For Dr. Block the Identity System is an aspect, an element, a component of ourselves that struggles pretty much every hour of every day to maintain for us a certain image of ourselves. That would be, of course, a good image, the image of ourselves that we want to maintain. Block recounts in his book Come to your Senses an event that made this component of ourselves very clear to him –
One day, on a plane I sat behind a mother and her three-year-old daughter. I watched as they talked and related to a fellow who sat across the aisle from them. The mother was pleased with her daughter, who proudly said, “I’m Elizabeth,” when the man said, “I’m Joe. Who are you?” They talked pleasantly, he kidded her, and she laughed. Continuing in this light vein, he started to call her Joe. She immediately corrected him: “I’m Elizabeth.” Carrying the teasing further, he continued to refer to her as Joe. She soon became tense and fearful and started to cry. “I’m Elizabeth!” she screamed in frustration. Joe quickly stopped the kidding, and before the end of the flight, with her mother’s comforting and urging, Elizabeth and Joe made up.
A light bulb went off in my head. The name “Elizabeth” was not only the name the little girl could be called but was also who she thought she was. When this identity was challenged, a whole system was activated. The system I had been searching for, the system that was the root of human dis-ease, stress, and unhappiness, was the Identity System! I found I could suddenly relate to Elizabeth’s distress. Like her, when my identity (who I believed I was) was challenged, my Identity System was activated, producing anxiety, physical tension, impaired functioning, and contracted awareness.
It is, of course, especially our mistakes, blunders, gaffs, moral lapses and other sins that challenge our sense of who we really are most strongly, and lead most obviously to that beating up of the self that the dieting therapist mentions. But the struggle within to maintain our standing in the eyes of our always-present Isys (or Watchbird or Dance Master) demands an enervating and tension-producing alertness for error that operates almost constantly.
Dr. Block also tells a persuasive story of his discovery both of just how all-absorbing Isys is and how easily we may escape her embrace, at least temporarily —
One evening, I was relaxing in the living room. All was quiet except for distant traffic sounds and the normal household sound of the refrigerator running. Suddenly the refrigerator hum stopped. A bit later, it started up. Yet the refrigerator had been running the entire time. I listened intently and noticed that whenever I had thoughts, the refrigerator hum faded. It suddenly occurred to me that my self-centered thoughts had shut off my ears! I began to notice that when I directed my attention back to the machine hum, I was calm. When I lost the sound, my mind was cluttered with thoughts, my body was tense, and my peripheral vision collapsed....
As the weeks passed, I began to take more notice of my senses. I realized that I touched hundreds of objects each day but was unaware of how any of them really felt. saw hundreds more sights and people but could not really say that I “saw” them. Like most of us, I often found myself driving home from work, arriving in my driveway, and not being able to recall one thing that I had seen on the journey home.
I had identified the problem—collapsed awareness; now I needed to discover what this “thing” is that contracts awareness and spoils our enjoyment of life. It was obvious to me that the act of thinking itself could not be the cause, because thinking is a natural function. I had discovered that I could still think and hear background sounds simultaneously.... When awareness expands, certain thoughts, but not others, trigger a system that collapses down awareness. For me, it meant that when I drove on the freeway, I would often miss my exit. When someone was talking to me, I did not always hear what he said. When I dressed in the morning, or walked, or exercised, I did not experience my movement. I didn’t sense the myriad objects I touched. When the system, whatever it was, was “on,” I was not functioning “on all cylinders.” At that point, I had no name for this system that prevents us from experiencing our essence and from living our life at its best. And I had yet to discover what purpose it served.
This is from the opening of his first chapter, “Healing Begins with the Identity System.” I am using an electronic source, a MobyBooks publication.
Here is Dr. Block’s own site.