It's certainly not a perfect adaptation of Robert Ludlum's popular thriller, but director Doug Liman's production of The Bourne Identity (with Matt Damon and Franka Potente) remains a decent yarn about a character who doesn't know who he is. (It fails as a thriller, though, because the audience is always way ahead of the protagonist.) Yet it's a great metaphor for a situation that applies to all of us.
Jason Bourne is a man in trouble. He is pulled out of the ocean by a fishing trawler, and treated for two bullet wounds in the back. Obviously someone wanted him dead, but who? He has no idea who his would-be killer is, and his problems are much more immediate—he can't remember his own name, or anything about who he is. He begins investigating himself from external clues, and finds he owns a safe-deposit box full of wads of cash in different currencies, along with numerous passports, each with a different identity.
Amnesia as the simple loss of personal identity is rare, but it remains a perennial subject in novels, film and television. Why? I suspect its universal appeal is because loss of identity is a universal phenomenon. After all, when you were born, you had no "identity." You came from somewhere, but where? You were someone, but who? This was the amnesia with which we all came into the world.
But within hours, you met your parents. Like the passports in Bourne's safe-deposit box, they gave you a name, and a start in the world. As you continued to grow up with your family, they gave you your story, and that, they told you, was your identity. It told you what was right and wrong, which country was yours, and what beliefs were yours, and if you were “good” or “bad” as well.
Jason soon learns that he's still in a fight for his life. He endeavors to find his real identity—not just a name, to stop the madness he's trapped in. He learns that he is fluent in many languages, and has shocking skill as a deadly fighter. He finds a woman who comes to his aid, and depends on her to help him to stay alive, and piece the clues together.
Just receiving a name and a story from our family wasn't satisfactory to most of us anymore than it was to Jason. After childhood, the time came when many of us refused to accept our identity from our parents. We tried for a while to find out who we were by ourselves and with our friends. We looked at our skills and activities, likes and dislikes, friends and enemies, and found some labels that seemed to fit for a while: jock, brain, stud, babe, bitch, fighter, wimp, winner, stoner.
But looking at his skills, actions, and tastes doesn't give Jason his identity. He is still unable to determine why people everywhere are trying to kill him. However, in reading a newspaper article, he learns the vital truths about his past: he's a CIA assassin, a professional killer. And the people who want him dead are none other than his former colleagues. (BTW, the audience has known this since almost the beginning, so this is not a spoiler!)
Like Jason, we look to our past story and our present conditions to know who we are. You were hired by the company five years ago, so you're a worker for Acme Widgets. You have three kids, so you're a mother or father. You love your spouse, so you're a good husband or wife. You love your country, so you're a patriot. You believe in God, so you're a Christian or Muslim or something else.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with these roles. But are our roles and life-situations truly us ? Who are we when companies lay off employees, when families split, and when loved ones die? What remains? Who are we, independent of our circumstances?
Jason gets a glimpse of his true nature when he stops looking to his past and his role. In one wonderful moment in the film, he looks into his heart and says, “I don't want to do this anymore.”
Spiritual teachers tell us that we need to stop taking our identities from others and find our “true nature.” Nothing external to us can be our true nature. How could it be? Jesus asked, “what would it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their true self (soul)?” Zen masters ask their students “what was your original face, before your parents were born?” What were you before you were born? What will you be after you die? What is constant about you? If there is anything unchanging, it must be here, right now. Finding and living from your true nature—that constant, sacred core of your being—is the ultimate self-knowledge.
We come from that which was never born. Ours is “The Unborn Identity.” Around the world, we call our true source by many names—God, Father, Brahman, Nirvana, and others. But understanding it mentally is no more helpful than reading it as a name on a passport. For this task, don't accept the quick labels and lengthy descriptions of your mind. Look within your heart. Ask “Who am I?” Keep asking until you know, and know from the Ground of your Being.