Van Gogh - Self-Potrait

As far as I know the first person to use the word identification (in English) to describe a psychological state was P. D. Ouspensky. This is what he had to say about his choice of the word:

It is not a very good word, but in English there is none better. The idea of identification exists in Indian writings and the Buddhists speak of attachment and non-attachment. These words seem to me even less satisfactory because, before meeting this system, I read these words and did not understand—or rather I understood but took the idea intellectually. I understood fully only when I found the same idea expressed in Russian and in Greek by early Christian writers. We try to understand the idea not by definition but by observation. It is a certain quality of attachment—of being lost in things. ~ P. D. Ouspensky

At first identification is hard to observe because being identified is the main feature of the second state; that is, our ordinary, half-awake state. Identification and consciousness are the reverse sides of each other. The more conscious you are, the less you are identified; and the less you identify, the more chance you have to be conscious.

Since it is the primary feature of our ordinary state, it would seem that it would be difficult for us to observe identification without first attaining some level of awakening, but, in fact, identification can be observed, even in our ordinary state, because it has degrees. If you can find a moment where you were very identified, and then compare that moment to a moment where you were less identified, you will have a taste of it.

Watching a movie can be a good example of being completely identified. You go a movie, they turn down the lights, and you forget that you are in the theater. Your experience is not meant to include an observation of yourself sitting in your seat watching the movie. You are meant to be carried away. In general it is thought that a good movie pulls you out of yourself and that a bad one doesn’t. In a bad movie you find it hard to identify with the characters and their experience.

If you compare the time you spent watching a movie to a time when you were, for example, ironing your shirt or putting your clothes in the washer, you will see a difference. In the theater you can become completely lost, to the point of having no sense of yourself or where you are. To be that identified while doing your laundry is not likely. Ironing a shirt isn’t an activity that you become so taken up with that you forget everything else.

You can think of identification as a level of fascination. The more you identify with an activity, the less awareness you have of being separate from it. Another way to think about identification is in relation to attention. When you are present, attention is divided between yourself and the object of your observation, with identification attention is drawn by the object of one’s attention. What is generally thought of as fascination can be seen as extreme identification, but identification is very pervasive; it is everywhere. Moreover you can be identified with something outside of yourself, like a film or the person you are speaking to, or with something in your inner world, like your thoughts or a sensation of pain or pleasure. Identification can be dull or habitual, or it can be intense. After you catch a moment of intense identification and get a taste of it, you can begin to see it in ordinary moments.

For the sake of illustration, let’s say that someone backs into your friend’s car. You may feel some sympathy and express a little indignation at the careless of the other driver, but it’s unlikely that you will let a little accident like this upset you too much. You may even console your friend and say that no one was hurt, and that the car will be fixed, so really no harm was done. Now imagine that someone backs into your car. Your car, which which you paid for out of the your hard-earned money. You’re the one who’s going to have to get it fixed. You’re the one who’s going to have deal with the insurance company. The difference between the two accidents is identification. You’re identified with your car, but you’re not identified with your friend’s car. If we assume that the accidents were the same, that the only difference was whose car was damaged, then objectively your reaction should also be the same. In the present there is no difference. The differences exist in the past and the future. You have a history of identifying with your car. You’re the one who maintained it in the past. You’re the one who’s going to have to get  fixed in the future. From the point of view of the present, there is no reason why you should be any more upset because it’s your car.

Initially one of the problems in working against identification is that we think of it as a positive quality. We call it enthusiasm or being emotional. We even have the expression in English to give someone your undivided attention. In reality identification limits our understanding of ourselves and of the world. If we cannot separate ourselves from our external observations, or from the turning of our thoughts, or from our desires, how can we have any impartiality in relation to what we observe? The reality is that when we are identified, when we are not present to our actions and observations, we, in a very real way, do not exist.