Friday, January 18, 2013

The “I” Conundrum
(To Mickey, Thrice My Brother)

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

The one thing that is truly intriguing to me till now is the question of what the self really is. In my other articles I have touched upon this matter here and there albeit cursorily. The riddle of the self comes back to me again and yet again with a nagging urgency.

Make no mistake about this though. I have no philosophical pretensions nor do I intend to deal about the issue at hand as an authority on the subject. Know that I am but grappling with the problem as an ordinary man who happens to have earnestly studied the writings of a number of thoughtful luminaries whose cast of mind resonates with my own and who made a no-nonsense inquiry into the human makeup. Foremost among them are Jiddu Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley and Ken Wilber whose works on spirituality have exerted a great influence on my own thinking on the subject.

My interest in the deeper aspects of human reality has been fired up by my excursions into esoteric literature. I also have to some extent familiarized myself with some of the world's available sacred writings including those considered as unorthodox or unofficial. Likewise, I am enamored of the wisdom teachings whether of the Western or Eastern traditions. All these have somehow galvanized my inclination to move ahead in the direction of this enigmatic territory. Upon these sources I have drawn some pertinent insights in endeavoring to shed some light, if I could, on the knotty questions I zeroed in.

Let's face it. The identity problem is not anything new. It is really as old as humanity itself. Sages and saints and ordinary folks from different times and climes have wrestled with the puzzle and tried to crack the code of who we really are. The Delphic oracle even made it into an injunction and thus underscoring its utmost importance: "Know Thyself." Socrates echoed it when he pointed out to his fellow Athenians the value of self-knowledge. Its significance for contemporary man however has taken on great proportions as numberless people the world over go through the phenomenon of alienation of various shades--man becoming a question unto himself in spite of his vaunted 'progress' and in the face of his marvelous technology. Already, there is this talk of a 'posthuman' civilization fashioned by artificial intelligence that is purportedly designed to surpass the collective intelligence of present-day humanity. Furthermore, among mankind's countless scourges, the culture of narcissism, which the hard-core secular humanists support by propagating their perverted creed of man's ascent to the status of the ‘superhuman’ independent of God, has brought about horrendous havoc upon the world.

What is this entity that calls itself as 'I'? Will knowing its nature give the knower anything of value? And what is it to 'know' one's true identity? Is it at all possible to do this? How does one go about it? Or are these questions bound to remain open-ended--meaning there is no final answer to this mystery?

In the same vein, what is it in you (and me) that is aware of yourself as 'you' (and myself) as 'me'? Mind you, this personal self-sense in us has persisted ever since a ray of consciousness has dawned in each one of us. In fact, given a normal existence, there never was a time when we lost our own sense of being ourselves, of who we are; that is, when our basic consciousness became aware of the outer as well as inner world.

(I am reminded here of the story my mother used to tell me that as a baby only a few months old I was already a victim of various sorts of illness to the point that she feared for my life saying to herself: "This my son was born into the world but should death snatch him away in no time at all it is as if he had never been born since he did not see the light.”) That light is the light of ordinary consciousness.

This does not mean that consciousness had not permeated and enlivened the baby but that it was still in the unconscious state as in the deep sleep. (Take note that new studies have shown the fact that even while still in the womb babies are already starting to learn, being already sentient and conscient though the thought process is yet inoperative.) The stirrings of our sense of the self begin the moment our ordinary consciousness becomes aware of itself in a reflexive manner as it were. Hence, we say 'I am I.' Or colloquially, 'I'm me.' 'I'm no other than myself.' 'You are you.'

Remember the formula of the law of identity? 'A is A.' A thing is the same as itself. 'Being' means an entity remaining identical with itself so that it is nothing else but itself. In rhetoric this is obviously tautological but that is how dualistic logic goes. Be warned that dialectic discourse won't help us much in our exploration. In fact reason itself poses as a stumbling block in our attempt to understand our ultimate identity. In this we have the testimony of the sage-mystics and rishis. Then, too, talking about the nature of the self necessitates bringing in the big interrelated issues such as the meaning of life and man's relation to God. These are evidently large universal issues which a paper of this length cannot do justice to.

At this point, you might be constrained to say, "So then, why make a fuss of who or what we are when we know ourselves well enough so that we have even learned to take ourselves for granted?" That is just an assumption and precisely that is the shape of the trouble afflicting us. We suffer from what is called as 'snow blindness,’ which prevents us from taking notice of something simply because it has always been there right under our nose. We seldom, if at all, bother to doubt, to question or to take a second look.

Why our self-identity should prove to be problematic may still be unclear. After all, ever since our ordinary waking consciousness got activated, we have always known ourselves to be our usual selves. Moreover, in the normal state of affairs we rest comfortable with that knowledge. That includes our personal history, our name, physical appearance, social relationships, achievements, educational attainment or lack of it, possessions, likes and dislikes, beliefs, aspirations, what we do for a living, socio-cultural conditioning, and so forth.

Our favorite game is to define ourselves in terms of the role we play in society. Accompanied by breast-pounding and desiring recognition and approval, we declare to all and sundry: I am the president, the general, the champion of the masses, the advocate par excellence of reforms in government, a crusader for transparency, a prizewinning writer, a peerless scientist, the richest tycoon hereabouts, a saintly clergyman fit for sainthood, a 'floor manager,' you name it.

Or, haunted by a bad conscience our egoic pendulum swings to self-deprecation; and we say under our breath: I am only an incurable hypocrite or a craven coward or an incorrigible crook or an opportunistic wheeler-dealer or an ingratiating sycophant or a crazy charlatan or a self-righteous bigot or a vengeful, power-hungry and unprincipled politician or a hardened criminal or a usurious money-lender driven solely by cupidity or a philandering husband or a sensual D.O.M. or a foul-smelling, shameless faggot or a despicable A.H. or what have you.

The implication of the foregoing is that an individual can at any one time or at once be any one or two or three or four or five of the characters just enumerated. It is thus a reasonable possibility if not an actuality for a man or woman to have a plurality of personalities or many selves. This idea is apparently preposterous in conflict as it is with the common-sense assumption that an individual has but one self. Yet there are actual cases of individuals with not only split but multiple personalities treated as disorders. A number of authors, too, had explored this condition in stories like that of Dr. Jykll and Mr. Hyde or of Dostoevsky's Golyadkin whose double in a dream multiplied itself numerous times so that it filled the whole town. Apropos of this, let Meister Eckhart have his say: "A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there."

A thinker like the English empiricist David Hume held that there is no metaphysical self that can be conceived by the mind. He advanced the view that humans can have no concept of the self except as the totality or 'bundle of sensations.'  Buddhism, an Oriental religion founded by Gautama Siddharta who lived some five centuries before Christ, likewise maintained a somewhat similar theory that there is no such thing as the transcendental self. Unlike Hume's position, however, which is based on complete reliance upon the evidence of the senses and stopping there, the doctrine of anatta (no-self) which is central to Buddhism rests on a quite different foundation. The ontological status of the personal self as an entity is denied. What is affirmed however is that the mind itself by its very nature and in its pure state has inherent qualities that constitute what it calls the Buddha-Nature or Buddha-Mind, an underlying sacred reality behind the phenomenal personality.

There are many schools of thought in Buddhism concerning the concepts of anatta and Buddha-Nature or Buddha-Mind. There are seven or so major branches of this religion with their own differing viewpoints. In any case, a commonly used metaphor to illustrate the core principle of Buddha-Mind is the sun being covered over by the clouds. The pure state of the Mind is hidden by defilements, which prevent its radiance from shining through.  These incrustations are the sense perceptions including the physical, emotional and mental reactions to them. These extraneous elements engender the sense of selfhood. However, this generated self-sense is an illusion as it is but the invention of thought, and therefore unreal or non-existent. It is the clinging to the false sense of self that accounts for man's entanglement in suffering (dukkha). One has to shed one's blinders or awaken to the Buddha-Nature submerged beneath one's outer shell in order to attain absolute peace and release from Samsara into Nirvana, postulated as a rarefied order of reality that is a far cry from the former. This is supposed to involve the mind reaching the ultimate state of consciousness obtained through rigorous spiritual disciplines like meditation, contemplation, centering prayer and other religious practices.

Which of these perspectives makes sense? Obviously, for all its claim to objectivity, Hume's empirical stance is incomplete and lopsided. It shows us only one end of the pole of reality. As a theory of the nature of the self it leaves the impression that something of great moment is lacking in the naturalistic picture it presents. I would concede a good deal of validity to the Buddhist view of the impermanent as well as illusory nature of the self and therefore its relative non-existence. In the phenomenal world, the self as ego has a factual basis. This cannot be denied. It is from the absolute point of view that it is considered to be non-existent. The Buddha himself, seeing the utter futility of a discursive disquisition on the matter, declined to engage himself in any sort of metaphysical speculation. Instead, he focused his energies on the more practical concerns like finding the causes of human sorrow and ending it.

Personally, I am more inclined to favor the basic tenet taught in Advaita Vedanta. As enunciated in the Upanishads it says: "Tat twam asi." (You Are That.) This sits well with the old Hermetic principle of correspondence contained in the Emerald Tablet, "As above so below, as below so above." In coming to grips with the meaning of the former proposition, it is imperative to comprehend the meaning of the abstract term 'essence' not only in its philosophical but more so in its spiritual sense. This word is a derivative of the verb 'to be,' with  its present form third person singular 'is,' present form first person singular 'Am,' present form second person singular and plural 'Are' and its gerundial form, 'being,' In its simplest denotation, essence refers to the core elements or central attributes that constitute what a thing is.

It should also be borne in mind that 'You Are That' is neither a simple logical proposition nor a mental construct. It is rather a statement, which is the product of original spiritual intuition revealed in the deepest (or highest) level of the consciousness of many seers and mystic-sages across the ages. The sage or saint has come to the realization that in essence the spark is no different from the blaze although to a lesser degree, in much the same way that the ripple is not separate from the pool. Again, this realization comes not as a mere intellectual conclusion but as an experiential event that does not easily lend itself to verbalization.

If 'I Am That,' it follows that there is something in me that is greater than what I have always known as my shoddy little self. One inexorable certainty is that this self, which in psychology is known as the 'ego,' is bound to die. It is just 'dust in the wind.' My deepest essence, my real identity, however, lies beyond the field of time. The personality, the ego or 'lower self' as it is called in philosophia perennis, is evanescent even as the dew on the grass is. But what I really am, which is labeled as the Higher Self or simply the Self with the capital 'S,' is eternal. Among the Hindus it is referred to as the Atman, which is equivalent to Brahman, the Ground of Being, the Godhead. In the ‘Crest-Jewel of Wisdom’ Shankara wrote: “As being essentially pure consciousness, the oneness between the Real and the Self is known by the awakened; and by hundreds of great texts the oneness, the absence of separateness, between the Eternal and the Self is declared.”

In that light, everyone has a dual nature: a Divine spark emanating from the Eternal flame and a mortal frame kneaded from out of the muck. As Goethe put it, "Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast, and each will wrestle for the mastery there." The battle between these two warring elements or forces, which is played out in the heart of man as the battleground, makes up the sublime story of his sojourn on earth. It may be said that his greatest triumph or his crowning glory is self-transcendence, that is, when he succeeds in rising above himself like the way a lotus flower shoots itself up from the mud onto the pond’s surface and there display its splendor. For man’s worst enemy is himself; and he is a great conqueror indeed who masters himself way beyond his natural human limitations and proclivities.

So then, to be born a human being is both at once a challenge and a privilege. The psalmist sang: "When I look at the heavens and the work of thy hands, what is man that thou shouldst take thought of him or the son of man that thou shouldst care for him? Thou hast made him a little less than the angels...." Or here is Hamlet  musing: "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals...." Well, whatever else is predicated of man, one thing remains true about him; and it is the fact that he is a work in progress, not a finished project. This is not to say that he lacks anything for his full functioning but that he needs to 'realize,' or better yet 'actualize,' the latent Divine heritage that is already his all along. Unlike the angels who remain as such, humans can make their way to being one with God in direct communion.

And yes, considering his state as an evolving being he must fully understand what sound reasoning dictates, and it is that whatever has a beginning must end; that which has no beginning has no end. What is born must die. That is the immutable law of nature. But what is unborn or unmanifested is undying, right? This particular personality had a beginning in time and therefore must end in time. But that entity, whose consciousness is aware of itself as 'I am' but can step back from the personality and look at it as an observer, has no beginning and is therefore timeless, eternal. This is the abiding 'watcher' in us that has ever been continuously mindful of our identity as ‘I am.' "Before Abraham was, I am," Christ said. This 'I am,' this silent 'I'-Witness is our original nature long before our parents and forebears were born or even before the physical universe came into existence. This is our true, authentic self--our Self. Truly, more than anything else we are spiritual beings whose true substance is Divine. You and I should thus break through the bounds of selfhood and constantly live or abide in the infinite consciousness of 'I am' that I am.  Notice that the Divine Being who identified Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai as "I Am Who I Am" gave expression to His statement in the eternal present, in the timeless now.

Now, this eternal 'I am,' this Self that is the essence of our individuality can assume countless forms or outer masks ('persona' in Greek). Just as a stage actor can impersonate many characters on stage without in any way losing the sense of his own original identity, so does the Self, without ceasing to be itself, take on the many vestures of the human being who goes through rounds upon rounds of multifarious experience of life on this plane of manifestation.

The root cause of man's estrangement from himself and from his fellows is his total identification with his lower self, his ego that is basically separative and prone to aggression. In other words, he absolutizes the relative. For him all that he is consists of everything that is connected to and forms his personality. He fails to realize the fact that what he customarily takes to be himself is in point of fact not his true Self at all. This is a patent case of mistaken identity, an all too common human delusion. He mistakes his ego or his outer form for his authentic Self. He needs to wake up to the truth that everything he identifies with is in actual fact not who he really is. This point has been especially stressed by the Buddhists by insisting 'Neti, Neti,' or 'Not This, Not That.' When we have completely 'dis-identified' ourselves with everything which we are not, then we are inevitably left with--nothing. That, truly, is what we are in our deepest being. We are literally 'no-thing,' that is, nothing that can fall under the category of things perceived or conceived or fancied or verbally pinned down. By the way, this is not a mere play on words. This is what is the case.

It is quite unfortunate that the ordinary run of mortals is not aware that in fact they are of God--not theoretically but actually. In the Holy Scriptures it is written: "What? Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" To know in the spiritual sense is not like grasping by the subject the object of knowledge. To know something metaphysically is to be that thing in a kind of direct, inner sense and not an intellectual exercise. Meister Eckhart said, "The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God as if he stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge." And how can one know the Divinity in oneself when it eludes conceptual thinking itself which is our accustomed instrument of knowledge? The lad’s pool in St. Augustine's legend cannot understandably contain the ocean. As Lao Tzu mystically put it, "The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name." This is so because the Ultimate Reality is indefinable, not lending itself to the mental operations of definition, classification or analysis. Thus, to somehow comprehend, if at all, the Godhead the negative way (via negativa) is resorted to. In the Jewish Kabbalah, for instance, the Godhead is called as 'Ein Sof,' meaning 'end-less' or the 'In-finite.' Being bound-less, Ein Sof pervades everything so that "there is nothing outside of it."

Actually, the attempt to know God has been likened to a sword trying to cut itself or to the eye trying to see itself or a hand trying to grasp itself. In other words, the 'I' as subject can never turn itself into an object, or else it ceases being a subject. The seer cannot be the seen any more than the seen can be the seer. So, it is a settled fact that the subject cannot by any means reduce itself into an object of knowledge. Doing so is the workings of the dualistic mind and ends up in utter failure. That is why we have said early on that 'dialectical reason' cannot carry us very far in unlocking this ineffable mystery. In Zen the cerebral aspect of the mind is brought to the end of its tether and rendered futile with 'koans.' Try this: "In clapping both hands, a sound is heard. What is the sound of the one hand?" Or "Pick up a stone from the bottom of the sea without getting wet." Or "Walk from downtown Naga to Mt. Isarog in three steps." You say, "Impossible! A dead end!" That's it.

When the mind has completely gone haywire, or rather, when it has ceased its compulsive, endless chatter and is utterly still, in the heart of that deep silence the moment of pure seeing, of illumination, takes place so that the duality is snapped; and the seer and the seen at last become united as one. This is the coincidence of opposites, the split between subject and object transcended. In the words of Krishnamurti, "The observer is the observed." This is the moment of unitive vision beyond conceptual thought 'when the seer is absorbed into the seen.' To use the traditional metaphor in this instance, the wave is merged into the ocean, though not vice versa. The Divine essence of the individual or the Self remains and finds its true home in the Absolute. As the mind recoils in utter helplessness before the awesome riddle of God's existence and our own; and when the lesser self finally dies to itself, it is then that one's spiritual intuition begins to quicken so that the Atman within, which is none other than the Brahman, is unveiled. This is what the Holy Scriptures must mean by the second birth or being born anew--the inner metamorphosis of the dense human substance into a luminous spiritual being. This involves coming to a higher level of consciousness and heightened awareness thereby raising the individual’s own level of being or spiritual evolution. In ancient alchemy, it is the transmutation of base metal into gold--the so-called Philosopher's Stone. In the legends of Christendom, there is the quest for the Holy Grail that in recent years has become a favorite theme of Hollywood.

While hearing the Holy Mass at the ancient Naga Cathedral, we intoned the responsorial psalm which says, "Cagurangnan, ipahiling mo samo an saimong lalaogon." (Lord, allow us to see your face.) It struck me as an expression of simple faith, but at the same time triggered a series of questions such as, "What is it to see God's face?" "Is God's visage the same as ours?" "Is the act of 'seeing' to be done through our physical eyes?" "Doesn't this amount to anthropomorphizing God, reducing God in our image?"

The truth is that the whole business is not really that simple. For one thing, many of us know only how to look but not how to see. Christ said He taught the people in parables because "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear. Neither do they understand." Why so? Because we cannot help but distort what we see. No sooner do we see than thought takes over. The thought process of interpretation or reflection instantly follows the moment of vision, or seeing, and at this point clarity is impaired. For another, God the Supreme Being, is spirit and thus can only be seen through the eye of spirit in us. Matters spiritual cannot be fully understood on the purely intellectual level. It is in this sense that Meister Eckhart said, "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love." One spiritual consciousness, that is.

It becomes thoroughly plain therefore that the whole purpose of man's life is to awaken to his Divine descent by going within, right into the depths of his being, and there in a superconscious state arrive at a unitive knowledge of God. When Siddharta was asked who he was, he denied all the ascriptions to him but for the one thing that matters. He said that he was one who had 'awakened.' This is the meaning of the epithet attached to him. 'Buddha' means 'the Enlightened One or the One Who Knows.' He attained 'Nirvana' after sitting in meditation for forty-nine days under the bodhi tree. In the same  breath, Jesus Christ pointed out one accessible and unmediated way to immortality when he told the superficial Pharisees that the 'Kingdom of Heaven' can be found neither in the air nor in the sea. If it were so, then the birds or the fish will be the first ones to get there. Rather, He said, "The kingdom of God is within you." Similarly, He said in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, "The Kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you ... will understand that you are children of the living Father."

This is what enlightenment is, this is perfect wisdom--a rediscovery of what the human person has relegated into oblivion: his real Self. This is man redeeming what he has forfeited as his birthright, transforming his humanhood into his true essence that from the start has always been there--the Spirit that breathes life into his soul and animates his carnal body. This is man coming home. Note that the supreme act of awakening spiritually is preceded by being in the thralldom of darkness, which is the darkness of ignorance. In the esoteric teachings of Gurdjieff this ignorance is likened to being 'asleep,' the unfortunate condition most human beings are locked in until some shock wakes them up.

There is this utterance in Bicol that says, thus; "An dai tataong comeleng sa pinaghalean, dai macacaabot sa padodomanan." Its Filipino version reads: "Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan." If one ponders carefully enough the significance of this text, one cannot fail to discern the hidden wisdom behind the words.

Why can't he, who cannot call back to mind whence he came, reach where he is going? Isn't it because the place of origin and the destination are one and the same? If, to begin with, I cannot recall where I came from, how can I possibly tell where I am going to? Remembering is thus the precondition of his arrival. Keeping in mind from moment to moment that we came from God, that we live and move and have our being in God, serves as a sort of spiritual compass steering our course back to our Source. (Incidentally, 'self-remembering' is a key technique in Gurdjieff's system. It is a function of consciousness that serves as an antidote to our tendency to be inattentive or unaware. Self-remembering draws us back into our own presence, into the conscious awareness of 'I am.')

Moreover, this popular proverb, to my mind, captures the primal movement of man's beginning and final end, his alpha and omega as charted in the literature of the Ancient Wisdom. Graphically, this involves the twofold processes of involution or the infolding of Spirit in matter, and then evolution, the continual unfolding of Spirit immanent within matter. The latter is a transcendent return journey of the soul back to God. In Dante's vision of man's supreme experience, the soul is symbolized by a butterfly that "flies to judgment, naked and alone." This echoes Plotinus' description of the mystical process as "the flight of the Alone to the Alone."

It bears repeating, at the risk of tediousness, that in this life an individual's paramount duty is to remember (re-member or to join again), to be consciously aware of his Divine Source and work out his supernal destiny.  Christ told His disciples to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all their other needs will be given to them as well. This is a call to the heights -- and to this we ought to respond of our own accord; and with God’s grace the door will be opened. In Catholicism, it is called as Salvation, or better yet, beatific vision; in mysticism, cosmic consciousness; in Oriental lore, samadhi. In the end these terms do not really matter. They are but labels that point to the apex of man’s ultimate experience.

Truth to tell, there is no such thing as the common man in the street or the hoi polloi as they are derogatorily dubbed. In fact everyone, just as he or she is, has been richly endowed right from the beginning. "All perfection of which the outer man is capable," wrote Sri Aurobindo, "is only a realizing of the eternal perfection of the Spirit within him." For this reason, if for nothing else, every human being is precious and sacred. This faith in human perfection and perfectibility is professed by the inner schools of the world's major religions. Yet as far too many of us have gone astray like the Prodigal Son that we are, being born anew as an illumined individual has become the rare privilege of a few. Christ said, "… narrow is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads unto life, and few there be that find it."

That in broad strokes, if a bit oversimplified, is what you and I are cut out for. We are all pilgrims en route to the Promised Land in pursuit of our vision of eternity. It cannot be overemphasized that our eventual redemption as enlightened individuals lies in our hands, that is, in our own ability to rediscover the living Divine Presence lodged in the inmost core of our heart. For, as Ramana Maharshi assures us, that is where our true identity, the real 'I,' resides. Not, of course, the physical heart but heart as the spiritual center of our being.

In winding up, let us take it once again from Shankara: “Raising the thought of 'I' from the body to the Self that is Consciousness, Being, Bliss, and lodging it there, leave form, and become pure forever.”

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