First, we create the concept of a self.
Then we try to transcend it.
Who Am I?
The who-am-I question is usually answered by a culture’s religious and cultural beliefs. Just about every culture has a creation story that helps to give context and explanation to the question of where we come from. But in modern times many people have turned away from myth to get answers elsewhere.
But where do we turn to?
There are two things that we know about ourselves. 1) We are a body. This is undeniable. 2) We are also the consciousness that animates the body. The difference between a live body and a dead body…is consciousness. We cannot exist without both a body and consciousness. These two basic building blocks are the foundation for who we are.
Our culture has learned a great about the physical body. This knowledge has enabled us to create medical advancements which have enriched and extended our lives. But what do we know about consciousness? Very few of us have had any formal education in the field of human consciousness. This has created a huge gap in our understanding of who we are.
Traditional Newtonian science distorts our knowledge by insisting that consciousness can only be the product of human evolution. This narrow definition of consciousness cannot explain a large swath of our own human experience. Scientists, claiming to be the arbiters of all that is real, either ignore—or deny the validity of—any human experience that does not fit into their scientific model. Non-conforming experience is rejected as myth, aberration or psychosis.
Science denies the reality of things that we have actually experienced. How can we deny concrete experience? If science cannot explain our experience, then science insists that what we have experienced cannot be real. This invalidates a large part of who we really are. The implicit message from science is: something is wrong with you if you have those kinds of experiences.
It is in this distorted environment that we try to answer the “who am I” question. We do not know enough about consciousness. We focus on the body because that is what science tells us to do. We do not understand how consciousness shapes who we are and what we experience.
We are unable to fully answer the “who-am-I” question.
The Concept of the “Self.”
In the absence of a coherent theory of consciousness, we try to build our own model of our subjective experience.
First, there is a “me”. “Me” experiences being alive. We all have the “me” experience. “Me” experiences having an outer world around the body. “Me” also experiences an internal reaction to our outer experience. “Me” has an inner-outer orientation to life.
Now this is where it gets interesting. We all have experienced the me. But the word me is a pronoun. A pronoun refers to something else. What is the pronoun “me” making reference to? Is the word referring to the body? Is it referring to consciousness? Or is it referring to something else altogether?
For most of us, the “me” refers to something that we call the “self”. The self is who we think we are. The self is a concept we hold in our mind. It is how we think of ourselves. But this concept has no reality outside of our own mind. The self does not exist in the outer world. It does not exist in the inner world. It only exists in our personal world.
This is the beginning of a singular distortion in our understanding of reality. Life is the experience of being alive in this present moment. Life is not a thing; life is experience itself. But the concept of self gives us the idea that there is something that pre-exists our human experience. Humans are more than just a body and more than just consciousness. Humans are a self and it is this self that experiences life. The word “self” reifies our life experience. Life is no longer seen as reality. Rather, that which is doing the experiencing — the self — is understood to be reality.
How do we understand this self? We tell ourselves stories that help explain the existence of the self. The self gives us a sense of agency. The self is here to accomplish something with this life. The self needs a purpose, a reason for being. The self needs its own “story” to explain why it is alive on earth. We are here for a purpose, a reason, a cause. At some level we believe this self is important. This sense of importance strengthens and distorts the ego. The ego needs to prove itself to itself.
Transcending the “Self.”
And now we are boxed in. The self distorts our experience of being alive. Instead of accepting life as it is, we measure experience against some set of expectations for how it ought to be. The self thinks it can and should control our experience of life.
To understand reality, we now have to transcend the world-view that comes from our mind. We have to overcome our belief in an autonomous self that should direct our life. Only then can we come into the full experience of being human.
Here is the good news: If we never create a concept of a self, then we never have to transcend anything. Instead we can experience being that which we already are.
We can focus on being consciousness in a body.