In Western culture, especially in American culture, there is a tendency to identify our ‘self’, our sense of who or what ‘I’ is, with characteristics, or descriptors. It may be our work: I am a doctor; I am a welder; I am a dancer.
It may be with a mindset: I am a Christian; I am a liberal; I am an atheist.
It may be with a role: I am a husband; I am a mother; I am a student.
It may be with a feeling: I am depressed. I am alienated. I am a success.
It may be with some combination of these.
We must understand that while we assume one or more of these labels for a time, we are not these things in essence. In other words, these identifications are incomplete, and temporary. They pertain to only a part of us, and only for a time, not for the duration of our time. For that reason they cannot be who we are in truth, in reality, in essence.
We may identify with these labels intellectually, but labels are only intellectual — they exist only in the mind. They require agreement from others to be considered true. (And we are seeing now in society what happens when intellectual agreement over what is true breaks down.)
The doctor was not always a doctor. The welder will not weld forever. The mother once was not one, and over time, as her child grows, the role of mother will change until it is no longer recognizable as what it once was. It may even come to pass that the child becomes more a mother to the mother than the mother was to the child.
It may be we identify with the body: I am old. I am young. I am thin. I am overweight. I am fit. I am out of shape. These descriptors, too, are temporary. Fitness comes and goes. Age is ever-changing. Weight fluctuates. All of these labels are true for a time, but none permanently. Yet there is an ‘I’ behind them that feels consistent. That ‘I’ does not seem to come and go. The only constant we experience is this sense of ‘I.’ Who or what is this ‘I’?
Everything that we use to define ‘I’ is ever-changing. Thoughts, moods, feelings, roles, occupations. Even the amalgam of elements that is the body, that grows from one single cell into a bio-chemical machine capable of locomotion, eventually lays down to die, to decompose, returning those elements to the earth that gave rise to them.
Yet at each point during our lives we refer to an ‘I’ that is seemingly ever-present. We don’t recall ‘I’ turning on, turning off, or clicking from one ‘I’ to the next. The ‘I’ at five years old seems the same ‘I’ at twenty years old, and forty years old, and eighty years old. The way it behaves may change, and how it looks or what it likes, but the sense of ‘I’ is consistent. ‘I’ may eat hundreds of hamburgers but never turns into a cow. ‘I’ may have seen an organ replaced by a surgeon, or lost a limb in an accident, but ‘I’ remains. The body has repaired itself from injuries without help, and has processed all those hamburgers without asking how. It’s breathed on its own as we’ve slept, grown hair in places we didn’t want, and stopped growing it in places we’d like to have some. The body does what it does, with or without the consent of ‘I’.
‘I’ feels anger but anger passes. Happiness gives way to sadness, or sadness to boredom. No feeling lasts. We run when we feel fear, and upon reaching safety, we feel relief. A thought arises, and perhaps we feel something about that thought, but when it is replaced by another we feel something else. Sometimes thoughts return to comfort us, or to haunt us. Either way, that thought, those feelings, are temporary. They are real, but they are not really real. They are not our essence. They may affect our reality, but they are not who ‘I’ is. Whatever ‘I’ is does not come and go. It is ever-present, and prior to these other things. Prior to every ‘thing.’ To every thought, feeling, and perception of the body. Prior to even the body.
So what is this ‘I’? When we say ‘I’, what do we mean? To what are we referring?
To be continued in ‘I Am That. Self-Inquiry, Part 2’