As an avid meditator I spend the small quiet hours before my kids wake up, watching thoughts arise in my mind, only to disappear moments later back into the vastness from which they came. With three under three, my sanity depends on obeying my alarm clock.
As I sit quietly in my chair, each thought momentarily resurrects some aspect of my identity. A procession of me’s pass by, each momentarily conferring a range of beliefs, values and ideals.
“Dad” morphs into “Husband”, which eventually gives way to “Business owner”. And on a good day, after not too long I land back at “Meditator”.
The one thing I did not see coming in all these quiet mornings of contemplation, was that my meditation practice had put me on a collision course with my profession.
I’m a Diversity and Inclusion coach and in D&I whether it’s Woman, Gay, Trans, Asian or Feminist (understandably) identity is the star around which everything orbits. The emphasis is on gender equality and gay rights. Indeed in the wider world people are clinging to their identities like never before. And for good reason. As a gay man I’ve experienced persecution on account of my sexuality. The impacts of identity are real even if identity itself cannot be found outside the human mind.
I recently spent a month in Bali where my identity as a gay married father of three children was constantly under assault from an incessant stream of questions in market stalls and hotel pools about the apparent absence of “mummy”.
The meditator in me watched as my identity prepared to go to war with the Balinese people. I marveled as our “taxi driver” morphed in my mind and became “enemy”. And I watched as (thankfully) it all subsided back into the vaster ‘me’ that has been there since the beginning. The one that transcends my identity. Pre and post gay. Pre and post husband and father.
Experiences like this have progressively revealed to me the dark side of identity and its central role in diversity and inclusion. In meditation one sees that identity is constructed from thought. And it is the nature of thought to dichotomise. This makes identity a tenuous foundation for equality. To see this for yourself just think about the development of any small child you know.
Teaching my son to distinguish “ball” from “cat” allowed him to carve the world up into more manageable chunks. Our minds brilliantly slice and dice the world into a billion pieces and find ever more inventive ways to put it back together. But it can all go too far. As his freshly minted self-image began to emerge at around two, the ‘ball’ inevitably became ‘my ball’ and the rest of us were banished from touching it.
And as much as we all try to pretend we’ve out-grown this, the reality I see in meditation is that our identities haven’t. That they can’t. Look more closely inside and you too may see that it’s the inescapable nature of identity to divide. Whether you lean left or right, nationalist or anti-racist, pro-life or pro-choice just notice how you feel when you think of ‘the other side”.
Just like my son defending his ball from his imperious twin sisters, we tense up and have the urge to push people away. We’re not curious about the people who see it all so differently. We have no desire to connect with them. And at times, we have the urge to lash out at them for being on the wrong side of the argument.
So we work against them, losing sight of the fact that what we resist, persists.
How will we ever create a truly inclusive world like that?
I saw this dynamic on display a couple of years ago at a D&I conference. I watched in dismay as a colleague I deeply respected, publicly lambasted a supposedly ‘stale, male and pale’ delegate. Just minutes earlier I’d been deeply moved as this man told me he was attending simply to educate himself. He didn’t have a newly out trans daughter cajoling him. His wife hadn’t just encountered some traumatizing misogyny. No, he had freely decided it was about time he educated himself.
As I sat there, this man represented hope to me. That the message was getting through. That we were actually getting somewhere.
Then came the throat tickle-inducing moment when each table was asked to do some ‘sharing’. Every single person on my table identified with one of the pillars of diversity. Everyone that is, except my new friend. I watched as my colleague skillfully empathised with each person. Faithfully reflecting back their experiences.
Last to speak was the courageous man to my left. Before he even opened his mouth, I noticed my colleague’s face had changed. Gone, the lovingly furrowed brow. Replaced by an icy indifferent stare that might have said “it’s my ball and you’re not playing with it”. Inclusion suddenly less important, he shuffled awkwardly in his seat and for a moment I wondered if any words would come out.
When he finished speaking she was professionally savage. She forensically ripped him a new one for his “incorrect” language and apparent lack of empathy. And in that moment I realised our identities can’t help but go to war. I didn’t blame my colleague, she was simply in the grip of hers.
Identity is fundamentalist by nature. Which makes it a dubious platform on which to build a fairer society. It’s not something I seek to admonish in you or I, any more than I do in my beautiful child. It’s normal. It can even be useful. In Bali my identity ensured I was mindful of the potentially real hazards of homophobia.
But we’re all so much more than our identities, and in placing them at the centre of the D&I universe we’re inadvertently sowing the very division we’re trying to heal. Getting locked more and more tightly into a zero-sum game that pits one group's freedoms against another. We’ve waged war on the people who waged war on us and our only defense is that “they started it”. We’ve lost sight of the fact that in war, everyone loses.
Instead we must come at the intractable issues of our times from a higher perspective. In D&I we must realise what Albert Einstein meant when he said “the consciousness that created the problem can’t solve it”. I interpret this statement as an invitation for us in D&I to look into our shadow. That’s precisely how consciousness expands and new solutions unfold.
Yet human beings tend to abhor looking at our shadows. They’re dark and disorientating. But in D&I we must look at ours. We must see that whatever packaging it came in, it was dichotomising identities that created our current mess. And a new brand of the same poison isn’t going to fix it.
To progress to the next stage of our journey to a more just society, we must look to the rare human beings like Ghandi and Mandella who by accessing a more elevated perspective were able to create genuine transformation.
We must transcend (and include) identity, so we can reach beyond it to something deeper. To something more unifying. Something more wise.
Something you’ll find me looking for at 6am most days.