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Interrogating the Nature of Identity in an Age of Rising Nationalism

With nationalist and populist waves washing over the globe, many of us within the contemplative world may be feeling upset and disappointed. We might be asking ourselves how nativist and xenophobic sentiments can have such popular support, particularly given the dangerous historical precedents of these trends. While these reactions can be justified, simply dismissing the changes we are witnessing as misguided and ignorant would miss the point. In particular, many citizens in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world are acting out of a sense of anxiety about their identities in a rapidly changing world riven by global capitalism’s savage inequities.

What might wisdom traditions tell us about issues of identity? According to Buddhist philosophy, for instance, we are part of a world of dependent origination where all phenomena are inter-related and ephemeral; ultimately identity is about the realization of anatta (anātman), or “no-self.” In other words, the common egoic sense of identity to which we cling is a fiction. Similarly, yogic philosophy shares with Buddhism the concept of māyā (illusion), such that our normal, everyday sense of identity is illusory and fails to capture the actual profoundness of existence.

With these points in mind, how might they be applied to the problems of a globalized world? One easy answer might be to say that since all identity is an illusion, those who cling ever more strongly to forms of identity such as ethnicity, religion, and nationalism are hopelessly deluded. This line of critique, while perhaps true on an esoteric or philosophical level, is unhelpful at best and condescending at worst. Rather, we need to understand that while most forms of identity are limited, the need for identity remains a powerful and natural human need. Therefore, we must focus on the important role of community in contemplative traditions (e.g., sangha in Buddhism and yoga) to support healthy and grounded senses of identity in today’s world.

Thus, we might ask a question such as, “What forms of sangha can nourish and sustain a flexible yet rooted sense of identity, and challenge us to see our mutual interdependence?” Or, “How can we create a sangha that actively challenges capitalism, xenophobia, and racism?” While spiritual transcendence may be our ultimate goal, the launching pad from which to get there is a healthy identity, rooted in the lived realities of human experience, interconnectedness, and community.

Ajit Pyati is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

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