If you have come upon this site, or indeed mindfulness, because something didn’t seem quite right, you are not alone… and you are in the right place (where else could you be?) Mindfulness here is shared using language that is simple, secular and ordinary, but I still wanted to explore a question that at first might seem a bit way out, spiritual or religious:
Who am I?
And let me start this exploration with my most honest, simple and straightforward answer: I don’t know. That’s right. That’s as much wisdom, insight and complex intellectual, philosophical thought as you can expect from me, whoever I am. But before you disappear into cyberspace again, let me explain a couple of things.
When I practise mindfulness, I feel more truly myself that at any other time. It feels authentic, peaceful, calm and clear, and when I practise I also have no idea who this person is. It’s not that I forget my life experiences, name, occupation or other things that would make up a conventional description of this “me”. It’s that I can see when I am mindful that all of those things are temporary labels used by my mind to make sense of my day to day experiences, they’re not really who I am. I’m not really a “Social Worker”, even though I do that job during the day. I’m not even “Oli”, really. Some call me “Oliver”, some call me “Daddy” and many have called me other things I won’t repeat here. Words like this are helpful in daily life, but they can never encapsulate who I am. If you talk about “Mount Everest”, I know what you mean, but I have no idea what it’s like there. Labels give us a common way of making sense of the world, but they can’t describe reality.
So part of the reason I don’t know who I am in the conventional sense, is that we use language to describe things, and language is derived from thought. In mindfulness, we tap into something else within, which we might call “Awareness”. Now awareness is just another word too, it can’t really describe what it’s like to see the world through the pure awareness we can find when we become present, mindful, aware. When we shift our attention from being lost in thoughts to looking from awareness, the whole world changes, and commonly our sense of self changes too. Through the lens of the thinking mind, there is a strong sense of “Me”, that is derived from the thoughts, experiences, opinions and circumstances I experience. The story created from this mish mash of phenomena is like the story of my life, as opposed to my actual life. The story is always in the past, because the mind needs time to process, analyse and label what happens. My actual life is continuously happening right now. When I practise mindfulness, I step into this moment more fully, which means those old stories lose some power, and therefore my identity becomes less solid, but not in a bad way. The story of “Me” is like an advertising message that needs to be reinforced continuously or it loses its impact. When I am mindful, this is exactly what happens. I still know where I am and what my name is, but I also sense that those labels are just words, and that the awareness underneath all that feels like me. I can’t describe that awareness well in words because it is not a thinking process, it is an open, clear, calm sense of watching the world unfold this instant. Again this sounds a bit airy fairy, but when you step back from thought and watch it buzz around like a swarm of insects, you will know exactly what I mean. You might not be able to talk about it, but you will definitely feel it.
Now that I don’t know who I am, I feel much more certain of my identity, and also I know that you and I are the same, underneath all the conditioning. Basically, we’re all beyond description, we can’t be defined by labels, by language. We’re much better than any word could describe.