This is one of life’s big questions. Most people identify with things like their name, work, background, nationality, skin colour, tastes, and so forth. But these are stories about ourselves or roles we’ve adopted. They have little to do with who we actually are.
New Age approaches usually focus on upgrading the filters and stories we tell ourselves. A better story for a better life. Eastern paths can take this further with self-inquiry: who are we behind the stories?
But as I’ve mentioned before, if there isn’t a practice that takes us beyond the mind into source, what is culturing presence? Without a presence or observing consciousness, self-inquiry and mindfulness can just be mind querying itself. This may have philosophical use but how can that evolve us spiritually?
With a transcending practice in place, it can then be useful to look at our habitual ways of seeing ourselves. It may surprise you to discover that you developed your default sense of self when you were quite young. We then built ourselves up on those early impressions.
The first step in exploring who we are is to recognize the difference between the content of our experiences and who is experiencing that. If it’s an object in our experience, then it’s not who we are (at least not early on). If it’s mine, it is not me.
Put another way, when we watch a good movie, we may get caught up in it. But if we stop for a moment, we can see we’re not in the movie and it’s not who we are. It’s just content we’re experiencing.
We experience this body of ours, it’s sensations, and needs. While we may experience ourselves as being in this body, the body is still an object in our experience. We have a body; it is not who we are. “My body is sick” is more true than “I am sick.”
In the same way, we experience emotions rising up and passing. They may sometimes overwhelm or overshadow but they come and go in our experience. We have emotions but they are not who we are. Am I sad or am I experiencing sadness?
We also have thoughts come and go, seemingly endlessly. We may get absorbed in thinking. But once we stop, those thoughts fade out and the next chain of thoughts come along. We have thoughts but they are not who we are. And they don’t have to define us.
Various events can trigger memories and old stories we tell about ourselves. Or we may find ourselves telling everyone a new story about “what happened to me.” That story can be laden with added meaning to confirm our sense of self and world view. It’s surprising how much we say about ourselves if we look past the narrative. Is it a story of our limitations or insufficiencies? How hard done by we are? Or Big Fish stories that try to cover those up? How upset do we get if someone doesn’t care or doesn’t believe us? This can tell us how invested we are in this narrative.
These stories come and go in our experience. We have stories but they are not who we are. They don’t define us unless we believe in them.
The container of thoughts and stories is the mind. We might call it the field in which thoughts arise and move. We can notice the mind by its behaviour, like when it’s babbling away or day-dreaming. We may say “I am dreaming” and yet dreams just come and go without our volition. There can be a vivid lucid dream where we are a great warrior or lover. But then the dream ends. Yet we continue.
When the body falls into deep sleep, the mind goes to sleep too. Yet we don’t cease to exist when we’re sleeping. We may have found ourselves awake to the body sleeping or the mind dreaming. This tells us the mind too is an object in our experience. We have a mind but it is not who we are.
More subtle still, the intellect discriminates right or wrong and yes or no. We may notice it rating our experiences or those around us. That’s a good person, there’s a bad idea, and so on. We may call this my values or opinions, but they are mine. They are not who we are. Again, they don’t define us unless we chose them to.
One of the key discriminations is distinguishing self from other. We see these in our personal identification and the stories about “who I am.” For example, “I am a nurse named Nancy who is American and has 3 kids” (in this example). We might call these the core ideas of a me. But it’s just an idea-form or self-concept. It’s less “I am a nurse” and more “I work as a nurse.” We can say our self-story is a way of distinguishing self and what is mine and not mine. But we can observe the story so it is not who we are. It was just a story about our roles. We can observe the self-concept so we are not that either.
So who are we?
Trillions of individual cells make up our body, each with their own life experience. Some cells live for a few days, some for many years. But we don’t usually experience being this cell or that cell. We experience the wholeness of a body. The laws of nature that run the organism and give us our characteristics and talents also have a wholeness we might call a person. But these are not personal.
This body-mind is a set of functions that is our vehicle for experiencing. It is not who we are. When we confuse this with who we are and claim the actions of the body and laws of nature as mine, we obscure who we are, behind all these things.
This ignorance results from consciousness losing clarity and forgetting its own nature. In that more limited perception, we grasp at what we can recognize and build a sense of self out of what is in our experience: the mind and body.
Yet if we can go beyond the mind, we can discover who we are, under all these layers of objects in our experience. What remains when we go beyond? That which is observing all these things.
This is the observer or witness, presence or pure consciousness. This deeper value of self is our doorway into spiritual awakening, the remembering of who we are.
Soon, we discover this observer is also what enables the mind to think, the emotions to feel, and the body to breathe. Without consciousness, there is nothing to experience. Without experience, there is no life-force driving the bus. When consciousness pulls out of the body, we call this death.
But when consciousness becomes awake in the body, we call this enlightenment. This brings a fuller, richer vantage point and opens access to the full range of our vehicle of experience. But that takes discovering who we are.