Who am I?
At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.
I surely know what I am, right?
But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.
Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.
Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.
Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought. As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.
As Bruce Hood explains,
Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood
The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.
For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river.
The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.
Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.
Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.
As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,
For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris
The Social Self
Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.
Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”
This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?
Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.
Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.The Waves, Virginia Woolf
Self as a Dynamic Network
As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.
We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.
Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15. As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.
The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace
Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.
As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.
Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’
Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.
Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.