All through the day
I, me, mine, I, me, mine, I me, mine.
– George Harrison
“Who am I?” isn’t a very skillful question.
It’s a great question because it challenges us, and beckons us forward. But instead of breaking up the habitual grasping we’re all caught up in, it encourages us to let go of one thing so that we can grasp onto another: the Quintessential Self. It’s an adolescent question.
Now, the more mature, and skillful version of that would be: “Where am I?” Or, if we unpack it a little, “What part of this experience is me?”
We all live with this sense that we’re isolated from the things we’re experiencing, that the I is a step backwards from the mine. Most religions take this theory of mind and use it as a springboard for their beliefs in an eternal soul. Secular Humanists ditch the soul, but still maintain that there’s a distinct person—somewhere in there—running the machine.
Buddhism ditches both of those beliefs: there’s neither an essential and eternal soul, nor an essential—but mortal—person.
But this isn’t a belief we’re commanded to accept without scrutiny. “What am I in this experience?” prompts us to investigate our environment, our minds, bodies, past, present, and future.
Am I these words? No, these words are words. Am I the meaning behind them? No, their meaning is the meaning behind them. Am I the fingers typing them? No, fingers are fingers. Am I the feelings that are compelling me to write them? No, feelings are feelings.
We can investigate the body: am I these eyes, ears, nose, skin, or tongue? No. Am I this tissue, these muscles, bones, and organs? Nope.
And the mind: am I these thoughts? Nuh-uh, thoughts are thoughts. Am I the silence between them? No way, silence is silence. Am I perception, volition, or consciousness?
When we refer to ourselves, we’re usually referring to awareness; to that innate watchfulness that seems kind of aloof from the things it’s aware of. Even though it’s aloof, it still seems to be the doer, the governor. Yet consciousness doesn’t do anything. It’s just along for the ride. Our volition, desires, feelings, and will are what give the body and mind directions, and perception is what divvies up the All into neat little boxes.
But none of that’s me. Perception is perception, volition is volition, and consciousness is consciousness. When we take them one-by-one, none of those physical or mental elements is an eternal soul because they’re constantly changing. If we lump them all into one, that one isn’t an eternal soul because it’s still constantly changing. Also, it isn’t really one, is it? It’s many. And no one has the impression that they’re a bag full of souls.
If we take them one-by-one, none of them constitute a person because they’re all doing their own thing. If we lump them together into one, that one doesn’t constitute a person because that “one” isn’t actually there, it’s the nexus of all those moving parts.
This is why the Buddha announced—with unabashed confidence—“I am Unborn and Undying.” A person isn’t born, the aggregates are born, and their interactions support “the person,” the same way that light, land, heat, and moisture support a mirage. As those supports change, the mirage changes; when those supports vanish, the mirage vanishes.
But, it wasn’t actually there to begin with—not in the way we usually mean when we say that something’s there. A mirage is intangible; it’s a Jedi mind trick.
What’s here are the aggregates, and what appears is the person. Here in rural Illinois, after we get a downpour and water collects in the fields, bugs swarm around those stagnant ponds. Since there are bugs, the birds, frogs, and toads show up there too. When the water dries up, all the little critters leave.
The mistake we make isn’t lumping the many into the one; it’s lumping the many into the one, and then thinking that that one is separate from the many.
We drape the word ecosystem over that stagnant pool. But, an ecosystem is just a perception, an idea. You can look for it everywhere, but all you’ll find are frogs, toads, bugs, birds, land, and water interacting with each other. There’s no tangible, self-existing thing in all of that we can point to say, “That’s the ecosystem. See it? It’s standing right there, eating a sandwich.”
The self is an ecosystem. For the first year of our lives, we don’t even have the impression of being separate from the experiences we’re having.
But then something shifts in the brain, and suddenly we’re outcasts—exiled from our environment, our bodies, and even our minds. We can see how deep that goes since it even slips up in the words we use: my body, my mind, my experience. We isolate ourselves, and that wrong-mindedness supports all the unskillful things we do, it allows us to wreak havoc everywhere we go.
Buddhism is unique because everyone—both religious and secular—believes that there’s a broadcaster inside their heads. It’s easy to see how so many different views on identity rise up. I mean, we all know that the broadcaster isn’t in the radio; the broadcaster is miles away in some cushy or dilapidated studio. If the radio breaks, that doesn’t affect the broadcaster, it just cuts off the broadcast. That’s the soul argument.
Secularists feel that there’s no broadcaster separate from the radio, that—really—the broadcast is an mp3 that the radio’s playing.
Buddhists side with the Secularists, but up the ante by taking the next step: there’s no broadcaster separate from the radio; the broadcast is an mp3, so that means there’s no broadcast, since we just said that it’s an mp3. An mp3 is an mp3… a broadcast is a broadcast.
That’s why the Path is all about the facts of life. I’m just gonna repeating that indefinitely until we all go insane. Fact: a blade of grass is not a lawnmower. A lawnmower is a lawnmower, and grass is grass. What we do—the mistakes we make that cause suffering—are caused by us calling a blade of grass a lawnmower, and vice versa.
When we see the facts, we notice that there’s nothing we can point to and call, “I, you, or us,” in any day-to-day experience. It’s just that consciousness places everything we think we are into a cloth, perception folds the cloth around all of it, and then volition ties it closed.
In calm abiding meditation, volition eventually drops off, the cloth unfolds, and everything just relaxes out in the open. Then, insight meditation has us be mindful of all the contents laid bare before consciousness, and we investigate them by asking, “Which one of these is me?” or, if we’re focusing on other people, “Which one of these is them?” Or, both: “What part of this experience is me, and what part is them?”
Don’t hurt yourself (or others) by pondering this shit too much. Skillful View, when plucked from the rest of the Eightfold Path, is no longer skillful.
But it’s these are things we’re supposed to go over during insight/mindfulness meditation. Until we’re calm and centered enough, views like these are just distant destinations on the map we’re reading—and the methods used to grok them are going to be ineffectual. But, even though we’re not there yet, it’s usually useful to know what’s up ahead.
The point is that, when we see that we’re just another mental object, we’re free. We’re free from all the sticky madness that comes with taking things personally, and we’re free from being bound up in all the old habitual thoughts, feelings, and grasping that cause all of us to suffer.