When people are lost in their lives the natural question, “Who am I?” can come up. I’ve recently heard it from a person on a show about addiction and recovery, friends in career questioning, and myself as I consider what I want in life.
This question can also be used as a method to enter meditation. I have experienced the, “Who am I?” exercise in yoga workshops, with good results. In pairs, one person asks the question, “Who am I?” and the other answers. When it gets quiet, the question is asked again for the whole duration of the exercise. This summer someone told me that in the ‘70s she had done this for 36 hours straight! I have only done it for several minutes, and it’s very interesting. Recently my last answer was, “love and nobody special.” I was “nobody special” in that I was seeing myself as a part of the larger flow of life.
If I did it right this minute I might say that I am “a ball of nerves,” “a runny nose,” and “comforting breath.” I am a “questing intellect,” a “mild headache,” and “percolating joy.”
When I scan myself for qualities I see things I like and things I don’t like. Where I can get into trouble is if I mentally attach to a particular aspect of myself. For example, if I focus on my constantly running nose I can build frustration about a body function, leading to an unhappy mental state. But, even if I were to concentrate only on joyful messages from my cells I might find myself in an inappropriately inflated mental state, because I do have a cold to take care of. So pretending that life is perfect is just as false as dwelling on life’s miserable qualities.
In Iyengar yoga I have heard a quote by B.K.S. Iyengar that says something like, “All the cells in the body have eyes.” What I take from this is that in yoga we want to work with consciousness evenly throughout the whole body. From a physical perspective I might say, “I am all the cells that make up my body.” And from a yogic point of view I can see that all the cells participate in my yoga posture in a vibrant or dull way(in the vibrant cells the eyes are looking, and in the dull ones the eyes are closed). For example, if I don’t bring awareness to the way I work my legs in a standing pose, then my spine is probably collapsed. This would prevent me from benefitting from the pose and possibly cause harm to my body. The consciousness is uneven in this case.
Similarly, from a mental perspective, I could say, “I am my thoughts.” And what if all the thoughts I experience also have eyes—just like the cells of my body. This might mean that all thoughts participate in my mental state. So if I habitually favor certain kinds of thoughts, I am not seeing a clear picture of myself. For example, if I choose to favor thoughts that came from what someone else said about me like, “You’re a bitch.” This can clearly lead me into a downward mental spiral as I remember all the times I might have acted from a less-than-pure place.
The trouble with favoring certain kinds of thoughts is that the mind creates more of what you prefer, skewing a person’s understanding of themselves. For example, if I am often looking at all the ways I’ve screwed up in life, I’m going to see myself as a failure. Or, if I habitually look at moments where my actions hurt others, I’m a perpetrator. Or, if I tend to see myself as being hurt by others over and over in my life, I’m a victim. And if I look at all the ways I’ve helped others, I’m a hero.
Who I am at the level of thought is not easily seen, and it changes from moment to moment. Who am I? I am beautiful energy. I am overactive nasal passages. I am freedom and spaciousness. I am cranial pressure. I am a hug.
I am incredibly specific, and totally undefined.