Psychology seems to imply that identity is comprised of a complex system of habit patterns that arise out of the interplay between genetic predispositions and environmental programming. We are not nouns but verbs, not free but enslaved, not self-governing but habitual. Our evolving identities constitute the unfolding of our personal fate. Identity is our prison and our life is our sentence.
This deterministic outlook conflicts with personal experience, which suggests identity evolves in a more probabilistic manner. From moment to moment we experience electing one potential path among an available spectrum ranging from the least to the greatest resistance. As before, our identity in any given moment is surely the cumulative result of all previous choices, though we do not experience it determining our subsequent choices. Instead, it only determines the level of ease or difficulty inherent in our available choices: we are influenced, though not determined, rendering life a constant battle between the personal fate of identity and personal freedom. We may fight to remain static but are destined to evolve; inner strength can allow you to fight off resistance and take the reins of identity’s evolution, though in such a case perhaps the path of development could more accurately termed revolution.
Whether we submit to identity or fight against it, we feel its force in our lives and our capacity to guide its growth and rebel against it suggests our distinction from it, a distinction we meet face to face with in certain styles of meditation. Three levels of identity, at least in my case, have become abundantly clear: beneath the personality we express in the external world is the personality we express within, to ourselves; beneath the social masque or persona, that is, resides the personal masque or ego, to borrow convenient terms from Carl Jung. Beneath the ego, however, there is yet another level, and it is the same level suggested in our capacity to fight against the identity — against the persona and ego strata of identity, anyway. It is the level difficult to articulate, which is perhaps best referenced through negation, which can only be conceptualized through a process of elimination. It is the aspect of identity that does the identifying; it is the “I” left behind after peeling away all that “I am not.” It is what is often called the observer or witness state of consciousness; that which, once it ceases identifications, is left observing or witnessing but cannot observe or witness itself. Which makes sense, as in order to observe or witness something you must be apart from it. This makes the persona and ego aspects of identity at their very best reflections of the witness; at worst a fantasy we have mistaken for reality, and in either case make them mere masques, as said earlier.
What of the witness itself, though? Is the witness a sort of naked awareness void of identity or does that awareness stem from a true identity — one which we can only accomplish awareness of through the presumed reflections of our ego and persona?
In any case, Dissociative Identity Disorder sheds light on more complications. If alternate identities would only “switch,” for instance, it would be easy enough to conceive: the underlying witness consciousness dissociates with one identity and then associates or identifies with another. Same individual, a different masque. The clear issue is that this is not the case, however; alters can not only operate in parallel but interact with one another. If my conception of consciousness were to hold here, than one individual witness would by necessity be playing the role of two characters at the same time without being aware at either end of also playing the role on the other. This is only a severe case of having an engaging conversation with a dream character, however; it is something that functions in us all.