Who am I?
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 23 December 2022

section 2
the surface personality

This is the second in a series of four sections.
If you haven't read the previous section, you may like to read that first

As the story of our little ”I“ unfolds, from day to day, from minute to minute, second to second, we identify with an endless, and often pretty wild stream of different things and processes. What are these? And is there something behind all these different surface identifications? Is there somewhere in us a permanent core, something that we are in the very essence of our being? This innermost essence is, obviously, not easy to find. In fact, unless one is exceedingly lucky, it tends to take considerable personal effort to get anywhere near to it, and so we will not start with this. We will look first a little more closely at those things that are more easily visible, things that occur in our ordinary waking consciousness or at most just below it. There is little "Indian" about this part of psychology except the approach: we'll use this first exploration to get into the habit of checking things out against our own experience. So: answering the questions that pop-up when you click the "Show Questions" button at the top right is recommended.

Our name

The first thing that comes up when someone asks us who we are may quite well be our name. Outside the sphere of psychology, in law for example, our name and address tends to be all that is meant with our ”identity“. In this sense, names belong entirely to the sphere of social conventions, and have little or no deeper truth behind them. Psychologically, however, names are rarely entirely without meaning or connotations.

In modern times, the names of people tend to consist of two parts: a surname and a first or ”given“ name. The surname generally indicates the family in which one grows up, and with that, also the country, region, religion or social group to which that family ”belongs“. Dependent on the status of that family in society, our surname can bestow all kind of privileges, or, of course, the lack of them. .

The second part of a modern name tends to consist of one or more individual, or ”given“ names. As already indicated, they also tend to be typical for the type of family in which we're born; think of religion, language, and often more subtle things besides. They can be arbitrary, but more often they are in some way descriptive or even prescriptive: they often involve some hope or aspiration. Parents (or other community elders) often endow the child with the name of a relative or a mythological, religious or historical figure whose nature they hope this child will emulate. In many religious communities, such a name with a clear ”message“ is given at the time when a person consciously enters the group. It indicates then some kind of new birth.

Besides these more or less official names, many people also have pseudonyms, informal aliases or pet names, often again indicating some real or imagined characteristic.

In some occult traditions, it is believed that people have besides these socially constructed names, also a true name. In such traditions, it is then an important part of one's inner growth to find that true name. For most of us, however, the names we have are no more than rather arbitrary attributes: they may say something about who we are, or want to be, but they are not all-encompassing, and they may have little, if anything, to do with our essence. As Shakespeare said, ”A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Outer appearance

The next thing that may come up is your outer appearance, as that is how other people see you, at least in first instance, and very few people are entirely unaffected by what other people think about them. Your "looks" determine to quite an extent how other people perceive and approach you the first time you meet, and these first impressions tend to linger long afterwards. Accordingly, most people put some effort into how they look, even if only "to show they dont care how they look".

And yet, we all know people who turned out to be quite different from the first impressions we had of them. Looks are often deceptive. Interestingly whether we look the way we are, or entirely different, it would be wrong to say that we are our "looks". If our appearance would change suddenly due to some disease or accident for example, or because we changed it ourselves, this might make some difference to how we feel about ourselves, but we would still be largely the same person.

Like our appearance, there are many other things that have some importance to how we feel about "ourselves", while they still are not what we really are. We'll discuss a few of them.


Another thing with which we tend to identify to an amazing degree, even though they are clearly not part of our essence, are our possessions. The relations we have to our possessions are rather complex. Our possessions are not just the things we are entitled to use, we also look after them, and they tend to become in some strange and complex way extensions of whom we are, or seem to be. Others tend to judge us by the possessions we have. Wealth tends to be taken as a sign of power and capacity; poverty of the opposite, and the type of things we own says something about our taste, and thus about our culture and the type of person we are.

It is good to realise that there are (or perhaps I should say, there have been) societies where there was no private ownerships, or at least much less than in our modern society.2 And even in societies were private ownership has played a major role since a long time, its character has changed dramatically over the last hundred years. There was, for example, a time not that long ago, when most things people owned lasted longer than their owners. In other words, the things people owned were passed on from one generation to the next, and ownership involved some kind of temporary stewardship: people looked after the things that belonged to them for as long as these things were with them. It is not hard to see that modern consumerism has changed our relationship to "things" dramatically.

Our possessions not only give us a real or imagined sense of safety, comfort and the power to do what we want to do, they also say something about us, about our taste, our competence, our life's choices and achievements. In other words, to some extent, they define us both to ourselves, and to others.

Group-membership and social roles

Group-memberships play a very major role in human life. Groups like nationality, race, religion, class, profession, caste, and family, offer individuals a sense of belonging and shared identity. Groups are, besides, the carriers of a valuable variety in terms of linguistic, artistic and cultural expression.

The upcoming global civilisation is strongly individualistic and people are increasingly aware of the dangers of group-membership. It begins, however, innocently enough. It may happen, for example, that people who are themselves not very clear about how this hugely complex world works, find it hard to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. Having little confidence in their own opinions and decisions, they may prefer to leave those difficult issues to other members of the groups they belong to. More opportunistically, individuals who find little to be proud of in themselves, can derive a positive identity from the more successful members of such groups: A hardened couch-potato, who has difficulty getting up from his sofa to fetch something from the fridge, may still feel proud when one of his countrymen has reached the South Pole or climbed the Mount Everest. In other words, if one feels insecure as an individual, then group-membership can offer some kind of borrowed sense of identity, direction, strength and value.

This kind of shared pride is still comparatively innocent and it is encouraged in most groups, big and small. It is seen in countries as well as in families. Where the trouble starts, is when groups offer their members specific privileges, and things can easily become ugly when groups offer protection against the members of other groups. The ability of groups to provide their members with clarity and a sense of purpose and belonging degenerates then into a kind of collective egoism that ends with the feeling of ”us against them.“ At its worst, individuals belonging to one group feel justified in attacking individuals belonging to another group for things done by other members of that other group. Unfortunately, the tendency of people to gang up in groups against other groups is deeply engrained in human nature, and, long after an individual's mind may be convinced of its irrationality and harmfulness, he may still find it exceedingly difficult to avoid it completely in his feelings and behaviour. History shows that our collective egoisms are even more primitive and destructive than our individual egoisms, and they have been the source of much pain and suffering.

We'll come back to all this later. Here our main concern is the relatively simple question whether the study of our group-memberships can take us any closer to our real identity. There is no single, simple answer to this question. One of the reasons is that different cultures deal with group-membership in different ways. We have detailed this out a little further in the next section of this chapter dealing with the shifting borders of the self. Another reason is that there are two rather different types of groups. The first type consists of groups, like clubs and societies, which are easy to join and easier to leave. Though our membership in these can temporarily make us proud or ashamed, they are temporary and as such it is quite clear they cannot be considered part of our essential identity. There are, however, also groups of a more permanent type, like for example the groups into which we are born and which stay with us throughout life: nationality, regional sub-cultures, religion, language, caste, family, .... Group-memberships of this second type tend to leave permanent marks that are difficult to erase even if one wants to.

Still, even if we identify strongly with any of the groups into which we are born, they cannot give us our complete identity, because even within rather homogeneous groups, the members are never fully identical. One of the most obvious areas where our uniqueness shows, lies in fact, in the specific roles we play within the various groups to which we ”belong“. Within such groups, we tend to identify not only with the group as a whole, but also with the specific positions we occupy and the roles we play within them. In the traditional societies of the past, many of these roles and positions were more or less permanently fixed within the relatively stable social fabric of those days. The fixity of these roles and social positions has now become much less, but their importance has not. We still expect different behaviour from a parent, a teacher, a policeman, than from a child, a student or an artist, and for most people their role in the family and the society is still an important element of their ”social identity“. People tend to take their roles and positions seriously and often go through a major, existential crisis when their roles change, for example after a promotion, or the loss of a job. People typically have many complex roles, and their intersections provide patterns that are even more complex.

As with simple group-memberships, we can expect some of our roles to be largely incidental and of little consequence, while others may come closer to being an expression of our real identity. We'll come back to the latter when we take up the intriguing concept of our svadharma. But whatever this may be, groups and roles, however important they may be to us, still do not say everything about who we are: when we look on a lazy Sunday morning out of the window and gaze at the passing clouds, have we no identity? Who are we then?


As we have seen in our discussion of names, possessions, groups and roles, others tend to play a major role in our lives. Humans are social creatures and only few amongst us are predominantly ”on our own“.

Most of us continue to relate to others in our thoughts and feelings long after we have parted physically. It is thus not surprising that humans tend to experience and define themselves not only in terms of their group-memberships and roles but also, and often more strongly, in terms of their relationships.

For many of us, relationships with other people are our most important relationships, but we also have relationships, and often pretty serious and intimate ones, with pets and things, with work, with our environment, and ultimately with the Divine and ourselves. It is as if, in every aspect of life, we have been made incomplete and are constantly in search of the missing part. According to the Ṛg Veda this is the case since the very beginning of time: Brahman, it says, manifested the world out of himself because he wanted to experience an ”otherness of self“. And from the looks of it, his experiment is still going on: while some people feel that, on a deep essential level, they are one with everybody and everything, most of us sense others and the world very much as ”other“, as separate from ourselves. In some sense, many of us even feel even our own nature to be part of that otherness: we feel lost in our outer nature and yearn to reunite with a deeper source inside ourselves.

If you want to get some idea of the roles relationships play in your life right now, you may like to do the assignment in the side-block.

Our sense of our own identity can shift considerably from one relation to the other. Much of this depends on the roles and group-memberships that are part of the relationship: we not only behave differently but we also feel different in the role of father or of son, of mother or daughter; in the role of teacher or of student; when we are with people of the same gender or the opposite; with colleagues or with family; with someone who is generous and encouraging, or with someone who is conduce and disparaging; and so on and on.

As said, we have not only relationships with other people but also with work, with things, with nature, with the world as a whole, with the Divine, and, yes, even with ourselves. We will come back to relationships later, after we have developed some more insight in other aspects of the individual.


1.   There is good scientific evidence for the degree to which the response to written job applications depends on the associations people have with the names under which they are submitted. Here is a more casual article about three men called "Jihad".

2.   There is an old and politically incorrect, but still rather cute and highly recommended movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy"". Part 1 is about the amazing effect on a small (imaginary) community of Pigmies in South Africa, when an empty coca-cola bottle is dropped casually in their midst from a small overflying aeroplane.