Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Back when I was marginally competent in using computers, there was a useful command in Unix: "whoami." (Perhaps it still exists, but computers are now so far beyond my ken that I wouldn't know where to go even to enter such a command, let alone what to do with the answer.) But back when I did use "whoami," it was helpful in sorting out networking problems, since a number of problems could be resolved simply by determining whom the computer thought it was interacting with. When I entered that command, the computer would tell me who it thought I was. Since computer networks often allocate different configurations and functions to different users, knowing who the computer thought I was allowed me to figure out why it wasn't doing what I expected it to do.

In class this past weekend, Alanna introduced the jnana yoga approach. Jnana yoga, as I understand it, is a practice in introspection. The user keys in the question: Who am I? and then evaluates the responses the user receives from the system. Careful reflection on the responses leads to enlightenment.

Alanna’s instruction particularly caught my attention because I've been working on this question in my own life for several years now. Here is my working (and as yet unenlightened) hypothesis:

The notion of "I" can be used collectively or individually.

What? When does anyone ever mean more than their individuated self when they use the word "I"?

Several instances come to mind. The biblical koan "I AM that I AM" makes use of larger concept of “I.”

And from Leaves of Grass:

One's-self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.


Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,

Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, and breeding,

No sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them,

No more modest than immodest.


I believe a leaf of

grass is no less than the journey work of the stars...

Walt Whitman clearly thought of “I” as more than a single mind located in a single body.

But the “I” collective concept doesn’t just occur in scripture or literature. Frequently enough for me to pay attention, in my own life I have experiences that dissolve the distinctions between “I” and someone or something else. During those experiences, “I” doesn’t mean only the substance collected within my skin.

When used as a distinction, “I” means this: “not that.” It is the core of separation, of division. It was fascinating to watch my children develop from larval infants wholly dependent on and meaningfully indistinct from their parental sources of food, shelter, and comfort into the fabled “two-year olds” (though ours reached this level variously at 18 months to three years) when they learn to say – and mean – “No.” “No” was their way of articulating self: “I perceive something that is not me – is not consistent with what I want or think – and I reject it.” While education and experience (and justice, and desire, and community, and politics, and psychology, and the like) can layer a great deal on top of that basic two-year-old’s conception of self, as I understand those things, they’re just variations on the same theme: “this, not that.”

But despite the ways “I” can be understood conceptually, there are ways to experience it, as well.

In the past, I have been a more diligent and disciplined practitioner of vipassana meditation than I am at present. I recall exploring my mind one day, in pursuit of who I am (or was, if “I” has a temporal dimension). I sat in vajrasana, a pose that is comfortable and stable for me. I closed my eyes. At first, as usual, I was hyper-aware of the sounds around me, my shins pressing against the floor, my plans for the day. Then, for a time, the present-sense input subsided. Even after it subsided, my mind churned out its usual channel surfing thought-stream. I watched the thoughts arise, present themselves, and subside. As they came, I labeled them in acknowledgement, but did not engage in them: “…memory… argument… idea… memory… emotion… judgment… plan… emotion…” Then, the thoughts subsided, as well. And what remained, so far as I could tell, was simply awareness – the watcher, the observer.

Since that time, when someone asks me who I am, I haven’t known how to answer. Because as far as I can tell, “I” am an arrangement of mass and energy and environment that is aware. Sometimes the “this, not that” distinction seems meaningful in defining my “self.” Sometimes, it is meaningless, as Krishna suggested to Arjuna: tat twam asi.

In that context, is it meaningful to talk about some disembodied spirit or intelligence or personality that is “me”? I haven’t the tools for so believing.

Every experience "I" have, including my meditations, I have through the medium of my body. For a time I wanted to think that my mind – my soul, my spirit, my higher self, my whatever – was distinct from my muscle and tendons and brain and liver and bone. But the more I wanted to be different than my body, the less authentically I lived. Is that a necessary outcome? Likely not. Might someone else manage what I could not? Certainly. But that was the tangle I wound up in.

It required changing the chemistry of my body/mind before I could regain equanimity, self-discipline, volition. Today, it is yoga that keeps those chemicals balanced, enabling the awareness to explore its world. Without that balance, perhaps the awareness, itself, might still exist. I’ve not been able to explore that question when depression sets in, as I’ve not been able to do a lot of other things. But even if awareness persists in such conditions, the discipline, the detachment, the equanimity, erode. And instead of maintaining any posture, I am controlled by emotions, losing any clear sense of moral agency, acting out, only aware of awareness when I am so repulsed by my own actions that the perception of repulsion opens a fissure in the stone.

So when I enter a self-diagnostic mode, asking whoami?, what do I find? An awareness that seems a result of an arrangement of matter and energy. Sometimes that awareness has access to memories. Sometimes that awareness is so overwhelmed by stimuli that it disappears under the waves for a time. Sometimes it has access to sensory inputs. The mind it inhabits is habituated in many ways. Sometimes that awareness allows habit to choose familiar paths and patterns. Sometimes it follows desires leading in new directions. ~