Who am I? It’s a question we all ask ourselves every now and then. Trying to answer this question, even on the ordinary level, isn’t just intellectually interesting, but it can help us become more self-aware and improve our relationships with others. From the Buddhist perspective, there’s a specific, systematic way of asking this question of who you are in the form of a meditation on the ultimate nature of the self. This meditation is said to be the strongest antidote to our disturbing states of mind.
Start by finding a place to sit quietly. You can sit on a chair with your legs straight out and feet flat on the floor. Or sit cross-legged on the floor with a cushion under your seat. Whichever position you are in, straighten your spine and then let your hands rest in your lap overlapping with palms-up and your thumbs touching.
Let go of any tension in your back, your neck, your shoulders and face. Sometimes shrugging up your shoulders for a moment and tensing your face actually helps with this, because when you then let go, the muscles relax further and they know it’s time to meditate.
Tilt down your head so that your eyes point to a spot four or five feet in front of you. And then half-close your eyes if this feels comfortable, letting in enough light to keep you awake and aware; but otherwise going inward, letting go of not only your visual sense, but also sound, taste, touch, and smell, to focus on the inner world of your mind.
Refuge and Motivation
Even one minute into a meditation, you can feel very good about yourself. There’s nothing better you could be doing than going inward, working to cultivate your best human qualities and let go of disturbing thoughts and emotions to become happier and more connected and helpful to the people around you.
We see it in people we admire like the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu and great humanitarians like Wangari Maathi. And we see it also in people we know personally: doctors and nurses and social worker and mothers: humble people who have nourished their capacity to care for others; to orient their lives outward; to make the world a better place through their every word and action and thought.
We all know people like this, who don’t even seem capable of saying even a single harmful, critical word; who are always asking how they can help, or quietly figuring it out what to do to help even before anyone asks.
Some of these people make the world better just by their joyful presence. They don’t have a special job caring for others professionally, but it’s their smile and focused attention when they meet us or anyone else that makes the world a better place.
The impermanent changeability of our mind means that we can become more like them too: kinder, more compassionate and open and happy. In fact, simply by thinking about this right now we are strengthening those compassionate pathways in our brain and mind so that they’re more familiar the next time we encounter others. That’s the essence of meditation: familiarizing ourself with virtuous states of mind.
Stabilizing on the breath
Before we go into the meditation of searching for the self, we quiet and stabilize our mind by watching the breath. Just for one silent minute, focus on the breath as it comes in and out of your nostrils, or with the rise and fall of your abdomen.
If your senses intrude with sounds or feelings in your body or light from the room, try and let these remain in the distance. Everything that passes through our mind has a beginning, middle, and end; And even as these perceptions arise and grow, they are already on their way out of your mind. You don’t need to push them away and you don’t need to pull them close. Just let them disappear the same way a cloud float through the sky, a sky whose nature is naturally clear and unobstructed.
It’s the same with memories, thoughts, and plans. If any of these arise, similar to feelings in your body, just let them pass by without pulling them close, without pushing them away. So, for one minute, focus on the breath.
(Meditate silently for one minute)
Searching for the interdependent self
Now we move into asking the question, Who am I? We’ll ask this question systematically, the way the Buddha taught, with some subtle enhancements from the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism to help weaken and eventually eliminate what’s seen to be the root of our suffering.
The root source of our suffering is said to be our clinging to an unrealistic view of ourself as permanent, partless, and independent.
Even hearing these words, you might say, of course I know I’m not any of those things. And, if that’s the case, that’s great. But examine these three mistaken ways of seeing yourself for a moment.
We see ourselves as permanent when we forget that we are on a continual arc of change through life. We were born. We were given a label of Scott or Stephen or Katherine or Robina. And we will eventually die. Do we see ourselves on this arc of life, changing even now? Or do we have a more solid view of a self that somehow always has been and always will be?
Do we remember that we are made up of organs, cells, molecules and atoms; of constantly changing thoughts and feelings and perceptions. Or do we feel a more unitary sense of a singular self that’s greater than the sum of these changing parts?
Do we see ourselves as interdependent with the people and forces and culture around us? Or do we feel like an autonomous agent who has desires and dislikes independent and separate from the world around us, who achieves things on one’s own without depending on others?
These are some of the questions that start to chip away and the illusion of a separate self. We’re not destroying the notion of a conventional self that lives and breathes and interacts with others, but we’re trying to dissolve this deluded sense of self that seems independent from the forces and beings around us.
Meditating on the five aggregates of self
The process of meditating on the self was taught by the Buddha as a meditation on what he called the five aggregates. Really these five aggregates break into two categories: the material parts of ourself in our body, and the immaterial aspects of ourself in our mind.
The first aggregate of form refers to the body. And then the other four aggregates refer to the mind: a specific way of organizing our different mental experiences so that we can better see the way our mind operates.
Conjuring the inherent I that’s the cause of our mental suffering
There’s an element of this meditation that isn’t always taught that’s critical to cutting at the root of our mental suffering. Before we go into this meditation, it’s important to first conjure the specific, mistaken way of seeing ourselves that we are seeking to refute. This mistaken way of seeing ourselves is called the “inherent I.”
When we’re meditating, typically this inherent I isn’t manifest, because we’re in a relaxed state of mind focusing on beneficial thoughts. It’s encouraging that this annoying, inaccurate sense of self isn’t always there, because it shows that this exaggerated sense of I can be reduced and even eliminated.
In this relaxed state of meditation that we’re already in, we have to actually work at this now—to bring up this inaccurate sense of I—so that we can refute it.
To do this, try now to bring to mind a time that you were strongly criticized. If there has been a time that you were falsely criticized for something you didn’t do, that’s even better. Think for a moment now if you can come up with a clear memory of this: a time that the strong sense of I welled up in you from not wanting to be criticized, from feeling wronged.
And if nothing comes to mind, you can also fall back on any time that you can recall feeling particularly angry at something outside yourself.
(contemplate for 15 seconds)
Now leave that sense of the indignant self in a corner of your mind, and with the rest of your mind, we start to examine it, searching for that self among its parts.
Searching for the self in the body
First, we search for this indignant self in our body. Starting with the gross parts of your body, ask yourself, Can I find myself in my feet? Is that self who is being criticized found there? Or in my legs, my torso, my liver or heart or lungs? Can I find that inherent I in my kidneys, stomach, arms, or hands?
When we get to our head, we can ask if this inherent I can be found among my sense organs that bring in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that this self reacts to; liking, disliking, or indifferent to them. Am I in my eyes, my ears, my nose, my tongue or my skin?
What about in my blood, circulating once a second thought my body? Or in any of the cells of my body? Can I be found in the electrical and chemical signals passing through the neurons and limbic system? Can I be found in my DNA or my microbiome of billions of cooperating bacteria inside me?
Then ask, can I be found in my brain? Is that where this self can be found? If you find yourself in your brain, where exactly in your brain? On the left side? The right side? In any single neuron or in the collection of them?
Neuroscientists have shown that when someone reflects on this strong sense of self, the brain activates in many different areas, and these areas are different for different people and at different times. There’s no “self” organ in the brain. No central control center. No pinpoint of activity that lights up when we have a strong sense of self, and that, if we removed it, we lose our sense of self.
But ask yourself this question honestly, probe for a moment, quietly, whether you are your brain, or any of the other gross parts of your body.
(Meditate quietly for 1 minute)
Now go further, below the cellular level to individual molecules. Our bodies are mostly made of water. Are we the water in our body? Are we the electrolytes or the carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, or vitamins?
(Meditate quietly for a moment)
And then descend to the atomic level: are we the oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous that make up our body’s main elements?
Are we the subatomic particles: the electrons and protons and neutrons exchanging at enormous speed within our body’s matter? Or are we the empty space between the particles? Atoms are made almost entirely of empty space, so at a technical level most of our body too, is empty space.
We can go even further to ask if we are we the finer particles we now know of: gluons and muons and quarks and bosons? Are these the fundamental building blocks of the universe that can be broken down no further?
We know from quantum mechanics that matter exists in a probabilistic state and then something causes that state to collapse when it’s observed. Are we that probabilistic state before collapse? Or are we only the collapse?
Probe even beyond current science. Perhaps there’s a way that we exist that’s beyond current knowledge. Perhaps in the exchange of energy to matter, that we are somehow energy and not matter? Perhaps some interrelationship with dark matter that has yet to be understood but that makes up the vast majority of our universe?
Search for yourself among these parts, ask yourself: Am I any one of them or am I the collection of them?
(Meditate quietly for 20 seconds)
Searching for the self in the mental factor of feeling
Now we move on to searching for this separate self in the mind. First, make sure that slightly annoying, indignant sense of self is still there somewhere in your mind to probe. If it isn’t, use the techniques we talked about to bring it back.
And now we start by probing the various parts of the mind that respond to the particulars sensory and mental phenomena. The first one of these, also known as the second aggregate after form, is feeling. Feeling is the way that we respond with pleasant feelings to experiences we like; with unpleasant feelings to those we don’t; and with indifferent feelings to the rest.
Am I the pleasant feelings that I have when I hear kind words, when I see beautiful sights, when I smell and taste food that I love? Am I the good feelings that arise through my skin and muscles to hugs and kisses from those that are close to me; or the good feelings in my body that arise when I take a walk or work out or experience some physical thrill?
Do I identify with unpleasant feelings like those I have when I’m uncomfortable; or when my body is hurt, or when I’m criticized, attacked, blamed, or ignored?
Do I identify with the neutral feelings of indifference I have when passing strangers or being served by a waiter or a clerk at a store?
Try not to let your analysis stop at feelings that appear atomic, but see if you can further break down any of these feelings. If you look closely at your mind, you can see that there is a moment when a feeling arises in response to some sensory or mental event. You can watch it grow, sustain, then diminish and disappear. Are you any of these sub-moments of feeling? Are you all of them? Are any of these moments atomically indivisible, or can you divide them further?
Searching for the self in the mental factor of perception
Next, we see if we can find ourself in the third aggregate, the mental factor of perception. This is the part of our mind that takes some bundle of reality and labels it: a collection of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids on a clay plate as our dinner; a collection of plant cells as a flower; a collection of metal and glass and almost all the elements on earth that come together as our iPhone.
Are we this aspect of our mind to take the continuity of invisible electromagnetic reality and, through the senses, label it with colors and forms and sounds and tastes, touches, tactile sensations? None of these exist absolutely and independently from the mind. Even Newton and Galileo understood clearly that our sensory experience was purely psychological. There is no blue or sweet or pain or pleasure that exists outside our minds in the invisible universe of electromagnetic energy.
So are we our perception, that ability of our mind to wrap bundles of sensory experience with the label of home, phone, dinner, or me?
Searching for the self in our other mental factors
Feeling and perception are two of the most powerful mental factors operating in our mind, but there are dozens more categorized in the fourth aggregate that’s called volition or mental formation. You can ask yourself if you are any of the other mental experiences in your mind that differentiate the intricacies of reality. Are you your mental experiences of jealousy or pride or love or compassion or even democracy or justice?
If you do identify more strongly with one, then what happens to the I when that mental experience dissolves into a new one?
Give yourself a moment to probe any aspect of your mental experience to see if your self can be found in any of them.
(Meditate quietly for a moment)
Searching for the self in consciousness itself
The last place to search in this five-part analysis of the aggregates is the fifth aggregate, awareness itself: the space of consciousness or mental experience apart from the mental factors that flow through it.
Try now and let your attention move away from the contents of your mental experience to the container of your mental experience.
As you relax into the space of your mind, does it appear to have any qualities? Does it feel large and spacious, or small and confined? Does it have qualities of luminosity or darkness? Does the mind have a clarity to it or is it fuzzy and obscured? Does the mind have a sense of knowing or reflecting what appears to it, or is it indifferent to the mental factors that arise within its space?
Thoughts and feelings will inevitably emerge within the spaciousness of the mind. But pay attention only to where they emerge from and where they dissolve back into. What is that ground from which mental factors emerge within the mind?
You may experience some intuitive sense of the space of your mind, and you can let yourself relax into this experience for a moment. But then see if this space is where you can find the I. Is this the ultimate place where the inherent I can finally pin itself, this space of the mind?
If you decide that it is, inquire further. If we divide the space of the mind in half, is this I in one side or the other? If we subdivide the space of the mind into little cubes of space can you find yourself in any one of them? If not, can you definitively find yourself as the collection of all of these cubes of space?
The mind also has a temporal aspect. Individual moments of consciousness arise, grow, sustain, diminish, and disappear. Some of these have mental factors riding within them. Others are free from thought and remain in the direct experience of unobstructed mind itself.
Whether combined with mental factors, or free from mental factors, do you find yourself within any of these moments of consciousness? If you find yourself within the present moment of consciousness, what happens to this self when this moment of consciousness disappears? Does the self continue on with that moment of consciousness that disappears? If so, where? Or when? Does the self jump to the next moment of consciousness? Or is the self separate from any moment of consciousness?
Notice how moments of consciousness, since they have a duration, can be split in the middle to an earlier and later moment. When you do this, do you find your self in one or the other or both?
If you keep dividing these slices of consciousness, do you eventually find a quantum of consciousness? Or do you find that the slices of consciousness can be divided forever?
What happens at that barrier when a slice of consciousness becomes infinitely thin? Does the self disappear? Or, like in calculus, does the self become a timeless measure of something that transcends moments of time altogether?
Searching for the self in causes
The physical and mental parts that make up our self all have causes. We move now to meditating on these causes, to see whether our self is as independent as it seems.
Our body began with small bits of our mother and father, and then incorporated food and nutrients and oxygen to grow itself within our mother and then outside her. As we grew this process continued, turning “non-me” elements into “me.”
With our mind we can also notice how all the words we learn came from outside ourselves: from our teachers and our parents and our friends. All the concepts we know came from others. All the skills we have we learned from others. Most of our beliefs and opinions came from others who taught or convinced or indoctrinated us.
When we look at the scientific research on statistics about people’s jobs and rates of success and wealth, we see that the strongest factor associated with success in one’s career, a healthy body, friends, and freedom from violence is who we were born to and where we were born.
Going back in time, we can trace both our bodies and our minds back through the thousand generations of humans who created the languages and civilizations and technologies and religions that brought us to where we are today.
And back further through evolution, millions of years evolving back through apes and mammals and fish to tiny sea creatures. And back further to the origin of life on earth three and a half billion years ago.
All the energy on earth comes from our 5 billion year old star. And all the elements that make up life on earth came from earlier stellar explosions that created the heavy elements of life like carbon and nitrogen. Ultimately, we can trace our physical body back to the Big Bang, the beginning of matter and energy and even time itself in our universe.
Now come back to the present. Realize how, at the physical level, every atom in your body is moved by the gravitational attraction of every other particle in the universe. Gravity’s reach has no limit. In this way, galaxies that we can see 14 billion light years away exert a tiny influence on every particle of your body. So even now we are interconnected with the entire visible universe.
Notice too how your position in life—your opinions, your decisions, all the material things around you too—were made by others, brought to you by others, influenced by others. Think who you have to thank for everything around you right now. None of it comes directly from you. It all comes from others.
The role of the mind in constructing the self
Now, look at the role of the mind in constructing the self. We are an uncountable collection of parts brought together by innumerable causes stemming back to the origin of the universe. The mind wraps these caused parts with the label: Scott, Stephen, Katherine, Robina. It’s a provisional label, but we come to so strongly identify with it that we often feel a surge of excitement or fear when someone says our name. But we are not our name. Our name is just a label placed upon our caused parts.
Try to imagine seeing yourself this way in your daily life, existing not independently but interdependently; constantly changing, made of countless parts produced by an infinite stream of cause and effect. If you consistently saw yourself this way, how would it change the way you responded to criticism, blame, craving, or praise? Who is it being criticized? Who is being blamed? Who is craving? Who is praised? Am I even the same person who was praised or blamed one second ago?
Search now again through the parts of your body and mind and see if you can find this inherent self that exists separate from the parts of the body and mind and the label we place upon them. Are we really anything else?
Try for a moment now to let go of the analysis, to let go of concepts. Let go into a non-conceptual understanding of yourself that transcends ego grasping; that transcends labels; that transcends any one part of you or the collection of parts. Let yourself relax into the experience and the feeling of interdependence, to know yourself, perhaps for the first time, as you truly are.
(Meditate quietly for one minute)
And now, return to concepts. See how you do indeed exist. You haven’t negated yourself in any way, but only expanded the boundaries of how you understand your body and mind. I’m so much more than I thought I was. The independent, unchanging, partless view of myself is so limiting, so narrow, and so wrong.
The separateness—and ultimately selfishness—that arises from this incorrect view of the self is unnecessary when we become aware of our interdependent, changing self composed of countless physical parts and mental moments. We are so much more alive and changing and interdependent than our narrow ego imposes on us.
When that narrow, egotistic self arises, we can now see that moment as a gift, showing us the false inherent I that doesn’t exist the way it seems. The arising of this inherent I gives us the opportunity to perform this magnificent analysis of how we truly exist and embrace a greater sense of self that is interdependent with all other life and everything else in the universe.
We highly recommend these four books on emptiness if you’d like to delve into this topic with the guidance of expert teachers in the authentic Tibetan Buddhist lineage:
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio