Look After Your Mind 8 - Who Am I?
I first came across this intriguing question in the 1970s when I was in my teens, after buying a book by Yoga teacher Richard Hittleman titled 'Guide to Yoga Meditation'. In the chapter called 'The Great Riddle of the Self' Hittleman urges us to consider the notion of who we really are - and demonstrates that finding an answer is not so straightforward.
Hittleman begins by assuming that by way of an answer I might give my name, address and nationality, mention my relatives and friends, my political and religious beliefs, the work I do, my hobbies, groups I belong to, experiences that have influenced me and so on. I might continue trying to define who I am by also listing what I am not. But all of these things, says Hittleman, are statements about me rather than a final definition of who I really, truly am.
Perhaps I feel I've come closer to a solution by deciding that 'I am what I think', since my sense of identity is intimately connected to the ideas that pass through my mind, and the emotions and behaviour resulting from them. Hittleman challenges that by wondering if any of us - our true selves - are only our thoughts. He says not, and demonstrates this by explaining that 'I' am aware of myself thinking. I am, as it were, watching my own thoughts. So who is this 'I' that can stand back and notice these thoughts? To say it is a thought noticing another thought doesn't seem quite right.
For the purpose of looking after the mind, this insight is useful. The technique of deliberately standing back in a more detached way to observe my own thinking, and to cultivate this as a habit, means that I can choose not to get drawn in when unpleasant memories come to the surface and, with a little more practice, I can maintain a greater presence of mind as an event is happening. This means that I am more self-controlled and not so much at the mercy of my emotions at that moment. This is in fact a very ancient mental practice that is widely known as 'the wise observer' technique.
After all these years I am still puzzling over that question, who am I? But out of it has come the very uplifting knowledge that I, that all of us, are more than and greater than our thoughts, memories, feelings, possessions, relationships and anything else that we can say about ourselves.