I think, therefore I am. ~ René Descartes
What goes through your mind when you read the famous statement above written by the great philosopher Descartes? You might feel curious, thoughtful, reverent. You might be in absolute agreement, or you might be completely confused!
If you’re like me, you might somehow feel that there is much more to this statement than reducing all human existence and our individual sense of ‘self’ to our ability to form thoughts. In my understanding, this declaration by Descartes is only one half of the equation, for the next logical step would be to inquire: Who is using the mind to create these thoughts and then shape them into ideas and judgments? Who is the ‘self’ experiencing these thoughts? And if thoughts were to cease momentarily, would “I” stop existing?
In our journey of self-exploration the very first step in the understanding of our ‘selves’ is the process of self-inquiry. To be authentic and to be true to ourselves, first we must find out which ‘self’ we are referring to. For example, is your true self the one that gets angry at your boss? Is it the impatient one in the traffic? Perhaps your true self is the one that is loving and kind with your family? Or the one that gets depressed at the state of the world?
Are you all of these parts of your ‘self’ combined? Are you none of them? Who are ‘you’?
The concept of the “self” might turn out to be a bit more elusive than we initially presumed. In this article, we will attempt to explore a variety of different angles that reveal who we believe our “selves” to be, and reflect back only that which remains.
Who Are You?
… This is a simple question, and yet it is at the very core of all self-understanding. This question turns your attention from the external world to the internal world. For example: Who is the one who hears what you hear? Who is the one who experiences your thoughts? Your emotions? Your senses?
If I were to ask you “Who are you?”, you might reply: “I am Melissa Jones.” However, if I was to write down the words “Melissa Jones” on a piece of paper and present them to you, would you agree with me that you are those words? Of course not! Why? Because you use those words to represent your collection of life experiences. You might say instead: “I’m the daughter of Arthur Jones”. However, now you’re representing yourself in relation to another person, but if that person were to die, would you vanish from existence also?
You might then proceed to tell me you were born in 1988 in England, your parent’s names, your religious beliefs, the names of your childhood friends, first boyfriend, and so forth. And yet these are only a series of facts – a story if you will – but they don’t really tell me who you are, only how you came to be here and all of your past experiences.
Eventually, it becomes very clear that we have all grown up believing that we are the objective manifestations of our true selves, rather than being the subjective manifestations of them. This might sound confusing, so let me better illustrate it:
Imagine that I was to put you into a completely empty cinema the moment you were born and constantly projected a film onto the movie screen. In the cinema it’s completely dark and you can’t see your body at all. There is no one else in the cinema to acknowledges your existence. However in the movie, the characters begin talking to the camera, so it appears they are talking to you. Not only that, but in this cinema you can also experience the senses of ‘sight’, ‘touch’, ‘smell’ and ‘sound’ so that you are completely absorbed inside the movie. There’s also a voice in the background that is narrating what is occurring in the film and you have complete control over that voice.
For us in our own lives it is so easy for us to momentarily forget who we are when we watch movies – imagine the above example! It’s very easy to see how we can absorb ourselves so much into the movie of our lives using all of our five senses, and an inner narrator that we can control. This forces us to believe that we are the movie being projected onto the screen of the world, rather than being the person sitting in the chair watching it.
It is this narrator who is responsible for so much of our loss of self.
The Eternal Echo Within
There’s a simple experiment I like to try with people. Look at a clock for a whole minute and try not think at all.
Mostly likely you’ll find this extremely difficult. At some point during this brief experiment, a thought in the form of a voice will pop into your head – this is your narrator who will most likely say something along the lines of: “This is stupid. Has a minute passed yet?” “Oh no, stop thinking! Ahh!” The narrator in your head might even think: “You’re wrong, I have no voice in my head”.
The daily reality of our lives is that this voice – our narrator – never seems to shut up. It even answers itself: “Should I check my email now? No, it’s only been half an hour since the last time I checked”. But have you ever questioned why this narrator is constantly present in your life? Who decides what it is going to say? And how truthful is it in its judgments of the external world?
It is quite a startling realization for many of us to become aware of this voice. It’s almost like encountering a mentally ill person who asks a question out loud and then answers it by himself.
Of course, we do have conscious control over what this voice is saying when we choose to be aware of it for practical reasons like recalling information, for example: “What time did I have the doctor appointment? Oh that’s right, at 3 pm”. However most of the time, this voice, this narrator, is a nagging echo in the back of our minds. Most of the time we aren’t aware that it is filling our life experiences with useless judgments, for instance: “Look at the flower in that garden, it’s so beautiful.” But who made that assessment? You. And who is listening to that assessment? You as well. You already know that the flower is beautiful, but by verbalizing your judgment of it in your mind, you remove your attention from the real flower and on to the thoughts you create about that flower.
We waste very large parts of our existences experiencing life through our thoughts, instead of directly experiencing life. This is important to remember, as an essential part of our journey of self-growth is to realize we aren’t the voice that we identify with, but the experiencer of that voice. And while this inner voice, or narrator, does have a survival purpose in that it provides us with a sense of control and comfort, in doing so, it also creates many of our problems.
The truth is that what we perceive as problematic in life has nothing to do with life, and everything to do with our minds. Our minds, in order to feel safe in this world, use the voice in our heads, our narrators, as a way to feel in control. We walk down the street, and our voices continue to narrate the world around us: “Look at that black kitten, it’s so cute. There’s a sketchy looking guy coming towards me, I better cross the street. I wonder how old that house is?” Everything around us is now known and safe.
In this very way of trying to control the reality around us, our inner voices go on creating future expectations and desires from the world that are not always met, as well as fears and worries about the present moment that are entirely based on assumptions, and attachments to past traumas that don’t exist anymore.
Soon we don’t live and flow with present moment existence anymore, but instead live in an internal world re-created by the mind. Eventually, we discover that reality doesn’t abide by the laws of our perception, and the moment our perceptions from our ‘dream worlds’ and reality overlap, we begin to suffer.
Growing Beyond the Echo
To truly grow out of our need to control and resist the world depends on the strength of that voice within us. The more aware we are of this voice – this inner narrator and its affect on life – the more we progress in soulful maturity, experiencing true self-growth.
I want you to stop and ask yourself a question for a few moments: When was the last time you were entirely happy with your life, and how long did it last? Often we find that once a problem in our lives is solved, another one lies just over the horizon, so we never truly feel as though we’ve arrived at our final destination of happiness, and therefore we never really feel at home or feel whole.
So how can you practically apply what you have read in this article? Well, the moment you experience what you perceive as a problem don’t immediately try to find a way to fix it. Instead, use the problem as an opportunity for self-exploration and inquire: “What aspect within me is disturbed and resisting this, and why?” You could also ask: “What part of me is angry about this? Why am I jealous and insecure? Why do I dislike this person so much?” Once you’ve identified the part within you that is resisting the situation, inquire further: “Who is the one that is angry/jealous/disdainful?” Obviously if you are experiencing the feeling, then you must be separate from that feeling and it cannot be ‘you’.
Creating this distancing between who you think you are and who you really are is essential in order to experience true freedom. The truth is that you have no control over the external world but you do have control over your internal world that perceives the external world. Remember that ‘you’ are not your thoughts, judgments or feelings. What ‘you’ are is limitless. ‘You’ are the experiencer experiencing.
When you develop the ability to be constantly aware of your presence, your soul, your source, you can regain the objective distance you need to prevent yourself from being lost in the movie of life.