Who am I?

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 13 June 2023

section 4
anyone at home?

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

The mask and the actor

Our discussion so far has touched on a variety of issues that together constitute a major part of modern psychological enquiry, and yet, the central question, "Who am I?" does not seem to have found a satisfactory answer. The analysis of our ever-changing roles, dispositions, influences and behaviours has left us with a central dissatisfaction. All we have found is a long stream of approximations, things that are temporary, partial, and more often than not self-contradictory. What we are looking for is something essential, something eternal, something that simply is. In other words, what we have dealt with so far is what in the Greek tradition was called the persona, the mask of the actor, while what we are in search of is the actor himself, the one who carries the mask.

What we have missed in our enquiries is whether there is anybody at home within the machine, and perhaps more important, whether we are in our deepest essence as fleeting, vulnerable, ignorant, powerless, and open to suffering and pain as the roles we play. For somewhere, deep, deep down, we have a sense of eternity, of infinity, of wisdom, love, freedom, immortality, and yes, of unconditional delight. Even if that inner sense is missing or terribly uncertain, we may still have a faith, or if that faith also is not there, perhaps just some vague hope that such things might possibly exist. According to the Indian tradition, these vague intuitions are not wrong, but a lot of inner work is necessary to turn them into a concrete, living experience, into something that informs and ultimately transforms every aspect of our daily life.

So what then is our real Self?

In order to understand what our deepest self might really be, and how our deepest Self relates to structures of our surface character, we have first to engage in several other enquiries. We must especially develop a basic understanding of consciousness and of its role in the cosmos, and to get at least some idea of the structure of our personality and how it develops. So we will come back to our basic question, who we are in the deepest depths of our being, after we have dealt with these issues.

To round off this section, we will now only give, as a kind of teaser, a short glimpse of the Kena Upaniṣad, which is one of the oldest texts that tackles our question.

The Kena Upaniṣad

The Kena Upanishad deals exactly and explicitly with the question we pose here. It deals with the question of our essential identity right from its first word, the word that gave this Upanishad its name. It looks at it from many different angles, and takes them all to their most absolute conclusion. It asks:

By whom missioned falls the mind shot to its mark? By whom yoked moves the first life-breath forward on its paths? By whom impelled is this word that men speak? What god set eye and ear to their workings? (KOU, p. 5)

Though not as short as the Isha, the Kena Upanishad is still a short text, and it remains throughout its 34 slokas tightly focused on the central question that it asks at the beginning. Its verses are traditionally divided into four groups, and in the first of these, it attempts an abstract, philosophical answer. Hardly has it done this, however, or it argues in the second group of verses something that could be summarised as: "If you now think you've understood, you've missed the point!" Its scepticism has a definite post-modern flavour, but the Kena doesn't allow us to escape in an easy, philosophical agnosticism. Instead, it adds, with the refined psychological perception that is so typical for these early writings, "But if you say you haven't understood at all, you are not speaking the truth either." So where do these contradictory statements leave us? To take us to the next level of understanding, the Kena gives up on philosophical discourse, and tells instead a story, and, even now, after several thousands of years of mental development, it is still the story that makes the basic intention most easily understood.

The story relates how the gods, after a difficult & laborious victory over evil, have become too cockish for their own good. They obviously need a lesson in humility, and Brahman, the Absolute One, appears in their midst in the form of a simple blade of grass. The gods are baffled by this sudden appearance of a blade of grass in their heavenly abode, and each one of them tries to deal with it in his or her own typical way. But to their great consternation Agni (Fire, the physical energy) cannot burn it, Vayu (Wind, the life energy) cannot blow it away, and when Indra (Rain, the mind energy) approaches it, it simply vanishes. When in the fourth section, Uma (the Woman) finally points out to Indra that the blade of grass is no other than Brahman, all the gods are stunned and instantly realise the folly of their pride: they are forced to acknowledge Brahman who infinitely surpasses them.

Sit quietly and try to let it sink in that in the end it is only the consciousness of Brahman that is aware and active in us. As Sri Aurobindo says:

Nature does most in us, God the high rest.

Can you get a direct living sense of what this means?
It surely does not leave much space for our separative egos...

When we take the gods as divine personifications of fundamental psychological powers and processes, the interpretation of the story is not difficult: Agni, the basic human drive and aspiration, Vayu, the cleaning force of the pure heart, and Indra, the Lord of the mind, are great godheads, no doubt, but by themselves they have neither power nor value. In fact by themselves they could not even exist. What makes them gods — and it is this that distinguishes the Devas from the Asuras — is that they acknowledge that there is a true Divine beyond them, an Absolute of which they only represent one of its infinite aspects. As Uma, the Mother of all life, in this story has to remind them, there is indeed a "secret ingredient", an Absolute that makes them what they are and that, at the same time, infinitely and eternally surpasses them. That secret One is Brahman, at once the ineffable Transcendence, the all-comprehensive Cosmos, and the ultimate individual Presence. There is nothing beyond Him, nothing outside of Her, nothing too small for It. This lesson in humility is perhaps the one lesson modern man is most urgently in need of.

The idea that in the end, absolutely everything is happening only in God's mind can be rather mind-boggling.

What happens if you try to remain absolutely silent and let this idea penetrate your entire being?

An interesting detail of the story is that it clearly comes from a time when the Word still had power. Uma only needs to mention the name of Brahman, and Indra and the other gods instantly have the complete realisation of Brahman's Presence with all that it implies. For us, words have lost that power, we use them too much and too flippantly. As a result, a story like this tends to be for us just that, a story; it may stay stuck somewhere in our memory, but we need to do much more work of a different kind, before it becomes part of our "blood and bones".

We will now have a more detailed and in-depth look at "The Self and the structure of the personality".