The mechanics of identification are straightforward to understand. Those things which enhance our life prospects are the things with which we positively identify. Things which diminish our life prospects we negate (although this is still a form of identification), and those things which are neutral, we do not identify with either positively or negatively. You are probably not going to identify with a paving stone, but you will positively identify with a good meal or attractive looking sexual partner, and you will negatively identify with thoughts of poverty or poor health. Our body, let’s call it Fido, is a very simple creature – as are all animals. We seek life-enhancing things, negate life diminishing things, and we are indifferent to things which have no life-affirming or denying properties.
Now, it just so happens that “spiritual folk” have looked at this habit of positive and negative identification and told us it is naughty. It is like saying the fact that water runs downhill is naughty, or that rocks exhibiting hardness is aberrant. Fido (our body) operates according to the life principle of striving to survive. Ants do it, flies do it, fish do it, plants do it, and people do it. It’s a law of nature that all living things strive to persist in their existence, and so positive and negative identifications are wholly in order. Telling someone they should not identify with things is like telling the planets they should not orbit the Sun, and abandon their gravitational attraction to it.
So, we find people following various traditions trying to practice non-identification. In simple language, trying to practice non-identification is like trying to push water uphill. It is easier to consciously identify with as much as possible – food, sex, power, fame, money – in fact, all the things that make Fido happy (for a while at least). Miraculously you may find that the conscious effort to identify reduces the identification – not that this is necessarily a desirable state. The handy-dandy little mantra of what we resist tends to persist is very applicable here. Fido will not be cheated, no matter how spiritual or clever you think you are. I read an amusing story of a great yoga sage who instructed his students not to eat pickles, only to be found eating pickles in his private room. Such is the crazy nature of so called spiritual practices.
It is also worth asking why non-identification is desirable. The reason most often given is that we suffer because we identify. When something we love is taken away, we suffer, and so it could be said that our identification with suffering drives our attempt to not identify. This is all crazy stuff, and possibly a fast route to the lunatic asylum. There is a more reasonable approach we can take.
Knowledge and understanding are much more potent than religious or spiritual dogma. Someone who is interested in the nature of life may establish that overindulgence in food, sex, ambition, and so on, lead to satiety and possible suffering. They may also see that the underlying dynamics of life, that each creature will kill others for food, and attempt to dominate others to ensure existence, is a recipe for much suffering. There are no shortcuts. This work needs to be done by a person, and for the understanding they gain to become part of them. In this way they will not have to practice non-identification, it will come naturally when it is appropriate. Knowledge and understanding can trump the raw animal desires, and so there is no need for externally imposed disciplines. But in our instant gratification society people are too lazy to do their own work, and so they look to gurus and spiritual dogma to tell them how to be happy. It doesn’t work, and it never will work. If you want life to have fewer hooks into your thoughts and emotions then you have to understand life. Understanding is the key – not meditation, fasting, philosophical systems, dogma, faith, devotion, loving kindness, being aware of awareness or any other silliness. Your understanding is your responsibility.
Non-identification is the outcome of the long work of gaining real understanding and is not something that can be imposed through dogma. People who try to impose non-identification on themselves will be like a powder keg – Fido will not be cheated, but she/he can be made to understand.