Who am “I”?

“To whom do these thoughts appear?”

“To me,” you say.

Then ask the one who perceives this: “Who am ‘I’?”

-Sri Ramana Maharshi, on self-enquiry

Our experience is known. How else are we aware of our thoughts, feelings, sensations? Experience seems so ordinary, that existence seems to be made objects of experience (thoughts, feelings and sensations). A world filled with objects, occupied by people, each filled with their own thoughts and feelings, just going by in the hustle and bustle that we call life is what we know. We call it business as usual, but yet rarely do we stop to ponder what it is that knows our experience.

However, to know something, there must be a knower in which the object which is being experienced can be known. In many a discipline this is known as the subject-object relationship; where a subject is present that observes the object of the study. This ranges from scientists observing the performance results of a prototype rocket, to an athlete watching replays of his performance to spot flaws in his technique, to a child staring at a peacock with fascination for the first time, to you looking at that cute barista as they whip up your double-shot expresso. The subject is always the one witnessing; the object is the one being witnessed, such is the nature of the subject-object relationship.

Our experience is known. What then, could possibly be the subject in which all the objects of our experience are known? What is its nature? What are its characteristics?

What is it that knows all your experience? The answer is obviously: “I”. It makes sense, that “I” would be aware of all facets of my experience. What is the nature of this “I” that knows all experience? In the happiest, most joyful moments, to the deepest, darkest moments, “I” have always been the one experiencing them. Since childhood, “I” have always been aware of my experience, and will always be till the day the body dies. Even during sleep, “I” am aware of alarms that wake me up, am aware of people that push me out of bed, am aware of dreams and the quality of sleep. And even in sleep, “I” am not aware of the breath, nor am “I” aware of the body (and even on the rare occasion, “I” am aware of the body during sleep, which leads to a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis). And in deep sleep, “I” am not aware of the existence of any objects.

Even the body that allows the “I” to explore and interact with the world is not brought with “I” into deep sleep, nor is the breath that keeps it alive. Even the things that keep the body alive cannot constantly be with “I”, as illustrated through deep sleep and death. For what could death be, if not the cessation of all experiencing that the “I” experiences? And if reincarnation were real, would death not be a temporary nap that “I” go through, before waking up again in a fresh new body in a fresh new world, with (little to) no memory of any past-life experiences that “I” experienced?

Given that the universe is infinitely large, and with an infinite number of planets and life forms out there, could it be possible then, that the laws, ethics, cultures, and even sciences on other worlds be different? Even if you were to reincarnate into a new body in a new world at the edge of the universe, would it not be the same “I” that is the eternal subject to all (albeit different and possibly wacky) objects of experience? After all, it is “I” that is ever-aware of the changeful nature of all objects of experience.

“I” am aware of the ecstasy of a passionate sexual escapade, the frenzy in the midst of a stock market crash, the polarizing opinion of a political debate gone wrong, the pain in the back upon arriving at home, and all manner of polarizing experience. Could it be said that this “I” is ever-present in all situations that “I” encounter, and is responsible for the knowing of all experience?

Could it be said that “I”, the eternal subject that knows all experience, am not touched or affected by all objects of experience that pass through, nor do “I” share the limitations of these experienced objects?

Could it be said that “I” have a space-like quality, where “I” am not affected by experiences, but yet am the ‘space’ in which they all appear into existence, dance, and then disappear into when they come to an end?

Could it be said that “I” am the light that illuminates all the experiences that “I” am aware of?

What are the characteristics of “I”? Do “I” have a shape? Do “I” have a form with a boundary? Do “I” have a smell? Do “I” taste like mint-chocolate cake? Do “I” have a name? Do “I” have a birth date, or pray tell, an expiry date? Do “I” have a job that must be attended to at all costs? Or are all these characteristics themselves objects of experience which “I” perceive, appearing in the mind as answers that “I” can perceive?

Could anything else be said about “I” other than that “I” am aware of all experience?

Could “I” ever be anything other than this eternal, timeless awareness?

“Stand up, and take a step towards yourself. Where would you go?”

-Rupert Spira, excerpted from Meditation: A Dream in God’s Infinite Mind

Though the mind may get lost in impressions and activities, “I” can never not be the eternal subject which knows all experience. Thus, any mindfulness practice is a vacation from the hustle and bustle of the objects of experience, for the mind to remember that “I am” not the contents of my experience. Like actors on a stage, we put on our identities and go forth into the world, a bizarre dance that appears and fades back into nothingness when we finally go to sleep, yet unaware of God himself in our selves, dancing to a tune that our finite minds could never possibly comprehend.

“I” am beyond all objects of experience, for they appear in me and are made known by my light.

“I” am the experiencing in which all forms are witnessed, appearing and disappearing.

“I” am eternal and aware, for all experiences come and go, yet am the knowing of it all.

“I” am the Tao, for all things appear in me, and yet “I” never lord it over them.

“I” am God, for all of creation is known by, created by, and fades back into me.

“I” am life itself, for through my play with all forms, “I” am the universe in motion.

And when the mind finally collapses the duality of subject and object, all that I can say is;

“I am.”

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