I think we all know we’re buddhas. Or superheroes. Or demigods or whatever type of being stands for the sacred in our personal mythology. I spent a couple of years in my childhood seriously mulling over the evidence – pro and con – that I might secretly be an alien. I wasn’t sure if my parents were in on it, and somehow in my young mind I was convinced that if anyone else found out about this secret, they might be in danger. But that didn’t stop me from earnestly trying to send my mothership a mental distress call: Hey, I’m still here on earth! Aren’t y’all at least going to tell me what my mission is on this strange planet? Or, even better, come pick me up and take me for an interstellar cruise before dropping me back off in my bedroom?
I was a strange child. (Obviously.) But what’s amazed me as an adult is the number of other people who also had childhood fantasies about having a secret identity, some as superheroes, some as fellow aliens, and even a couple as demigods (a more popular option in ancient Greece, I would imagine). Here’s my theory: We all know when we’re little that there’s more to us than meets the "I", something beyond our limited human identity. I grew up in an era of ET and Star Wars, and if Luke Skywalker learns about the Force and his identity as a Jedi only when he leaves his home planet on a spaceship, then I wanted to summon spaceships to learn who I really was.
One of my professors at Rice, Jeff Kripal, calls this non-ordinary part of our identity the X factor, which he connects with the X Men and occult/mystical/religious elements in comic books. Buddhism calls it buddha nature. Contemporary Christians might call it Christ Consciousness. Whatever term you prefer, the idea that there’s a transcendent secret identity buried underneath our socially acceptable layers of self seems to be as ancient and as widespread as humans ourselves (themselves? my spaceship might come in one day).
Because the truth is that we’re not in charge of who we "really are," and at some level we all know that the veneer of social respectability we’ve worked so hard to keep in place is just that: a thin outer layer that we constantly have to repair so that what’s underneath doesn’t show. At the time of death that veneer crumbles to the ground, and for at least a brief, luminous moment, our full buddha-ness is revealed, which for most of us is a profoundly unsettling experience.