Who am I?

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 01 March 2024

section 1
a first look inside

Introduction: Psychology as knowledge of the self

1. Before you start reading, describe the reason why you have taken up the study of psychology, and in particular this approach to it. What do you expect from it?

You will see that if you make it a habit to ask yourself such questions and journal the answers, your life deepens and becomes more satisfying.

In the Indian tradition, knowledge of the Self was considered the one true knowledge, vidyā. The ancient Indian seers described it as the knowledge "that makes everything known". They also found that it goes together with a special type of unconditonal and inexhaustible joy and sense of immortality.1 Without it, all other knowledge was said to be partial knowledge or ignorance, avidyā. The ancient Greeks had basically come to the same conclusion. “Gnooti Seauton”, know thyself, is said to have been inscribed above their most sacred institution, the oracle of Delphi, and above the entry to the Academy of Plato, their most famous philosopher. The knowledge of our own self has thus a rather distinguished history: It has always been considered the most important knowledge, the type of knowledge that is linked to wisdom.

Even if we don't have such lofty aspirations, the priority of knowledge of oneself also holds in a much more simple and pragmatic sense. Everything we know, we know in our own consciousness and through our own "inner instruments of knowledge", antaḥkaraṇa, so, as long as we don't know ourselves, we can never know how reliable our other knowledge is, or for what we should use it. This is especially true for psychological knowledge, but even when all we want to know is the social or physical outside world, it is still crucial to know ourselves first.

In modern times the need to know ourselves seems almost forgotten, but given the tremendous technical powers modernity has put at our disposal and the increasing fluidity of social norms, knowledge of the self may now be needed more than ever before.

There are many questions that go together with the question about the nature of our self: What has made me the way I am? Why are we all different? How do I know what I know? Is what I see really there the way I see it? What is the origin and meaning of my emotions and feelings? Why do I act and feel and think, the way I do? Why have I come into being? What is the purpose of my life? Is there something unique about myself? What is “right action”? What is right action for me? Can I change myself, and if so, how do I do it? How am I related to others, to the world, to God (if there is anything like that)? Why is there suffering? Can I do anything about it? Do others work the same way I do? Can I help others, and if so, how?

An intriguing aspect of psychology is how closely all these questions are related: one cannot fully answer any of them without having at least some elementary idea about the others. In Indian approaches to psychology, everything — even what happens in our most ordinary day-to-day lives — is seen in relation to something eternal, something infinite, something unchanging, ever-blissful beyond it, and it is knowing that which is meant with knowledge of the Self, vidya. In our modern times we're sceptical about such things, probably because we have heard too many people talk about them with too much of religious hypocrisy, but there can be little doubt that these ideas have their foundation in a concrete direct experience. The interesting point here is that this experience is not out of reach even now. But we'll come back to this later. The reason not to tackle it immediately is that for most of us getting there is not particularly easy. There are many things that stand in the way, and though there are also a few things that can help, they take time to develop. So for now we'll have to simply accept the fact that the most ancient and most highly regarded Indian scriptures, the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads took the existence of this Infinite for granted. They used it to explain not only human nature but also everything else in the universe, and they had as their central objective to show how we can reach it and make it active in our own individual lives. In this text we will start from both ends simultaneously. We'll provide a map of the territory as a whole, and then we'll start climbing from below. We'll see how we as citizens of an increasingly materialistic global civilization actually live and think, and then, from there, we'll try develop the deeper understanding of reality that is needed to develop the more sophisticated psychology the ancients had. Through it all, we'll focus on how psychology at any level can make us function better, think, feel, be and act more wisely, happily, and harmoniously, both individually and socially.

As the essential oneness between our individual consciousness and the consciousness that manifests the universe out of itself is such a central theme in the Indian tradition, we started this text with an Introduction explaining the underlying philosophy, but now it is time to look from this Indian consciousness-centred perspective at four very basic, and seemingly simple psychological questions -- who am I, what is knowledge, what makes me be and act the way I do, and finally, who is the other. For each of these questions we will see whether there are to them only the relative, pragmatic answers that mainstream science has focussed on, or whether there might be, as the Indian tradition asserts, also a possibility of taking them further, towards their ultimate resolution in the Infinite, where they can lead us to a greater truth, perfection, beauty, and unconditional love and delight. Though this amounts to a rather steep climb for an introductory textbook on Psychology, we do need to go to the very top if we want to develop the right perspective to look at all the other, more common questions of psychology. The reason for this is that in Integral Indian Psychology, the parts are always understood in relation to the whole to which they belong2 and in Indian psychology, all our common questions about personality, development, cognition, motivation, relationships, and change, all find their ultimate meaning in relation to the Absolute at the core of our existence. Even if we don't know that Absolute as yet in our personal experience, it is useful to know at least the basic lay of the land, so that, if in due time some of these higher realisations do come, we’ll have at least some idea of how they hang together and how they relate to the rest of our world.

What is our "I"? A first exploration

In the next chapter, we will describe the conceptual map Sri Aurobindo created of "The Self and the structure of our personality" and we'll use the understanding this gives us to arrive at a more precise answer to the central, underlying question, “Who am I?” In the process, we'll touch upon many other issues of which we will fill in the details in later chapters.

Here in this chapter we'll begin the journey on a much simpler level. We will try to find out what the centre of our identity is in our ordinary waking consciousness. What is this “I” that stands there with so much conviction at the centre of our world?

If we watch ourselves even for just a few minutes, it becomes immediately clear that this “I” that we take in normal life so easily for granted is actually a highly elusive entity that is embarrassingly difficult to describe or define with any degree of precision. The better we look at it, the clearer it becomes that the borders of our self are not only hazy, but constantly shifting.3 Science tells us that even our body, which appears comparatively well defined and fairly stable over time, actually consists of a constant flux of changing cells, and in the few cells that last our entire life-time, the individual atoms still change over time. The subjective aspects of our nature are still more in a flux. To make things more complicated, much of the time, the borders of our “I” stretch far beyond the borders of our body. If I watch an international sports event, for example, I’m happy when “my country” wins and sad when it loses, so apparently I identify with the country to which I belong. When issues of “the global environment” arise, I may even identify with humanity as a species, or with the earth that sustains us. But when there is a local football match, I suddenly shrink and identify with my city’s club. When my family has a quarrel with our neighbours, I’m likely to identify with my family, and within that family I may side with “the adults” or “the children”. The groups that we identify with are, moreover, not always concentric; they can cross each other in many unexpected ways. When there is a discussion about male aggression or the inconsistencies of feminism, I find myself suddenly thrown back to my identity as a man or a woman, and when the question of age arises, I may become aware of “my” generation.

2. List some external things and groups you identify with. Are you happy and proud of these identifications? the opposite? indifferent?

To make things more complicated, my identity is not only determined by the different groups of which I am a member, but also by the specific role I play within these groups. When I talk to the neighbours, I may simply be seen as a representative of my family, but when I talk to my father, I am approaching him as his son or daughter, while when I talk to my children I am their father or mother. And it is not only groups and roles that we identify with. Almost everybody identifies at times with his or her social company or possessions. You may feel proud when passers by look admiringly at the car you drive, the clothes you wear, or the company you’re with. Most of all, we identify with our actions, whether while doing them or afterwards: we tend to feel satisfied or disturbed according to how well they have worked out.

How you feel about yourself may not say much about how you actually are. In fact it is sometimes quite the opposite: someone who is more industrious than average, may still think of himself as lazy (because he does less than he thinks he should). At the same time, someone who is seriously lazy may think he works quite hard (compared to what he would like to do). We’ll come back to such differences when we study self-observation.

More inwardly we tend to identify with our thoughts, our feelings and even our body. When I say “Shankara was one of the world’s greatest philosophers”, it is me who is thinking this, and I feel perturbed if someone dares to disagree. When I say “I love you”, I’m identifying with the feelings of my heart, and when I say “I’m full of energy”, it is my body that I identify with. Of course, things are, as always in psychology, more complicated than they appear in first instance. Within one level, I differentiate sometimes between a “central I” and things that happen more at the periphery: I can complain about pain in my ankle, somewhat like a Roman emperor complaining about unrest in Jerusalem. We can also jump very quickly between different aspects and parts of ourselves. When I say, “I feel lazy, but I should go back to work”, the centre of my motivation seems to shift halfway the sentence from the physical and emotional part of my being to a duty-conscious part of my mind. I can even acknowledge two parts of myself at the same time, for example when I say, “I’m physically tired, but mentally fresh”.

To make things still more complicated, the identification of our “I” with our own inner processes is not a simple, on/off phenomenon: There are degrees of identification and I do not always fully identify with the inner states and movements I focus on. I can take, for example, some distance from my own thoughts, and say “Hey, this is interesting, I think that Shankara is great, while you don’t. How come?” This possibility to detach the centre of our consciousness from our own mental processes is an essential element of many approaches to yoga, and, as we will see later, it offers not only a way to go through life with more peace and happiness, but it offers also one of the most fruitful avenues towards deeper and more reliable psychological knowledge. Other interesting possibilities, which the Indian tradition has explored in depth, turn up at the very extremes. It is claimed that through yogic practice one can, for example, exclude at will all content from our consciousness, arriving at a state of pure, transcendent “emptiness”, or, on the other hand, of not excluding anything at all, widening ourselves into a state of all-inclusive “cosmic consciousness”. To these special conditions we’ll come back at the end of this chapter and at several other places in this text, but before we get there, it will be useful to explore first in some more detail what this elusive, but still all-important centre of our individual world is in the more ordinary states of consciousness that most of us will be more familiar with.

So, how are we going to study ourselves in more detail?

3. Over the following days, try to note the different things you identify with. Which identifications occur most often? Are there some that strike you as somewhat peculiar or superfluous? Are there others that you fully stand for?

Theoretically one might think that the solution would be to go first to the centre: After all, only from the centre one can see both the surface and all the intermediate layers clearly and without distortions. In practice, however, this does not work. Nature does not allow it: one needs to do considerable cleaning up of the surface layers before one can effectively and safely enter the deeper realms.

If one forces one’s access to the depths too early — for example through drugs or strenuous, de-contextualised meditation methods — there is the danger of psychological derailments. In the West, these have become known as “spiritual emergencies”. In India they are guarded against by the insistence on a long period of apprenticeship. The traditional way of “doing yoga” is not so much through explicit teaching and the practice of artificial methods, as by simply living in a guru’s household, imbibing the higher consciousness through a slow process of osmosis. Years are spent doing simple household chores, in a traditional setting perhaps looking after the cows or collecting firewood4. In a more modern setting it might consist of no more than preparing tea for visitors! Explicit instruction plays at most a secondary role. Even schools of yoga that do use more explicit, technical methods typically start with an extensive set of what we would now call “cognitive behavioural” dos and don’ts. The first two steps of Patanjali’s eightfold path of rajayoga, for example, are yama and niyama, two detailed lists, one of behaviours and attitudes that are to be avoided, the other of things to be cultivated. There are two reasons for this. The first is that certain attitudes are simply more conducive to inner realisation than others, though there no absolutely fixed rules for this. The other is that access to the inner realms provides not only knowledge but also energy and power, and if the surface structures are not sufficiently purified, the unregenerate parts of the surface nature are likely to lead to all sorts of trouble. If they abuse those powers for their own egoistic ends, for example, serious misery and confusion can follow. As a whole one can say that equanimity, a basic goodwill, humility, and what one could call a sattvic, harmonious, nature will help. But there are exceptions and as the colourful stories of the Mahabharata show, there have been great yogis with serious flaws in their character.

The situation gets even more complicated by the fact that in nature’s complex scheme of checks and balances, it is not possible to fully clean up the surface without help from the deeper layers of our consciousness. In practice one has thus to work on all levels in parallel, and that is what we will do in this text. As we aim at a complete knowledge of who we are and how we work, we need to know everything, right from the surface to the depths, and so, throughout this text, we’ll move ahead slowly but steadily, exploring and rectifying, in parallel, as many levels as we can.

So to begin, we will see how far simple self-observations can take us.5 We’ll start with the surface, as that is closest to where most people normally are, but we’ll touch upon the depths soon after, only to return to the surface and repeat the cycle. Naïve self-observation has a bad name in mainstream psychology as it does not always give reliable, statistically significant or generalizable results. Still, there are two reasons why, in spite of those obvious shortcomings, it is still good to start with it. The first is that whatever we find, will be close to our own experience and will be relevant to our own lives. It may not tell the whole story, it may not be fully true even, and it is unlikely to lead immediately to our very essence, but unless we know ourselves exceptionally well already, it may give us at least some new insights in how we experience and conduct ourselves on the surface. The second reason is educational: attempting to give a good, sharp look at ourselves provides a crucial bit of training. The things that happen in our own surface nature have a rather complex relation to what happens on the deeper layers of our being. They express, to some extent, what happens below, but they don’t do so very well: the expression is not direct, there are intervening and distorting influences. And so, while the things that happen on the surface can give hints about the deeper layers of our nature, they also distort what comes from there. Understanding the manner in which these distortions take place is a crucial step if we want to develop the deeper knowledge.


1Why such knowledge should exist, why it gives such a unique inner joy, and what role it could play in taking psychology further, we have indicated in the the various chapters of the "Introduction" and Part II, which deals with the question "How do we know?"

2For more detail, (re)read the chapter on Integrality.

3As these shifting borders of the self are such an intriguing issue we have gone into some more detail about it in the next chapter.

4Looking after the cows and collecting firewood may have been amongst the actual jobs a student was asked to do, but they were of course also symbolical: collecting insights and increasing one’s aspiration.

5To find out what happens deeper inside, we need more sophisticated techniques of self-observation than simple introspection. We have discussed these in the chapters on knowledge. If they are as yet too hard to put into practice, a bit of self-critical common sense will have to do.