Identity, how we know who we are

The title itself already sounds a bit like Buddhist philosophy, because there we ask, who is the one, who is suffering, compared to the west, where we ask for the reason of suffering. But let´s start with the western way of thinking and look at the matter of our self first.

A human body is made up of several billions of cells, but only ten percent are actually human. All the other cells are bacteria and parasites. Who am I, if the biggest part of myself isn´t even made up ofhuman cells? How can all those cells been arranged in such a special way that defines one as a human?  A modern scientist mentioned that in an exclusively physiological and biochemical point of view, we would fall apart if not for our inner pictures that hold us together in the shape of a human being. These pictures develop in our mother´s womb and in the first years of our life. Therefore, our brain gets an estimate of how our body should look like. But how do we get in contact with our environment? Our problem is that our brain has no direct way of getting in contact with anything surrounding us. It´s the combination of all of our senses, which allows us this experience. At the same time, we have to admit that we ourselves are blind. It is only through the filter of our senses that we get a perception, an idea. This filter and it´s correlation in our brain is responsible for how we see our world. But this is exactly how many people define themselves. They are their point of view. But if there is no direct point of view, only a dramatically filtered one, who are we?

We are all the pictures that we ever learned in our lives. Sigmund Freud mentioned that we are the sum of all the people we met in our lives. In this case there would not be this I or self. Modern science can already explain a lot about how our personality and our emotions come into existence. If we look at other people and come to the question, who they really are, we mainly consider their personality and their appearance. Funnily our personality correlates with brain activities in our limbic system and this system has no language and no words. This means that there is no chance that we can communicate with this center neither can we understand with our prefrontal cortex what is really going on over there. This is one of the reasons why it is very difficult to explain to ourselves why we behave the way we do, not to mention changing our behaviors. We also know, how this center of emotions and personality is designed. There are mainly to pathways, which lead to the final outcome. The first is a transfer of emotions and reaction on influences in an epigenetic way and this can happen through the father and the mother. The second pathway is through substances coming from the brain of the mother, which, directly through the exchange of blood, participate in designing the emotional center of the embryo. If these are the pathways of how our personality comes into existence, where is the self? And the next question coming up is, do we have any influence to change this inborn personality or are any changes on this field just happening by our environment, this means by fate?

Let´s not go too much into detail with respect to modern science, but stay with the philosophical way of observation. We could start with old views such as can be found in shaman philosophy. The beginning of all philosophy including medicine, which was a part of philosophy in former times, lays in shamanism. Shamans were the most sensitive persons in the different tribes, sensitive in relation to nature, to the human souls and the connection to the universe. In their observing a natural life circle, they describe the origin and the growth of a human being, the development to a mature grown-up and right at the end the becoming of a wise elderly. This wise elder helps the tribe to rise to a higher level of consciousness and in this way, the tribe experiences a growth in wisdom. In this case the definition of the I or self could be my task, the task to serve my people. Again the question, who we are, comes up and could be answered in sense of the shamans by there is no I but a task.

Let´s jump in time. The shamans were followed by the beginning of high level philosophy like the Indian or the Greek philosophy. In India we can find this desire to experience the Kundalini energy. With this ambition they wanted to achieve a life with a clear sight, full of light, tolerance and awareness. If you were enlightened in this way, you can escape the cycle of reincarnation. What does that mean and what is the connection to our question. To reach the level of enlightenment means to help humans in total to reach a higher level of consciousness. Again in this case we cannot really find an I but a task. This Asian tradition lived on in Buddhism, which was actually no religion but a philosophy with the main goal to stop suffering in humans. The central part is that we are suffering because of our bad emotions like sadness, anger, desires, sorrows, wishes, wants, aggression, and many more. A Buddhist in meditation is not interested where the suffering is coming from, but who is suffering. Who is this I, this self, which is suffering.

Right at the end in meditation, we try to peel off one layer after the other. We don´t believe that I define myself by anger or sorrow, that´s not me. We peel off this layer and try to look behind. And in this way we can peel off one after the other to explore the real core of my self.

Right at the end the Buddhist comes to the realization, that there is not core, no I, and there is nothing else, at least nothing we could find words for. In our Western patterns of thinking we would say that there is only a holistic, woven energy. However, this philosophy can give a good tool for a content life through dissolving the self. It can lead to a big relieve. In the Western world through psychology, we try to find the core of ourselves, clear it from traumas, and try to maintain it for the rest of our lives. This already means a constant care, being stuck to something, which creates constant conflict with the rest of the world; the I in contrast to the world.

A nice comparison in Buddhist philosophy is the one of humans to the waves in the sea. We create this picture of the waves, as individual entities. But in their individuality they are dependent on the connection to the whole ocean and of course to the wind. This is the background of the single one. The other fact is that waves are made of endless molecules of water. Keeping this in mind we can  that the wave passes by and the molecules stay where they are, and immediately a new wave is formed with the same molecules. The question coming up is: what is this wave, this human really? Perhaps we are just a momentary cover of an energy and when we die, the energy persists, only with another cover, like the molecules of water with another cover in the form of a new wave. As we can see, old philosophies have made up their mind with this question long ago.

But how do great men and women in modern Western philosophy and psychology try to explain the I or self? I already mentioned Sigmund Freud. Two other and outstanding personalities are C.G. Jung and Viktor Frankl. C.G. Jung, who died in 1961, is talking about the transcendence of the I into the holistic self, into life on the whole. He also thinks that whereas the observation of the external leads to dreams, the observation of our inside leads to wakefulness. In his opinion, we do not define ourselves in reflection of the external, but have to explore our selves. This sound familiar to Buddhist philosophy. And he comes to similar points like the transcendence of the I being integrated in the life per se. Also Viktor Frankl, who died in 1997, surviving three concentration camps during the Second World War, dedicated his life and work to the meaning of life. He studied people after overcoming severe crisis in their lives. He found that what they had in common was that they found a task in life, where they could forget themselves, leave themselves behind. Again we find that there is no such a thing as an I we are all desperately trying to find and maintain. The real end of suffering is caused by dissolving the I towards sort of being not only part of the whole but the whole itself.

To close the circle in philosophy I would like to come back to the Asian way of thinking in interpreting one of the greatest Asian philosophers, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who died in 1988. He taught how to think without memory, that is the freedom in thinking. The core again is to forget about whatever seems to be our cultural I. Only in dissolving this I and deleting the memory we are able to really understand the other in all the holistic belongings. I would agree that this is a sort of radical way of going to the source of Buddhist philosophy, without compromise, but to me it offers many beautiful options to lift ourselves to a higher level of consciousness.

Arrived in our days I want to cite a famous German psychologist, Ingrid Riedl: “The self-transcendence also is a matter of trust, that myself I am a present which I have got. Self transcendence is effecting back to me from every being, therefore I experience myself as loving and being loved”. Especially in our days, in days of big changes on our planet, in days of lots of conflicts, wars and murders, in days of destruction of the environment and of mother earth, in days of growing together of  billions of humans to the human race as one body, self-transcendence could be a solution. In slowly dissolving our way of cultural thinking, dogmas and dogmatic religions, and rememorizing our roots in nature and experiencing us as the whole and the whole as being us, we could end conflicts and wars. I know that the search for identity is an important part in our adolescent life and that in our old days we can give up this I more easily. But if we already taught our kids in school, that this I right at the end is nothing more than an illusion and that the emphasis of the I or the self leads to conflicts with others and the nature, then we as a human race would be a better partner to this entity that is earth.


Gerhard Kögler

Vienna, 20.9.2016