One of the first questions people ask when meeting each other for the first time is ‘what do you do?’ It’s a telling question. It shows us what we value most in ourselves, in others, in life. It shows us the depth and power of our social conditioning. Who you are = what you do for a job.
What happens though, if misfortune strikes you (or fortune depending on how you look at it) and you’re unable to perform a ‘job’ in the material world? Who are you then? Do you lose your value? Do you lose your identity? What do you do? How do you answer that question when somebody asks it? How do you feel about yourself?
Moreover, how do you react when you ask it of somebody else and they have no conventional answer? They can’t tell you they’re a ‘doctor’ or a ‘secretary’ or a ‘stay-at-home mum’ or a ‘garbage collector’ or a ‘social worker’ or a ‘teacher’ or a ‘<insert job here>’? What is your internal reaction to a person who doesn’t have a job? And what is your reaction to the type of job somebody has? Is there a judgement there?
If you’ve been raised in a western society, then chances are there will be. This conditioning is largely unconscious. It’s hard to escape, unless you’re prepared to question social conventions. But often it is not until we feel different or alienated or disadvantaged in some way in society that we start to question what is real and what is illusion. Am I important because I have a good job? Am I unimportant because I don’t have a good/job? Is this objectively true?
Having a job is a necessary pursuit in a capitalistic society, there is no doubt about it. It’s very difficult to survive without one, so we need to work – that’s reality right now. But we build this importance around ‘job’ and ‘career’ that goes beyond economic necessity. We build an ego identity in relation to the work we do, to how much money we earn, to our status in the workplace. We link our jobs to our inherent value as human beings. We make work our identity and we attach to that identity. If we lose that job, that status – that identity – we are bereft. Who am I if I am not this job? How am I purposeful? What will people think of me?
In yogic philosophy, this preoccupation with our performance in the material world is known as ‘Asmita’. It is an ego state that keeps us bound to very small notions of self. It stops us from seeing a bigger picture of the self that is beyond the social and economic roles we play in life. It causes us pain because when we attach to an identity, we cease to value our essential nature (who we are behind the roles we play). We do everything in our power to maintain the illusion – to ourselves, to others. If we lose that identity we feel empty and confused. Who am I if I am not what I do?
This is not to suggest that we should renounce our jobs, or the satisfaction that we can get from working. It just means we can do a job without allowing it to define who we are. Your job is not all of you. It is an expression of one part of you. It shouldn’t make you bigger or smaller in the eyes of yourself, or of others.
When you are able to stand back and identify less with socially constructed norms about what is good and bad, and right and wrong, you open your mind up to an experience of true peace. You are not bound to egotistical notions of who you are and should be. You release the need to impress yourself and others. The judgements and expectations stop. You start to glimpse a deeper part of you that exists – an essential part of you; your essence.
©The Yoga Experiment, 2012