Who Am I?
Once, many years ago, while hiking the Range Trail in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, I faced this question for the first time.
I mean seriously faced it.
I hiked all morning of my second day out when it began raining.
Since it was almost noon I stopped, pitched my tarp from a cluster of pines over a nice carpeting of pine needles.
The rain came down steadily while I ate lunch and didn’t seem to be letting up any time soon.
So, I adjusted my plans deciding to stay put to wait out the storm.
I can’t recall what prompted me to this particular line of thinking, but I began questioning things about myself.
Nice tidy topic to while away a few hours.
Am I This Body?
Okay, I began wondering, after I took a whiz, Is everything inside me part of my body?
It certainly is not the urine I just pissed on the pine needles.
Then what about the air in my lungs? Much of it will be gone as soon as I exhale and take another breath. So which part of that air in my lungs do I consider to be part of my body?
How about the fecal matter in my intestines? As soon as I take a crap much of it will be gone.
There seems to be much of what I consider to be my body that is just passing through.
I’ve given blood transfusions and have had blood transfusions. So how much of my blood can I consider to be my body?
This questioning went on for some time, leading me to ask, ‘How much of my body could I lose and still be me?’
That took me through the list — I could lose my hands or arms; I could lose a foot, both feet, my legs even; I could go blind, deaf, or lose my sense of smell and taste. But obviously I’d still be me.
Couldn’t I even lose all of them, even having a replacement for some of my bodily organs — kidney, liver, even my heart — and still be me.
It didn’t take much of the afternoon to go through the whole gamut of body parts.
So, If Not the Body then Who Am I?
Still raining, I had to find another mental game.
So what about what I know? Aren’t I what I know?
It didn’t take long for an answer.
I could see that I was still me as a pre-kindergarten toddler even though I did not know anything that I knew as a forty-year-old backpacker hoofing it up the more difficult trail to Mount Marcy.
So, If Not What I Know then Who Am I?
After a while I’d gone through the whole gamut, seeing that my thinking too, was not who I am. It changes from moment to moment and I am still me regardless of what thoughts come and go.
So, If Not My Thinking then Who Am I?
Little did I realize that this was serious spiritual stuff.
Today, after years of spiritual study, I now use this same inquiry as a spiritual practice. I use it as a mantra frequently during the day — on the trail and at home.
It was my main spiritual mantra on this morning’s hike. It is a more advanced technique of keeping the attention in the present.
The Bigger Question
Mystics in India have a word for this kind of self-inquiry. They call it Atma-vichara.
Translated it simply means, Self-Inquiry, asking oneself “Who am I?”
That doesn’t make it any more enlightening than for me to ask myself the questions I did years ago in the Adirondacks.
The trick is in that last sentence.
It refers two times to me — the me asking and the me asked. “Me” asking “myself.”
As the pundits would put it, that is just it. There is a Self (capital ‘S’) and a self (small ‘s’). What they mean is that the Self is our true being and the self is our ego-being.
Getting Past the Jargon
I keep it simple. The question I ask is, ‘Who is doing the hiking?’
And the many variations.
‘Who is hearing the crunch of the boots in the snow?’ ‘Who is paying attention to where Bill is going?’ ‘Who is calling Tessa when she gets too far away?’ ‘Who is taking the photo of Tessa?'”
I see that I am not doing these things. It is Bill who does them. I am simply the (capital ‘S’) Self doing the asking. Trouble is I have a tough time seeing the difference in the two until I practice asking the question, ‘Who am I?’
And it has to be obvious that . . .
I can observe that I am not that Bill that’s taking the hike, for I am able to observe him.
And some time ago the realization arose that if I can observe it, I cannot be it.
It is illogical that I can observe myself. Yet we accept that without question. And it isn’t until we give full attention to it, by asking the question, that we begin to discern the distinction between the two.
This sort of observing is quite different than observing things like Tessa, that are separate from the body.
And it is easier to see how true it is about my thoughts. I can more easily observe them come and go and I’m still there while they change. And see that I am not those thoughts. Even though I can own them and say that ‘they are my thoughts.’
Keeping Me In the Moment
It is a deepening practice to continually ask “Who am I?”
I use the question as a mantra on my hikes. I also use it in many other activities during the day.
When I ask the question often enough it tends to become shortened to simply asking, “I-I-I-I?”
Those “I’s” become laden with far more meaning than simply the word “I.” And those meanings sink into my subconscious.
The “I” then carries meanings like, ‘I am not this body or mind.’ And ‘I am this — whatever this is that is aware of Bill walking.’
Now that I’ve said all this, I suggest you hit your reset button and empty your cache.
Just ask yourself the question as you go about your day and see what happens.
The problem of people like me describing a spiritual practice is that what we say tends to influence what you think.
My words become your ideas.
And that distracts you from what you experience.
You need to empty your mind, even of all that I have said in this post.
We want to drop all ideas from mind. Any idea. Every idea. Even if they are good ideas.
So dump the ideas of this post. Find out from your own experience whatever form that takes for you.
There was an Indian wise man, Ramana Maharshi, who was said to the be wisest spiritual man of the twentieth century.
He lived near a hill, Arunachala, in southern India
Ramana recommended this practice of asking yourself, Who Am I? He went so far as to say it is all you need do to attain full Self-Realization.
Wow! That’s pretty heavy spiritual lifting!
To get an idea of how people, even spiritually-advanced people, have difficulty understanding Ramana, it is useful to read a book of his answers to their questions. The best book of these questions and his answers is Talks With Ramana Maharshi.
This book is worth reading entirely through. Then to go back and study it.
I find that going back and reading one or two pages a day, day after day, to be deeply enlightening.
And sometimes I’ll read the same page or paragraph every day for several days in a row, just to let its wisdom sink into the depths of my heart.
What that does for me, is show how my later understanding of the same passage deepen as I go back to read the passages again and again.
It’s very much like studying the Bible and finding how enriched the reading of the same passage becomes in reading it again and again.
It seems we miss something on our earlier readings that we tend to catch on subsequent readings.