A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: What am I?

Friday, March 05, 2021

A western sip of history. The first of three maxims inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was “Know thyself.”

Socrates declared he had no time for lesser matters because he was not yet able to know himself. Hume, believing that all knowledge entered via the senses, searched within for the “I” in Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” but found only perceptions. Perceptions are not a self, so Hume concluded he had no self. He trapped himself, using what he searched for — awareness — to find itself, as if he could grab his hand with his hand, or see his eye with his eye.

Kant took up Hume’s gauntlet of no self but, as Purdue’s philosopher Jacqueline Mariña tells us, “emphasized that original consciousness was itself shrouded in mystery and darkness.” Ben Franklin wrote “There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”

An eastern sip. Some said Buddha taught anatman: no self or soul substance. Later scholars argue Buddha merely declined to discuss the self. The Vedas assert that the individual self, atman, pure consciousness, is one with the universal self, Brahman.

A melding of my undergraduate Consciousness seminar students’ remarks would be, “My self is me, my mind, my body, my personality. Perhaps the relationships I am in. Perhaps in part how others see me.”

“My self is me” assumes I already know what me is. “My self is my mind” provides a term that refers to mental events but does not reveal anything about the possessor or observer of that mind implied by “my.” The concept body rests on bodily perceptions. Saying “I am that which I perceive” seems convoluted. Hume refused to say it. If anything, I am the awareness of those perceptions.

Where does self being awareness rather than its content lead us? No words describe awareness. Many words describe what we are aware of, but none describe awareness itself. Sounds like Kant. Awareness is a nothingness in which knowing goes on, but the knowing is never of awareness. Knowing involves a knower, a known, and a process of knowing.

Awareness knowing itself would require it be separate from itself. The closest we come to awareness knowing itself is when the mind becomes so free of activity, so silent, that there is only pure awareness but no content, nothing it is aware of. Inexplicably, we can remember this state of consciousness. We can recall that pure awareness. We recall being our self. Alone. All one.

Sound peculiar? Be patient; it gets worse. If my self is contentless awareness, a void, what makes it mine and not someone else’s? Their self will be an identical empty awareness. Apparently, at my core I must be completely devoid of personality. But how can that be me? Are we all one?

And suppose I was hoping to get to heaven. If my self is indistinguishable from anyone else’s, how will the heavenly security personnel decide on admitting me?

New thought patterns often involve disruption. Old ways are easier. Well-worn paths avoid thorns and nettles. Also, we are used to language gently misleading about what we are. “I am Richard Bogartz.” No, I am not a changeable name. “I am a retired professor.” No, that’s merely what I used to do. “Fido is fat.” No, just a judgment about the dog’s lipid storage. “I am cheery.” No, I am not my mood.

We understand, yet are perhaps affected by, these wordings. Might these speech patterns subtly deter us from grappling with knowing the self. Perhaps considering being awareness might provide some counter-deterrence. With what benefits?

Immediately we could delight close friends and confound bitter enemies. If the coughing stranger we urge to stay 6 feet away asks, “Who do you think you are, buster?” we’d respond with “I could tell you, but then I’d have to give you an aspirin.” Or, a hulking critic might offer, “I’ve seen nothing like you,” and you could say, “Precisely!” or “You ain’t seen nuttin yet.” When Bodhidharma Schwartz, the Zen Buddhist living next door, says, “You are the Buddha,” you can now instantly respond, “So’s your aunt Sarah.”

Another plausible conjecture is that just as a drop of water has no difficulty merging with its source, the ocean, your actual self, being a void, will easily reconnect, or may already be merged, with its source, the great void known by “I am that I am.” Pure existence. In this case, admission credentials for heaven will be unnecessary.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.