What am I?
|Personal identity as a mask. Image source: Wikipedia.|
I was in a train the other day, on my way to the airport for a week-long trip to Asia. Sitting quietly and listening to music, I was completely lost in my thoughts as the train stopped at a major railway station to let some passengers off and take some more in. It was not my destination, so I just lazily contemplated the movement of people going busily about their business on the platform; a veritable sea of hundreds of individuals, each locked, like myself, inside their own thoughts, worries, dreams, and disappointments; each immersed in a mass of other people, rubbing shoulders with others like themselves, and yet each profoundly alone in his or her unique perspective of this show we call existence. How many unfathomable life stories were represented by each of those tiny, insignificant bodies going busily about the station, like bees in a hive? How many novels could be written about their individual dramas? Each of those lives was equivalent, in complexity, richness, nuance, and significance, to my own. Although we were all immersed in the same reality, each one of us was experiencing that reality from a unique point-of-view. It then dawned on me, as my thoughts continued to wander without much systematic discipline, that the collection of experiences entailed by all those different perspectives, taken together, was the apotheosis of knowledge of what reality is all about.
My thoughts still drifting, I remembered a well-known meditation exercise about our sense of a unique identity. It consists of asking yourself who you are and then systematically eliminating every answer you can possibly come up with: Am I my name? No, I could legally change my name tomorrow and still have the same sense of identity. Am I my profession? No, I could have studied something else, or get another job, and still be me. Am I my body? Well, if I lost a limb or had a heart transplant tomorrow I would still have the same sense of identity, so that can't be it either. Am I my genetic code? No, for I could have an identical twin with the same genetic code. Am I my particular life history, as recorded in my brain? Well, wouldn't I still have the same sense of identity if I had made different choices in the past? And so on. The conclusion of this exercise, which I had thoroughly done before, is that our inner sense of self is fundamentally independent of any story we can come up with to dress it up like a mask. As such, it is entirely undifferentiated and identical in every person. Thus, each one of us ultimately has the same exact inner sense of an "I."
All these thoughts came back to me in an instant, as I watched that moving sea of people on the station's platform. And I realized that, ultimately, despite the uniqueness of their life stories, they were all different points-of-view of that one sense of "I." It was as though the same "I" was taking, concurrently, multiple perspectives from within the game of existence, to accumulate as complete a view as possible of it. Each of those little pairs of eyes was like a unique camera connected to the same mainframe computer, the latter trying to derive an integrated answer to the question: What's going on?
In our ordinary lives, we answer questions like "What is going on?" or "What is it?" through observing the system in question from the outside. What is an ant colony? We set up cameras in and around it and observe it from the outside. What is a person? We scan a person's body and take further measurements from the outside. And so on. But when it comes to "What is reality?" there is no outside perspective.
As I have discussed in an earlier article in this blog, I subscribe to the idealist view, recently all but confirmed by physics, that reality and mind are one and the same thing. As such, that single "I" behind the perspectives taken by each of us is Itself reality. So the question "What is reality?" boils down to the much more personal and urgent: What am I? If the one "I" of nature, the wellspring of consciousness within us all, desires to know what It is, It cannot take any perspective outside of Itself in other to find out. It cannot stand outside of Itself and "have a look" any more than you can bite your own teeth, as Alan Watts once brilliantly commented. It has no mirror to look at either, since It is all that exists. It cannot ask someone else, since no one else exists. What can It possibly do to figure out what It is? Only one possibility is left open: To take the perspective of a subset of Itself so It can observe the rest of Itself as if from the "outside;" in other words, to pretend that It is less than Itself. There is really no other way around it; think of it for a moment before you read on.
And so the myriad dramas of human existence are born; each one a unique, amnesia-suffering perspective of the "I" looking at other parts of Itself in order to somehow try and figure out what It is. Though these are theoretical, philosophical considerations, they came to life at that railway station; not as mere theory, but as a felt experience that made sense and gave meaning to existence.