The Self: Who Am I, Really?

GermanValleyBRA student in one of my classes asked a great question after mountain meditation. The guidance for this meditation is typically to notice that the mountain sits unmoving, just being its essential self, through endless change – the seasons, day passing into night, the barrage of the elements, capricious weather, and all of the beings who visit it.

After the bell rang indicating the end of the practice, the student asked, “What is the part of me that remains its essential self through all the changes?” She wondered if she knew who she really was and she felt this might be getting in the way of the practice. This is a profound philosophical and spiritual question the student asked, which indicates some very mature thinking was happening.

People have lots of different opinions about the essential self. Scientists call it consciousness, but are not really sure yet what this entails. Christians believe it is the soul. Hindus believe it is the atman or true essence, transcending ego and identification with external phenomena. In Buddhism, the question of the self is not directly answered, because even asking the question perpetuates the delusion of dualism. Instead, direct observation of phenomena leads to wisdom.

My perspective is that mountain meditation is not specifically intended to reveal the “true self”. Rather it helps us begin to understand what is not-self in order to cultivate equanimity. It helps us de-identify with things that are happening around us or to us each moment of every day. We begin to see phenomena for what it really is, so that we can just be with it with a sense of calm, stillness, and openness.

We see that we do not have to react by avoiding or fighting against what is unwanted and grasping at or clinging to what is wanted in order to protect this illusion of the self (the false self or the ego). We discover that in letting go and letting be, we are not destroyed. Quite the opposite in fact – we come to feel more grounded, solid and uplifted – just like the mountain. It is through this process that we begin to see things, including ourselves, more clearly.

I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.
– Juana Ramon Jimenez

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