Who do you think you are? The answer may surprise you. Of course it’s easy to dismiss such a ridiculous question as “Who am I”? I know who I am. I am a man, a woman; I am a father, a mother; I am a doctor, a manager; I am a joke-teller, an asker of silly questions. but saying all of this, aren’t you still a little bit unsure about who you really are?
Do you ever catch yourself watching yourself, listening to the words that come out of your mouth, wondering who it is that is saying those things? Who is the self that is doing this observing? Is that who you really are? Or is the self that is being watched the real you? Where is this `you’ located? Can you point to it, put your finger on it, quantify it?
A famous koan (Zen imponderable) asks, “What was your original face before you were born?” A delightful YouTube video on the topic can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIw1RjazGvU
The fact that there is no permanent place where the self resides is really a liberating concept. What it means for us is that we are constantly in the process of creating and re-inventing ourselves, that our lives are not scripted or our futures predestined. We create roles and we inhabit these roles.
Problems only occur when we begin to think those roles are us. when we become fixated on the notion of one role and try to squeeze our fluid natures into the small, rigid container we call `self’ – the pressure is enormous!
The Buddha said, “Wherefore, monks, whatever is material shape, past, future or present, internal or external…thinking of all this material shape as `This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom.” In other words we are free to disentangle ourselves from ourselves. We are not what we own, we are not our perceptions, we are not our thoughts, and we are not our feelings – though we are free to experience all of these wonderful sensations.
Our journey through life takes us many different places. Are we the same person today that we were when we were children, when we are starting out our lives as young adults, in middle age, in the autumn of our lives? Are we really the same person as our role of parent, or child or lover or friend defines us? Heraclitus said: “You can never step into the same river twice”, meaning that the river never stays the same, it is always changing. I believe you can also say that it is never the same `you’ that steps into the river: both the river and you are changing, always in a process of flow. In fact, we are nothing but flow. And we are free to determine our course and plot our destiny, limited only by the boundary of our imagination.
On the Wikiquote page that talks about Heraclitus, (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heraclitus), there are a couple of remarkable image files.
One image, of the dispersion of light as it travels through a prism, illustrates the nature of flow, from a single unremarkable thread to a profusion of intricate bands of colour – the kaleidoscope of our changing lives. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f5/Light_dispersion_conceptual_waves.gif
The other is a Hubble image of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) that expresses the dynamic nature of the cosmos. It reminds us that the universe itself is in a state of beautiful and infinite flux. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Whirpool_Galaxy.jpg
This investigation of self, of who we are can lead us to a more authentic relationship with ourselves and with others. It can help us to work against stereotypes and enable us to step outside of our limited understanding of personality. It can allow us to embrace change, to develop resilience and let us play. We come to realize the world as it appears and the world as it is.
The Zen master Ch’ing-yuan (660-740 a.d.) pointed to this reality when he said:
“Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.