Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Who am I?
Who am I? This question is at the root of mysticism. That is, to ponder our real nature and to question our individual identity. It seems that my experience began at birth as if the world's creation and mine are the same act of creation. I ask this question from the realization that the world already existed when I was born. Like the great pun, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"
Against this fundamental question, one discovers that we must do something in this world. Identity is the source of what we do, and who we are as an identity is also the result of what we do. Identity is a kind of self-generation, in which we engage with the world, and the world, in turn, engages with us. As long as we are alive, we are both doing and being.
Who I am is self-generating.
Life Lived Through Identity
Self-generation suggests the fact that identity is not inherent to our existence. Like the chicken and the egg, it is a paradox, because clearly, we are conscious of our existence. We have the experience of living in the world. Both the world and our existence are self-evident. From the moment we use words, we cease to be only observing. We are always creating and adding meaning to our experience. Identity is self-generated in this domain of constructed meaning and is the experience individual lives recognized as self.
Our notion of self is not inherent in us. Our consciousness is! However, we learn through identity, which we call 'self'. Starting as infants, and through all of life, we play through self in relation to the world. We live by reacting to what we experience in order to protect this self-identity. However, we also are always generating something. We are creating and experimenting with life as if in an authentic inquiry into our being. We allow our inquiry and what we discover to direct our actions and we become conditioned to it in the process. Identity is always changing as we live. For a time we may no longer inquire until the time comes when we begin again. We are always both shaping and being shaped by our experiences. Identity is never finally settled. It is plastic, and it can evolve or devolve.
The Conditioning of Identity
Our selfhood is the conditioning of identity. Our commitments also condition us, and we can become aware of this conditioning. It could be a commitment to our comfort and safety, but at the same time, it also could be the commitment to our growth and transformation. Identity is not like computer software written in code. Rather, it is the automatic conditioning of a living being. One who is endowed with the consciousness of body, emotion, and thought, and also given the cognitive tools of language.
But what happens when we break from conditioning? It could be the archetypical journey or the emergence of the sensibilities of adulthood from adolescence in entering a community as an adult. We don't remain children and must do something in the world. This question, "Who am I?" is essential to the awareness of transformation in the domain of identity. We are always generating "I" as the symbol for identity in language. We have a conditioned experience of it. Even if for example, if I am creating myself as "I" intentionally, that identity must become generated by the automation my thoughts in order to persist.
Reflection On I Reveals Its Plasticity
When I can reflect upon "I," its plasticity is revealed. Its historicity becomes evident in my stories which "I" inhabits. The persistence of identity accompanies my stories about my life. Even the experience of conflict when various senses of identity clash is a function of these stories. Becoming aware of this, it becomes possible to interrupt the automaticity of my narrative of self. For a moment, in reflection, it can be brought to a stop. Ceasing the mental activity that maintains it, for a moment pauses the conversations that created it so that the observing of consciousness can enter a new impression, from which language can begin to generate a new awareness of self-identity.
In such a moment I may discover the sense of emptiness-and-meaninglessness that is resident in consciousness. The space of nothingness from which a movement to awareness can occur. It is not the nothingness of nihilism. Occurring as a clearing, it is peaceful and passive. Not being in constant action, like identity in the construction of meaning, it is therefore also not in doing. It is reflective, and still. Strangely as sensation, it is both pleasurable and intolerable. For this reason, we can only return to it, but cannot stay with it in life. Life must be lived from identity, not being. But being is always present, a moment away from identity, accessible only through reflection.
Doing arises in the living of life through identity
From this space of being present, the impulse to do something arises through the mechanism of identity. The awareness is that "I" must do something. That something, because of the mechanism involved, requires an identity that is committed to something. Perhaps some passion, or to some vision? Maybe to somehow control the environment, or to serve it some way? Or possibly it is simply a commitment be doing something, maybe anything to stabilize its own experience.
And so, through reflection on one's personal history, the conversation can shift to "Who am I, NOW" or even evolve into "Who shall I be in the FUTURE?" If this is not a conscious awareness, it certainly can happen mechanically through the automatic workings of the subconscious mind. We have this choice and possibility, to live from being awake and aware of our drives, or to live from our unconsciousness of them. Only consciousness can distinguish and chose to be present in the process of self-generating.
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