How You Define Yourself is How You Trap Yourself

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Alan Watts once had a talk where he outlined the key difference among the aristocrat, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

If you’re not familiar with these terms, the aristocrat is someone who was born into nobility, like a king or queen. The proletariat is the working-class person. The bourgeoisie is the middle-class person. (I don’t believe Watts was referring to the strict Marxist definitions of proletariat or bourgeoisie.)

Watts saw that the aristocrat lived in the past. He looks at everything his ancestors did and revels in his lineage and what his bloodline has afforded him. The proletariat lives in the present as they content themselves with the pleasures that are before them.

The bourgeoisie, however, lives in the future. She thinks that there’s always something more to get, which means that the present moment is an obstacle to the desired future. But even when she gets what she wants, there’s always more to want and so that becomes the new goal. The carrot will forever dangle in front of her face.

Is it any wonder that the bourgeoisie suffers? Life as it is can never be good enough. No matter what one gets, there’s always more and so there is never a moment to relax and enjoy what is. Given Watts’ examples, perhaps you see yourself as a bourgeoisie. I know I did.

And yet, it’s interesting that some of us are desperate for certain things but are totally at peace with other things. For example, money is something that some people are never settled with because there’s always more money to be made. But there are others who make a certain amount and they remain content. Even if they make less, they are content.

But these same people could have an issue with their romantic lives. They want more partners, different partners or they want their current partner to change. They are never satisfied with what is. Yet there are others who see their partner change or even leave and they are okay.

Pick anything under the sun and there is someone on this planet right now who is constantly on the search for more. Being a better basketball player, having more subscribers on their YouTube channel, having a faster laptop, visiting more countries, being a better cook, being a better listener, having more free time, enjoying more diverse music, finding better friends, getting more attention; you name it, someone’s chasing after it and are not at peace with where they are.

You could take a look at some of these things and you wouldn’t care at all. Why? Because some of these goals aren’t yours, so you don’t care at all. But I think it goes a bit deeper. I believe some of these goals don’t matter because you do not seek to define yourself in those ways.

I can totally accept and be happy with my skateboarding abilities because I don’t define myself as a skateboarder. I skate sometimes and enjoy it. I may even try to learn a thing or two to be better but I do not add “skateboarder” to my self-concept, although others do because I can skate and I do it regularly enough.

Buddhadasa once said, “What is the world full of? It is full of things that arise, persist, and cease. Grasp and cling to them, and they produce suffering. Don’t grasp and cling to them, and they do not produce suffering.”

How would one grasp or cling to an object? They pursue it based on their moral code. How would one grasp or cling to a concept? They use that concept to define themselves.

Once you decide what you want or who you want to be, you then look at who you are now and realize that you are not where you want to be. Obviously, that’s no good. As a result, you try to do something about it.

It is this resistance to not being where you want to be that is the crux of suffering. And the basis for all of this is because you define yourself. But consider this: do you really have to define yourself?

Could you not fulfill what you desire without the confines of a definition? Are you not so much more than a mere description?

Reconsider the aristocrat. Based on Watts’ perspective, his ego is based on who his forefathers were and what they did. With it, he is insufferable because he prides himself on something he had no control over. Without it, he is insufferable because he has nothing to pride himself on. The aristocrat has a false sense of superiority.

Reconsider the proletariat. He does not define himself with anything. He works, plays and lives his life. He is simple. Based on Watts’ perspective, I do not believe that he is necessarily poor. He just does not define himself as someone who must be this or must have that. And yet, he lives a happier life.

People always say that caring about less is the best way to be happy. I don’t agree. Caring about things is awesome. It means you have values and demonstrate those values in the things you care about.

What hurts is when you define yourself by the things you care about. These things are all transient; they come and go. People are afraid to drop these self-definitions because they believe it is who they are, but that only proves why they are in pain. It’s not as if you were born with these definitions that you placed on yourself! You will still exist. You will continue to do the things you want to do.

But when you define yourself by some thing or some concept, your ego is trying to concretize itself. It is trying to become more real.

And that is the last thing you would ever want.

So, as an experiment, consider dropping one of your definitions just for a moment and see how you feel. You can pick it back up anytime you’re ready.

If you don’t like it, fair enough. But if you’re like me and you feel freer and somehow more capable, it’s because the weight of expectation has been lifted. It’s pretty ironic, but by giving up a definition, you become unrestricted.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store