Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of February 11, 2013

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Who Am I?

Introduction

We love stories, especially the one we tell ourselves, the one in which we are the central character. That story unfolds as a running commentary on our life, a dramatization. We tell it, we listen to it, we make it into a model of ourselves and the world, of reality, and we believe it unquestioningly, until a certain question arises. The question ďWho am I?Ē in its various forms, has beset human beings from time immemorial. You would think it would be so easy and obvious, that it would not really arise as a question. But it has and keeps doing so, for good reason. Indeed, some spiritual paths and practices have this question at their center, because it is the key question of our life. How we answer it, or ignore it, determines so much about how we live, because the question addresses our fundamental assumptions about reality, the false assumptions that stop us from seeking the truth.

Consider it. Ask yourself ďWho am IWho am I really? Looking within for the answer, we find a muddle. The question reverberates in there, in our mind, as if in an echo chamber. It reverberates because there is nothing to stop it, nothing to hang onto, nothing to resolve it. Every possible solution comes up short, one way or another.

One reason for that: we are all over the place in the transitory Iís that claim to be who we are, at least during their brief, though repeated, existence. There is a process we call identification, which some Buddhists call selfing, whereby we passively fall into becoming some aspect of ourselves that is not the real us. When we identify, we create an identity which we assume is us. We become that for those moments, before going on to become the next thing. We can and do identify with almost anything, but usually our body, some emotion, or some thought. We identify with other people, with what they think of us, with how they treat us, with comparing them to us. We identify with the weather, with traffic, with our car, with our bank account, with our plans, with what we have, with what we donít have, with what we do, with what we cannot do, and so on endlessly.

There are two ways to look at identification or selfing. One, taken by Buddhists and some cognitive scientists, is that selfing creates an illusory, temporary I, with nothing behind it, that there is no independent self, that we are just an agglomeration of all the memories and tendencies accumulated haphazardly in the neuronal pathways of our brain. This is a shocking but excellent starting point for pursuing the question of who am I, because it is a true view, as far as it goes. Beyond that however, is the reality of our true I, which, unlike our illusory Iís, has no ultimate center. Our true Iís penultimate center, though, is in us.

The truth of no self, once seen directly, has the wonderful effect of undermining our false view of who we are, of revealing our identification and selfing, of showing that all these things we believe we are fall far short of the reality. This partial liberation removes a great burden from us and allows us to come more into our own reality. Seeing that we are not what we believed ourselves to be is a prerequisite to becoming what we are. So, much of this inner work series will be devoted to looking at what we are not.

Yet the real story does not end there. We do not end up as an empty void. There is something wonderful within us, something unmanufactured and fundamental, something we can learn to recognize, to be, and to cultivate: namely our real self, our real I.

One way we go wrong with the question of who am I, is by transforming it into the seemingly easier question of what do I really want? Here the inherent premise leads us astray, because it may well be that our true I does not want anything and is beyond wanting. It is our proliferating temporary Iís that want. Indeed, each is built around some type of desire, of which we have an endless, varied, and often conflicting supply. So exploring our wants, be they sacred or profane, selfish or selfless, will not bring us closer to the truth behind the question who am I.

Similarly, the version of the question that asks what should I do, has the basic problem that as long as I do not know who I am, I cannot know what I should do, except for living a responsible, moral life according to the dictates of conscience and societal norms. So asking what I should do, will not bring us closer to the truth behind the question who am I.

And there is a truth behind it. There is an answer to this question who am I. But it is not an answer that can be readily formulated in words. It is, however, an answer that we can become. We can be who we truly are. It is at the same time obvious, accessible, and hidden.

In the coming weeks, we will explore the question of who am I from several perspectives. For this week, begin as you will. Ask yourself the question, meditate on it, ponder it. But donít accept answers that come as thoughts or concepts, as emotions or perceptions. See where and how the question resonates in you. See what it points to. See who is asking it. Use the question as a means of exploration into yourself. Valid certainty about this is possible. That is what we seek.

    1. Am I My Body?
    2. Am I My Thoughts?
    3. Am I My Feelings?
    4. Am I Consciousness?
    5. I Am I


        

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