind may have recognized the imminent death approaching his body. His mind reached for the beyond into the realm of his deceased mother. I pray that he found his way to eternal peace with her. Faced with the ultimate of life’s restraints- death, Mr. Floyd sought his deceased mother.

This ability to rise above such adversity of oppression and even death is derived from the love, such as a call out to a loved one in the time of death.  Love is the  hope that allowed enslaved parents to envision that their children or grandchildren would one day be free. Love is a righteousness that promotes civil unrest that demands justice for all, not a privileged few. Love is courageous in knowing that one deserves to exist in spite of life’s restraints creating by a society based on ignorance. Love is gentle allowing a grown man to call out for the comfort of his mother when knowing he is taking his last breath.

Yoga is the intentional practice of self-realization. Yoga is a system of practices to bring the mind’s awareness to the realization of the interaction of purusha with prakriti.  The opening of the crown chakra signals this merging of purusha, the limitless, with prakriti, the limited. Yoga is a practice of uniting of heaven and earth. Yoga becomes an awareness of being in a body while coexisting with the unifying force behind of all life.  

Thank you to all you good people who are reaching for the “crown above the head”. Thank you to all standing up for everyone’s right to breathe all of their God-given breaths. Thank you for striving for the love, unity, and freedom of black lives and all lives, all breaths.Thank you to all who abide in the guiding force of love to uplift ourselves out of ignorance and come to the realization of our one humanity in the one creation.

Life has its own Restraints

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It was not until I turned fifty did I begin to embrace my being African American in a white world.I have often wondered about the ability to survive tragic suffering such as slavery.Where can the mind go under such circumstances and not want to die right then and there?  What gives a person the will to endure?

Dr. Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, author, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the United States civil rights era stated, “life has its own restraints.” What I take this to mean, from a yogic perspective, is that under great adversity, as when people are oppressed and denied freedom of will, the mind must search out purusha from prakriti. Purusha, as the existence of pure being, becomes distinguished from the physical worldly existence of prakriti, which is encumbered by “its own restraints”. Anything in the physical world is impermanent and subject to change. To value anything on the impermanent physical realm is false idolatry. False idolatry on something subject to change is ignorance. Ignorance causes suffering. Greed is false idolatry. Greed is the idolatry of any accumulation physical possession i.e., property or money, beyond one’s need. Greed led to the enslavement of masses of people. Even today we still suffer from such ignorance. Ignorance leads to the value of property over human beings. We often are ignorant about being human thinking that we are only the flesh and not the spirit.It is the spirit that ended slavery. It is the spirit that is now marching in the streets for Black Lives Matter.  The spirit will never die. The physical world has limitations through man’s ignorance of true reality. Turning to spirituality is seeking beyond such limitations and impermanence.

Through the “Negro Spirituals,” or whatever other means, to touch the intangible arose the grace to make life bearable to go on. To exist in life’s restraints but know not to be entrapped by it. The grace is the glimpses of inner being that exists beyond the torture inflicted on the flesh. This inner being that can be victorious even in the face of death. This inner being that still reaches out to me from my ancestors. I have seen in my patients from economically deprived circumstances demonstrate this inner being’s ability to survive in the midst of social structures that impede upon their lives by squeezing out the options to live a desired sustainable living. This ability to survive such adversities is derived from the love. A courageous love that knows one deserves to exist  in spite of life’s restraints in society, and a soft love that blesses when it is time to let go because of life’s restaints in the body.

So the part that I embrace about being African American is feeling my ancestral spirit in the face of white supremacy. This ancestry has given me a leg up in recognizing “life’s restraints” apart from the grace of God. Understand that I only speak for myself as one African American. For those enmeshed in the suffering of life’s restraints they may not fair so well and turn to suicide, murder, or to alcohol and substances of abuse, or whatever way to self destruct when the mind can take no more.

Those benefiting most from white supremacy have a harder time identifying the permanent, purusha, from the impermanent, prakriti, because the privileges of the impermanent are so alluring.  False idolatry is inherent in the privileged.

In honor of the spirit within me and my ancestors I am proud to be the product of a people who survived the abusive passage on slave ships, who courageously bore their own children (and the children of whites) under enslavement, and a people who the still stood up after being beaten down by whippings, and all possible forms of degradation, and a people who could and still can march and raise voices above the forces that want to make us less than.  I am not at all saying that I am grateful for slavery.  Slavery is abhorrent and a crime against humanity.  What I am saying is the force of God’s love is greater than the force of any evil. God’s love does and will survive. The fact that I am here is testimony to that.  Current protests in the streets is testimony to an undying spirit of love and unity. This spirit lives in each one of us.  It is up to each individual to connect to the infinite, impermanent, loving source of our being. None of life’s restraints can bind the spirit.


***NOTE: The first image is a piece by artist Christopher Martin, and has been created as part of a collaboration to support Black Lives Matter.

Ancestral Healing – by Dr. M*

Reading Time: 2 minutes

My life is built from African languages and dances long since forgotten
—–Disrupted by greed and slave ships.
My life is built on beatings, screams in the dark, and lynchings still
—–echoed in police shootings, overzealous incarcerations, and
—–babies without a village.

I live in a state of forgiveness.
—–For how else to keep from going mad with rage?
A strong heart to believe in the future
—–while waiting for my son’s safe return home.

You who profited from dollars for humans, and lost the
—–caring to be human.
You who did not say, “Stop!”
—–And instead live for conquest,
—–deviating from God’s grandeur believing yourself the greater.
In your DNA stands a grandmother as a young child smiling at the
—–lynching of a young black man.
You disassociate from your own lineage and go to the lab to create
—–“artificial intelligence,” since the atom bomb was too dramatic.
When will you return to your heart as the bedrock of existence?
—–Maybe afraid to feel the hurt of past suffering?

I have forgiven. My heart is light and strong.
Can you really look me in the in the eyes without the hatred of your burden of guilt laid down in your DNA?
Can you repent and reclaim your heart and not turn violent nor 

Ultimately your life and my life share distant origins.
—–Back to God’s words of “Let there be Light.”
Everything in existence share that common ancestry.
You can only truly connect to this lineage through acceptance and
—–ownership of the horrors of slavery,
—–and then ultimately find peace with the One.

No healing can happen without attention to the wound.


About the Author:

*Dr. M. is a dedicated spiritual practitioner, poet, writer, and a recently retired medical doctor.  She is exploring, using the written word, the expression of her journey as a black woman in the United States at this time.

“Black Lives Matter” is Mantra

Reading Time: 2 minutes

We can only begin to deeply practice Yoga if we have the capacity to feel safe, even if for a moment.  The historical impact of white supremacy has traumatized millions of people, denying them safety in many ways, and in this moment we are seeing the direct impact of this theft on Black communities across the world through the lens of police brutality against Black bodies.  I stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movements, Black sisters and brothers, and with all of those looking to dismantle white supremacy in all forms.

The vision of SafeSpacesYoga is to acknowledge that modern industry of Yoga is one of privilege that has profited by exclusion; my goal is to reclaim these practice in the landscape of inclusivity.

It is my goal to create, as much as possible, a sense of safety for each person who comes to me – all bodies, all abilities, and all gender expressions and sexualities are welcome.  I do not teach ‘Yoga’, I teach people how to apply Yoga techniques to support their individual lives, and as a result, help each person find their unique expression of the ancient lineage of Yoga.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is Mantra

Mantra is the science of bringing meaning into the deepest spaces of our hearts as a source of deep personal transformation.  If you pay attention to the flow of life, you may see mantra arising like a mirror to show you yourself more clearly.  At this moment, “Black Lives Matter” is one such mantra – what does it offer us in this moment?  As my dear friend Dr. M. recently wrote:

“Try “Black Lives Matter” as mantra japa 108 times and see what arises. If it becomes painful for you then know that you are  beginning to share the pain of many. As Howard Thurman suggests do not run from the emotion but meet it head on until you can manage it.”
We can only move forward together.
In this vein, SafeSpafesYoga will be amplifying the voice of a friend and colleague who will go by the name Dr. M., to protect her privacy.
Dr. M. is a dedicated spiritual practitioner, poet, writer, and a recently retired medical doctor.  She is exploring, using the written word, the expression of her journey as a black woman in the United States at this time.