What is the essential me ?10 min read

The most important factor determining man’s thought and action is his view of his own nature. What he thinks himself to be colours his world-view and determines his action at a profound level. Indeed Ernest Hocking holds that the history of mankind from age to age can be traced to the dominant image which he forms about himself. History, says Hocking, is the product of man’s self-making and remaking. Is the individual a finite entity, existing for a specified number of years at a particular place, or is there an infinite element in his nature, as all the great spiritual traditions have taught? This question is not only of theoretical interest, but according to how it is answered leads to radical modification in the conditions of practical life.

Is man simply the physical body? Even accepting the most materialistic position, it is the same matter which we find inside or outside the body, and the body, which is entirely composed of matter, is continually changing. Where has it come from? According to the principle of conservation of matter the body is not being created and destroyed. Originally only the few molecules of the spermatozoon (little more than the almost countable number of nucleoprotein molecules bringing the coded plan of inheritance from the father) and the molecules that comprise the single cell of the ovum constitute the whole physical matter of the “individual”. Everything else is borrowed subsequently from the world around by ingestion. Further, the whole physical organism is in a state of continuous change. There is no bit of matter which is peculiarly us.

Our body is like some giant transit camp into which the travelling molecules come, stay for a bit, and then depart; but it is a camp without a permanent staff. Some visitors stay longer than others, but even the slow movers, like the calcium atoms in our bones, are changed gradually over the years and replaced by successors. So there is no abiding entity in the body which marks us off as truly separate individuals. Materially speaking, we may appear finite and limited in form, and hard and concrete in outline, but the matter in our bodies is just a part of the matter of the cosmos in a temporary and ever changing state. What appears finite, precise and delimited into “me” and “not me”, is not finite at all, and the distinction, when examined, becomes vague and nebulous. As Sir Thomas Browne put it: “ ‘All flesh is grass’ is not only metaphorically but literally true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in ourselves . . . This frame we look on hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devoured ourselves.”

If we ask what, physically speaking, is the essential “me”, we shall have to admit that we are at best nothing but our meals incorporated, a kind of joint-stock company, with continuously changing shareholders. We must look elsewhere than the physical body if we are to find an essential “I”; and if we do look at the physical organism which we call ourself (or, at least, our own), it is only a temporary collection of a little of that matter which is the physical universe.

But (it will be said) there is something which marks out the body of all living organisms as distinct from physical matter—that which we call life or vitality. It is life which, links the tiny sperm and ovum with the fully-grown body. The life of the organism is one and the same and goes on from generation to generation. When life is lost, then the matter of the body becomes mere matter again. The physical form may alter, but the life which animates it is the same.

This is the argument. But is it so? Is it our life or vitality which makes us what we are? Vitality is seen also in lower animals, like the earthworm. If you cut a worm into two or more pieces, each bit will grow into a new adult worm. In our gardens we see the same principle demonstrated every time we take a cutting from a living plant. Even considering higher forms, there is no break in the chain of life between parents and children; the life of the father and that of the mother are continued in the life of the child, but they have lost any individuality they were supposed to possess. The two “fives” become one and the same life in the child, and it is clearly the same life in all three individuals. Moreover the life of the father and mother can become the life in many children and grandchildren without suffering any diminution in the process.

Again, with modern surgical techniques living organs can be transferred from one living body to another, and new skin, or parts of the eye or even a kidney may be grafted onto a new body and become part of the living matter of that organism.

Clearly we must conclude that all life is one, and that there is therefore no justification for seeking the essential self of the individual in the life which animates the body.

But this is, perhaps, no surprise to us. Life is a universal and an impersonal principle, just as matter is, and it is in the world of thoughts and ideas, that is to say, in the mind, that we should expect to find that which peculiarly makes us, us. We are, surely, uniquely the person who possesses a certain stream of experiences, different from those of anybody else either in their details or in the total combination.

We are what we are according to that principle of “higher heredity”, of which Swami Rama Tirtha speaks in his notebooks, whereby what the mind has eaten and ingested in the form of past experience and the habits we have formed by the exercise of our will become the substance of the body of thoughts which is our mind: “The sensorium or brain has no teacher (informer) save the ingoing sensory nerves and the senses; it has no servants save the outgoing motor nerves.” And again: “As food must be formed into tissues, so must sensory perception (knowledge) pass over into motor action.”

We are each the architect of our own fortunes in that we build up by habit and experience the kind of character which is formed, and the mind which we inherit here and now is the offspring of our past thought and action. Here, then, we are really arriving at something peculiarly ourself; here is the sphere in which our individual personality is formed.

But what is this personality composed of? It is a coat of many colours, stitched together from the rag-bag of experience. Like a theatrical costume, it may make a brave show on the stage of life, but it is not really very substantial. For one thing it is not all of a piece; it is made up of a quite ridiculous collection of bits and pieces, of feelings, opinions, prejudices, collected from here, there and everywhere, and in many cases there is not even the vestige of an overall design about the collection. Few people have a well-ordered life, in which they know from the start what they want to become, and thereafter go steadily ahead to become it.

But even in these few the personality is still a constructed thing, a temporary and changing collection like the matter of the physical body, and it is almost totally composed of borrowed ideas. The question as to whether anyone has truly original thoughts is a vexed one, upon which opinions may differ. But it is beyond question that, if they do exist, they are excessively rare events —perhaps only given to the rare genius once or twice in his lifetime. Most of our thoughts are commonplace, and even when they are not, we have acquired almost all of them secondhand.

It may be objected that many of our thoughts are about particular events or situations which have not arisen before. But here it is not the incidental particulars which matter, but rather the essential idea: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Consider the contents of a novel, or the lyrics of the whole repertoire of songs, popular and classical, and you will realise that it is precisely because our thoughts are not original that human beings can share their mental world together.

The collection of thoughts in our mind then cannot be the real “I”, and they are not peculiarly ours anyway. They are the mental food we have lived on, which has been incorporated for the time being into our mental body.

But there are surely other elements in the mind, which are more truly personal, the sense of “I” for instance, and that faculty which seems to survey the rest and “own” them. Be that as it may, it is clear that the boundaries of our being are not as finite as we suppose. Matter, vitality and thought are three aspects of our being. But when our body is formed, no new particular matter, peculiarly “us”, is created. Our material being is one with the matter of the whole universe. Similarly when our life begins, no new life is created. We are simply sharing in the life of our parents, which is essentially the same life as in all living organisms. And when our mind comes into being, it takes its place in the world of thoughts and sensations which it shares in common with other minds, and it is from this common world of ideas that it is subsequently populated.

The particular characteristics of the individual’s body, life and mind are not permanent or abiding features; as the Gita says, they are like clothes put on by the Self and worn until they are worn out and then discarded, to be replaced by others in their turn. But the real man, the true Self, is something else, something in which the potentiality to produce what has been produced resides, and also the potentiality to produce infinitely more.

Take away these garments or sheaths, and you are left, say the yogis, with a spiritual element which is infinite. Being infinite, you cannot weigh it or examine it. It cannot be seen, heard, tasted or touched, because that which the senses encompass is the finite object. Even these sense-objects are not wholly finite, but have the element of infinity in them; but as the senses present them to us, they are finite. The infinity in man and in objects is beyond the range of the senses or the finite mind, but it is the fountainhead of all power and all creation.

Yoga wants man to recognise this fact, not just intellectually, but by realising it as a fact in conscious experience. Says Swami Rama Tirtha: “All these bodies are like the dew drops, and the real man is like the ray of the sun which passes through and threads together all those beads of dew. All these bodies are like the beads on a rosary, and the real man is like the string which passes through them all.”

Shri Shankara in his commentary on Chapter VIII of the Gita, explains Adhyatma, the subject of this Yoga, as the innermost Self (Pratyagatman) in every individual body— “that which first shows itself as the innermost Self in the body and turns out in the end to be identical with the Supreme Reality (Brahman).”