The question “Who am I?” has followed reflecting humans over millennia, and preoccupied the minds of numerous philosophers. The most common answer is to frame it in our relations to the outer world. I’m a son in relation to my parents, I’m a father in relation to my children, I’m a partner in relation to my loved one, I’m a professional in relation to my employer and colleagues, and so on. But this is not the true “me”. These are only my relational positions. So, who am I?
In addition to our “relative I”, we also harbour an inner image of ourselves, created (and re-created) over the years in the brain’s “me-centre”, which is linked to our autobiographical memory. Our inner self-image is anchored in a wide range of life mile stones – important events that have shaped who we are and how we perceive ourselves. As with all other memories, these are also highly subjective and they both influence and are influenced by our self-image.
We often tend to believe that there is a permanent “I”, that is unchanged and permanent over time, and possibly over life times (resurrection in Christianity and reincarnation of the soul in Hinduism). In contrast, the Buddhist insight is that there is no permanent self. This is best understood in that I am no longer the same person now that I was at age 10 or 25, or the one I will be at age of 80, neither physically nor mentally.
Physically, we are constantly being rebuilt through exchange of the atoms and molecules making up our bodies, and at my present age, my body has probably exchanged all the molecules it had when I was a young child. This paradox has occupied the mind of philosophers since the days of Plutarch and the ship of Theseus.
But also the mind undergo changes over the years. Even though we tend to develop our thinking in a linear way, our consciousness, our mind and our self-image are constantly evolving as a result of interactions with an ever-changing world around us. The Swedish Zen Buddhist Sante Poromaa, has thus said “It is more correct to say that ‘I am happening’ than ‘I am’.”
So there is no permanent self, but still I’m here and I obviously exist as I’m now writing this blog, so who am I? Again reverting to Buddhist thinking, the human consists of five elements (aggregates) that work in concert; form (the body), sensations (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), perceptions (how through our sensory organs we recognise, register and label things, e.g. a red house or a fear of snakes), mental formations (our experiences, habits and memories and how these trigger our actions) and finally consciousness (how we interpret and make sense of ourselves and our surroundings).
Of all the elements that add up to our being, the consciousness is the most elusive. It works in two ways. For one, it is looking outward. As through a window, we are constantly observing the world around us. But this is not done in an objective way. Rather, it is like a spotlight guided by the attention centre in the brain, based on our previous experiences, expectations, interests and the mood we are in. And once we have observed a specific phenomenon, we immediately interpret it in our very own specific way, and any resulting action will also be dependent on our previous experiences, expectations, interests and the mood we are in.
Our consciousness is also looking inward as through a mirror. We are constantly observing our bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts. To some extent we are the masters of our thoughts, but only when we are deliberately thinking of a specific topic or problem, or when we are focusing our mind in meditation. Most often our thoughts are drifting around in a state of day-dreaming that is largely outside our own control. This is the “normal” state of mind that the neuroscientists are calling the brain’s default mode and the Buddhist thinkers the monkey mind.
This means that the “I” is both the observed and the observer, the servant and the master, the controlled and the controller. So, to what extent can we seize command of our own self? That is really up to us. It is possible to take a greater control of our own being, mind, identity and actions. Buddhism provides the tools, but it requires some efforts. Buddhism is about expanding the scope of awareness, seeking wisdom and seeing things as they really are, without any preconceptions and self-centred needs.
Through practice, consciousness can we then progress from the simple, unreflecting consciousness, through reflective consciousness (self-awareness), to a transcendental consciousness that goes beyond self and others and getting glimpses of a universal and non-dual awareness.
Buddhist practice is not about blind faith – it’s an exploratory journey that we need to do for ourselves. Through meditation we can learn how to be more focused and better control our monkey mind. Through mindful introspective searching we can better understand our reactions and actions and identify situations where our normal way of acting previously has proven less skilful. Through an ethical way of living and treating others in a decent way we can make our personality and integrity more solid and make us less prone to be run by an ego that has no permanent substance.
This blog post has been inspired by Robin Cooper. Finding the Mind – A Buddhist View.
Illustration: Pixabay.com – John Hain