Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Concept of ‘I’

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(Edited from a post to the Alan Watts List Sept 1999.)

Regarding the anthropocentric view of the universe, you cannot deny that there does seem to be a progression of awareness and intelligence in the world around us, from minerals to plants to animals to man. E. F. Schumacher describes this excellently in his ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’.

Minerals are dead matter. Plants = minerals + a new characteristic called ‘life’. Animals = plants + another new characteristic called ‘consciousness’. Man goes yet another quantum leap forward with a further characteristic called ‘self-awareness’.

So, assuming ‘reality’ has all of these properties (perhaps + something else?), then it cannot be denied that we are closer than the other inhabitants. I agree entirely with all of the comments about our wanting to believe such stuff but, just as it is not necessarily true because it is comforting, it is not necessarily false either!

It was said at one point that, if the Ultimate Reality is not anthropomorphic then it cannot possess an ‘I’, since this is the most anthropomorphic conception of all. There are several aspects of this that I do not follow. From a purely logical point of view (I don’t actually subscribe to these views as noted) ‘I’ cannot be an object (by definition). I am always the subject. Thus, since we have the concept ‘I’ and since reality must have at least equivalent properties, surely reality must also have this concept. Having said that, however, I would maintain that ‘I’ is not really a concept anyway.

It was also said that ‘I’ is a convenient shorthand word to refer to all of the intimately inter-related properties which make up ‘me’ – memory, hair, fingernails etc. I suggest that in fact ‘I’ is the exact opposite of this! Rather than constituting all of these things, it is none of them. I agree that we use it in this way colloquially but reflect for a moment. I know that ‘I’ have always existed for the duration of the lifetime of this body. This feeling ‘I’ is unchanged despite the fact that the body has multiplied in weight dramatically since birth, changed all of its cells many times – I cannot be this body. What is my (colloquial) mind but the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, memories, etc. – which have changed drastically and continue to change? I cannot be the mind. All of the ‘properties, functions, qualities’ that might be said to make up ‘I’ are merely ways in which I limit myself by attaching to some aspect of this body-mind entity.

I agree that part of the problem lies in thinking that the word must be ‘a thing in itself’. It is not a ‘thing’ at all. Its everyday usage is another part of the problem. In using it to refer to one or more or all of these properties, we are really talking about the ego, which does not exist at all. It is only one of those temporary attachments that limit our true nature. The ‘real’ I is pure unattached awareness, singular and without limiting properties. As it was put it so well: - “I think this is not beyond any of us. In fact, I think such awareness is very close, much more real and immediate than any thoughts of who we think we are, what role we think we must inhabit”. As was said again – what an excellent metaphor – “by scraping off the paintings of reality on the window of our minds we may just possibly see something worth seeing, perhaps be something worth being”.

The trouble is we (the person) are continually looking outside of ourselves for a justification for our existence, a ‘meaning’ for our petty lives. This is all pointless. The ‘person’ is a fiction, a ‘mask’ as Watts points out, the megaphone through which the actor projects his voice in the role he plays. Moreover, he exists for but an instant. The truth is found not by looking to the world, searching for happiness in external objects, but by looking inwards to find the real ‘I’ behind and beyond all of this. As Death says in the Kathopanishad: -

“God made sense turn outward, man therefore looks outward, not into himself. Now and again a daring soul, desiring immortality, has looked back and found himself.
The ignorant man runs after pleasure, sinks into the entanglements of death; but the wise man, seeking the undying, does not run among things that die.
He through whom we see, taste, smell, feel, hear, enjoy, knows everything. He is that Self.
The wise man by meditating upon the self-dependent, all-pervading Self, understands waking and sleeping and goes beyond sorrow.”

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