Contrasting Questions: What am I0? vs Who am I0?

§1: Situation

as I2've mentioned elsewhere, I2 first began meditating for pragmatic reasons; found the 'who am I0?' meditation; switched to using 'what am I0?' for reasons that seem more significant now than I2 remember them seeming at the time; and, as a result, experienced a 'break-apart' --- the sudden collapse of the notion that I0, this human being, was a unitary entity rather than a composite of distict components.

years later, I2 became familiar with the teaching of Ramana Maharshi1 and was startled to find that the technique of self-inquiry, which seemed so similar to the 'What am I2?' meditation, focused exclusively on using 'Who am I2?' --- the question I2 had so lightly turned away from.

I2 resolved to investigate the difference, if any, between 'what am I2?' and 'who am I2?'.

§2: if that's the answer; then, the question was ...

I2 considered the words of Joel S Goldsmith, a contemporary mystical philosopher:

When you say, 'I', or when I say, 'I', the next question is: Who am I? What am I? Where am I? What is my function? This is the mystery, the mystery of the ages. so we search ...{eN:Goldsmith, Joel S. Consciousness is What I Am. 1976. New York: Harper & Row. p. 32.}

after a brief recap of his thought processes, Goldsmith concludes:

consciousness is what constitutes my being. consciousness is what I am. ... I am consciousness itself.2

if the answer is 'consciousness is what I2 am' then the question had to be 'what am I2?'. but, was that really Goldsmith's question? based on what he later wrote, I2 suspect that his conclusion would be translated into humanese english as 'Consciousness is what I3 am'. so, the question was 'what am I3?'.

in either case, Goldsmith is asking 'what' not 'who'.

similarly, Ramana tells seekers up front what they are supposed to realize: I am the Self; or, in HE: I3 am the self3; meaning, the universal self or Brahman. I2 accept that this is one possible answer, though not the one I2 accept; but, I2 also note that any answer of this form is an answer to the question 'what am I3?'.

could an answer of this form also be an answer to 'who am I2?'? no; because, in the words of Nisargadatta Maharaj, another practioner of self-inquiry via 'who am I2?'

the question 'Who am I' has no answer.3

this seems like an important clue: the guru is telling the seeker to ask a question, 'who am I2?', to which there is no answer; and, is giving the seeker an answer to a different question, 'what am I3?'.

hmmmm ... but, before I2 follow up this thought, I2 experience wanting to verify that 'who am I2?' does not, in fact, have an answer.

§3: is there really no answer to 'who am I2?'?

as defined by the answers they evoke, I2 will concede that the questions 'who am I2?' and 'what am I2?' are virtually identical; but, not that they are completely identical. consider ...

§3.1: the 'whodunit'

this may be difficult to understand from within a culture seemingly obsessed with diversity; but, 'who am I2?' asks about the ways in which we are each unique, while 'what am I2?' asks about the way in which we are all the same.

a murder mystery is colloquially known as a 'whodunit'. the police attempt to determine who did the deed. if I2 am one of a group of suspects, it will appear to me that the police are attempting to determine which one of us suspects did it. the police aren't interested in debates between advocates of different theories as to the structure of the human individual. they will act as if they assume that, whatever the structure of the human individual is, it's the same for the guilty and the innocent alike; and, thus, it is irrelevant for their purposes.

the guilty party were to take the facts uncovered by the police and translate them into first person descriptions (in order to determine if he or she was the focus of the detective's interest);

the police detective might uncover facts such as 'the suspect is approximately 5 feet 6 inches tall' which the guilty party could translate into first person identifications such as 'I1 am 5 feet 6 inches tall'. even if the detective accurately identifies the guilty party by an accumulation of facts such as this; all such identifications are deconstructed during self-inquiry.

thus, it seems as if 'who am I2?' really does not have an answer; but, if so, why would 'what am I2?' have an answer?

§3.2: self-awareness during self-inquiry

clearly, I2 might say 'I2 am the referent of 'I2' whenever I2 ask "what am I2?"'; conclude that I2 am self-aware; and, conclude that I2 am a reality of some sort as is done during the derivation of the the experientio.

equally clearly, I2 might say 'I2 am the referent of 'I2' whenever I2 ask "who am I2?"'; conclude that I2 am self-aware; and, conclude that I2 am a reality of some sort. it just doesn't follow that I2 am identical to the identity that I2 have.

in essence, then, self-inquiry based on 'who am I2?' deconstructs the identifications that constitute the illusory knowledge of self2; but, leaves the self-inquirer with a few fragments of self-knowledge --- insights expressable using statements such as:

§3.3: conclusion

the differences that I2 see:

I2 theorize that there is an endless unlearning to be achieved thru self-inquiry; and, consequently, that there are stages to the self-inquiry process. 'who am I2?' takes the self-inquirer thru the first stage in which the identity that I2 seemingly have is deconstructed. if the self-inquiry began with 'who am I2?'; then, the self-inquirer must advance to the second-stage of self-inquiry by asking 'what am I2?'. of course, if, for idiosyncratic reasons, the self-inquiry began with 'what am I2?' it will simply continue.

§4: a rhetorical question

if this analysis is correct; then, a disturbing question arises: why would gurus who advocate self-inquiry base their practice on the first-stage question while advocating one possible answer to the second-stage question?

'who am i' deconstructs knowledge of Self (the noun) so the I2 ends up knowing 'that I2 am but not what I2 am'. but it can/should then ask 'what am i?'. traditional schools of self-inquiry (based largely on 'who am i') take the seeker thru the first question and then purport to give the one and only true answer to the second question. so it's a scam like the catholic gambit that suggests that the individual has a rational soul and may use it to inquire but only if he or she ends up accepting official church doctrine. {Quote from Jensen}

who am i asks specifically about the I2 which creates its identity by its identifications (and maybe habits). what am i takes one beyond Absolute philosophy.

§5: a paradox

paradox: the answers have been known for centuries. Q: is there an I3? A: yes/no/I2 don't know. there can be only one answer; and, yet there are three. even for those who say that there is an I3, there is still the question of whether it is individual or collective. there can be only one true answer yet there are two. is it possible that these are two sides of the same answer? ... like the electron or other particle that is both wave and particle depending on how it is observed? perhaps the I3 is both individual and collective. perhaps we come into the world with a something like a 'quantum signature' to prefer I3i or I3c. or both?

if so; then, psychology is grounded in philosophy at the noun/pronoun interface.

so 'who am i?' can take one to the limits of absolute philosophy. and then one must ask 'what am i?' to go beyond. one must ask; and, one is guaranteed an answer; but, there is no guarantee that everyone will get the same answer. it may be that we are guaranteed that people will never get the same answer.4 like physicists who measure a particle's dynamic property, they are guaranteed an answer when they make a measurement. they know it will be one of x number of values but they don't know which value they will observe. that's apparently random.


[1]: Osborne, A. (1996). The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser. [Back]

[2]: Goldsmith, Joel S. Consciousness is What I Am. 1976. New York: Harper & Row. p. 34. [Back]

[3]: http://www.sankaracharya.org/i_am_that_5.php [Back]

[4]: interestingly enough, this might not be a bad thing; for, we might then have a way to discriminate between the enlightened and the pretenders to enlightenment: those who did not respect the answer they do not advocate are not as enlightened as they might think. [Back]