Friday, March 27, 2009

Who Are You Really?

Who are you really? Not the self you imagine yourself to be when you look in a mirror. Not the self your parents, bosses, co-workers, teachers, spouses, partners, children, and friends say you are; but your true self. The self we are when no one is looking, even yourself. Who is that?

You have never ever seen yourself. You can’t see yourself because the self you are looking at isn’t the self that’s looking, and it is the self that’s looking that is the real self. You can no more see yourself then you can smell your own nose or hear your own ears.

So, who are you really? You have no idea. Which is a good thing, since all ideas about who you are turn out to be just whom you aren’t.

A lot of people try to find the true self by looking inward. OK, but all you will find there is what you found when you looked outward—more ideas. You can’t look inward to find yourself because the self that is looking inward is the self that you are, and it cannot see itself looking inward or outward because it is itself.

Dizzy yet?

Think of the classic figure/ground puzzle; that simple black and white drawing that sometimes looks like a vase and other times looks like the profiles of two people facing one another. When you see the vase, you don’t see the people. When you see the people, you don’t see the vase. But what is the figure when you aren’t looking at it at all? Is it a vase? Or is it two people facing one another?

Some people will insist it is both, but this makes no sense to me. It is never both. It is always one thing or the other; the vase cancels out the people and the people cancel out the vase. And neither is real unless you are looking at it.

I think the figure itself is nothing you and I can grasp. And it will remain nothing until you look at it and make it something rather than something else.

What is true of the figure is true of you as well. When you look you see one self or another. But the one who is looking is no self at all. Your true self is no self. Your true self is formless, nameless, birthless, and deathless. It just is and has always been and will always be. It’s you, but you aren’t really it. Why? Because as soon as you talk about it or look at it, the you who is talking and looking is not the object talked about or looked at.

If you want to know who you really are, ask yourself this: Who is asking “Who am I?” If you have an answer you have missed the point. Ask again and again and again until you simply realize the vast nothing that is the field in which all things happen. That’s you. Or at least it was until I said it was.


Sandy said...

Salman Rushdie has a wonderful statement about who you are in The Ground Beneath Her Feet:

"Whenever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be. Lover or enemy, mother or friend, those who know us construct us, and their several knowings slant the different facets of our characters like diamond-cutter's tools. Each such loss is a step leading to the grave, where all versions blend and end."

You can never know the real you because you can never gather all your facets that others have.

Flavor of the Week said...

Very Ramana Maharishi. Thank you and amen.

AaronHerschel said...

Ah . Poststructuralism! Derrida makes the same argument vis vis what he calls the transcendental signified. If you're at all interested, check out Discourse Sign and Pay in the Human Sciences.

What we have to remember, though, is that the identity we imagine (which isn't) is not simply a cipher for the "no-self that is." It is a field of conflict between forces both psychological, material, and cultural... and perhaps spiritual, though that often feels like an open question to me.

In any case, there's a great deal of serious fun to be had examining identity in this way, and while the annihilation of the self may be a laudable goal, one always returns in the end to the myriad problems of being. Or else one achieves nirvana, and vanishes into one's navel--which is a strange kind of selfishness if you ask me.

AaronHerschel said...

Oops! The Derrida text is called: Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.

Though "pay" is an intriguing Freudian slip....

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me a bit of a paragraph I read in "A Course in Miracles" that struck me:

"Everyone makes an ego or self for himself, which is subject to enormous variation because of it's instability. He also makes an ego for everyone else he perceives, which is equally variable. Their interaction is a process which alters both, because they were not made by or with the unalterable. It is important to realize that this alteration can and does occur as readily when the interaction takes place in the mind as when it involves physical proximity. Thinking about another ego is as effective in changing relative perception as is physical interaction. There could be no better example that the ego is only an idea, yours, and not a fact."

AaronHerschel said...


All I can say is: yes. Being a self, and imagining other selves, is all very Heisenbergian. The second you take the measure of being, you've altered it, and yourself, and rendered your measure inaccurate. Thank god!