This shadow of mine ripples along the bumps and cracks of the asphalt next to me, like a companion that gives me the freedom to think without the need to converse. The image projected waves a slightly different silhouette from the years previous, it's undoubtedly wider, especially having more girth in the shoulders, not to mention what I call "an expanded midsection". The shadow holds no actual weight but boasts an extra 22lbs visually from when I last saw it in this form. I can clearly see the kink in my left arm, right at the elbow joint when the sun is glaring down over my right side; accentuating the injury that brought an end to my competitive days on a bike. It makes my position on the bike now look unsymmetrical – the irritation of which causes an alarming amount of insecurity. I keep looking down at the dark projection, not as a reflection of me, but as a shadow that I don't recognize. Besides the lack of visual familiarity is the strangeness of the physical orientation, the speed at which I move is slower than I recall, and the breathing intensity much more severe when the road slants slightly up. The only thing that spurs a recognition is the road. The bumps and potholes must be engrained in my subconscious, as I'm not actively or consciously driving the bike, it seems to be swerving on its own, like the road is brail and my front tire is a gentle finger finding recognition in all of the little bumps and cracks, reacting in a way that I taught it to almost a decade ago with hundreds of passes over this very route. I instinctively still “bunny hop” the sewer that once caught me off guard, making me flat many years ago – the landing of the jump has me question the integrity of my wheels and reaffirms my hesitation in calling myself a cyclist. My body reacts predictably to the hard inclines and the desire to pedal faster, but I am not the same person, perhaps just a ghost using this vessel. The pain, it seems, is not physical; the task isn’t about pedaling but in understanding who is pedaling.
"What we do, and how well we do it", is all that it takes for us to recognize ourselves, says, Jonathan Pietrunti, who posted a provoking video detailing the thought, and providing a statement that summed up what I have found to be true over the decade and a half that I’ve thought about my own identity. The point is that when our identity is dictated by our actions in a given sport or activity - or in my case separated from years of practice in it - it can severely inhibit the progress that participating in these activities can lead to – self-awareness. I called myself "a competitive Cat-3 cyclist" or an "endurance athlete" for so many years that mounting a bike now has me cringe at the thought of not bearing the trademark tan lines that only the most dedicated to the sport wear. My legs are no longer smoothly shaved because there is no longer a vascular network showing the hard earned "blood roads" that are a trademark of heavy volume and hours spent in the saddle. The actionable signatures of belonging to a group reaffirm our own deep inclination to identifying ourselves amidst the pretenders - those that short cut the experience of which we consider ourselves lifelong participants of. The badges held rarely intensify ability, but we wear them regardless as a way to silently affirm what it is we do and how well we do it.
Instead of just pedaling I worry about an abstract comparison to what could be a totally different life. I am so far removed as a competitive cyclist that I could be the reincarnation of one from a former life, and that heritage would assist me in the exact, non-beneficial way that my flirtation with the sport did 10-years ago. Identity at some point will have to step aside – at least in terms of progression – and allow action. I don't need to race, rather, I need the time on the bike for clarity, for sanity. It is when I did my best thinking, and so I return to it only to be dismayed at how much care and focus I put on the details of riding, metrics that are deterring my goal of using it as a meditative tool. I'll pore over the average speed and cadence, remarking for the first 90-minutes of my ride what it was once like to be sort-of skilled at riding a bike, I'll pass another cyclist on the road and know they don't question whether I am a semi-pro or not, I just know I am not, and I exist in a world that obsesses about what I am, and how well I do it... because I obsess about it.
This problem is not limited and it is not just an association with sport; it has its roots deeply embedded in our social lives. Identity to some extent helps dictate hierarchy. Therefore, if we esteem to be further along in the pecking order, it is the easiest way to establish who we are, and what we want. To start down a path of identifying with an activity can help to educate and, in fact, it is most certainly the only way to do so, at some point the starting line must be identified. This so carelessly becomes a parable, where as soon as we identify what it is we do, the danger becomes attaching to the very thing that will hurt our progression: categorizing.
Identity is important, socially, tribally, and in discerning our place in the world, but it is especially so when it is used in distinguishing who is a friend and who is an enemy. We do this by the same process, categorizing what someone does and how well they do it. It gives us a clear picture of our allies, who may, in fact, become our competition, our foes, and our antagonists. What we might not realize or, at the very least want to admit, is identifying parts of ourselves that are the enemy, assessing how much risk we might pose to ourselves. This seems to be the only articulate way to use identity as a continued asset beyond finding a group and a starting point. This exercise is strange because we all secretly believe we are in fact the "good guy" especially in the context of living in a way that is "best" for us. But statistically it is impossible for all of us to be the hero, and at some point, we are excusing our plight of antagonism as something positive that others just can't see; we are freedom fighters, NOT terrorists. Yet most of our lives are in fact constructed by collateral damage, we are a byproduct of consequences; we just describe the rubble as home and the explosion as the percussion of our orchestration. As it seems with most factors of self-improvement, the contingency is based upon honest self-assessment.
We categorize and assume, only so that we can move as much thinking to our brain's autopilot as possible. Driving, eating, and social interacting become habits so that consciousness can be procured; it's just a matter of resources, and protecting against waste, or so we have evolved to behave. But we may have become so efficient at living that we have lost the ability to control our actual lives. We auto-engineer our own narrative, we identify our friends and ourselves so that we don't have to question who is with us or against us, and by our mid-twenties, most of us have identified who we are, who our friends are, and how well we both do what it is that we do. We have put ourselves in a category that we won't contend with until we aren't the people that we said we were, or dire circumstances do it for us. When injury interrupts the "how well we do it" part, or when the desire to do the task we once described as "us" falls to the wayside, then everything else that was built on that platform falls as well - which most times includes our self-respect. The foundation for who we think we are is usually the stable ground that also dictates what we do and how we do it, but this is the big glaring mistake with our identity. What our identity should establish is how we go about any task in any given subject; this may seem arbitrary but the difference can save heartache and frustration. For example: identifying as someone who does their best as opposed to someone who identifies as the best at a given subject, permeates the limited confidence found in being a one trick monkey. It establishes an internal struggle with an external force, as opposed to an external identity holding an internal hostage.
The subject of identity, or perhaps more precisely, the subject of Self is an ancient one. It breaches the realm of questioning whether the Self of our youth is even the same as the Self of our present. We are separated by a lack of atoms and molecules that have all but changed, the neural network and proclivity of cells of a decade previous made decisions to participate in activities that most of us choose not to today. If I choose to shave my legs today, they would be a different set of legs that I shaved all those years ago. The belief that we once had, of what we did and how well we did it, will outlast the physical parts of our bodies that performed the actions with what we identified as. Therefore, we might contend that our Self is but a relic of our personal history, one that we attach to because our physical body cannot.
“Personal identity poses a host of questions that are, in addition to being philosophical and abstract, deeply personal. It is, after all, one’s very own person that is revealed as problematic. How much more personal can it get?” – Alan Watts
Years of searching for a group led to a search for myself among all of the groups. The action of searching - by using participation of a physical sort - gave me a result in a spiritual sense; it also gave me a belief that will outlast the physical body that enabled the search in the first place. I can't say whether it was the right way or even a waste of time, but I do know that the search for real identity had nothing to do with whom I associated, what I wore, or what activity I did. I’m able to look at the various trophies and pictures that are a vivid image of participating in events that once held the pieces of who I thought I was, and know that performing well in them had little to do with wanting to perform well as the person that I was at the time, but instead, a pressure internally from wanting to do my best at whatever it was that I did. The relics of a past life are but mere shadows that I pass in my hallway or where they are scattered in a closet. The shadow that follows me now may seem like it is concerned with the details of my ride or the specifics of a performance, but it is only a side effect of what I really want to identify as, which is a person that gives my best. If you no longer need the label as a starting point, then ditch the designation and confines of its use. It may take some years to get used to the systemic loss of self. It will follow patterns, conversations, and friendships that seem to overshadow the importance of NOT identifying, but in the end, will give meaning to what you actually accomplished and what you are practically capable of.
I used to identify as a nerd until I met real ones, who not only played Dungeons and Dragons but also understood quantum physics, and then I was just a board game enthusiast. I identified as a martial artist until I was knocked out by a real martial artist, who used his own identity to make mine clear to me and everyone else. I was a Cyclist, a Crossfitter, a Weightlifter, and a Triathlete. I was a Teacher; more importantly, I was a Student. I was a good guy on good days, and on bad days I was the worst of them. I was all of these and I was also none of them. I couldn't to this day tell you if I am the bad guy, I just am, and not a very good one at that.
Writing in the best case can shape our world, in its worst it leads to the illusion of change because reading the words alone can give the perception of understanding, and has the habit of hiding real growth. It is a goal of mine to not only express new ideas but to also follow them up with actionable practices. I think a physical lesson can back many of the claims that we make, if only we are willing to give into that practice. For this piece the thesis was that our identity (being based on what we do and how well we do it) will negate much of what we can learn by just doing something, anything. There are endless ways to interrupt our identity and test the boundaries of our comfort, for the most part it is about removing the costume, and ensuring that we are playing the role of whom we wish to identify as. This could simply mean removing metrics, uniforms, and associations with the practices that we now relate to. It could also very well just mean starting something new, injecting ourselves into new environments, alien worlds with different languages.
My persoanl stretch of this practice led me to a class that was dedicated to the art of breathing. With it came the hippy-hysteria and the emotional exploitation from which I excused my ignorance of the practice before. The acceptance of grief, the persuasion by way of emotion, and the hint at the supernatural had me biting my tongue for most of the preamble, but when the discomfort really hit - in the realization that I have been missing something by inducing hyper-oxygenation and controlled CO2 tolerance - the emotion came with it, albeit in a fit of anger at a world that I misidentified. I now make it a practice to implement small amounts of identity discomfort in everyday life, I ride without GPS, run without a watch or direction, squat in jeans, refuse to chalk my hands for a WOD, whatever it is, testing the boundaries with which we are uncomfortable makes us, eventually, more comfortable, at least with our Self.