The Illusion of The “I”

Endless perspectives peer into reality each with its own peculiar tints and hues, yet one wonders how many are attentive to the notion that a shared experience of the “I” binds us to all others? All sentient beings have some understanding of “I” – consciousness encapsulated in the body, mind and branded with a spectre of identity. When we say “I”, everyone’s mind gravitates towards the same phenomena – the first hand engagement with life perceived through the senses bestowed on a human being.

With many people completely immersed in their own version of “I” they neglect that everyone else is in fact “I” too, and although everyone is experiencing “I” individually it’s something ubiquitous. Despite the individual essence we believe our identity has, what the “I” actually refers to is the coalescing of atoms and sentience, experienced independently and registered as ourselves. It can be hard for people to imagine the “I” as a mental construct, however Eastern philosophy may provide a beacon for this intellectual exploration. 

What is the “I”?

When we say “I”, what are we actually referring to? Is it the body we’re given, the consciousness we cultivate or the experiences we’ve partaken in? If we believe it to be a composition of all these factors what about bacteria existing within us, like our microbiome, which has it own DNA? They influence our mood and create changes in our body, is this considered a part of the “I” or is it separate from us?

Arriving to the earth we are branded with titles such as name, nationality, religion, and with these stamps we develop a concept of self. Most establish identity around titles and their sense of I is reflected through them; like kudzu on a forest wall, the insidious labels permeate and smother the personal effigy manufactured for oneself. There’s an endless amalgamation of parts to engender any individual and it’s extremely hard to isolate the exact essence of “I”, especially as it can fluctuate according to temperament. Or, in the words of wise old Walt,
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)”

Towards the tail end of the classic Steppenwolf, protagonist Harry arrives at the magic theatre and the mirror staring back at him shatters. In the scattered shards Harry sees countless images of himself displayed at all ages, events long gone and events yet to transpire. Hesse’s magic mirror has been instrumental in shifting many perspectives to see not merely the dualism existing within but the multitude of personalities abounding inside.

Who are we when we are tired, angry, scared, hungry, horny, happy? As Bittersweet Symphony hums “I’m a million different people from one day to the next”; acknowledging this is the original step towards intellectual understanding who we are. Appreciating the assembly of dispositions we can learn to observe how the “I” consistently alters. Those with Multiple Personality Disorder offer anecdotal advice of how it is to truly see the world through a different “I” than we usually prescribe to.

Emptiness and Interdependence

In the early stages of the Common Era, Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna crafted the doctrine of Emptiness. At the crux of his teaching the monk states that there is no individual essence of anything because everything is interwoven with other things. The doctrine of emptiness relies on interdependent origination, a concept denoting nothing can be insulated from other factors and everything existing is subject to the principle of cause and effect.

His contemplations lead him the conclusion there is no independent self, that the self is actually a combination of the interrelation between various factors; e.g. our family, friends, experiences, body, habitus. When these different factors merge a figure of the self forms, and although we accredit it to our being as “I”, it is only an illusion created by others and ourselves.

No other theory presented has been able to denounce Nagarjuna hypothesis – look around, everything you see is an amalgam of other components; that chair, that apple, that dog, that building, that human. The stance doesn’t dictate there is no self, rather that the true self is like an empty vessel which we fill up with attributes of titles, anecdotes, ideologies, ect.. The more we fill our vessel the harder it is to remember that at our core we are not the amassed liquid, but still the empty container.

This emptiness can be felt during meditation and in intimate moments with nature. Without decades of practice it’s near impossible to fully silence the mind whilst meditating, but in those instances between the breaths the emptiness can be felt –
no thought, no effort, no weight, just untainted transparency echoing through the mind.

When one is hiking to a beautiful lookout there is a transient moment upon arrival where we are immersed in our surroundings, exhaustion and beauty combining as the mind is emptied and the self is engulfed by intimate association with organic life.

Appreciate, but Don’t Pamper

Just because our essence is empty doesn’t mean the core of us need be shallow, we have the right to choose which substances we want sloshing around in our vessel. The “I” we have developed over numerous years deserves respect and appreciation, however excessive attention toward oneself is where the animal loses touch with their humble place in the grand scheme.

We are like stars, all independent yet encapsulated in the bowl of the universe. For us to comment and say the Sun is the best star in the universe is only due to the pleasures it provides us, the statement holds no legitimacy when you consider the billions of planets circling sun like stars. When the “I” overrides the rational mind vanity surfaces and we pamper the perception of ourselves.

If everything at its core is empty and the “I” doesn’t really exist, what optimism does that provide us? The question can be reframed in a despairing fashion,
“The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”
Luckily, the man who wrote the line above also wrote the one below.
“That you are here—that life exists and identity,
The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse”
This sage advice from Whitman exemplifies the beautiful and enigmatic nature of existence, our blessing not only to live in but influence reality. We may not revolutionize the universe but at least we can contribute a verse; unshackle expectation of changing the world and allow yourself to approach life with the intention of occupying and owning the time and space inhabited.

Being the commanders of our fate it’s strongly advised to search for what make life meaningful and not merely what satisfies the “I”. Pleasures are temporary where as acts of altruism linger in eternity. 

The human animal is a complex and fascinating creature. Being able to place ourselves in the past and future closely aligns our identity with the “I”, yet at its core there is no independent “I” other than a construct established by mind and environment.

Every human is afforded the “I” perspective, seeing the world through our unique composition it’s hard for many individuals to remove themselves from their lives and appreciate the wonder of sonder – the realization that everyone is living a life as complex and vivid as ones own. If one can conceptualize this they come closer to understanding that the “I” exists for everyone because it is empty.

Image Source: Cosmic Consciousness

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of The “I”

    1. yeah i agree panpsychism could definitely find a place in the piece however i was angling it to focus more on human consciousness, the deep attachment we develop to the I and the emptiness residing at the core of of who we think we are! Maybe I needa research some more to extract portions of the theory auspicious to the piece!

      Liked by 1 person

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