We exist within a system of global violence that forces us into relationships of domination with each other. It creates a situation where the material safety of some is dependent on the oppression of others; where life energy is extracted for profit; and where the means of human existence entail the destruction of the planet. Whether we are in the role of “oppressed” or “oppressor” we are all caught in a dehumanizing system that alienates us from our true selves while wounding us psychological, spiritually, and physically. The pain is different depending on a person’s position in the social structure, but the entire structure is a deep violence against the human condition. It transforms every person into a grist for an mill designed to extract all value from nature and people, monetize it, and consolidate it in the hands of the few so that they may satisfy the more base and fearful parts of their own selves that they have become trapped in. And these few “elites” are alienated and suffering tremendously as well.
This situation is not the only way we could be living, but as long as it’s in place none of us can be full and liberated manifestations of our most sacred, intimate, truthful, and loving natures. None of us can avoid harming each other and falling short of what we know we could be. None of us.
We often exhibit two responses to this truth that create deep tension, particularly in the world of identity politics. Fortunately, there is a third choice that presents an alternative path.
The first response is to tune into a dimension of reality that does not carry the message of the violence structural violence and our complicity. Many socially conscious people are likely pretty adept at noticing avoidance patterns like consumerism, bigotry, and ignorance, but there is a more subtle channel that well intentioned spiritual folks are more likely to get caught on: the transcendent present.
This transcendent present is real. It is a place beyond word, thought, and distinction where everything is exactly as it should be. Here, even the darkest of emotions are merely the decadent unfurling of a universe that knows nothing but love. This is the place where matter, space, and energy are one; the place where all is one and separate objects are as much an illusion as invented categories like race, gender, and nationality. There are no barriers to love here and all is an ecstatic cosmic union.
This frequency is referred to in most spiritual traditions and it is an essential aspect of our reality, but a fixation on the transcendent present and a belief that it holds a truth superior to other states of being can create two destructive consequences: escapism and denial. Both consequences do not arise from the state itself, but rather the belief that the state is more true or more real than other states.
Escapism arises from the addiction to constantly occupying this state. Like other addictions, people seek a particular experience that allows them to avoid more painful or unfamiliar parts of existence; and like other addictions people are willing to commit and rationalize harmful acts in pursuit of their goal. Years ago, England used colonization to get access to coffee and tea; today people are leveraging racist capitalism to get access to exclusive yoga retreats. In both cases there are sets of reasons that make this palatable for the addict, most commonly “this is the just the way the world works.” Instead of feeling the discomfort and propulsion to action that would come with the noticing that their healing is dependent upon someone else’s suffering, the escapist “rises above” this through “acceptance” and continues to reside in the transcendent present. This creates a fracture that allows the person to plaintively accept the presence of violence. The resultant placid calmness in the face of oppression is not enlightenment, it is dissociation that reinforces structures of violence and prevents people from connecting deeply to the world or themselves.
Denial inflicts harm by suppressing tools for self awareness and liberation. From the transcendent present, we see categories like race, gender, ability, sexuality, and nationality as contingent occurrences rather than the true unified nature of humanity and existence; and we are right. We would also be right to observe that a rock not a separate object but really part of a unified energy field vibrating in mostly empty space. So be it, but if someone throws a rock as our head, it will hurt.
Same with identity. Of course it’s socially constructed, but it has become a real facet of existence that shapes social, physical, and psychological space. Language is a social construct but it writes laws that shuttle people into prisons. Money is a social construct, but that awareness is of little help to a poor person. Identity is a social construct but that knowledge doesn’t really help someone who is denied access to a livelihood because of theirs. The suggestion of unrealness of identity is tantamount to a denial of the lived experience of people acutely aware of theirs, and is only plausible to those who have mistaken believe that a life of freedom from acute identity-based oppression is accessible to everyone. We need to understand the reality of identity in order to see what it will take to liberate ourselves.
The notion of the unrealness of identity also denies vital self expression. We know that a being identifying itself as a member of a particular groups could transform the world into a more liberated place (e.g. gay folks coming out to homophobic family members who subsequently re-evaluate their beliefs); we understand how various cultures and traditions carry tremendous contributions to humanity that have been ignored and their proponents degraded because of their identities; we have experienced how tremendously healing it can be to love an aspect of ourselves we were taught to hate. Yet when people practice assertive identity-based self love and elevation of their contributions to humanity, folks who are addicted to the transcendent present see it as merely attachment to illusory characteristics that detract from an awareness of our unity.
Not so. These are the particularities through which the universal expresses itself. Individuality is not separate from unity, it is part of it. It is analogous to language. The English language is shaping, limiting, enabling, and restricting the way I am expressing ideas that transcend language. If I wrote this piece in another language it would be exactly the same and completely different, there would be some new things I would be able to say and others I could not. Same with identity. The contingencies are determinative and inseparable from the expression, and they are very much not the thing being expressed. We cannot simply reside in a transcendent present where we only witness the “essences,” because we will ignore that we exist in a world that is killing some people and providing wealth to other on the basis of those contingencies. As long as the world is like this, denial of identity is a dangerous delusion even if it is a cosmic truth.
The second common reaction to our collective condition is run away into an intellectualized future. Sitting in the pain and stuckness of the present, we imagine a world that is a perfect embodiment of our hearts’ desire. This imagination produces visions, plans, stories, theories, and frameworks. It gives us hope and relief; and it creates an essential creative tension between the present and the future by enabling us to identify and change aspects of our world that do not yet meet the ideal.
Unfortunately, holding a vision of any ideal can result in a chronic case of not-enoughness. We are familiar with it in many realms of our lives as we scold our selves or each other for not being enough; not educated enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not whatever enough. Sometimes it motivates change, but it is often incredibly toxic and self-hating. We see this trope playing out constantly in the realm of identity politics.
Visionaries and activists hold an ideal image of the world where we are not experiencing identity based violence, and they can spot every occurrence of where we fall short. The violence occurs so constant that it is easy to get caught in this wavelength and see nothing but the fact that we are not anti-oppressive enough, reflective enough, committed enough, wise enough, or just enough to co-create the world we crave.
This assessment of our collective not-enoughness is accurate from the perspective of the idealized future, but it often results in self-destructive behavior in the present. We reject aspects of ourselves that are out of line with our ideals, we reject others when they exhibit those behaviors, and we hate the things that caused them. All we see is the way we are falling short of our ideals, and if we can’t stomach accepting our own role we just project and lash out on others.
A doctor does not cure a patient by constantly telling them they are not healthy enough, a therapist does not just tell a client they are not loving enough, and an activist can not just tell everyone they are not just or anti-oppressive enough. That’s just not how things change, and we know it. We also know that the reason we are scolding each other for being not enough is that we are scared, wounded, and having a really hard time accepting and loving ourselves and each other because we are stuck in a labyrinth of structural violence. It’s the same reason we scold each other for not being smart, successful, or pretty enough: internalized self-hatred and projection.
Residing in the imagined future attunes us to the unacceptable violence and inadequacy perpetuate, but it fails to witness the truths visible from the standpoint of the transcendent present. It cannot see that everyone already is enough and that love permeates all actions and things. Identity politics is a tremendous critical and analytic approach, but it is not the most generative or nurturing, particularly as it is expressed through wounded souls such as myself who have wielded it as a tool for projection, blame, constructing ourselves as “better than,” and acquiring a position of dominance.
The ultimate shortcoming of identity politics and intersectionality is that it gets caught in the idealized future and does not bring us into direct relationship with the energy that transforms the present. The irony is that this force is our true identity. It is the self that pre-exists and will outlast all social systems. It is the identity that will serve as the foundation for a truly nonviolent and liberating politics.
That brings us to our third option for how to cope with reality. We can witness that the transcendent present, imagined future, wounded past, need to change, and immediate perfection all exist at the same time and how this is not contradictory. We can accept the world as it is, and reject it, and accept the rejection while rejecting the accepting.
There is a self within us, let’s call it a soul, that preexists all concepts and yearns to express itself in and connect with the material world. It can only do so through the means at its disposal: its body, its language, is time, its place, its social structure, its position within that social structure, and all of the other uncountable factors that construct its reality. The soul is being birthed constantly in each one of us, breaking its way forth into the world, like a seed looking for the light.
My soul is not my whiteness, my maleness, my Jewishness, or what have you. It is the self that expresses itself through and despite these limitations. The relationship between my soul and my social identities is like the relationship between a painter and their palate. The colors on the palate create the boundaries of the possibilities for expression, but they all create the possibility for expression to begin with. The painter finds freedom by not by denying what they are starting with, but by accepting it and then morphing into an expression of a greater truth. It’s the same with my identity.
I do not try to deny my identity. I try to understand that certain political and historical forces are running through my body, and that gives me the opportunity to shift and transform how they show up in the world. I carry the wounds of a people forced to give up aspects of self and culture in order to assimilate into American white supremacy and I carry the power that comes with successful assimilation. This is part of my palate. I don’t try to rise above these colors, I try to use them to paint an image of unprecedented beauty.
To see my soul, you have to see through the social identity and all that is attached to it. Witness that there is something deeper that is making choices about how to navigate and express within it. That is feeling the conditioning of history run through its body and psyche, and choosing to be in conscious contact with it in order to transform it. That is how my soul arrives on this planet, not by remaining in the transcendent present, but by expressing the unity on the place of separation, expressing the divine through the mundane, embracing distinctness as a window into sameness.
Your soul is the same. Imagine a cloud of mist. There are pockets of the cloud that become so dense they turn into water. The water then falls into a vessels. Each vessel has its own internal system of pipes and containers; and all the vessels are connected by an infinitely complex set of pipes that funnel water.
Your body and your psyche are a vessel; with internal structure created to respond to a complex set of circumstances. It exists in deep inter-relatedness with all of the other bodies and psyches that people have. This comprises our social structure. The pockets of dense mist that pours water into your vessel is like your higher self. It channels ethereal resource into your vessel. It can exist independently of your vessel, and it expresses itself through your vessel. This self can even make shifts to the internal structure of your body and psyche or change how it relates to others. All of these separate higher selves are formed from a shared soul essence, the mist. And there is a full totality that comprises and creates the entire system and emanates the energy to keep things moving; lets call that the “Nameless Mystery.”
We are all the mist; literally the one thing together. We are all also little pockets of water; slightly differentiated aspects of unified totality. We are all vessels; dense structures of body, experience, and consciousness that impact how soul energy manifests. That is the plane where our ideas about social identities live. Our vessels impact each other. Our social structure has placed us in relationships of domination and oppression to one another. If we do not change it, our life energy will be funneled into violence against one another. Together, as a unity comprised of separate pieces, we are the structure we are creating.
In this view, liberation is not just identifying ourselves as the mist or the cloud. It is allowing the water to remake the vessels and their connections. And this requires a deep awareness of how the vessels are currently structured. We often lose that awareness when we fixate on the transcendent present. Some folks call that “spiritual bypassing” or “whitewashing.”
We can best allow the water to transform the world when we understand that we are the mist and our highest identity as a separate self is as the cloud. When we know ourselves as the cloud, we rain even more. When we are told we are the vessel, its easy to forget we are the cloud. That happens all of the time when we over fixate on the way we have been conditioned, or when we fully identify with our position in social structures.
My deepest identity, the thing I really want to be see as, is the cloud and the way it is expressing through and transforming the vessel. This is my real identity. It’s not even a noun. It’s a verb. It’s the ongoing process by which this part of the mist becomes the cloud that transforms the vessel (for my Jews out there: this is what I think “b’tzelem Elohim/ in the image of God” means).
Identity politics helps us understand how this self inhabits and is influenced by certain socially constructed identities, but it does not help us tune into our true selves. In fact, it often essentializes the constructed categories and convinces us that we really are nothing more than the sum total of our socio-political coordinates, our contingent experiences. This alienates us from the transformative self that resides within and repeats the deepest oppressive alienation perpetuated by the current oppressive system: the severing from Truth, Love, Liberation, Connection, and Peace.
We can be this self here amidst the contradiction. Not searching for escapism or purity in the transcendent present or the imagined future, but rather understanding that we are the force transformation constantly expressing itself in a world that is made perfect by its need to be transformed. Only by recognizing we are not the contingencies and that the contingencies are real and determinative of our lives can we begin to transform them. We must realize that we are not all these identities, we are our soul, and our soul is a constant revolution; that’s why the system of domination keeps trying to convince us it doesn’t exist.