This is how Ouspensky described identification in The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution:
‘Identifying’ or ‘identification.’ is a curious state in which man passes more than half of his life. He ‘identifies’ with everything: with what he says, what he feels, what he believes, what he does not believe, what he wishes, what he does not wish, what attracts him, what repels him. Everything absorbs him, and he cannot separate himself from the idea, the feeling or the object that absorbed him.
This concept of identification is common to all non-dual traditions. Generally, they refer to identification with the body or mind, in other words, believing oneself to be the body or the mind. On the surface, that might appear to be a different concept, but in essence it is the same. The mind, after all, is simply a flow of thoughts, sensations and perceptions, and that flow includes the beliefs and feelings and ideas that Ouspensky mentions. It is expressed in a very similar way by Rupert Spira in the first guided meditation in The Light of Pure Knowing:
Our culture has educated and conditioned us to believe, and subsequently feel, that this aware Presence that I am is identical to a cluster of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions – that is, identical to the mind and the body. As a result of this imaginary identification, the simple knowing of our own Being – its knowing of itself – is apparently veiled and thus seems to lose its true identity and to become instead a collection of objects. Thus, the Awareness that I am seems to become a body and a mind.
In other words, we overlook – or rather, thought overlooks or forgets – this simple knowing of our own Being – its knowing of itself – and imagines instead that what we essentially are is a cluster of temporary, limited thoughts and feelings.
This belief and subsequent feeling that what I essentially am is made out of thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions veils the Self that I truly am and replaces it with an imaginary self, a thought-and-feeling-made self. Most people spend their entire lives serving the fears and demands of this imaginary self.
Ouspensky goes on to explain that what we identify with, the ‘I’ that we believe ourself to be, changes from one moment to the next. By observing these changing ‘I’s, we are able to see that they cannot be what we really are. In other words, there are multiple false I’s:
Every thought, every feeling, every sensation, every desire, every like and every dislike is an ‘I’. These ‘I’s are not connected and are not co-ordinated in any way. Each of them depends on the change in external circumstances, and on the change of impressions. …
When man says ‘I’ it sounds as if he meant the whole of himself, but really even when he himself thinks that he means it, it is only a passing thought, a passing mood, or passing desire. In an hour’s time he may completely forget it, and with the same conviction express an opposite opinion, opposite view, opposite interests.
The concept of identifying with a passing fragment and ignoring the ‘whole’ are very similar in the direct path teaching. But there is one important difference. While Ouspensky suggests that the real Self is something we need to develop, in the direct path, and indeed all non-dual teachings, it is explained that nothing new needs to be developed.
So since it seems that the concept of identification and multiple false ‘I’s came from one of the non-dual traditions, why the difference? Almost certainly this is a misunderstanding that arose because having recognised that what we normally refer to as ‘I’ cannot be the real ‘I’, the next logical step would be to look for the real ‘I’. But as the non-dual sages throughout the ages have pointed out, ‘I’ is the subject of experience, and cannot be the object of experience. Therefore, it can never be apprehended by the mind, which can only think in terms of subject-object duality.
Ouspensky’s system teaches that we have the possibility of developing our body-minds into some higher level of being through a process of evolution. There are several different models in the system describing this evolutionary process. The ideas in these models are probably drawn from both Eastern and Western dualistic traditions. The Shankaracharya cited one possible origin as being the Nyaya tradition which describes a ‘ladder of seven steps’ leading to self-realisation. Those seven steps describe the progressive purification of the body and mind rather than the development of new ‘bodies’ or capabilities.
The non-dual tradition of Advaita Vedanta describes the real Self, as being concealed behind five veils or sheaths – the material body, the vital energy or breath, the mind and organs of perception, the function of intellect, temporary or dependent happiness. The sheaths could be seen as layers of identification. All that is needed to recognise the Self is to remove those sheaths. This is a description from Vivekachudamani, a non-dual text attributed to Adi Shankara, who founded the Shankaracharya tradition:
149. Under the veil of the five sheaths – such as the food sheath – which are produced by the power of the Self, the Self is concealed, like lake-water covered by a blanket of algae.
150. When the algae are removed, the water of the lake appears perfectly pure again, quenching the thirst and giving immediate joy.
151. Reject then these five sheaths, and the Self will appear to you as essence of constant happiness, the supreme self, which shines with its own splendour.
152. To become free from bondage, the wise disciple must discern between the Self and what is not the Self. Only in this way will he be able to recognise his real nature as Being, Consciousness, and Happiness.
Unlike progressive paths to the understanding of non-duality, the direct path is based on the view that purification is not an essential pre-requisite to recognition of our real identity. Our real identity is always known by us, although not generally recognised. It is that which is essential to us, that which has never changed throughout our lives, can never change, and is not subject to the constraints, limitations and conditioning of the body-mind. We all have an inner sense of that – but not as an object or an entity in its own right. We all know and feel that I am that which is aware of my experience. Rupert Spira refers to it as ‘awareness’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘pure knowing’, but states that all of those terms are simply pointers to our own direct experience of our essential nature which can never be described. Further investigation of the nature of the ‘I’ that I am though self-enquiry, reveals it to be exactly the same in everyone, and leads to the understanding that there is just one, universal ‘I’, the Absolute Unity out of which all diversity arises, and we are already that. That understanding is the essence of non-duality.
This guided contemplation from Rupert Spira takes us on an exploration of our own experience to discover this for ourselves: Come Back to Yourself