Who are we before Identity Operating System loads?

— Breaking free from IDOS
John Smith—06/2012
The IDentity Operating System (IDOS) prevents us from fully experiencing the natural state of divine unity. Here we explore effective methods for crashing IDOS and liberating ourselves from the tyranny of individuality.

WHEN WE FIRST WAKE UP in the morning, we might sometimes be aware of a short period of confusion in our minds whereby we have forgotten who we are and the context of our lives. The previous day we might have suffered the death of someone close, failed an exam, won the lottery, or fallen in love, but for this moment we just are — lost in pure awareness — and all these life-contexting factors are invisible and immaterial. This peace, which we interpret as confusion, usually lasts only seconds before our scrambling mind remembers who we are… and suddenly the whole edifice of our lives snaps back together in front of us and we don the mask of identity, an identity that includes who we think we are and what we think we should be feeling. This is similar to a computer loading an operating system — our minds load a personhood.

Of course, sometimes we might wake up with an operating system preloaded because it was triggered in the dream state. As who we think we are is primarily based on our memories, any residual operating system we might wake up with is likely to be a different one to our waking operating system because we do not usually bring our memories into the dream state (when we do, we are said to be lucid dreaming as we retain waking identity). Therefore, operating systems preloaded on awakening only add to out waking mental dissonance (a bit like rapidly swapping from Linux to Windows).

But who are we before these identity operating systems load, before we step into the positionality of identity? Who or what are we when we are in a free state of pure being? This question is so profound that it has the potential, when examined intimately, authentically and relentlessly, to change us in profound ways.

The mind is where our IDentity Operating System or IDOS is loaded; it is the computer processor on which IDOS runs. As the mind is closely integrated with the body/nervous system, that identity is generally bodymind focused. We are not born running IDOS, but develop it from a very early age by interacting with others running it — such as parents, siblings, teachers and people/characters depicted in the media, books and computer games. Society is set up on the basis of IDOS, which is why it serves to reinforce IDOS at every opportunity, and mass implementation of this identity program allows human society to operate consistently (albeit dysfunctionally).

The problem with IDOS is that it denies our natural state, presenting a false view of ourselves and the world. As our primary or true nature is unity with all aspects of our experience, by brainwashing us into a worldview in which we are separate individuals interacting with other discrete beings and with objects, IDOS cuts us off from ourselves, leaving us floundering around in a conceptual fantasy world — a world of separation. We may not see ourselves as floundering, at least at first, just as an alcoholic does not register that he or she has no coordination. In fact, we may think we are satisfied with our separate lives, but eventually, we do become aware of a fundamental and underlying dissatisfaction. This is what the Buddha meant when he spoke about "All is suffering." The term "suffering" can sound a bit dramatic to most people in modern societies, but the original Pali term dukkha has a broader translating that also includes "anxiety", "stress", and "unsatisfactoriness", and these certainly are hallmarks of our everyday lives.

According to Buddhists, the cause of this unsatisfactoriness is desire. But desire itself, although certainly a problem, is not actually the root problem. The mind is restless — that is its nature — and so desires will always arise at least now and then. But what causes the suffering in relation to desires is our attachment to them, and that attachment is a product of identity. For example, desire for a particular person may arise within us — he or she turns us on. But if this process happens within the IDOS framework, as it would in almost everyone, then that desire is mixed with identity. Then we MUST have that other person to complete us — it becomes personal. As a consequence we find ourselves spinning whole fantasies about what we think it would be like to be in relationship with that person, making by contrast the reality of our lack of relationship more painful, and so the desire for that relationship much more urgent.

After all, desires left alone without identifying with them, and thereby without magnifying them with our fantasies, do not actually cause suffering. They may still create an urgency in the bodymind, especially if they are survival related (such as when we desire food when our bodies are genuinely hungry), but we can still experience peace whether these desires are fulfilled or not. So it is identification with our desires that disturbs our peace, not the desires themselves.

We chase after fulfilling our desires — desires for possessions, acceptance, self-images, states of mind, relationships, sex, comfort food, power, fame and fortune — because we believe that the fulfillment of these desires will complete us as individuals and make us happy. After all, that is our experience: we buy the bike we always wanted, or made love to the person we have pined for, and for a moment we do feel truly fulfilled, happy and at peace… until the next desire/fantasy arises. But if we look at this process more closely, we discover that even that temporary peace was not brought about by whatever we desired, but by the satiation of runaway desire itself. So it is not the bike or the wo/man that actually brought us happiness, it was the cessation of the desire for them that brought us back to the enjoyment and peace of our natural state.

That natural state is one of wholeness and peace. It is only because our minds are programmed since birth to run IDOS (Identity Operating System) that we forget our ground-state wholeness. We are so consumed with being a person, that we overlook our true nature. But how do we log out of IDOS? How do we drop into our natural state?

The problem with these questions is that they themselves contain identity (how do "we" etc.) and therefore are also products of the Identity Operating System. Who we think we are is IDOS, and IDOS is who we think we are. So consciously stepping out of IDOS would be like picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps: not an easy feat. But it can be done; it is a fallacy that we are unable to influence the process of finding our true nature. Many of the teachers who put forward this point of view have had spontaneous awakenings without any sort of spiritual practice or interest, and so they dismiss spiritual practices like meditation and Satsang as ultimately unhelpful in crashing IDOS. However, even though we cannot choose when IDOS will stop, we certainly can make the process more likely to happen by using tried and tested methods of crashing IDOS. Indeed, life itself naturally destabilizes IDOS, especially as we get older.

In the first part of our lives up to adulthood and beyond, IDOS is programmed into us — we lean to become a person, we develop an identity. Then, from adulthood to retirement we become experts as running IDOS and seeing what the program can do for us. But then, when we are much older, there is a natural falling away of IDOS as we no longer have the energy or resources to effectively maintain the charade. Our bodies, the main anchor of our identity, start to deteriorate, and our minds have experienced more loss, further destabilizing identity. In this way, the passage of life itself can therefore be said to be somewhat of an enlightening process. Of course, we all know old and bitter people stuck in past identities, but a lot of that behaviour is because they are experiencing a natural falling away of identity and therefore resisting this process by clinging on to who/what they were and to their old ways of thinking. Because IDOS is who we think we are, as it falls away we can feel great fear at our impending demise, and therefore we often desperately try to prop up the running of this program, usually by identifying even more strongly with the fictitious character that we play. It could even be possible that dementia-type problems, which are now skyrocketing in the age of identity, are partly due to a strong and unconscious resistance that most people have to allowing their identities to fade in later life, causing identity to erode from the inside, which creates great confusion.

But IDOS feels restrictive to younger people as well, which is why so many of our recreational activities are focused on temporarily dropping the operating system using a multitude of methods: falling in love, extreme sports, risk taking, drinking alcohol, recreational drugs, sex, movies and fantasy games, food and shopping. Yes, even shopping! Any time we satiate a desire, we get temporary relief from it, and from the identity we have meshed into that desire. So most of us spend much of our lives trying to "get out of our heads", at least temporarily, and into something much larger and inclusive. Even the heroin addict is on a mission of enlightenment! So life is a natural process to awakening.

The problem with the above methods of temporarily relieving IDOS is that they are often bad for our bodies and addictive to our minds, and so we can pay a heavy price for temporary relief from IDOS. When we get lost in addiction, relief from IDOS becomes associated with dopamine highs, so we do not have a chance to experience our true nature when IDOS temporarily crashes. So even though we temporarily move to a state of non-identity, it is not our true nature that we experience but an overwhelming bodymind feeling or high. In this way, the restrictiveness of IDOS and the euphoria of the highs lock us in a vicious cycle of destruction and restlessness, making it more difficult for us to discern our true nature. (Our true nature is always there, but when the bodymind is powerfully stimulated we can find it even more difficult to find the witness state.) That said, there are many cases where these destructive cycles have brought IDOS crashing down permanently, resulting in insanity or liberation — if it does not first kill the bodymind.

So what can we do to efficiently and safely remove ourselves long-term from this identity game? Fortunately, we have been blessed by the advice of certain teachers, brought down through the ages and continuing up to the present day, who have found more sustainable ways to crash IDOS (sometimes permanently), of which some of the more effective include:

  1. Hanging out with those not running IDOS
  2. Meditation
  3. Tantra
  4. Self-Inquiry

These methods are not mutually exclusive, and many of those who have succeeded in crashing IDOS have used combinations of these techniques.

The first way is to hang around someone who is not running IDOS. It can be difficult to find someone free from an Identity Operating System, but they are around, often in the guise of spiritual teachers. You can often sniff them out by the feeling of peace and love you get when you are around them, which is why they people tend to gravitate towards them and fall in love with these teachers (this is known as the path of devotion). Because they potentially have such a powerful effect on those running IDOS, they are often revered and put on pedestals. This diminishes the identity of the disciple or worshipper relative to the teacher, and this can be an important factor in weakening strong identity. However, what usually happens in this unequal relationship is not the crashing of IDOS, but the modifying of IDOS to that of the devotee or follower. An authentic teacher or guru will try to pull his students or followers out of the devotee-identity and into pure being, but this is only successful if the teacher is a good one and the student is ready, a relatively rare combination. For this reason, most devotees may be very spiritual and loving, but they are no nearer to letting go identity than anyone else. For them, they have settled for a life, with their beloved teacher, of vicarious spiritual awakening.

It must also be mentioned here that most of those who present themselves as free from the identity game, including both teachers and so-called awakened students, are actually running just a more subtle version of IDOS — a spiritual version. Whilst acting awake, they are actually lost in a spiritual fantasy. Identifying such individuals can be difficult if we ourselves are running IDOS, so the search for authentic IDOS-crashers can be a bit hit and miss. If we do get caught up in the web of a bogus IDOS-crasher — someone peddling a spiritual flavour of IDOS that we will call SPIDOS — it can be a challenging journey back out to authentic IDOS-crashing. This is because SPIDOS creates the illusion of an IDOS crash and a simulation of our true nature, trapping us in a virtual world of conceptual spiritual awakening. But some people need to be trapped, at least for a while, and so there is certainly a place in the world for SPIDOS teachers, most of whom eventually fall from grace, giving us a much needed shock to authentically crash our own IDOS versions. All virtual worlds eventually develop cracks.

The second way that we can crash IDOS is to spend time distracting the mind, using a technique of mind-concentration called meditation that involves focusing our attention, usually inwardly on our senses, on sounds and phrases, on energy circulation, or on the breath. This distracts the mind from maintaining identity during the meditation technique, allowing us to practice being IDOS-free. Once we become proficient and regular meditators, we increase the chance of a more permanent IDOS crash. However, as mentioned above, there is the real danger that IDOS will merely morph into SPIDOS, so that our meditation becomes a central prop in maintaining spiritual identities. In fact, most people who regularly meditate never manage to crash IDOS as they have too much invested in being spiritual, especially if they are spiritual teachers or followers of spiritual teachers.

The third way is the way of tantra yoga. Here in the West we equate tantra with sex, but sexual tantra is only one facet of this practice, a facet that is usually taken out of context by Western practitioners with its focus on pleasure rather than the erosion of individuality in union (yoga). Tantra is the mystical arm of both Buddhism and Hinduism, and is based on the perception that all of creation is divine energy flow between two cosmic polarities (Shiva and Shakti; male and female; god and goddess), and that certain initiations, rites and rituals (which can involve many different activities including meditation, mantras, mudras, yoga and sexual union) can channel that energy in ways that can lead us to union and therefore liberation. In the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, tantra is considered the fastest route to enlightenment because it is able to harness powerful energies within us to propel us to awakening. Tantra, however, shares the same pitfall as that described above for meditation — its practitioners usually develop spiritual identities rather than crashing IDOS, so that rather than losing identity, they become tantric experts who can wax lyrical on the concept of identity loss in the bliss of divine union. Authentic tantra can be an involved process that requires specific (and often secret) instruction and personal initiation, making this method of crashing IDOS less accessible to most people.

The fourth and perhaps most direct method of crashing IDOS is called Self-Inquiry. Ramana Maharshi, an Indian spiritual master who died in 1950, was the leading proponent of this method, along with his most influential disciple Hariwansh Poonja (Papaji), and it involves persistently asking ourselves the question "Who am I?" or "What am I?" in an attempt to experientially pin down our identity. If we are sincere, relentless and perceptive enough with this approach, we come to the directly realization that there is actually no answer to this question because identity is merely an illusion of the IDOS program running silently and invisibly in the background of our lives. When the charade of IDOS is exposed in this systematic way, the program often eventually crashes. (When and how the crash actually happens, is not in "our" control because the "our" is precisely what we are crashing. Some prefer to attribute it to "divine grace".)

Like all the three other ways above, most of those who practice Self-Inquiry do not actually manage to crash IDOS; rather it morphs into a Non-identity Identity Operating System (NIDOS). So non-identity can easily become our new identity, and we simulate what we think experience is like after an IDOS-crash. NIDOS is notoriously hard to spot because those running it, usually unconsciously, ooze non-identity and egolessness. One of the tell-tale signs of someone running NIDOS is a strong desire to teach and give Satsang, because that reinforces the identity, making it easier to maintain the charade. (This is why traditionally a teacher tells a student when he or she is ready to teach because, if awakening is authentic, that desire is not actually initially present as the new awakened student is in the state of being blown-away by the loss of identity.)

So we have these four primary "spiritual" methods (there are others) for weakening and perhaps crashing IDOS. Occasionally, crashes do happen spontaneously without the application of any method — just in the course of ordinary living. But without some sort of road map drawn up by generations of those who have successfully crashed IDOS, those who have experienced such spontaneous crashes can end up becoming poor teachers because their first taste of awakening is interpreted as full and complete enlightenment. They do not have a teacher or a road map to keep them on track when IDOS reboots, and unfortunately it usually does.

In fact, when we do experience an authentic IDOS crash, IDOS usually reboots pretty quickly, not least because identity is so prevalent in our IDOS-fixated society that we can easily be pulled back into IDOS if we have not fully settled into non-identity. And it is these temporary IDOS crashes that are most likely to trigger NIDOS or SPIDOS — the mind rushes in and tries to own the experience. If we are wise and/or follow the advice of a good teacher, we will realize what is happening and continue with whichever method or methods we are using above to crash IDOS. Usually it requires a number of crashes before IDOS is completely wiped from our systems and cannot reboot. But it is often all too tempting to see a temporary crash as full liberation, and then run NIDOS or SPIDOS so that we can effectively have our cake and eat it too (identify with non-identity).

Until we have wiped IDOS from our systems, we can help reduce the chance of IDOS reboots by minimising our contact with a world obsessed with identity. It is helpful to keep company as much as possible with those who have authentically crashed IDOS, and it is advisable to also reduce or drop aspects of our lives that promote or rely upon identity — aspects that may include relationships, jobs, intellectual pursuits, films, television, computer games, spiritual teachings and books. As long as our minds are entertaining any concept of identity (especially the identity of non-identity), a version of IDOS will reboot. It is not the end of the world if it does, for we just keep continuing the process of removing identity from our systems, until our world does end and we extinguish the flame of identity. But all too often we get trapped by our first taste of freedom.

Of course, just because IDOS has crashed does not mean that we lose all sense of ourselves, at least not after the initial shock at having who we thought we were blown out of the water. If that were the case, we could not function in the world and would need full-time care. When IDOS crashes we retain a working sense of individuality, one in which there is no emotional investment. This working sense of individuality is based on the memory files that are still present, memories that allow us to function effectively in an identity-centric world. We usually access these memory files through IDOS which presents them to us in service to who and what we think we are, but when IDOS has crashed our memories no longer have that stickiness of identity.

And without identity running the show, we find that our desires and thoughts themselves tend to fall away, so that we drop into deep peace. This is not to say that that we become desireless and thought-free, only that we have stopped identity encouraging the proliferation of desires and thoughts. Desires and thoughts may still come and go, like clouds drifting across the sky, but they are no longer able to desturb abiding equinimity.

One final point that should be made is that IDOS crashes do not necessarily have to be dramatic (we only tend to hear about the ones that make good stories). Indeed, a dramatic crash or experience of awakening can be more tempting for the mind to grab hold of if it manages to reboot IDOS — a dramatic crash can be good grounds to feel special — making further crashes more difficult. In reality, the IDOS elimination cycles (which usually involve many crashes and reboots) can often be quite gentle, so that we wake up one day and realize that IDOS has stopped rebooting and we are at peace. But whether our awakening is dramatic or nondescript, the most important factor is for us to focus on the present moment of awareness, and not on how we came to the moment. The journey to awakening becomes irrelevant when we realize that the whole identity-game was an illusion in the first place, and that who/what we truly are has always been beyond form and definition — outside the charade of time and space.