The Illusion of The “I”

The world is seen from an endless amount of perspectives each with their peculiar angles and tints, what is vivid throughout however is the experience of the “I”. All sentient beings have some understanding of the “I”, the consciousness encapsulating the body and mind and branding it with an 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 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 shared ubiquitously. 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” to be not real but a mental construct, however, Eastern philosophy may provide a beacon for the intellectual endeavor. 

What Is The “I”?

When we say “I” what are 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 everyone is branded with titles such as a name, nationality, religion, whilst maturing an idea of the self develops in wake of these labels. Many people establish their identity around these titles and their sense of I is reflected by them; like kudzu on a forest wall, these labels smother the personal effigy one manufactures for themselves. There are so many pieces creating an individual that it is extremely hard to isolate the exact essence of the I, especially as it fluctuates according to one’s temperament.

Towards the tail end of the classic Steppenwolf, the protagonist Harry arrives to the magic theatre where the mirror he stands before shatters. In the scattered shards Harry sees himself depicted in countless ways, shifting his mentality to see not merely the dualism existing within (the man and the wolf) but the multitude of personalities residing.

Who are we when we are tired, angry, scared, hungry, horny or happy? As Bittersweet Symphony hums “I’m a million different people from one day to the next”, acknowledging this is the original step towards intellectually encompassing who we are. Appreciating the assembly of personalities inside people we can learn to observe how the “I” alters, those with Multiple Personality Disorder highlight how we have the potential to literally 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 engendered the doctrine of Emptiness, stating the individual essence of something doesn’t actually exist because it’s coagulated from other sources. 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. 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. The stance doesn’t dictate there is no self rather that the self is like an empty vessel, and as we acquire substance from titles, anecdotes, ideologies, it fills up. The further we get from the bottom the harder it is to visualize that at the core of us 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 it is in those instances between the breaths the emptiness can be felt; no thought, no effort, no weight, just untainted transparency echoing in the mind.

When one is hiking to a beautiful lookout there is a transient moment upon arrival where the individual is immersed in their surroundings, exhaustion and beauty combining as the mind is emptied and the self is engulfed by interactions 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 filling 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 we see vanity surface and the perception of oneself pampered.

If everything at its core is empty and the “I” doesn’t really exist, what optimism does that provide us? “The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse” The sage advice from Whitman exemplifies the beautiful and enigmatic nature of life, our blessing is the ability to not only live in but influence reality. We may not revolutionize the universe but at least we can contribute a verse, this attitude can unshackle the expectation of changing the world and allow us to approach life with the intention of occupying and owning the time and space we inhabit.

Being the commanders of our fate it’s strongly advised to search for what make life meaningful and not what satisfies the “I”, pleasures are temporary where as actions of altruism linger long after they cease. 

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 essence there is no independent “I” but a construct established by the mind and surrounding 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 this can be conceptualized one comes closer to understand that the “I” exists for everyone because it is empty, and gradually the titles one takes, the experiences they have and the idiosyncrasies they develop fill the vacant vessel.

Image Source: Cosmic Consciousness


    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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