Saturday, December 6, 2014

Who Am I? Part I - Questions of Identity

All of the major religions teach that a person's soul lives on after death.  As a child, I was taught that my spirit would ascend to Heaven, while my body decayed on Earth.  Now I practice Buddhism, which teaches of rebirth.  Regardless of tradition, thinking critically about the soul leads to the same paradox.  All that I know about myself is contained in my brain, but I am also my soul, completely separate and independent from my brain.

If I have a soul or spirit, what is it exactly?  What is its nature?  Can the soul feel and experience things, and if so how?  Does the soul have any memories or knowledge, and if so, how does it store, propagate, and access that information?  Can the soul have thoughts, and if so how?  Can the soul communicate its thoughts and experiences to the mind?  If it can (and does), what is the mechanism, and how can I distinguish between a thought that originates in the soul and one that is of the mind?  If it cannot, then what is its relation to the mind (and to the self that I know)?  What defines and distinguishes my soul from other souls? 

There is one question I've been pondering for the past few years, which I think underlies these others, to some extent.  How does the soul relate to identity?  To put it more directly, if I identify myself as my soul, rather than as my mind and body, then who am I?

My personality, all of my likes and dislikes, my beliefs, my inclinations, and all that I've learned are nothing but neural connections in my brain.  Every thought, every emotion, and every memory exists only in my brain, nowhere else.  Every sensation and experience that I will ever have is filtered through my brain at multiple layers.  Nothing is direct and raw.  My entire identity and everything that I know about myself will be gone the moment I die, if not before.  If I suffer a brain injury, I could become an entirely different person, a different ‘me’.  Just think about Phineas Gage, or think about how long-term lead poisoning can make passive people turn violent.  I’m assuming that brain injuries don’t affect the soul.  But they can clearly affect everything that we define as identity.  By inverse reasoning, we can conclude that the soul plays little if any role in our personality and our behavior. 

So with this understanding, I’ll rephrase a previous question: If my soul plays little or no role in my identity, then how can it possibly be accurate or useful to refer to my soul as me?  From this perspective, the soul that lives on after death cannot be identified as me any more than some cancer cells in a petri dish can be identified as the person, Henrietta Lacks.  My inability to answer this question is a primary reason why I went many years without engaging in spiritual thinking or practice.

Western religions have difficulty with this too.  You can't really engage with this question while believing that Heaven and Hell are anything more than metaphors.  This is a core reason why conflict erupts between religious and non-religious people in the Christian and Muslim parts of the world.

In the East however, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophies do engage with the question.  They start by inverting the perspective.  As I've phrased it thus far, the body and mind is what I am, and the soul is something within me – something that I have.  Eastern traditions, as I've been learning, teach us to shift our point of view.  I am the soul.  The body and mind are things that I have.  This perspective redefines the entire concept of identity.  Identity is not who I am, it is only a conceptual thing which I possess.  This new perspective is difficult and dangerous.  By dangerous, I mean that a lot of people attempt to see things this way and speak as if they do, but have not truly made the conceptual shift and don't understand the implications.  When they talk about the soul, they either mean identity, or they place the baggage of identity onto the soul.

I asked, "who am I?"  And after deeply exploring the question, I haven't actually answered it. I've only established that from this new perspective, it cannot be accurately answered by the concept of identity.  I am not my personality, beliefs, memories, knowledge, and experiences.  But I still don't know who I am.

I'll be following this post up with a Part II in the relatively near future.  But take some time to think on this first.  For most of us, myself included, it's hard to think of a soul in concrete terms.  And seemingly familiar words like self and identity become slippery and elusive as they're redefined based on shifting perspectives.  I'd imagine this discussion might be easier in some Eastern tongues; English doesn't really have vocabulary or syntax to explain what I'm trying to express.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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