What am I?


What am I?  This is said to be “the master question of the philosopher.”  It’s also a category of riddles which is the closest most people get to thinking about the question.  But in a very real sense, it is the question we are on earth to answer, and until we do we will keep coming back–to earth and to the question.  Not “Who am I?”  That is too easily answered with all the adjectives we’ve come to associate with a particular body-mind-heart entity: name, gender, race, job, talents, etc.  “What am I?” forces you to go deeper, to something more essential.

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I was reminded of the question recently when a friend gave me a copy of the book The Reason I Jump written by Naoki Higashida, a (then) thirteen-year-old Japanese boy with autism who learned to communicate by using a word table constructed by his mother.  (I won’t go into the whole back story of the book here, which is described in the introduction.  Suffice it to say that it is a very compelling look into the workings and non-workings of the “autistic” mind.)  In it he answers a series of questions put to him (including “Why do you jump so often?”), and exhibits a remarkable self-awareness.  I have a passing acquaintance with one person who has autism, and my impression had been that it was a condition where the personality never quite congealed, where an entity we would think of as being human was never quite finalized.

But having read this book, it seems now that there is an “I am” inside the body, a self that is aware of its capabilities and limitations, and can describe and understand them to an extent.  It is another lesson in learning not to judge or condemn–although I did come away with a newly profound respect for anyone tasked with raising a child with this condition.  This child, like all others, has joys and sorrows, fears and hopes, loves and loathings, and wants as a foundation to be acknowledged as a human being.  A human being without the filtering mechanisms and expressive tools we take for granted, but one who should not be ignored.

No one to my knowledge has yet come up with a good explanation of this syndrome, and I am certainly not qualified to put one forward.  I was however reminded of the description given of our nervous system by Aldous Huxley in his book The Doors of Perception, an account of his experiences with taking the drug mescaline.  He quotes the philosopher Dr. C. D. Broad suggesting that the “function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive…” and goes on to say

According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large.  But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive.  To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system.  What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.

This image of the “reducing valve” recalls what Emerson in The Poet calls “some obstruction, or some excess of phlegm in our constitution….”  It is one that has support in the ancient teachings we have considered in this blog. Indeed, all the descriptions given by Plato of the Ideal (see episodes 5, 6, 7) suggest a state of unlimited consciousness (“Mind at Large”) on the one hand and a severely limited state of awareness in which most of our life is spent on the other.  (Think the prisoners in the cave.)  The ego, as I’ve said, is a sphincter on the soul.  Plato is saying, as did many before him, that we are in fact the Ideal, the Mind at Large, Consciousness itself, but we content ourselves with the “measly trickle” of consciousness and love that comprise most of our experience.  There are of course many other examples in Plato (and others) which describe the ill-effects of this reducing valve, but the message is always clear: in truth we are the unreduced, the free-flowing source, the wellspring.

This is also as I’ve argued the message of Homer’s Odyssey, which describes how Odysseus rises above this valve to return to his true nature.  In his limited view of himself, brought on by his experience in the Trojan War, he is a warrior, a “sacker of cities,” drawn into the confusion of the “many” and the conflicts that arise from it.  But his nostos, his return, involves the gradual shedding of this limited identity and the reunification with the other parts of his being: Telemachus, Penelope, Laertes, Athena.  He leaves behind his identity as “versatile,” or of “many devices” (polytropos), in favor of planting his oar and becoming the One.  The image of the fountain or spring which is used throughout, especially that in the cavern which overlooks Odysseus as he lands on Ithaka, reinforces this allegory:

At the head of this harbor there is a large olive tree, and at no distance a fine overarching cavern sacred to the nymphs who are called [105] Nymphs of Wellsprings, Naiads. There are mixing-bowls within it and wine-jars of stone, and the bees hive there. Moreover, there are great looms of stone on which the nymphs weave their robes of sea purple – very curious to see – and at all times there is water within it. It has two entrances, [110] one facing North by which mortals can go down into the cave, while the other comes from the South and is more mysterious; mortals cannot possibly get in by it, it is the way taken by the gods.

In describing artists, poets, mystics and others with special visions (including those which come from mescaline), we tend to use the term “heightened awareness.”  But this assumes that the measly trickle is the norm.  If we go with Huxley’s interpretation, what they have is an “incomplete reduction.”  Somehow the valve on their wellspring has remained opened to a greater extent, and we who slog through the day in “quiet desperation” are the anomalies.  We willingly allow our days to become a blur of activity, going from one thing to another without a pause to see where we are or ask what we are, checking our phones for emails or texts when things fall still for a moment.

It is then the first responsibility of the philosopher, or poet, or human, to be able to fall still, to let go of the activity and by doing so let go of the limitations we have allowed to happen to us.  Only from this starting-point of stillness can we hope to open the valve, to merge again with the fountain, the clear spring, the well of consciousness which is our source.  To experience the answer to the question “What am I?”