It’s easy to feel sure that who I am is the inner experience I have of myself. To imagine that I am my thoughts, my values, my opinions, what I believe to be true, what I care about. And, consequently, that to change who I am – to grow, or develop, or address my difficulties – I only need to change my mind.
It makes intuitive sense to think this way, firstly because of course we are each uniquely privileged observers of this particular, own-most inner aspect of ourselves that we call mind. And, secondly, we’ve been conditioned by our culture and its strong background of Cartesian dualism to treat mind as primary and everything else as as secondary.
But it doesn’t take very much looking to see how far my identity extends into the world – how ‘who I am’ is part of the world, shaped by the world at the very same time as I shape it.
I am who I am in relationship with others, for example. The kind of son, brother, husband, parent and friend I am is affected moment to moment by the people I am son, brother, husband, parent and friend to. And who they are with me is equally being shaped by their relationships with me. And in this way our identities are inextricably and continually entwined with those who we are in relationship with.
I am who I am in relationship with what I own and use, too. That I now choose to have a phone without email on it, for example, is profoundly shifting my experience of myself, the kind of attention I pay to life and other people, how preoccupied I am, my sense of what I’m supposed to do moment-to-moment, and what I feel (I’m much less anxious). Similarly, my home, what I choose to wear, the art on my walls, the food I eat, and how I travel are not just expressions of me but an extended part of my identity, continually shaping and shifting and reminding me who I can be in the world.
I am who I am in relationship to my actions and body. The me that I am when I live a life of hurrying and frantic activity is quite different to the me that takes time, that puts things down, that is attentive to movement and space. The me that I am when I ask for help is quite different from the me that tries to do everything on my own. The actions I take shift my story about myself, as well as what I notice, my capacity to respond, and how others relate to me including the stories they have about me.
And because of all of this, any time I want to learn, or grow, or change, or be more genuine, or take up my freedom, or reduce a difficulty I’m in I have to do more than just think differently or hold a different set of beliefs about the world. I have to act, in each of the domains I’ve described above.
It is this very practical step of taking new bodily action that brings about a new identity, a new relationship to life, a new relationship to others, and to the stuff around me. And I have to do it not just once, but over, and over, and over, until it becomes habit, skilful and familiar enough to fade into the background.
Then I can say I have changed.
And this is the case even though the culture I’m embedded in, as well as the voice of many coaches, advice columns, and self-help books, would tell me that if I change my mind, everything else will take care of itself.