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8 Personal Identity

Chapter Summary: This chapter explores the question of personal identity: what exactly do we mean by “I”? Various answers are discussed. The possible relation of personal identity to the Uncreated is explored.


Landmarks: Ancient and Contemporary

The last chapter discussed the external world we live in, the world of people, places, events, and things. This chapter discusses the other world we live in, the inner world of feelings, thoughts, and awareness—mostly with the aim of investigating personal identity. To discuss personal identity, we’ll need some landmarks. The landmarks we’ll use are body, emotion, intellect, and awareness.

Of course, “intellect” means not any particular thought but our cognitive faculty, often called the “mind.” Similarly, “emotion” means not any particular emotion but our affective faculty, figuratively called the “heart”, the part of us that feels. Obviously, there is a connection between mind and brain, and perhaps between the emotional heart and the physical organ of the same name. Nonetheless, we’ll think of the brain and heart as parts of the body, different from the mind and the emotional “heart.”

So, we’ll mentally divide a human person into four parts—body, emotion, intellect and awareness—to discuss personal identity. But our four-part division doesn’t mean a person isn’t actually a holistic entity. It doesn’t mean a person can actually be divided into parts. A person is a unity that transcends the division of body, emotion, intellect, and soul. (A later chapter returns to the unity of the human person and the intimate relation between the four “parts.”)

But if a person is actually a holistic unity, why the division, even if it’s only mental? For the same reason we divide the earth in parts such as continents, oceans, countries and states: to better discuss and describe it. The earth transcends various political and geographical boundaries; it’s a unity, a whole. Yet, to describe it we must divide it into parts such as land and sea, hill and valley. These divisions are ancient and natural.

Our “landmarks”—body, emotions, and mind—are ancient and perhaps natural, too. They’ve been used for millennia, in many cultures. We’ll consider a few examples, beginning with some symbolism.

In Man and his Symbols ([J04]) psychiatrist Carl Jung writes:

Animals, and groups of four, are universal religious symbols. ([J04],21),

and gives an example from the ancient world: the four “sons” (three animal and one human) of the Egyptian sun god Horus. Christianity uses a similar symbolism: the ox, lion, eagle, and man or angel. (Refer Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelations 4:7.) These symbols are often used to represent the four evangelists, so that the ox symbolizes Matthew, the lion, Mark, the eagle, Luke, and the man or angel, John. These symbols may also be taken as symbols of the four parts of a human being. How? The massive ox may be thought of as a symbol of body; the ferocious lion, heart; the soaring eagle, the bird’s eye view of intellect; the angel, the spark of God in us, that is, awareness or soul.

Not only does the Roman Catholic tradition accept the ox-lion-eagle-man/angel symbolism, it also accepts the four-part division of a human being into body, emotion, intellect and soul: for it teaches we have a soul, and recommends we direct our mind, heart, and body to God. From an elementary school catechism:

What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?

To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world. ([N08],12).

Knowing, of course, is a function of the mind, loving, of the heart, and service, of the body.

India also accepts our four-part division. It divides the yogas, or ways to God, into four broad types. Karma yoga is the way of works, of using the body to draw nearer to God, performing duty to family, neighbors, and country, feeding the hungry, helping the poor. (By the way, to some people “yoga” means only Hatha yoga, that is, bodily postures and purification. Hatha yoga is part of Karma yoga.) Bhakti yoga is the way of devotion, of using feelings of love and adoration to draw nearer to God, feelings that may include love of a divine incarnation such as Krishna. Jnana yoga is the way of knowledge, of using the intellect to draw nearer to God via the study of scriptures, philosophy, and even science. Finally, Raja yoga is the way of awareness, of using consciousness to draw nearer to God. It’s the way of meditation.

Our four-part division of a human being occurs in the modern world, as well. Often, people are often classified as extravert or introvert. The extravert is outgoing, lively, and friendly, while the introvert is thoughtful, quiet, and perhaps shy. Not surprisingly, the crude extravert-introvert scheme has been subdivided into finer classes. Jung, for example, notes:

If one studies extraverted individuals . . . one soon discovers that they differ in many ways from one another, and that being extraverted is therefore a superficial and too general criterion to be really characteristic. ([J04],60).

Jung himself believed human beings have four faculties; sensation, feeling, thought, and intuition. There’s an obvious, loose correspondence to our four components of body, heart, mind, and awareness.

In another classification scheme, Dr. William Sheldon, a trait theorist ([H11],150 and [A01],153), divides the extravert into two subtypes, the physical “somatotonia” who loves action, adventure, and competition, and the emotional “viscerotonia” who loves people, comfort, and food. Sheldon’s third type, the “cerebrotonia,” describes the introverted intellectual. Sheldon believes a person has some characteristics of each type, but one predominates. If we add to Sheldon’s system a fourth element, the awareness that’s conscious of body, feelings, and thoughts, we again arrive at body, heart, intellect, and awareness. And if we understand “soul” as meaning awareness then the four elements also may be called body, heart, mind, and soul.

But should “soul” be used as a synonym for awareness? “Soul” has a bewildering array of meanings, for example,

1. The rational, emotional, and volitional faculties in man, conceived of as forming an entity distinct from the body. 2. Theol. a The divine principle of life in man . . . The moral or spiritual part . . . The emotional faculty . . . ([F08],1280).

But, although “soul” can mean any sort of non-physical faculty,

[t]raditional definitions of the soul have usually emphasized man’s consciousness of his psychological and mental processes . . . ([N04],v20,924A).

Therefore, using “soul” to mean awareness or consciousness is justifiable.

In general, however, I’ll use the more definite terms “awareness” or “consciousness” to indicate the fourth element, the awareness that at various times is conscious of body, feelings, or thoughts. And when I use the word “soul,” I’ll use it as a synonym for “awareness” and “consciousness.”

Of course, someone might argue that the soul isn’t awareness or consciousness, that it’s something entirely different. But if the soul isn’t our body, heart, mind, or consciousness—if it’s entirely distinct and separate—then why should we be concerned where it goes after we die? We would never know where it was or what it was experiencing, so why should we care? Certainly, people who believe in heaven and hell expect to experience one or the other—that is, to be conscious of one or the other—in the after-death state. But if our awareness moves on to heaven or hell and stays there eternally, how can it differ from our soul?

Relative Personal Identity

To discuss personal identity we’ll think of a person as consisting of body, emotion, intellect and awareness. But what do we mean by “personal identity”? We can mean two things: either a relative personal identity or an absolute personal identity.

What is a relative personal identity? It’s an identity I have that’s relative, i.e., that depends on someone or something else. Let’s consider an illustration.

Al and Sue decide to be married. At that moment, Sue gains a new relative identity: Al’s fiancee, an identity that depends on someone other than herself—Al. Similarly, Al gains the relative identity of Sue’s fiancé. When they marry, Sue will lose the relative identity of fiancee and gain a new relative identity, Al’s wife. When their infant son John is born, Al and Sue will gain the new relative identity of parents, an identity that depends on someone other than themselves—John. Later, if Al and Sue have more children John will gain the relative identity of older brother. Throughout his life, John may gain and lose relative identities such as student, taxi driver, apprentice, engineer, farmer, or lawyer.

The idea of inseparable interactive invocation, by the way, applies to relative personal identity. A man has many potentials, for example, to be brother, uncle, father, or son. However, a particular potential, for example to be someone’s uncle, isn’t invoked—brought into actuality—until a niece or nephew is born. The birth of niece or nephew “interactively” invokes the relative identity of uncle in the man. To the niece or nephew, the man is uncle, but to the daughter or son, the man is father. Different observers invoke different qualities and the invocation is inseparable: there can be no uncle without a niece or nephew, and no niece or nephew without an uncle or aunt.

Because a relative identity exists relative to someone or something else, it depends on that someone or something else for its own existence. It comes into existence when it’s invoked, and may go out of existence when the interaction ends. When I’m hired I become an employee of a certain company. My identity as employee depends on the company; if the company goes out of business then I cease to be that company’s employee, I lose my relative identity of employee.

Because it is dependent, a relative identity may be temporary. People become a teacher or student for a while, and then cease to be so. However, a relative identity may be more permanent. For example, someone will always be the son or daughter of their parents, even after their parents have died. Such an identity is unchanging and permanent, but it may not be unique—I’m my parent’s child but so is my sister. Do I have an identity that’s unique to me? that’s unchanging? that’s independent of anyone or anything else? In other words, do I have an absolute personal identity?

Absolute Personal Identity

Suppose Ann, Sue’s college friend, last saw John ten years ago, when he was five years old. Suppose she meets him again. John now has different clothes, a different personality, different emotions and thoughts, a different set of relative identities, and a different body—even a different set of teeth. Yet, Ann believes she’s meeting the same person she met ten years ago. What do we mean by “same person”? What about John is the same? Of what does his “I-ness” consist? When John says “I” exactly what does he mean?

He seems to mean four things. First, he means something that’s unique. Why? Because if two people have it, then “I” means both of them. When John says “I” he means something that’s unique, because in all the world no one but John is John. Second, he means something that has endured, unchanged, at least from the moment he was born. Why? Because if everything about John has changed then he has no right to say he was born fifteen years ago. Rather, someone else was born fifteen years ago who eventually changed into the “I” that is John today. John is a descendant of that person. Third, John means something that’s absolute, not relative to anyone and anything else, because John is John independent of anyone and anything else. When he says “I” he means his deepest self, independent of anything and anyone else.

So when John says “I” he refers to something that’s unique about himself, that’s unchanging, and that’s independent of anyone or anything else. He also means (and this is the fourth quality) something that is him, as opposed to something he possesses. Suppose at birth he inherited his father’s custom-made watch. The watch is unique to John and has endured, unchanged, since he was born. It exists as an object independent of any other object (but not independent of the Eternal). But it’s certainly not what John means when he says “I”. When John says “I” he doesn’t mean his watch or any other possession. “I” is a possessor, not a possession.

Therefore, the question we asked at the end of the previous section—“Do I have an absolute personal identity?”—was poorly put; it doesn’t really make sense Why? Because it treats absolute personal identity as a possession. But I can’t have an absolute personal identity because, as we’ve defined it, it is me. “I” and it are identical. It’s what the word “I” means. It’s what I was when I was born and shall be when I die. Therefore, an absolute personal identity can’t be something I have; rather, it must be something I am.

Nonetheless, we’ll sometimes find it useful to speak of absolute identity as a possession when the alternative is awkward. For example, it’s easier to ask “Do I have an absolute personal identity?” than “Is there something about me that constitutes an absolute personal identity?” Yet, it should be remembered that absolute personal identity, if it really exists, isn’t a possession.

For if it was a possession we could ask: “Whose identity? Whose possession? Who is it that possesses a watch, name, body, feelings, thoughts, and even an absolute personal identity?” And if we couldn’t find anything that possessed all those things, we’d conclude that no possessor really exists, that the word “I” refers to no single thing. Rather, it refers to body, emotions, thoughts, and identities, an assembly of things all existing relative to someone or something else, all not necessarily unique, and all subject to change.

No permanence is ours; we are a wave

That flows to fit whatever form it finds:

Through day or night, cathedral or the cave

We pass forever, craving form that binds. ([H04],397).

Some people—Buddha, for example—see “I” in this way, as a conventional term that refers to a changing assembly of things rather than to any single thing that’s unique, unchanging, and absolute. (We’ll see more of this viewpoint in this and a coming chapter.) Is Buddha correct? Or does absolute personal identity really exist? It seems we should answer this question before trying to find one—just as Ponce de Leon, DeSoto and others should have made sure a Fountain of Youth really existed before they spent the time and trouble searching for one in Florida and the Bahamas. Unfortunately, discussing the existence of an absolute personal identity would require an abstract theoretical discussion that might leave us no wiser. A better course of action will be to assume for the moment that an absolute personal identity exists, and try to determine exactly what it might be. If our search for it is successful then our assumption will be proven. Hopefully, we’ll be more fortunate than Ponce de Leon and DeSoto.

Identity as Body, Heart or Mind

One way to search for absolute personal identity is to mentally eliminate everything that’s a possession. If anything is left when we’re done, then perhaps it’s our searched-for absolute personal identity. John’s watch is a possession, as is John’s clothes, his books, etc. What about John’s hand? Is it a possession or a part of John, part of what he means by “I”? John refers to his hand as a possession if he says “my hand hurts” but he might just as well say “I hurt.” Which is it? Is John’s hand a possession, or is it John?

Some people, particularly people who aren’t religious, would say that John’s hand is a part of John. They would say that their body is their self, what they mean by “I”. They would answer the questions “Does absolute personal identity really exist? Does the word ‘I’ refer to something that’s unique, unchanging and absolute? and, if so, exactly what is it?” by saying “Yes, an absolute personal identity exists. ‘I’ refers to something unique, unchanging and absolute. In fact, here it is. It’s my body.” They might point to their body and say “Here I am, this is me. So what’s the problem?”

The problem is that the matter that composes our body is constantly changing, constantly flowing through it.

. . . [T]he human body is changing constantly, and in fact goes through a complete change every seven years. ([B16],121).

Fuel passes through an engine but leaves the individual parts—the pistons, the valves, the block, etc.—unchanged.

Once, an educated person might have believed food and drink flow through the body like fuel through an engine. Had they been right, then our body might possibly remain the same over the years, and therefore might be our unchanging identity. True, it grows bigger and smaller over time, but a balloon can grow bigger and smaller all the while remaining the same balloon.

But our body does not remain the same. It changes. Not merely in appearance (a few wrinkles or grey hairs) but in substance. Its individual atoms are constantly being replaced. In seven years, every one has changed. True, our cells may remain, but the individual atoms that compose them do not.

Imagine replacing each and every part of a car—the engine, the doors, the windows, the tires. When you’re finished, is it the same car? Imagine replacing every part of a building—the foundation, the bricks, the walls. When you’re done, is it the same building? It may look the same if each part was replaced with a similar part. But is it the same building? In a conversational pragmatic sense perhaps yes, but not in any strict sense.

Our body is like the car and the building. Over the years each and every atom is replaced. In fact, our body resembles a whirlpool or flame more than any solid thing. Imagine a whirlpool. The water is constantly flowing through it. In a short time, all the water has been replaced. Or imagine a candle flame. New wax is constantly entering the flame and being burned; no part of the flame remains the same. Our body is like the whirlpool or flame, and whirlpools and flames can have no absolute identity because no part of them remains unchanged over time.

Besides, even if the atoms of our body weren’t all eventually replaced, how could our identity be based on them? on a mere arrangement of atoms, atoms that existed before we were born and will exist after we’ve died? (By the way, the atoms of our body were created in supernovas, ages ago. Our body is quite literally stardust.) How can the atoms of a sandwich, atoms that were created millions of years ago, become “me” for a few years and then become “not me” when they leave my body?

They can’t. Whatever the absolute “me” may be, by definition it’s not something that changes. Buddha makes this point in a dialogue reminiscent of Socrates.

Is body permanent or impermanent?

Impermanent. . . .

Now what is impermanent . . . what is of a nature to change,—is it proper to regard that thus: “This is mine, This am I. This is my self”?

Surely not . . . ([B09],270-1).

What’s true of the body is true of the emotions and thoughts, too. Our emotions and thoughts also undergo change, much more often than once in seven years. Someone who is fifteen is usually quite a different person emotionally than they were at five. They’re usually very different intellectually, too. Old feelings, thoughts, and memories are lost, and new ones take their place. This process of constant change, though it often slows in older people, continues throughout our life.

Therefore, our changing emotional and intellectual natures can’t be our absolute identity. Buddha made this point, too.

Is feeling permanent or impermanent?

Impermanent . . .

Is perception . . . are the activities. . . permanent or impermanent?

Impermanent . . .

Now what is impermanent . . . is it proper to regard that thus: “This is mine. This am I. this is my self”?

Surely not . . . ([B09],271).

Nothing that changes can constitute an absolute personal identity because such an identity, if it exists, must be unchanging. Our body, emotions and intellect change constantly. What then constitutes our unchanging self, our real identity? Do we have one? Is there anything about us that is unique, unchanging, and absolute, and therefore capable of being our absolute personal identity?

Hierarchy of Body, Heart, Mind and Awareness

An illustration involving a table previously brought us to the unchanging and eternal Basis of the physical universe. We placed the table at the top of an inverted hierarchy and by going deeper into the table, towards its center, we found its Root and Source. Using a procedure that’s somewhat analogous we may find that which is unique, unchanging and absolute in us.

In this procedure, the body, like the table, is placed on the highest, most physical level. This is appropriate because only the body, certainly not emotions, intellect, or awareness, may be seen and weighted. In the past, by the way, some religious people attempted to weigh the soul, trying to find objective proof of its existence. They noticed the body lost some fraction of an ounce at the moment of death and claimed this was due to the loss of the soul. These claims were shown to be false, however, and I don’t know of anyone who currently takes them seriously.

We’ve placed the body on the highest level. Now, let’s take the next step: which of the three remaining components—heart, mind, or soul—is closest to the physical level?

The link between body and emotions is well known. Anger, for example, has obvious physiological effects, such as rapid breathing and redden face. Chronic stress can cause ulcers. Joy and sadness manifest in facial expression or voice tone. So let’s place emotions on the next level, a level roughly analogous, perhaps, to the table’s wood molecules.

While not as obvious as emotions, thoughts also have some physical manifestations. The furrowed brow, fixed gaze, and abstracted inward attitude of someone in deep thought are subtler than signs of anger or joy, but they are nonetheless bodily effects. So let’s place the intellect on a plane below emotions, a level we may think of as analogous to the atomic level.

Now, only awareness or soul remains. It exists at the deepest, least physical, level. Therefore, it’s nearest to the ultimate level. We’ve seen that our absolute personal identity, if it exists, cannot be our body, emotions or thoughts. Therefore, awareness or soul is the only remaining part of us that might be our unchanging self, our unique and absolute personal identity. Whether it actually is such an identity is a question we’ll return to shortly.

A Unitary Psychophysical Language?

The hierarchy of body, emotion, thought, and consciousness is similar to the hierarchy of table, wood, molecules, atoms, and Ultimate Ground of Existence, but there may be an important difference. True, emotion exists on a less physical, more subtle level than body, and intellect exists on a less physical, more subtle level than emotion. But in the table hierarchy, a level is the ground of existence of the next higher level. Atoms are the ground of existence of molecules, wood is the ground of existence of the table. Is emotion, in any sense, the ground of existence of body? Is intellect, in any sense, the ground of existence of emotion?

For our purposes, it doesn’t matter if they are, or if body, emotion, and thought are separate, independent manifestations. There is, however, some interesting material that argues for something like the first alternative. Let’s discuss it.

Thought is often considered to be the ground of the physical world. As Ken Wilber writes,

. . . the idea of the physical realm being a “materialization of thought” has extremely wide support from the perennial philosophy. As Huston Smith points out in Forgotten Truth, the perennial philosophy has always maintained that matter is a crystallization or a precipitation of mind . . . ([Q01],145).

In this view, an intermediary—thought or mind—exists between physical objects and the Self-Existent. If it does, that would explain, as Wilber goes on to point out, a question that troubles some philosophers and scientists. We’ll describe the question by beginning with some observations of James Jeans.

The physicist James Jeans observes:

Our remote ancestors tried to interpret nature in terms of anthropomorphic concepts . . . and failed. ([J01],158).

For example, the explanation of the sun as a fiery chariot driven by a god across the sky doesn’t explain the known facts very well. (What’s an eclipse?) Picturing the earth in orbit around the sun explains the facts better. (An eclipse occurs when the moon moves between the sun and the earth). In general, Newtonian mechanics explains nature better than anthropomorphic ideas do.

Yet, Newtonian explanations aren’t perfect. Mechanical ideas don’t describe the behavior of subatomic particles like the electron very well. Jeans perhaps refers to this when he writes:

The efforts of our nearer ancestors to interpret nature on engineering lines proved equally inadequate. ([J01],158).

(I certainly don’t agree they are equally inadequate.) Jeans continues:

On the other hand, our efforts to interpret nature in terms of . . . pure mathematics have, so far, proved brilliantly successful. ([J01],158),

and concludes

. . . the universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician. ([J01],156).

This brings us to the question that troubles certain philosophers and scientists: why does the physical universe so often obey mathematical laws? Following the famous mathematician Rene Descartes, many people believe the outer and inner worlds are distinct and separate. Mathematical patterns and ideas “live” in the inner world, in the mental realm, a world of pure thought. Yet they often govern the outer world’s physical phenomena; that is, natural processes often follow mathematical rules. Why?

If the outer physical world and the inner conceptual world are truly separate and distinct, then why do physical phenomena obey mathematical rules? Why does gravity diminish as the square of the distance? Why does energy equal mass times the speed of light squared? It certainly seems strange, puzzling, and wholly unexpected.

On the other hand, if the outer world is, in some sense, a crystallization of the inner world, then the problem vanishes and everything seems quite natural. Indeed, if the two worlds are intimately related, one being a more concrete manifestation of the other, then laws which reveal themselves to the intellect would naturally inhere in the physical, too. The intellect sees the more subtle aspect. Physical sight senses a grosser aspect. But both sense one and the same thing.

What of emotion? Can we fit it into this scheme? Perhaps. Both emotion and thought are functions of the psyche, so what applies to the psyche may apply to both. Carl Jung believed that the psyche’s core or ground—what he called the “dynamic nuclei of the psyche” ([J04],304)—consists of the unconscious and the archetypes. He suspected there might be

. . . a possible ultimate one-ness of all life phenomena . . . [T]he unconscious somehow links up with the structure of inorganic matter . . . [A]n archetype shows a “psychoid” (i.e. not purely psychic but almost material) aspect . . . ([J04],309).

Unlike Descartes, Jung believed the physical and psyche might somehow be two aspects of the same thing. Parallel phenomena in psychology and nuclear physics led him to suspect an intimate relation between the deepest regions of psyche and matter.

Physicist Wolfgang Pauli had a similar idea. Pauli (as his friend, Werner Heisenberg, writes)

[i]n the alchemistic philosophy . . . had been captivated by the attempt to speak of material and psychical processes in the same language. Pauli came to think that in the abstract territory traversed by modern atomic physics and modern psychology such a language could once more be attempted. ([H03],35).

Pauli believed such a “unitary psychophysical language” would be

. . . a mode of expression for the unity of all being . . . a unity of which the psychophysical interrelation, and the coincidence of a priori instinctive forms of ideation with external perceptions, are special cases. ([H03],35-6).

It might be worth dissecting that last sentence. The “psychophysical interrelation,” of course, is what Jung suspected, that the deeper reaches of psyche are the same as the deeper reaches of matter. “a priori instinctive forms of ideation” refers to instinctive ideas and images, such as archetypes (for example, the hero) and mathematical ideas. “External perceptions,” of course, refers to the physical world. Why the external world should obey “a priori instinctive forms of ideation” is the problem we’ve been discussing. It should, if the physical is the gross aspect of thought, and thought is the finer aspect of the physical, that is, if the deepest level of matter and the deepest level of the psyche is one and the same, if there is in fact a “unity of all being.”

All of the above, of course, doesn’t quite yield a neat hierarchy where consciousness is the ground of thought which is the ground of emotion which is the ground of body. But is does offer some food for thought.

Awareness as Absolute Personal Identity

As we’ve seen, awareness exists on the deepest, most subtle level. This allows two possibilities. Suppose that this level is the ultimate level. Then, because only one entity exists on the ultimate level, awareness would have to be identical with the Ultimate Ground of Existence, which being unique, unchanging and absolute, might be our absolute personal identity. On the other hand, suppose awareness is on some plane above the deepest, ultimate plane. Then it’s changeable, like body, heart, and mind, and can’t be our absolute identity. This would mean none of the four components constitute an absolute identity, that we have no absolute personal identity.

This section discusses the first possibility. A later section discusses the second. Surprisingly, the two possibilities don’t differ as much as might be expected.

In many religious systems, the soul is considered the part of a human being that’s closest to the ultimate level, to God. Just how close is the point of difference. Some religious and philosophic systems identify God with the self of only one individual (Jesus in Christianity, for example), or a few select individuals (Rama and Krishna in Hinduism, for instance). Other religions, Judaism and Islam for instance, insist on the absolute transcendence of God and deny the existence of any human Divine Incarnation.

Yet, even religions that teach the human soul is different from God acknowledge it’s nonetheless quite close to God, that knowing our Self is akin to knowing God.

“Look in your own heart,” says the Sufi, “for the kingdom of God is within you.” He who truly knows himself knows God, for the heart is a mirror in which every divine quality is reflected. But just as a steel mirror when coated with rust loses its power of reflexion, so the inward spiritual sense . . . is blind to the celestial glory until the dark obstruction of the phenomenal self, with all its sensual contaminations, has been wholly cleared away. ([N11],70).

Such religious and philosophic systems teach that the soul is not God, but can reflect God, like a mirror. Just as a mirror seems to contain the sun, the soul seems to contain God.

Other systems explicitly teach the inherent equivalence of each and every human awareness or soul with the Ultimate Ground of Existence. For instance, the early Greek philosophers believed

. . . man had a soul which was, in some way, the real part of him . . . ([F06],155),


. . . thought of this soul as the least material form of the particular substance out of which everything in the universe was made. ([F06],155).

The equivalence of absolute personal identity and the Eternal also occurs in the Hindu tradition, where for example Ramana Maharshi teaches

[t]he body and its functions are not ‘I’. Going deeper, the mind and its functions are not ‘I’. . . . ‘I’ must therefore be the unqualified substratum . . . ([T03],116),

and also teaches that ([T03],25) Self is pure Light and pure Consciousness. Shankara, too, equated the self with consciousness or “witness.”

Know the self as different from the body, sense-organs, mind, intellect and primal nature, and as the witness . . . ([S09],30).

Similarly, the contemporary philosopher Alan Watts describes our identity with the Source thus:

At this level of existence “I” am immeasurably old; my forms are infinite and their comings and goings are simply the pulses or vibrations of a single and eternal flow of energy. ([W02],12).

One objection to the identification of awareness with the Unchanging and Unconditioned is awareness does apparently change and is apparently conditioned. Buddha, for example, taught that

[a]part from condition there is no origination of consciousness. ([C13],312).

However, he doesn’t seem to attach the same meaning to the word “consciousness” as we.

It is because . . . an appropriate condition arises that consciousness is known by this or that name: if consciousness arises because of eye and material shapes, it is known as visual consciousness. ([C13],314).

He goes on to describe auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental consciousness.

. . . if consciousness arises because of mind and mental objects, it is known as mental consciousness. ([C13],315).

In our model, awareness is unchanging. It remains constant over different physical, emotional, and mental states, just as a mirror reflects different scenes, but remains itself unchanged. Even though our awareness reflects physical, emotional, and mental phenomena that are changing and conditioned, it itself remains unchanging and unconditioned.

Yet even if it’s granted that awareness is constant and unchanging, it does seem to disappear in deep, dreamless sleep. In this state, awareness seems lacking; our real self seems to have vanished. How then can awareness be our unique, unchanging, absolute self? An answer to this objection, in the words of Swami Rama Tirtha, is as follows.

When you get up, you say, “I slept so profoundly that I saw nothing in my dreams.” Vedanta says that this statement is just like a statement made by a man who said that at the dead of night, at such and such a place, there was not a single being present. . . . “Is this statement made on hearsay, or is it founded on your own evidence? Are you an eyewitness?” asked the judge. He said, “Yes, I am.” “All right. Then, if you were an eyewitness, and if you wish us to understand that your statement is correct, that there was nobody present, then in order that your statement may be right, you, at least, must have been present on the scene.” ([P14],185).

Saying our sleep is dreamless says that no dreams occurred, which we can only know if we are aware, at some level.

Because we are in some sense aware, we know that time has passed. When I wake from a dreamless sleep, I have the feeling that I went to sleep some time ago. If I fall into a dreamless sleep in a dark room, when I awake the next morning I don’t feel the room has suddenly changed from dark to light. Rather, I feel some time has passed. Had I been, in fact, totally unconscious when I slept, I wouldn’t know time had passed. I would experience a dark room, close my eyes, and open them (apparently) a moment later to find the room suddenly changed from dark to light. But this is not my experience, which again says that in dreamless sleep I’m dimly aware of the passage of time.

If awareness is unchanging and always present, then it may be our true absolute Self, our absolute personal identity. By the way, the belief our real self is not the body but awareness or soul underlies a Hindu phrase for death—“giving up the body.” In this view, the soul, which we are, gives up a possession, the body. In contrast, a Western phrase for death is “giving up the ghost.” These phrases express differing views of what we really are.

Consequences of Awareness as Absolute Personal Identity

A few consequences follow if we accept the Eternal as our absolute personal identity, our true Self. We’ll discuss four.

First, if our consciousness is, in fact, our true self and is identical to the God which is not a Person then, like any other reference to deity, “self,” “consciousness,” and “I” deserve to be capitalized. There is, perhaps, an obscure intuition of this identity embodied in the practice of capitalizing the words “God” and “I”.

The idea that consciousness and God are identical is also suggested by the “All Seeing Eye” which tops the pyramid in the Great Seal of the United States. The Seal appears on back of the United States one-dollar bill. Since some founders of the U. S. were known to be Masons ([P03],529) and others may have been, the Eye is sometimes considered a Masonic symbol of Deity ([P03],403). However, a publication of the Department of State has:

Use of the eye in art forms . . . as a symbol for an omniscient and ubiquitous Deity was a well established artistic convention quite apart from Masonic symbolism . . . [I]t seems likely that the designers of the Great Seal and the Masons took their symbols from parallel sources, and unlikely that the seal designers consciously copied Masonic symbols with the intention of incorporating Masonic symbolism into the national coat of arms. ([P03],531-2).

Whatever its origin, the all-seeing eye, an acknowledged symbol of God, may be taken as a symbol of consciousness as well.

Second, we have two kinds of selves: a single, eternal, real, absolute Self and a set of changing, temporal, phenomenal, relative selves, often called the ego. Like the water underlying the ocean’s foam, our Self is the Substance that stands under our self, or selves, the ego. As Ramakrishna declares:

The water and its bubble are one. The bubble has its birth in the water, floats on it, and ultimately is resolved into it. So also the individual ego and the supreme Spirit are one and the same. The difference is in degree; the one is dependent, the other independent. ([T04],11).

Like a relative self, a bubble is born, changes, and dies. Like our eternal, absolute personal self, the water is the basis, the substance, that remains. So while the bubbles that comprise our ego may temporarily disappear in deep sleep, the underlying awareness, like water, remains.

Following many other writers, we’ll use capitalization to differentiate awareness, our true Self, from the ego or personality, which is commonly considered a person’s self. A secular person may see capitalization merely as a device for distinguishing our true essence from the ego. Some religious people, however, may also see it as distinguishing deity, the part of us that’s God, from our lesser selves.

Third, truly knowing our own deepest Self is equivalent to knowing God, to enlightenment. Thus the Tao Te Ching’s teaches

Knowing others is wisdom;

Knowing the self is enlightenment. ([L01],ch.33).


[i]t is an axiom of the Sufis that what is not in a man he cannot know. The gnostic . . . could not know God and all the mysteries of the universe, unless he found them in himself. . . . In knowing himself as he really is, he knows God . . . ([N11],84-5).

Lastly, since our absolute Self is the world’s Substance, the enlighten person sees

[t]his entire world, verily, is the self; other than the self, there is nothing. He sees all as the self, even as (one sees) pots, etc., as (but) clay. ([S09],69).

In fact, the entire mystical journey may be described as a process of Self-realization, a process where the ego awakens to, and eventually comes to know—comes to directly experience—its own basis, its higher, absolute Self.

No Absolute Personal Identity

Earlier, we decided that an absolute personal identity must be something that’s unique, unchanging and absolute, something that I am rather than something I possess. The Eternal certainly is unique, unchanging and absolute. Moreover, It’s something I am (or, better, I am something that It is) rather than something I possess. In fact, It’s my deepest, realest self. But we also decided that an absolute personal identity should be unique to me because if two people have it then “I” would mean both of us.

Is the Eternal in any sense unique to me? Can it differentiate me from everyone else? No. The spark of the Eternal that creates me in no way differs from the spark that creates you. The Eternal is one, undifferentiated, the same. So even if each and every one of us has a consciousness, a soul, an Ultimate Ground of Existence that’s identical, It cannot be our absolute personal identity. So where is my unique, unchanging, absolute and distinct identity? It’s nowhere to be found! Writes Nicholson:

There is no real existence apart from God. Man is an emanation or a reflexion or a mode of Absolute Being. What he thinks of as individuality is in truth not-being; ([N11],154).

Thus, “I” as an enduring and distinct personal identity doesn’t really exist! Thus, as Ramakrishna observed:

[J]ust as when one goes on removing the coats of an onion nothing is left over; so, in order to ascertain the self, when one goes on eliminating the body, the mind, the intellect, etc. and makes sure that none of these is the self, one finds that there is nothing separate called “I” but everything is He (God) and nothing but He . . . ([S01],394).

A different line of reasoning seems to have led Buddha to a similar insight. As we’ve seen, Buddha places consciousness in the same category as body, heart, and mind; that is, as caused and having a dependent type of existence.

Have I not said, with many examples, that consciousness is not independent but comes about through the Chain of Causation and cannot arise without a cause? ([W07],64).


[I]s consciousness permanent or impermanent?

Impermanent . . .

Now what is impermanent . . . is it proper to regard that thus: “This is mine. This am I. this is my self”?

Surely not . . . ([B09],271).

He taught that a human being consists of five elements: body, feelings, perceptions, tendencies, and consciousness. Because ([B16],122) none of these, individually or in combination, is a self, there is no such thing as self. Thus

. . . early Buddhists did not believe in a permanent self or ego . . . ([B16],122).

Rather, Buddhists believe the five elements

. . . come together at birth, are dispersed at death, and therefore can be regarded only as convenient names for those basic elements of a human being, all of which are impermanent, involve suffering, and have no ego. ([B16],122).

So Buddha denies the existence of any absolute identity, distinct or otherwise, to a human being.

If, like Buddha, we consider consciousness changeable and conditioned then we have no absolute identity. On the other hand, if we consider consciousness identical to the Eternal then we have no distinct absolute personal identity. In either case, these word of Buddha apply:

Just as the word ‘chariot’ is but a mode of expression for axle, wheels, the chariot-body and other constituents in their proper combination, so a living being is the appearance of the groups with the four elements as they are joined in a unit. There is no self in the carriage and there is no self in man . . . The thought of self is an error and all existences are as hollow as the plantain tree and as empty as twirling water bubbles. ([C04],115),


The foolish man conceives the idea of ‘self’, the wise man sees there is no ground on which to build the idea of ‘self’ . . . ([C04],242),

although I would substitute “unenlightened” for “foolish.” The enlightened person, on the other hand, has realized their true Self. As Nicholson writes:

Gnosis, then, is unification, realisation of the fact that the appearance of ‘otherness’ beside Oneness is a false and deluding dream. . . . Gnosis proclaims that ‘I’ is a figure of speech . . . ([N11],85).

Thus, someone who has looked deeply into the basis of their own personal existence realizes they possess no unique, unchanging, absolute and distinct self.

In Buddhism, the insight that absolute personal selfhood has, in fact, no real basis (i.e., doesn’t actually exist) is labeled “nonself.” Buddha identified three traits that inhere in all entities: impermanence, suffering, and nonself. We’ve already seen entities lack permanence and always include yin traits that may be considered as imperfections conducive to suffering. Now we’ve seen how the third trait, nonself, applies to us. Later, we’ll see how it applies in general.

Two Views of Absolute Personal Identity

We have many relative personal identities, many relative selves, selves that are created, change, and eventually vanish. Relative personal identities exist (just as waves exists), but they do not reach all the way down to the ultimate level. On the ultimate level, God exists. And on that ultimate level, there’s only one Entity. So, we can follow Buddha and say we have no absolute personal identity, since our identity is a created, transitory, created thing. Or we can follow Hindu Vedanta and say we have a common absolute personal identity, and it’s identical with God. But to say we have a distinct absolute personal identity—different from God and from other people’s personal identity—and to say this personal identity is eternal, seems to say that more than one entity exists at the ultimate level. Moreover, it says that our union with God can only be partial, that we shall forever be in some measure separate from God.

There are religions that say this—Christianity is one, the Yoga philosophy that underlies the Hindu Yoga Sutras (refer, for example [Y01]) by Patanjali is another—but I do not believe it, and it’s not part of the monist world view being presented. I realize that saying either we’re really God or we really don’t exist is a non-intuitive idea that goes against common sense but those are the only two alternatives monism allows. Moreover, that’s exactly what many mystics see.

So, we may take two attitudes toward our absolute personal identity: the first, that it exists and is identical with the Real; the second, that we have no absolute personal identity. Mystics have employed both viewpoints.

The second attitude—that we have no absolute personal identity—is the safer attitude, but it’s more discontinuous with our normal way of thinking. The first attitude—that our true Self is the Absolute—has historically been the more dangerous choice. Such identification was often interpreted by followers of a God who is a Person as the blasphemous claim “I am God.” Their response was not always charitable. Therefore, the viewpoint that we have no true Self, that only God exists, is safer. Followers of a God who is a Person might interpret this claim as displaying intense—even excessive—humility. But I know of no case where a mystic suffered torture or death for excessive meekness.

Yet the second attitude demands we give up the idea of the thing nearest and dearest to us, the idea of our own self enduring over time. For if the relative selves are the only selves we possess, then we have no enduring unchanging self. The person we were at five years of age is dead and gone. True, the person we are now has descended from that person in a more intimate sense than we’ve descended from our ancestors, but we’ve descended nonetheless. We are not that person, but someone different. Just as the candle flame or whirlpool is descended from, but something different than, the candle flame or whirlpool of a moment ago.

This viewpoint, by the way, in a sense answers the afterlife problem—we need not be concerned with the afterlife since we do not even endure over one lifetime. Only a descendent of the person we are now endures. But it’s not a complete answer since the existence of an afterlife is still an open question. Possibly, a descendent endures, in some sense or another, beyond death. Possibly, it does not. (A later chapter returns to these questions.) But in either case, strictly speaking we are dead and gone as soon as we lose or acquire one or another relative self. Just as adding or subtracting a single letter changes a word into another word or just a series of nonsense letters, adding or subtracting a relative self changes us into a different person.

Although the first viewpoint is more dangerous, it accords more with our normal way of thinking. We are accustomed to referring to our self, to assuming we have a self. This viewpoint says, indeed, we have a self and moreover that self is quite close to, and even identical with, God’s Self. What prevents this viewpoint from leading to megalomania is the essential qualifications that, first, our Self is no different than the Self of anyone else and, second, we don’t, in any real sense, “possess” this Self since the Self can be the possessor but never the possession.

The Ego as Possession

If all of the above seems shocking or silly, recall our empirical, every-day identity is not being denied. Certainly, our relative selves exist. Certainly, an “I” exists in the conversational and practical sense. What is being denied, however, is an identity that is eternally separate and distinct from God. On the ultimate level, there is nothing unchanging that distinguishes me from you or anybody or anything else. On the ultimate level, nothing but the Eternal exists.

Of course, in everyday life it’s quite useful, even necessary, to use the concept of personal self. The word “I” is useful, even if what it refers to doesn’t exist in the deepest sense.

Sometimes an inferred entity, a theoretical construct, is known not to exist but is nonetheless used. As an example, imagine a checker board where only one square is empty. We could keep track of which piece is moved where, but if we are only interested in which square is empty, we could track the location of the “hole” instead. As pieces are shifted, the hole moves from one square to another. Something similar is done in semiconductor electronics, where a missing electron is tracked. What actually happens is an electron hops from a full atom to the atom with the “hole” (missing electron), thereby transferring the hole in the reverse direction, to the full atom. But instead of concentrating on what’s actually happening, it’s easier and more useful to follow the motion of the hole. Thus, something lacking positive existence is considered as having positive existence, an interesting parallel to Augustine’s view of evil.

Thus, a distinct absolute personal identity is an inferred entity, a theoretical construct, that, in fact, doesn’t actually exist. “I” as it’s used in the everyday sense is a theoretical construct that doesn’t really exist. This was implied by and easily follows from two quotes we saw in the fourth chapter:

God . . . is not one Being among others, but . . . dwells on a plane where there is nothing whatever besides Himself. ([D08],4),


For all other things, ourselves included, compared to that pure and perfect Substance, are not even shadows. ([A06],101).

So as we approach the level of the Uncaused Cause, the level where nothing exists but the Ultimate Ground of Existence, then of necessity we approach a level where our separate existence and identity vanish. Perhaps this is why Ramana Maharshi says:

One cannot see God and yet retain individuality. ([P12],213).

Another point: whether our non-distinct absolute identity is our awareness or soul, or whether it fails to exist at all, it follows our body, feelings, and thoughts are our possessions rather then our selves. Therefore, referring to the body, feelings, and thoughts as possessions, as something other than ourselves, would be appropriate. Some mystics have done so.

For example, the Christian mystic Henry Suso (1295-1365) typically writes of himself—or rather his body, emotions, and thoughts—in the third person ([U01],218). He calls them the “Servitor.” Thus, Suso is speaking of himself when he writes:

One night after matins, the Servitor being seated in his chair and plunged in deep thought, he was rapt from his senses. ([U01],404).

Swami Rama Tirtha is another mystic who habitually refers to himself in the third person—as “Rama” or “he” rather than “I”. Of the many examples that can be given, one is particularly interesting. (Note: “he” in the first sentence refers to Rama, not the scientists.)

The scientists may or may not agree today with Rama, but he is fully convinced that even the smallest particle of the dust of this universe is a storehouse of energy which may be possible to be released, under suitable conditions, more or less like fire from fuelwood or like heat from coal. In other words, energy is condensed into matter which can be reconverted into energy which is stored in it. ([P14],109).

These words were spoken in 1905, about the time Einstein was coming to the same conclusion.

A Living, Conscious Absolute

If our consciousness isn’t the Everlasting then we have no enduring identity, no absolute personal identity. But what if consciousness is the Absolute? Then the Absolute and consciousness are one and the same. If our consciousness is the Absolute, then the Absolute is in some sense conscious. In a sense, It’s alive. Therefore, It might have some of the attributes we usually associate with persons. In other words, It might have a personal side as well as an impersonal side. Therefore, thinking of and relating to the Eternal in a personal way, as if It is in some sense an actual, distinct Person might make sense.

Someone who regards the Root as if It’s a distinct Person is obviously similar to someone who regards their God as an actual Person. That is, believing the impersonal Ultimate Ground of Existence has a conscious, personal aspect is very close to believing in a God who is a Person. There is a difference, but is it important? The next chapter, which investigates the relationship of the Eternal to the “supernatural,” explores this question.