You are not who you think you are
In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer explores the concept of Self.
The book is so well written and explores complex subject matter in a way that makes it simple and relatable. I highly recommend you find yourself a copy, but in the meantime I want to share my favorite take away from the book with you.
Michael’s discussion of consciousness and what it is, and therefore, who we are, really stuck with me. He explains it through a series of questions which I will summarise for you here. It goes like this…
If I were to ask you, ‘Who are you?’, what would you say?
You’d probably reply with your name, right?
‘I’m Sarah Smith’.
But that’s just a collection of letters that form a sound – that’s not really who you are.
So who are you?
And maybe you’d say, ‘Ah ok, I’m not Sarah Smith, that’s just my name. I’m a wife, Mum, writer, business owner, student.’
But that’s not really who you are either – you would still be you if you separated or stopped writing. And you were you before you became a Mum. These are labels to describe situations or events in which you’ve participated.
Who are you?
So then you say, ‘Ok, I see. My name is Sarah Smith. I was born in a little town called Arrowtown to my parents, John and Jane Smith. When I was 12, we moved to Queenstown, where I started at Queenstown Intermediate. I loved reading, art and was particularly good at science. After I left school, I moved to Dunedin to go to university, and I got an Environmental Science degree. I also met my husband, Sam, while at uni. I love Stevie Nicks and a good cup of tea. That’s who I am.’
That’s all great, but you’ve just described experiences. Wouldn’t you still be you if you had gone to a different uni? Wouldn’t you still be you no matter what your interests are?
So maybe you say, ‘Ok fine. I am the body sitting here now. I am five foot six and 135 pounds.’
But again, weren’t you still you when you were just three foot two? Is the you that grew up in Arrowtown the same you that sits here now? You may look physically different, and you’ve had different experiences, but isn’t that still you?
Michael shares the questions yogic teacher Ramana Maharshi asks to get to the essence of who we really are:
Who am I? Who sees when I see? Who hears when I hear? Who knows I am aware? Who am I?
Maybe you’d reply, ‘Me. I’m just me. I experience all of those things.’
And that would be pretty damn close and probably about the best answer you could give – you are not the external things in your life.
This isn’t the whole picture.
If we go internal to your thoughts, your emotions, your ideas, your judgements – are those things you? Or are they simply things that pass through your mind that you experience, change, consider – and even get frustrated with?
Think about the times you sit down to meditation, or late at night when you’re trying to fall asleep. You try and get some mental quiet, but your mind is racing. Whose mind? Who notices these thoughts? Can you get rid of them if you want to? If you have a thought you don’t like, can you make it go away?
Have you ever meditated and successfully cleared your mind of all thought, even for a moment? You don’t realise it’s happening, and then a second later you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing it!’ Annnnnd it all comes back in.
But at that moment, your mind was still. You were free of thought, and you were still you.
So like external experiences, you are not your thoughts. You are simply aware of your thoughts.
Who are you?
You’ve let go of all external and internal experiences – it’s just you. Who is ‘you’? What is left?
Eventually, you get to a point where you realise that you as the experiencer, observer and listener are simply awareness and a consciousness of what is.
You are consciousness: pure awareness.
Michael runs through another thought experiment and asks that you imagine you are in a room looking at a group of people and a piano. Now imagine the piano ceases to exist. Easy, right? Now imagine the people in the room cease to exist. No problem, right?
Now imagine your awareness doesn’t exist. Just turn it off.
Now how are you doing? What would it be like if your awareness didn’t exist? The answer is simple – you wouldn’t be there. There would be no ‘you’. No awareness of consciousness, no awareness of being.
Without your awareness, the world could exist, but you wouldn’t know. With your awareness, there could be nothing, but you’d be aware there is nothing.
So in this example, you are pure consciousness and awareness, observing and experiencing the world through a collection of labels, beliefs and thoughts made up of a woman named Sarah Smith, an Environmental Scientist married to Sam, a mother to a 3-year-old child, the daughter of John and Joan, born in Arrowtown.
Isn’t that a bit mind-blowing?!
These are concepts I’d heard before, but it wasn’t until I read them this way that I really ‘got’ it. It’s simple, but it makes you think so deeply, and there are so many implications of this. While it’s heavy subject matter, I think it brings a lightness to so many situations. When you can hold onto the knowledge that you are in fact pure consciousness moving through life, one experience at a time, you can let things wash over you without holding on to them so tightly. You can perceive everything that happens to you in a different way when you realise that it doesn’t have to define you. And perception is such an interesting and important part of who we are and how we see the world. More on that in the next post.