“Who Am I?” Ironies About Self

There are many ironies about feeling good about yourself and knowing who you are. For example, you might think of your identity as who you are. You might think the more you stand out, the more you are you. Yet, the more you stand out, the more lonely you might feel. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what my skills were, how I was unique, and thought that the more unique I was, the more others would like or love me. Yet, the root of ‘identity’ is ‘idem,’ meaning ‘same’ or like others. And one definition of self, in psychology, is how we see ourselves from the point of view of others. To be different, to stand out, you must be connected. To be unique, you must be unique in relation to something or someone(s). The philosopher Martin Buber said there is no ‘I’ without others. I agree.


So does neuroscience. When not occupied or engaged in a task, psychologist Mathew Lieberman says our brains turn to social concerns. Whether it’s integrating previous experiences with others or planning for future ones, a good part of our mental space, when alone, is thinking about others. The neurologist James Austin talks about the natural discursive quality of mind: we are often talking with ourselves, engaged in an “inner” conversation, when not in conversation with others. Our sense of self changes depending on the situation, who we are with or who we imagine we are with. The part of the brain that oversees social-emotional concerns, thinking and planning, the prefrontal cortex, is also the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop in each of us. It is an area highly developed in humans compared to other species. Humans were able to survive by developing not only a large brain but a social one. The larger our social groups, the larger our brains needed to be.


And whether you realize it or not, relationships, especially loving ones, are one of the greatest sources of happiness. These are most satisfying when you feel genuine, when you don’t have to “put up a front” or be someone you aren’t. You feel best with others who can see or hear you. You can be spontaneous and feel loved or appreciated no matter what. This is one element of what might attract you to someone. What makes the person attractive is a combination of their uniqueness and their ability to see or hear your uniqueness. What makes me most myself is what makes me able to hear others, or to be, to some degree, selfless.


One element of being “in flow” or fully, joyfully, engaged in a task, is that “you” are forgotten. You don’t think of the past or future or what others might say about you. You are focused entirely on what you are doing. You are focused on, filled by, one moment of life. Every one of us knows how wonderful such moments are and how destructive concerns of self image, failure or success can be. Yet, you need a sense of self to even step off a curb and cross a street.


A Zen Master named Dogen said, “…to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things….” Think about this. It is not just about “forgetting” but enlightening. When you are most empty of your expectations, worries, you are most able to take in “all things,” to appreciate others, to feel and enjoy what you experience. To be most full, you must be most empty. To study the self is to study how I am others, and others are me.


Feeling “off” or discontented, or that you are missing something, is feeling there is an intermediary or a distance between yourself and now, between awareness and the object of awareness. Feeling fully alive, “on,” is feeling there is no boundary, that you can deal with whatever comes up, that whatever arises can teach you something. It is feeling this very moment, in fact, all of your life, is worth living, not something to distance from or deny. Feeling “on” is enjoying the ironies of self.


Reflecting on Time

Sometimes, I marvel at time and how my life seems to flow. I can’t believe how old I am. Or I can’t believe how quickly yesterday becomes today, ‘now’ becomes ‘then.’ Yesterday afternoon I was in the middle of a wonderful conversation. I was totally absorbed, enjoying myself. Then, suddenly, it was a day later. Is this due to a lapse in attention? Many people say that as they get older, time passes more quickly. Is that the same as what I am describing?


Right now I am in the middle of everything. Everything I see and feel is so present, real, rich. I can see the apple tree blossoms, smell the lilac bushes, and feel my stomach expanding with my breath. I feel the rhythm of the wind in the apple trees. I don’t feel time. I feel this….. For an instant, there is only feeling. Then I try to remember what just happened. And as I write it down, I lose it.


I can’t locate time except as, for example, a number on my digital clock or something scheduled on my calendar. A minute, an hour is life transmuted into abstraction and memory. When I feel life going by so quickly, I am distant from it. It becomes like reviewing memories. Remembering is often like watching a movie, watching life summarized and miniaturized into individual frames. And I become a character in the movie. The nature of movies is to speed by so I speed by.


And when life speeds by (or you want it to speed by), it hurts. There is nostalgia there, but also regret. Nostalgia can’t compensate for losing the here and now. As described in the classic book, Flow, and different meditation traditions, when your life is full sized, close up, and embraced, there is no sense of being distant from others, the world, and one’s life; your time sense is altered. There isn’t a you being hugged but just the feeling of hugging. Time is not separable from each breath, movement, perception lived.


So, I guess the question is, can life always feel full? Can even regret be embraced? I think so. I think being open to the awareness of distance is a step in eliminating it. The heart of what I experience is my attitude toward it. In order to write this, I need both time and the timeless; the two are wrapped together and I need to embrace both. The timeless is the smell of the lilac and the rush of creativity when writing. Without the distance of time, I couldn’t step back and reflect. Without memory, I couldn’t write a word, couldn’t name the fragrance, couldn’t learn, couldn’t keep in mind even who I am relating to. I couldn’t appreciate people from my past, couldn’t identify who I carry within me. Memory is usually tied to an uncovering and release of emotion. But what is the ultimate aim of reflecting—and remembering? Creating great theories or conclusions? Or actually living more inclusively and deeply?


If you want to explore this for yourself and, if you’re a teacher, with your students: sit back in your chair and relax. Focus on your breath. Maybe close your eyes. Let come to mind a moment when you did something meaningful or fully. When you were fully involved. Picture or feel the details of the moment. Where were you? Were you with anyone? Who? If you were with others, how did your actions affect them? How did you work together? What did working or living fully feel like? How did you open to it?


And when you open your eyes and return, examine your responses. Hold them in memory and feel what they have to say. What made the moment so full and successful? What motivated you to do whatever you did?


Be aware in yourself how time and the timeless weave themselves together. Life is more exciting and rich when the patterns of this weaving are noticed and embraced.



*For an interesting reading on time for yourself or secondary school students, see: The Dharma of Dragons and Demons, by David Loy and Linda Goodhew.