the 'what am I?' technique 1

idiosyncratic examples

  • Q: who am I?
  • A: I am an ice cream lover.
  • R: no, that just indicates what kind of junk food I like to eat.

  • Q: who am I?
  • A: I am a meat-eater.
  • R: no, that just tells me something about what I eat.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a vegetarian.
  • R: no, that just indicates what type of food I don't eat.


you are what you eat? apparently not in a fundamental sense.

notice that this technique elicits answers that are identifications, statements having the form:

I am [a(n)] X

an identification can be problematic; meaning, problem-solving or problem creating depending on your point of view. the rules of the technique require the meditator to reject identifications; and, thereby gain some separation from the idiosyncratic aspects of life. it just doesn't matter what type of junk food I2 eat. of course, it does matter what I2 eat; but, only from the point of view of health. from the point of view of someone wondering about the structure of the human individual, it doesn't matter at all; because, I2 am willing to assume that, whatever is the structure of the human individual, it is the same for all of us -- even if we have different dietary habits.

either we are all just human bodies or we are all composites consisting of a human body and something else.

I decided that the trick with a lot of these questions is to recognize when an identification is a part of the persona and when it is part of the Self, considered as the integrating archetype. so, I decided to change the meditation to use 'what am I' instead of 'who am I' as the driving question. it seemed that 'what am I' could evoke idiosyncratic answers such as 'I am an ice cream lover' or 'I am a public transportation user' as well as the more generic answers I was hoping would come up. Even this early one ('I am a vegetarian') somehow seems more fundamental than the others.

(It may seem contradictory to use both 'I am a meat-eater' and 'I am a vegetarian' as examples; but, the idea is that the meditator lets the answers comes as they may. I can only speculate that, having gotten started on the topic of food, I recalled something from 20 years ago when I tried a vegetarian diet for a couple years.)

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a computer programmer.
  • R: no, that's just how I make my living.


you are what you do? again, apparently not.

I2 had some difficulty with this QAR although, viewed objectively, it has the same 'solution' as the first set of examples: what I2 do does not define what I2 am. however, as a practical matter, it is necessary that I2 do something to make my living. it's not a logical necessity; but, as I2 did not inherit great wealth and I2 have not won the lottery, etc., it is a practical necessity.

on the other hand, I2 have worked at many occupations over the years and I2 feel that I2 have found my niche in life. it would be easy to see my current profession (computer programmer) as 'what I2 am'. there is some sense in which I2 am better suited to this profession than to others I2 have tried. this sort of discovery may be the root of concepts such as 'right occupation'.

there may also be a need to have a degree of identification with one's job in order to do it well; so, I2 am not recommending that one learn to live life without identifications. the meditation is not designed to do that and it would likely be undesireable. the meditation may help us gain some detachment from the identifications we make at any moment. and, of course, identifications don't help answer the question about the structure of the human individual. it is as if identifications (especially when true and necessary) also obscure an entire level of reality, an entire level of inquiry.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am a libertarian.
  • R: no, that's merely a political philosophy.


at the level of individuality, my political philosophy is a part of who I am; but, at a deeper, more universal, level, it is irrelevant to what I am.

  • Q: what am I?
  • A: I am an american.
  • R: no, that just indicates where I was born.


curiously, I am, in fact, an american; yet, as an answer it must still be rejected. I began to wonder just how I could reject obviously true answers, especially those that were applicable to everyone regardless of political party, place of birth or preference in ice cream.

in some ways, the rejection of an identification is like having a doubt and rejecting the identification because it is not an ultimately certain truth. instead of rejecting a belief because it was in some way uncertain, one rejects an identification because it does not tell anything about what a human individual really is.