I’ll start with the end: it doesn’t really matter. Nothing matters. But let me explain.
I wrote my senior capstone thesis on the gap between machines and the human mind. In summary: a lot. But as part of my research, I read Marvin Minksy’s The Emotion Machine which got me really thinking about what we, as a society, consider to be ourselves. I’m pretty sure I never thought about what my “self” was until reading this book. I believe Minksy would argue that we don’t really have a singular self and instead we have a collection of “Ways to Think”. That made sense to me because we act differently around different people, in different situations, and at different times. But I felt like this answer was very technical and doesn’t quite satisfy the broader question, “who am I?”
While I found this question very intriguing, if I indulged all of my curiosities I would probably never get out of bed, or off of google, so I put this question aside for a while. But recently, I’ve picked up Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and have been spending my mornings deeply studying the chapters since I have so much more time post-graduation. Instead of arguing for what our “self” is, Tolle starts by presenting many false conceptions of our selves that people commonly have. I really liked this approach because I feel like we might never get a proper answer to what our self is. And I think if an author started a book by presenting a strong definition of the self, people might instantly disagree or shy away without giving the point of view serious consideration. But by presenting instead, ideas about what we may not be, he is almost gently guiding us into an open-questioning of the self, without triggering any of our defensive mechanisms. It definitely worked on me because it got me thinking about who I am again.
Tolle believes that our most common mistake is to identify ourselves with our minds. This instantly resonated with me. Only after taking this perspective into consideration did I realize that I often think and act as if I am my mind, just because my mind is so domineering. And I never chose to question it. Now normally I like to focus on things and projects that have a very practical, very tangible purpose. Questioning the self in order to construct similar machines intrigued me, but once I realized how far away we are from this problem being the limiting problem, I put the question aside. But in presenting the tangible issues associated with mind identification, Tolle had my attention again.
When we identify with the mind, we unknowingly create problems for ourselves. Additionally, once we are in a mind-identified state, it is nearly impossible to escape the mind’s control. The thoughts of the mind create a positive feedback loop almost ensuring we will stay in this unconscious, mind-identified state. Obviously, no one wants to create extra problems for themselves, so I was intrigued. If changing how I view my “self” could practically improve my life, then I’m in.
I feel like I’ve toed the line in the past with similar concepts related to mental reframing. While changing the way you see and feel about scenarios may seem very abstract, it has enabled me to take clearer, more productive actions on a day-to-day basis. This is when I first began realizing that what is useful and what is practical isn’t always black and white. Placebos are a great example of this fact. I’ve mentioned before that if I could take placebos in every aspect of my life to improve, then I would. Because why not? This book has helped me realize even more that exploring more abstract concepts and more spiritual practices is (1) interesting (2) forces me to challenge my preconceptions and (3) can be practically useful in my everyday life. Wow.
In college I spent countless hours sitting in philosophy seminars wishing I could bang my head through a wall, and here I am now doing the same thing for fun. My old self would have disowned my current self. But there we are, back to that idea of the self again.
Starting in the second chapter of The Power of Now, Tolle introduces the idea of the “pain-body”. He explains that this is another common misidentification. While it may not logically make sense, sometimes we turn to our issues and our suffering to create our identities. But in doing so, we are creating a very strong connection to our pain, one that may be hard to sever later on. As a result, it almost becomes more scary to part from this suffering-based conception of ourselves, than to let go. So again, how we think about the self is actually affecting practical aspects of our lives.
So, where does this leave us? If we aren’t our minds and we aren’t our suffering then what are we? Who am I?
For my purposes right now, it doesn’t really matter. It’s almost more important for me to make sure that I’m not identifying myself with things that cause me problems. My mind and my ego are definitely the two prominent culprits. So instead of spending a ton of time contemplating what I might be, I just want to find awareness so that I can notice when I think I am something I am not.
Recently, I’ve been focusing on just being present. Being present and accepting what is. I’ve found that just in taking this one step, so much resistance dissolves. I feel much more everyday clarity as well.
I’ve been obsessed with the concept amor fati or loving fate for a while now. I feel like being truly present just takes this to the next level. Not only are we accepting our fate, but we are doing so instantaneously and continuously. Now by no means am I saying that I have this skill mastered, in fact I would say that moments of true presence are a rarity in my days. But their frequency is increasing, and that’s all that matters.