Who    am    I?

Identity This question is a koan. In Zen philosophy, koans are paradoxical puzzles intended to baffle and subdue the intellect and so lead to enlightenment. "Who am I?" asks what consciousness is, or about the basic nature of identity, if you prefer.

I have been thinking about this for almost eleven years, taking note of the answers that occurred to me during that time. I present this in the form of a journal since it has no conclusion or end-point. Maybe it will inspire you to think about one of the most basic and infrequently probed mysteries.


Jan 91. What is this self or "I", and what makes me think it exists? When I ask myself, "Who am I?", my answer is that I am the one who witnesses, and the one who makes choices. I am also the one who thinks. That is the minimal answer. A fuller answer would include my unconscious, my memories, desires, abilities and so on.

Nov 94. Who am I? When I look inside myself to find what is there, I find nothing. There is only me the seeker looking. But is this just a tautology? What else could there be except what I find - the witness to the enquiry. Clearly, the seeker is the sought, but does this mean anything?

I am a screen on which thoughts and feelings appear. I am an awareness looking for itself.

Oct 95. This question can be answered on various levels: (a) my autobiography - most crudely: name, work, family; (b) What sort of person am I (compared to other people)? (c) Deep character analysis; (d) What is a self?

I am a consciousness plus a will that are associated with a particular body. Consciousness is the domain within which experiences manifest. My consciousness is distinct from that of others because we do not share experience. The will is an autonomous agency that chooses actions, including what to think about. What about my unconscious? Is it me? The will and consciousness are like the active and the passive aspects of the self. They can also be seen in terms of input/output.

If my consciousness is defined by the limits of my experience then how is it different from my experience?

Another tack is that my consciousness is a distinct point of view from which the universe perceives itself.

Dec 95. Who Am I (WAI)? I am a middle-aged Polish-Australian New Age intellectual interested in the overlap of psychology and philosophy. I work as a programmer but find this unsatisfying. I have not found my niche in a work sense. I have a close relationship of long standing with a high-school teacher. I write articles, read seriously, play sport, travel overseas yearly. I am seeking for meaning in my life.

The above is a description for someone who doesn't know me. How would I write a similar description for myself? Why would I write it for myself? I guess to see myself in perspective, perhaps to discover something I don't know about myself.

If I write such a description for myself, ie for someone who already knows me because he is me, then I would have to tell myself what I don't know already. This seems to be the point of 'WAI?' So at the least I would need to come up with a new formulation, one that comes not from memory but from introspection.

Dec 95. Actors have trouble knowing who they really are, their real self. Perhaps this is because, like the rest of us, they aren't anyone, only they are more aware of this. "Who am I?" is unanswerable. Being a person is a process not a product. Hence it cannot be caught in words.

As I climbed Mt Lidgbird at Lord Howe I asked myself, "Who am I climbing this mountain?" Then, "Who is this mountain? Who is this bird?" The three questions seemed to be on the same level. Perhaps in a way they have the same answer. After all, does it make any sense to talk of the identity of a mountain, to seek for its essential nature? It just is.

Who am I? The answer can be given in words, which are only names. What could an answer be? It would reduce me to some other thing (the answer to the question), or give an analogy, comparison, metaphor or negative description.

Who am I? I am my history ie my experiences. I am a sense of separate identity. I am not any other person, yet I am from the same mould. I am not the answer to "Who am I?" for the answer (if it exists) is a formulation in words.

Jan 96. This simple question can be answered on many levels. At the deepest level, it seems to me to be unanswerable.

Jan 96. I am that which asks the question. I am the thing that is trying to know itself.

Jan 96. Is my autobiography about me or about my reactions to the world? Or are these two the same thing? After all, I am writing this book in order to find out who I am, and what I write are mainly my thoughts and feelings about things.

What is this book about? It is about what I perceive to be my self. It is the expression of my thinking and feeling about that indefinable thing called 'me'. I try to capture what is important about my self, its thoughts, feelings and memories. To what extent does such a description express what I am? It misses out my subconscious as well as how others see me. Also, as Krishnamurti pointed out, you cannot know a living thing because it is different at every moment. It is not predictable.

Oliver Sacks writes about the gigantic learning that takes place in a baby in its first months, as it achieves perceptual stability, something that can take years in adults whose sight is restored. The difficulty is because three-dimensional objects look very different from different angles and under different lighting. What about self-image, is this not a stable perception of an ever-changing and never knowable object? Just as I have formed a stable image of my body so too have I formed a stable image of my self. This includes what I see as my strengths, weaknesses, limitations, habits, 'character' (what is character?), likes and dislikes, what I can and cannot do. If a person is a process, as Carl Rogers claims, then self-image, whether positive or negative, is a falsification in that it makes something fixed out of something flowing.

At another level of the question, what does it mean to make a description in words of my self? It is to string together symbols originally created to refer to other things to describe something else, the self.

Feb 96. Part of the problem of asking WAI is that the answer is already known ("the self and the world are not two"), if the mystics are to be trusted. This inhibits free enquiry.

Feb 96. My entire autobiography is an extended attempt to answer WAI. My answer is an attempt at giving a complete picture. By choosing to write it I have decided that I am a separate being who can be described as a self-contained entity, rather than a node in a web of connections.

Mar 96. "Whoami" is a question you can ask at a computer terminal, in which case you are asking how the network sees you as a user. In other words how you relate to other elements. Asking WAI seems to be similar - an enquiry into the connection of this bit called 'me' with the other bits collectively called 'world'. The answer would then be 'the set of interactions I have with the world'. This comes down to Krishnamurti's 'Relationship is the mirror in which you discover yourself'.

I tend to think there is something more to me than my (actual) interactions with the world, namely my potential. It seems as though the essence of my self might be something hidden rather than something that has shown itself, or indeed, that can ever be fully shown.

Apr 96. Who was I last year?

May 96. I realise that a better form of WAI is, "What am I?" I shall be asking myself this question from now on. What is this mountain? What is this dog?

Jul 96. I am what questions.

Jul 96. I am an instrument for the universe to see itself.

Jul 96. A better, more focused question is "WAIN?" ie, "What am I now?" This is designed to avoid looking for global, general or abstract answers, which I would seek at the expense of present reality.

Aug 96. What AIN? I am a set of attitudes, beliefs, persistent thought patterns, habits, propensities, memories. I am a personal style holding all this together.

Aug 96. What AIN? I am a questioning, seeking, experiencing agency.

Sep 96. I am my tendencies, predispositions and potentials.

I am a location for experience.
I am a locus of experience.

Sep 96. I am a sense of personal identity, a feeling of a continuous viewpoint. I am the continuation of a life story.

Sep 96. The answer I often come up with is, "I am a unit that is now doing X," where X is whatever I am doing at that moment. I am a centre of experience that is experiencing X.

Oct 96. I am an enquiry in search of an answer, in search of a substance that does not seem to exist. Perhaps I am a process in search of an illusory product. I am a state of becoming that has no end-point, except death.

Oct 96. I am a bundle of desires, expectations, propensities, habits and memories, contained in a body.

Jan 97. WAIN? I am not just this moment's perceptions, thoughts and so forth. I am a source of action and change, above all, a local source of the universe's creativity.

Mar 97. WAIN? I am an autonomous unit operating out of this body, one that has its own window on the world, forming its own world centre. I react to the world and I act on it out of my will. Perhaps my essence is that I am a point of view.

Mar 97. I am a set of interlocking processes: a thinking process, a feeling process, a sensation process.

Mar 97. June Veail said that the Buddhists teach that we are not our mind, not our body and so forth. We are what is there between the out breath and the in breath. Even if you interpret this metaphorically as being the space between one activity and the next. I think it is a false endeavour to seek for an essence of self. I don't think that there is one. I think that we are just the sum total of all our thoughts, feelings, volitions, our body and so on. It is like the visitor who, at the end of an exhaustive tour of all the varied parts of Oxford campus asks, "But where is the university?"

Mar 97. WAMI as I walk to the station? A disconnected unit with very little in it.

Mar 97. I am a mirror that reflects, transforms and distorts.

I am a mechanism that processes thoughts, memories and sensations.

I am a movement. A motion from thought to thought and sensation to sensation.

Aug 97. I am what is asking the question, I am what is trying to answer it. I am the answer.

Can anything satisfy the above three conditions? Is it a paradox, or just a word-problem?

Aug 97. WAIN may be a hard question to answer, but then, what is any thing? What is a stone, a book or a dog? I don't know how to express the essence of any of these things, so how can I even begin to do so for my self?

Sep 97. I am an experiencing unit.

Nov 97. My body continuously replaces its cells, yet it retains its structure and identity. Is the same true of my self? Thoughts and impressions continuously come and go, but my structure and identity remains. My personality is preserved. Or is it?

Dec 97. WAI? A set of reactions and habits, but also a potential for creativity.

Jan 98. WAI? Just a bundle of desires and insecurities.

Jan 98. WAI? A thinking and feeling unit that feels autonomous and separate.

Jul 98. WAI? A local experiential sink.

WAI? That which makes two worlds out of one. Either in the sense of internal vs external, or to put it differently, my experience of the world vs the world itself.

WAI? A maker of boundaries.

WAI? A compulsion to repeat, with occasional creative incidents.

The answer to WAI? seems very complex, eg my habits, desires, fears etc, but perhaps it is very simple and the apparent complexity might be due to my being inside the very thing I want to understand.

WAI? A local point of awareness or a localisation of consciousness.

Jan 99. Walking towards Mt Twynam I had the thought that what I am is a reflection. I am a reflection of the universe, a mirror that shows a few bits of it.

Not just perception, but thinking, talking and even walking can be seen as me reflecting the universe, or rather, the bits that impinge on me. Reflecting on something is reflection too because it is the mental moulding of an image of the world.

So I am like a bead in Indra's net, reflecting the other beads. All I can do is reflect.

Nov 01. Perhaps one should start by asking how one expects to answer this question. What terms, concepts or words do we expect could elucidate the meaning of that little word "I"? In other words, what is the field within which we expect to find elements that can explain the I?

Dec 01. WAI? I am a mind, a self, a consciousness, a distinct locus of volition and experience. These answers seem OK but do they tell us anything? I suspect they are just a list of synonyms for something that is not reducible to other concepts.

Maybe there is no answer to "WAI?", just a process of enquiring, one that runs in parallel with that process called "I".

Tad Boniecki
What I come up with lately is, "I am the universe doing X", where X is whatever I am doing or experiencing at that moment. This is not meant in any grandiose sense, but only as a localisation of the one.

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