Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
Walking in a field in the last days of summer, thoughts arose of my young friend who is dying. The memory of her once radiant, healthy face brought up a terrible sadness; a pain that reminded me to come back to myself there, in the field.
Red and blue flowers beckoned from its edge—they seemed to glow with an almost artificial richness of color. Standing before the flowers, their beauty entered my body with each breath. The sun was setting near the edge of the horizon and the impression of the bright, pulsing disk penetrated through my eyes into the recesses of mind, the light burning away moldering thoughts and torpid fixations.
Now the equinox has passed, and already night feels longer. The hot, fullness of summer transitions to the chilly gusts of autumn. The procession of days continues. Faces of growing children refine and mature; adults shows signs of wear. Time pulls each through our seasons from the first inhalation at birth, to our final exhale, followed by no return breath.
It would seem that life has a beginning and an end, but the circular neatness of the pattern describes something less linear and more curvaceous. Einstein said as much about time. And my friend who is close to death (close enough to see it and possibly beyond) said, before a parting, “Will I see you again before I return?”
Hearing my friend’s question triggered my own question—What is the I she was referring to? What is the identity that is ostensibly present in us from birth to death? The question renewed an old inner exercise in me—to avoid use of the personal pronoun in speech (hence the awkwardness of some of these sentences). It is illuminating not to use the word I, and observe all the places it would otherwise pop out unnoticed.
Is the person referred to as I a dependable constant? Or is it as changeable as the weather and seasons? Can there be a knowing of who I really is?
Upon revisiting the exercise I was reminded again that my use of the word referred to an arbitrary and haphazard set of impulses. Saying “I am hungry” arises from a different place in me than “I think the last episode of ‘Mad Men’ was great TV”; or, “I wish I could stop smoking” immediately followed (or preceded) by “I want a cigarette”; or, “I am a forgiving person” and “I am furious at you and will get revenge.” It is rather agonizing to consider the array of disparate voices which all deign to utter the personal pronoun with equal claims on its identity.
How is this to be seen? Can a part speak for the whole? Is it to be assumed that my identity is an aggregate of all these disconnected and usually contradictory impulses? This implies an emptiness that is as terrifying as the specter of death.
From birth to death a person says “I” probably a hundred times a day. In a normal 80-year life span that’s over 2 million utterances of the word that is effectively short for Identity. Each time it is said, identity is pinned to yet another object. If I is at best a misnomer and at worst a lie told a hundred times a day, what in us truly unchangeable?
The Indian saint Ramana Maharshi gave all his students the same koan to wrestle—to sit and ask the question: “Who am I?” Every answer that arose was to be discarded, and the inquiry renewed, until… well, no one knows, because those who glimpsed what was beyond all their self-objectification—the experience they had when all that was left was “I am”—couldn’t describe it to those for whom it was a merely theoretical consideration.
Three thousand years ago the Rishis tried to use poetry to set out that sense of a real, abiding self in the Upanishads (with translating help from W. B. Yeats):
“The Self is one. Unmoving, it moves faster than the mind. The senses lag, but Self runs ahead. Unmoving it outruns pursuit. Out of Self comes the breath that is the life of all things. Unmoving it moves, is far away, yet near; within all, outside all. Of a certainty, the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow. How can a wise man, knowing the unity of life, seeing all creatures in himself, be deluded or sorrowful?”
That each one of us was born and will die is hard fact. What happens and who experiences that journey remains an open inquiry. The cycles of days, seasons, years, lives—even the cycle of every breath—can serve as reminders of the changeability of all phenomena. It can also remind us that within all the change is something elusive but steady—a presence that abides. A presence that participates in everything, but is attached to nothing. A presence that is within every person and being that senses. A presence that transcends the personal and embraces all as self.