Am I an American? Technically yes, but I don’t feel like it. In fact, I don’t feel like Japanese either. I’m not trying to shun national identities; I just don’t feel the urge to identify myself as a member of any country. Being technically American feels fine, but a human being has no choice but to exist within a group.
I recently came across an article about a man who isolated himself on a remote island. It’s a popular fantasy in today’s highly connected world. Everyone feels, from time time, the urge to disconnect from their worlds. In some sense, vacations serve that purpose. The funny thing about this man is that he is active on Instagram. He is physically disconnected but mentally not, which is the state many people find themselves in today because of the pandemic. What would be much harder is to do the opposite; mentally disconnected but physically connected. There are people who do exactly that.
Browsing through podcasts in Japanese, I came across one where the hosts interviewed this man who left his job and decided to live in parks. They knew him from high school and were wondering what had happened to him. Through the grapevine, they learned that he could be spotted at a particular park. What followed was a fascinating conversation.
In Japan, someone like him is more likely to join a Zen temple. That is, disconnect only to reconnect to a different group. As long as your identity is tied to any group, the feeling of suffocation is inevitable because who you are can never perfectly align with what the group is. You would always have to suppress part of yourself in order to belong. The cost of belonging, therefore, is a sense of alienation—a feeling that you cannot be yourself or that you have to act like someone you are not.
This homeless Japanese man apparently has no problem surviving without working. He said, any time he feels hungry or thirsty, one way or another, food and water materialize. He has managed to mentally detach from society but has remained connected physically.
I wonder if he would be able to remain detached when he chooses to reconnect, which is the final stage of Zen enlightenment.
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