The great enlightened teacher Ramana Maharshi, when asked by his followers what they could do to become enlightened, would always give one simple answer. He would say: Keep asking yourself, “Who am I?”
What Makes “You” You?
If someone came up to you at a party and asked: who are you, how would you answer them?
Most likely they would just be making conversation. But what if they really meant it? What if they really wanted to know who you are?
How would you answer them?
The process of discovering ourself is a bit like eating an artichoke. We start with what we can see and what we can get a hold off. We peel that off and it reveals more beneath that. We have to peel through many layers to get to the core of the artichoke.
In a similar fashion we take an aspect of ourselves, inspect it and we ask if this is what makes us who we are.
We could ask ourself: if this aspect of myself were to disappear, would I still be alive? If we can remove an aspect of ourself and still be alive, then it cannot be the core of who we are.
We might begin this exploration, as people often do, by thinking about what we do. What jobs do we perform, what roles do we fulfill? What are our avocations, our hobbies, our interests? These activities might say a great deal about how we live our life and what we find interesting, but they would not define us.
We might be tempted to think in terms of what differentiates us from other people. We have a personality. We have a personal history. We have a family of origin. We have personal memories and experiences. We have our own unique quirks, likes and dislikes, sense of humor and laugh.
All of these make us distinctive. All of these together might make us endearing to the people who know us. But once again, if these were to somehow disappear, we would still be here and alive.
We are unique, but our uniqueness is not who we are
Our traits are like the ornaments on a Christmas tree; they give us color, sparkle and pizazz. Altogether they create a personality. But they only hang on the surface. What is underneath these decorations that holds them up?
What makes us who we are?
We may be inclined to think that we are our thoughts. But once again we ask: if our thoughts were to disappear, would we still be alive?
On this one we might be tempted to say no, as we might well consider it impossible to be alive and not be thinking. But we know from deep meditation that it is possible to be aware but not be thinking. Our thoughts do not define us.
Then what does?
Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Is the question of self-identity a question of what sets you apart from others and makes you different or special? Or should we be asking just the opposite?
Is our humanness what makes us who we are? If so, then what we want to know is not what makes us different, but what makes us the same as all other people.
What makes us a human being?
I Am A Body
Imagine that you are standing in front of a full length mirror. You study the image in the mirror. This is how you appear to other people.
And what are you seeing? Your first thought might be that you are seeing “me”. But there is no “me” in the mirror.
You are looking at a body.
Indeed, your body is integral part of who you truly are. If you did not have your body, you would not be alive as a human being. You would not be you.
You are a body and that body gives you substance, form, it gives you identity in the world around you. Your body identifies you to others. Your body enables you to experience the outer world of matter and form. Your body itself is matter and form. Your body gives you the ability to live in and experience the outer world of matter and form.
Your body gives you a particular perspective on the world. Where your body is in the outer world determines what you see, hear and experience. It shapes your experience of life. If your body is in New York City you cannot experience first hand a life that is lived in Los Angeles. And if you live in Los Angeles you cannot experience first hand a life lived in New York.
Your body places you in time and space. The life that you experience is determined by where you are and when you are there.
Your body has a big influence on you in another way. It has genuine needs that you have to meet. You need food and water, shelter, air and a chance to sleep. You as a body you have to interact with others to get the body’s needs met.
Your body lives in a world of matter and form. This is a dualistic world. My actions impact you. Your actions impact me. You have to figure out how to get your needs met through interactions with others.
Your body enables you to embark on your horizontal journey in the outer world and to learn from you experiences on this journey.
Without a body there would be no horizontal reality.
I am Consciousness
Let’s go back to that mirror.
What is it that recognizes the image in the mirror?
Our 5 senses enable us to experience the outer world around us. They are part of our body. They see, but they do not recognize that which is seen. They hear sounds but they cannot interpret the meaning of those sounds. Something else recognizes and interprets what the body experiences.
What is that? It is our consciousness. Consciousness gives the body a life.
We cannot experience life in the body without consciousness. A body without consciousness is a dead body.
Consciousness is life. Consciousness in a human body is a unique type of experience of life. In return the body gives consciousness a unique kind of life to experience.
Who am I?
- I am a body that experiences the world of matter and form;
- I am consciousness that experiences life from the perspective of the body.
I am consciousness and I am a body. My culture has taught me much about my body and what I must do to take care of it.
But my culture has taught me nothing about consciousness and all that it has to teach me.
This is the core of our human dilemma.