By Martine Batchelor

I am 60 years old and I have never thought that I would be able to take such a picture as above.  As someone who likes to take photos I have had two holy grails – the perfect sunset and the perfect rainbow.  I gave up on the perfect sunset when I saw an example of Suns series, art works by Penelope Umbrico made out of the innumerable sunset pictures she found on flickr.  And I renounced the perfect rainbow as I realised that they were relatively uncommon where I live and generally did not appear in the right place to take a good photo.

However the other day I went to meditate in our small meditation room on the ground floor at 7am for 30mn, and when I came out, and climbed onto the terrace I saw this amazingly clear rainbow in the perfect place and I took this picture.  That same afternoon I met my sister and mentioned the rainbow.  Immediately she told me that she had seen what looked like exactly the same rainbow at 7.30am.  Then I had this astonished and unfathomable moment – could it be the same rainbow!!  She lives 45km away, could my rainbow be her rainbow???  Musing and trying to figure it out geographically and meteorologically, my husband got me back on earth and on track with this Buddhist statement: “the conditions 45km away would have been similar to the conditions over our village for the production of a rainbow as the sun rose and the storm was threatening”.  A moment of certainty overturned.

I had a similar experience while visiting Korea for a 30 year reunion of some of the former monks and nuns who had lived in Songwangsa while Zen Master Kusan was alive. We were looking through a souvenir book created by a Korean monk of all the foreigners who had visited his temple in Seoul.  He turned a page, pointed out a picture and said: “And that is Martine just before I shaved her head”.

Here was a picture that I had never seen before, of a young woman with glasses and long dark hair about 22 years old and I had no feeling of recognition that it was me.  Everyone else in the room recognised me in the photo as the glasses and the shape of the face fitted exactly.  But I still did not feel that it was I.  I took a photo of the photo for the record, and whenever I look at it, I have the same strange feeling of non-identification.  I don’t feel that I know who this person is:  what was she like?  What were her hopes and aspirations?  It does not mean that I cannot retrospectively reconstruct my memories of what I might have been like then but it makes my certainties about my memories vacillate.

Intellectually I can understand that it must be me when I decided to become a nun in Korea in May 1975 when I was 22 years old.  But there is no feeling of identification or certainty.  I have other photos of myself before and after and I feel this feeling of familiarity and identity when seeing them.  This makes me wonder if our feeling of identity does not reside in some of the photos we see repeatedly of ourselves, and that we thus identify with, as well as in the stories we associate with them; while we blank out or do not know other photos and other stories.

When my niece was younger, she used to visit regularly and one of the things she loved to do was to peruse her personal photos albums.  I had compiled over time three albums where she went from being ten months to eight years old, either by herself or with family members.  She enjoyed seeing herself grow, but also seeing herself within groups.  As if by going through these albums she was reaffirming her sense of identity and the certainty of her existence embedded in a family structure.

Penelope Lively wrote a novel about such an instance called The Photograph.  It is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.  It questions this feeling of identity and certainty but this time about another person.  After his wife kills herself, a husband go through her possessions and found an envelop marked — “Don’t open, destroy” and opens it therewith.  Thereupon he finds a group photograph he has never seen before and in it his wife is holding the hand of another man.  This shocks him and the novel describes his attempt to understand the why, when and where of the photograph.  But it is also his discovery of the person his wife had been whom he did not know or had not wanted to see.

What is true and what is false?  What do we remember as true or false?  How are we certain of the truth about ourselves, and others?  Many years ago on my way by train to teach a weekend seminar about Buddhist ethics I sat next to a participant of that same seminar.  For the two hour journey we talked about ethics and precepts and how important they were on the Buddhist path.  I thought that we were on the same page, sharing the same experience.  Many years later I learnt that the other person at the time was in an adulterous relationship while married and taking heavy drugs.  Knowing that now, whenever I revisit the memories of sitting on the train and having that discussion, I have a strange feeling about the truth of that person’s identity and of our discussion, and what I am left with is deep uncertainty and unknowing.

In On Being Certain: believing you are right when you are not by Robert A. Burton shows that certainty does not come necessarily from intellectual rational logic or objective truth but from a feeling of certainty.  We need this feeling of certainty about ourselves, and others to navigate our world but we should beware of the contingency of its premises.  As with the two rainbows or the old photo, what are the conditions that lead us to feel a certain sense of identity and what is this sense of identity based upon?

Are we the narrative in our head? When one starts to sit quietly in meditation, it is disconcerting at first.  There seems to be more thoughts than generally.  The meditation does not provoke more thoughts.  However, not doing anything special but focusing on the breath seems to engender a constant flow of thoughts.  It actually shows us clearly what happens most of the time.  At the back of our mind there seems to be a constant running commentary — judgement, expectations, double guessing, worries, planning, fantasizing.  Often, we define ourselves through this commentary.  Like Descartes said: “I think therefore I am”.

The awareness developed through meditation helps us to see that there are different strands of thinking: some operative and some unnecessary additions and proliferations that are surplus to requirements.  We do not need these to exist or to feel that we exist.  Sometimes we seem to think that the more we think the more we exist.  Actually, the more we think unnecessarily the more tired and frayed at the edge we become.  Recently in Harvard they did some experiments with beginners and long-term meditators.  An offshoot of that study was the finding that the long-term meditators did not have a running commentary anymore but only the operative functioning part.   Thus our identity does not need bolstering with a constant commentary.

If we are not defined by what we think, should our identity be based in our physical appearance or the sensations we experience in the body?  I am small but this is not my identity as I was the tallest in my family among four women.  I realise it is a condition when I try to reach a high shelf or when standing next to someone who is quite tall.  But then for that person everyone is small not just me.  It is not a condition that belongs solely to me and thus cannot define me as separate to others.

When we are ill, it is so painful and anxiety producing that it is easy to identify with the illness.  Is a specific part of our body diseased with cancerous cells or are we cancerous?  Is it a condition among many or does it become an adjective, which defines us.  I was struck by this difference when watching the music video “Waiting all Night” by Rudimental, a British electronic quartet.  It re-enacts the story of Kurt Yaeger, a BMX champion and actor who had one of his lower leg amputated after a motorbike accident.  It is inspiring to see how he is more than the disappearance of one of his parts.  Because we can also identify ourselves with something we lost or something we never had.