Who Am I? – class 2
Who am I conventionally? Ultimately? Functionally?

Who Am I Ultimately? Download

Who am I ultimately? Am I my name, my body, my feelings, my thoughts, what I experience? sense of self; impermanence of self; independence of self; irreducible aspect of self.




Section 1

This we’re going to do in a series of meditations, more or less guided meditations.

Just to get us oriented, Mullah Nasrudin had been given a check and he went to the bank to cash it. The teller said, “I’m sorry but we’ll need some ID.” And Mullah Nasrudin said, “What do you need the ID for?” He says, “Well, we want to know who you are.” So Nasrudin reached into his pocket, took out a mirror and looked at it, and said, “Yup, it’s me.” [Laughter]

Many years ago, when I was translating for Rinpoche, we were in Toronto and someone arranged for a little bit on the evening news about Rinpoche. So they sent over this quite young TV journalist who saw this as his opportunity to do this story about this great religious figure who was visiting Canada. And we went through the whole interview, question by question, before it was taped. And it was quite clear that there was one question after another question eventually leading up to the question, “And Rinpoche, who are you?” And when Rinpoche was asked this question, he went, “In Buddhism there is no self.”

And the journalist’s face was just, just…he just went “What? But…but who…” And it was clear he wanted Rinpoche to say something like, “I am the light of Asia and I’ve come to bring light to Canada,” etc. We went back and forth on this for about five or ten minutes and it was eventually agreed that when this question was asked Rinpoche would say that I am an abbot of a monastery in Sonada. Not really what the journalist wanted, but that was what he was going to get from Rinpoche.

Lights, camera, action. Go through step by step and leading up to this question, “So Rinpoche, who are you?” Rinpoche says, “In Buddhism there is no self.” [Laughter] And the expression on the journalist’s face was just…[Laughter] And then Rinpoche said, “And, conventionally speaking…” [Laughter] It was just wonderful.


Section 2

Ken: Okay, so we’ve just spent some time going through constructing a story about ourselves. So what I’d like you to do right now, we’re just going to sit for a few minutes and then I’m just going to ask you some questions. And in this kind of meditation, the question is more valuable than the answer. So when I ask you these questions, or when I pose these questions, you’re quite likely—and it’s my intention—to experience some kind of shift. And when you experience that shift, I just want you to rest in the shift. You don’t actually have to think about the question but actually just experience that shift.

Thoughts and ideas may come to mind and that’s fine. And if you get completely lost in things, then just come back to your breath, establish a base of attention again, and then pick up the question. None of these are going to be particularly probing or you know from a psychological point of view these aren’t emotionally revealing or churning stuff up. This is much more an exploration into this question, Who am I?

So let’s start by sitting together in meditation and we’ll just let the breath rest—rest with the experience of breathing. Sandy, do you have any questions? Was the meditation instruction I gave to you okay?

Sandy: I felt like I was okay—

Ken: Good. Just wanted to check. Okay.

So just take a few minutes and Steve, since we don’t want long periods of silence on this, I will cue you just before I’m going to ask a question so you’ll have to keep your eyes on me. Okay.


Let your attention rest in the experience of breathing.


Section 3

First question is, Am I my name? Now, when you ask that, some of you may respond, “Well, no.” But when somebody calls and says, “Who are you?” that’s the first thing we say. So just ask the question, Am I my name? You may experience a little shift. Just rest in that shift. If you fall into distraction, then come back to the breath, let the mind and body settle, and then ask the question again. Am I my name? And rest in the shift.

Then the next question, Am I my body?“Again, when you ask that question, you may experience a shift. Just rest in that shift. Am I my body?

If you lose track, fall out of that shift, then let—settle into the experience of breathing again with mind and body, and then ask again. Am I my body?

When you do this, lots of other questions may pop into mind, like ”Well, what am I, then?“ and so forth. Just let those come and go and rest in the shift. Once you start thinking, you’re lost in distraction, so let that all go. Come back to the experience of breathing, and then pose the question again.

You could also ask the question, Am I my feelings? Again, you may experience a shift. Rest in the shift. Am I my feelings?

And again, we could ask, Am I my thoughts? We have thoughts. Am I my thoughts?

Again, if you find yourself mulling a lot of stuff around or thinking things, then just let body and mind settle in the experience of breathing. This kind of practice needs to be done from some sense of stability. It’s not a conceptual exercise.

Through these questions, of course, we’re leading up to a slightly bigger question. Am I what I experience? This includes the thoughts, feelings, sensations that arise. That covers everything we experience. Am I what I experience?

Now, when you ask this question, there may be an answer, no; there may be an answer, yes, but that’s not what we’re looking for at this point, not an answer. There’s a shift when we ask this question. Am I what I experience? Rest in the shift.

[Bell, bell, bell]


Section 4

Ken: Okay, let’s hear from you about your experience with this. Some of you may find this a little challenging. What happened? The floor is open. Sandy, do you want to start?

Sandy: It was very strange to describe, so I guess I found—

Ken: It can be also a little difficult to describe. Yes.

Sandy: It is. I found that when I gained my focus on my breath, I sort of had this almost like a blue screen in front.

Ken: Not the blue screen of death?

Sandy: [Laughing] Not—I’m hoping not. Although, one never knows. And then it was almost as if very, very dark, gravely clouds or whatever would keep kind of rolling into this blue screen, if this makes sense, when my mind would wander.

Ken: Okay.

Sandy: And so I would find that I would keep coming back to the breath, and they would sort of come and go and sometimes be more sparse than others. And they seemed to come and go fairly quickly in the beginning of your questions. And I found that when you asked the last question, they seemed to keep kind of coming in.

Ken: Okay.

Sandy: And I never quite cleared that screen, if that…if that experience makes sense at all.

Ken: What was your experience in your body?

Sandy: Well, I guess that was strange. My body felt surprisingly at ease and…and, for example, when you asked, ”Are you your body?“ I’m in the health and fitness business, with Joe.

Ken: Yes.

Sandy: So often it is [unclear]. Whoops. [Laughing] Or not. About me being my body. And so I expected a very uncomfortable shift in my body, in a way, when we were talking about some of the things you had asked. And I was surprised that I actually felt as comfortable as I did.

Ken: All right. Anybody else? Thank you very much. Randye.

Randye: I had a good stability with the breath and then you started asking questions and blew it all.

Ken: That’s what happens with these questions. [Laughing]

Randye: The shift literally was to move out of connecting with my breath to go looking for the answer.

Ken: [Chuckle] You aren’t a researcher by any chance, are you? [Laughing]

Randye: When I…you know, am I my thoughts? I went looking at my thoughts and evaluating them, and deciding nope, I’m not my thoughts. I know I’m not my emotions, I’m not my body, but the…and then I got into a regression where I started wondering what it was that was actually looking at my thoughts, and…which I do that frequently.

Ken: Yes, this is the meditation—

Randye: But the shift is a—

Ken: Equivalent of a dog chasing its own tail.


Randye: Yeah, yeah, you know, standing between two mirrors.

Ken: Okay.

Randye: Or a cat chasing its own tail. I’m a cat person. But I mean, it felt almost like a physical movement. Something, the I-ness, the consciousness, the self-awareness made a shift and it was notable.

Ken: Okay, can you describe that shift?

Randye: [Pause] Well, for me, it was definitely a movement out of being with to starting to try and act on. I was using my…I was thinking. I was using my mind, as opposed to just being present with my breath.

Ken: So when the question was posed, you started using your mind.

Randye: Yeah. And it felt like movement out of and away from my core self.

Ken: I’m going to take some other responses. While I’m doing so, what I’d like you to just experiment with—and it won’t be ideal because there’ll be some talking going on—is, what if you ask the question and you don’t start using your mind?

Randye: Got to work on that.

Ken: Yes, that’s what I’d like you to do. And I’ll come back to you. Okay, Cara.


Section 5

Cara: I have more of a question than an experience?

Ken: Please.

Cara: Isn’t the great thing about being a person our ability to cultivate and…or not just cultivate but to have self-awareness? Isn’t that what separates us from everything else on the planet? The fact that we can actually say, like…we don’t just act on instinct alone?

Ken: Well…

Joe: Two-edged sword.

Ken: Well, exactly. Joe says two-edged sword. I would say it is the ability to reflect on experience that creates the possibility of being separate from experience, because now we can live in a story. And we’re going to go into that more in a few minutes. Okay, what were some other experiences with the shift? Sue.

Sue: The first question, Am I my name?, I felt kind of a shift in that I immediately thought, ”What is my name?“ and that I have some energy about that, almost like, ”Don’t pin me down.“

Ken: Yes.

Sue: And that has been an experience I’ve had with some people in my family, who call me by a name I was when I was a little girl, and people call me by my name now. And all this started going on.

Ken: So all kinds of associations with various names.

Sue: Yeah, yeah. And it was this…like, don’t put me in one spot because I’m more than that, or something.

Ken: Okay. Roxanne.

Roxanne: When you asked the questions, I answered them immediately with a no. You know, Am I my name—

Ken: Just like that.

Roxanne: No, obviously, you know, that doesn’t feel like it sums it up, and my body, that doesn’t…I kind of didn’t get stuck in the question. With each question you asked I was able to let go of that thing that you asked if that’s who I was and it kind of put me in a very fuzzy place.

Ken: Fuzzy?

Roxanne: I almost couldn’t tell was, if I…you know, sometimes in…when I’m meditating, if I start to kind of fall asleep a little, you know, that kind of feeling, but it wasn’t…it didn’t feel like falling asleep. It just…you know, I just kept kind of shedding the different things that you were asking if that’s who I am, and it kind of…I felt like I let go of my thoughts more with those questions.

Ken: Okay. Okay. Couple of other people. Frances and Nancy.

Frances: In my case, the response I had was negative and positive to the…depending on what it was, so with regards to, like, feelings and emotions, my immediate reaction was no, but it was one of anxiety and fear, that I hope to God people don’t like paint me as my own feelings are, because that would be just terrible. Then when I…when you said thoughts, that seemed, that’s okay to me. So, but in my case it’s like…my stomach is like my indicator of anxiety, so my stomach clenches when I’m anxious or afraid. And so my stomach went back and forth from clenching to, like, letting go, depending on whether I thought it was okay if people…I think I was actually thinking more of how people…if I am my feelings, that’s how people see me. And I guess I was thinking that—

Ken: So you’re bouncing all over the place, here. Because on the one hand, you’re dis-identifying with these various things and then you’re very concerned about other people might be perceiving you in terms of these various things.

Frances: Right.

Ken: Some various physical reactions coming up.

Frances: Right.

Ken: So, fairly rich experience for you.

Frances: And actually just in terms of when you asked, “Are you your name?” an interesting exercise I did in one of my other classes was the instructor asked us to say our full name, and then explain where the name came from. So as…and there was a lot of people from different parts of the world. So, for example, my name is…the full name is Frances Mary Cecilia Barry and it comes from, you know, Barry being Irish, Mary being, you know, the Catholic name, and then Cecilia was the patron saint of music so I took that because I like music. But you realized that there was a whole story that everybody told in their actual name. And when they thought about it, you know, my mother calls me Fran, which drives me insane. Like, you know, it…it…and it, and so it sort of, you know, if each person spoke five minutes about their name, you actually learned a lot about, you know, their background and their family.

Ken: Yeah, that goes back to what we were doing earlier this morning. Lots of stories connected with this. Nancy. There’s a microphone right here.

Nancy: Thank you. Oh, well, I was surprised when I asked about my name that there didn’t seem to be much shift. And I had a few thoughts about it, like at one point in my life I had a different name and now I have my maiden name which, you know, I’ve had most of my life. And that seemed pretty stable. The other questions, though, when I asked them it’s as though kind of everything drops away and there’s just kind of…space.

Ken: Everything drops away?

Nancy: No, no. [Laughs]

Ken: Well, that’s where we’re going to go now.

Nancy: Yeah.


Section 6

Ken: So, there are these things that we often think of, you know, Who am I? My name? There’s a wonderful story that’s told in the Zen tradition about Ananda, who is Buddha’s cousin, and was very close to Buddha, was present at all Buddha’s talks. And had the remarkable ability to be able to remember everything that Buddha said at every occasion. So the story goes that after Buddha died, the senior disciples would ask Ananda, whenever a question came up, you know, “What did Buddha say about this?” And Ananda would say, “Thus have I heard at one time,” which is how all the sutras start.

But Ananda never woke up while Buddha was alive. He’d hung around with this great spiritual teacher for 40 years, and he never had this deep spiritual experience. After Buddha died, the senior disciples had this conference, and Ananda figured for sure he’d go, because he’d hung out with Buddha all this time, and he had these memories and he knew that he would be needed. But Kashyapa, who was one of the senior disciples, barred him from entry, saying “No, this is only for those who have woken up, only for arhats.”

Of course, there’s nothing like an in-group and an out-group to make you feel good, especially if you’re in the out-group. So Ananda is just crushed. Now as it’s told in the Zen tradition—the Theravadan version is a bit different—as he’s walking away, Kashyapa says, “Ananda!” And Ananda turns around and says, “Yes?” And wakes up.


Section 7

But there’s this name, you know. Calls, and we respond. And how many of you have experimented with taking on a new name? It takes a little while to learn to respond to it. So in a sense, it defines who we are. But as soon as we ask, “Who am I? Am I my name?” we just say “No, no,” and we get into Sue’s “Don’t pin me down.”

Similarly, body. We’re very heavily identified with the body, but am I my body? Well, the answer to that is similarly, no. And so we go into other aspects of experience: thoughts, feelings, experience. And to almost all of these, the immediate answer is no.

So now we have an interesting question. How do we know the answer is no? And it’s very fast, isn’t it? Okay. You’re shaking your head, Cara.

Cara: Do you want me to answer that [unclear]?

Ken: Sure.

Cara: I didn’t answer no to any of these questions. I didn’t answer yes to them, but I didn’t answer no, either.

Ken: All right.

Cara: If we’re not our body, then does that give us license to just live…like…

Ken: Well it raises a few questions…

Cara: Eat what? Or eat pork. Blaugh! [Sound of revulsion]

Ken: [Laughs] But it raises a few questions, if I’m not my body, what am I? Right? Roxanne?

Roxanne: So what’s on my mind is going back to, you know, we do get asked this question all the time, where we need to give an account.

Ken: Right.

Roxanne: Who are you, you know, whether it’s name, or what’s your story. You know, the questions that we went through in the first part of today. And I feel a kind of peacefulness and, okay, so I don’t have to…I don’t want to tell that story anymore. It’s comfortable to me to just say no, none of those things sum it up. I’m not going to have an answer to that. But there’s a conflicting feeling, like the world wants you to have an answer. Like your story of in Buddhism there’s no self.

Ken: There’s no self, yeah. Well, we’re going to come to that but we need to go a little further with this. Okay. How many of you have a sense of self? [Pause] Okay.

Now, what I want to do is to explore this. We’re going to go back and do this again through a meditation.

There are certain characteristics associated with a sense of self. One is that there’s something permanent, you know, and even when we use a sentence such as, “I’m not the same person as I was when I was six years old,” we have the very definite idea that there’s something that was there at six that is still there now, that is me. Okay, so that’s one characteristic that’s permanent, i.e., it doesn’t change.

The second is that we’re independent, that who we are doesn’t depend on anything else. We’re somehow separate. Now, intellectually we know that [unclear] affects a lot, but we have this idea, this sense of self, you know, that doesn’t depend on this and this and this, because if it depends on that, then it wouldn’t really be me. There’s kind of an emotional attachment to that notion.

And the third one—and this is important—is that there’s one thing which is me. It’s a unit, something that we can’t break further apart, because if we could break it further apart then it wouldn’t be me.


Section 8

Ken: So what I’d like to do now, for a few minutes, is just to explore each of these in the same way. Now, this is a looking meditation, not a reflective meditation. So let’s go back and sit again, let mind and body settle. Now, as I said, this is a looking meditation. So in the same way as before, I’m going to ask you a series of questions. And each one of these questions is going to cause you to look a certain way. Now, as Randye pointed out, one of the responses we have—one of the reactions, more accurately-is when we look in some of these ways is that all kinds of thoughts immediately come up. And so what I want you to do is just let go of all those thoughts, let go of that thinking, and to the extent that you can, just look and rest in the looking. Okay.

Some of you may find this a little disorienting or a little uncomfortable. That’s par for the course. But the emphasis here is looking, and then resting in the looking. So let’s just take a few minutes.

The first question is, What in me never changes? What in me never changes? And you just look. Don’t analyze, don’t think. Just look. What in me never changes? When you do this, various candidates may arise. Body, of course, is subject to change. Thoughts and feelings are subject to change. We may think values and beliefs are fixed, but if we examine them at all, we see that they change, too.

Second question, what in me is independent of everything else? What in me is independent of everything else? Again, just look to see what might be there that is truly independent. As before, rest in the looking.

And the third question, What in me cannot be broken down into something smaller? What in me is irreducible, is one thing?



Section 9

Ken: Okay, again, what was your experience with this? Yes, Linda. Microphone right here.

Linda: I had to work to stay unconceptual. I mean, each time you asked the question, I went there in my head with…but ultimately, you know, when I kept working with it as your suggestion, kept coming back and resting with it, and there was never any thing. There was nothing, in any of the questions, that actually came up and that was something that I could point to that…or that stuck there in my presence. So…

Ken: All right, thank you. Anybody else? Roxanne?

Roxanne: There was no there there, is what…

Ken: Thank you, Gertrude Stein. [Laughter] That’s what she said of Oakland. I don’t think Oakland’s ever recovered. Okay, anybody there? Anybody there! Anybody else? Cara?

Cara: I’d say there’s been a lot of love in my life.

Ken: There’s been a what?

Cara: A lot of love.

Ken: That’s very good. But is that something that is unchanging?

Cara: I…yeah. Not, but not in a, like…not in a smoochy-smoochy like, you know, passionate sense.

Ken: No, no…no.

Cara: I guess maybe like a…I wish I had words today. I think even at my darkest hours and in my darkest places, I’ve always had an overwhelming sense, like a balance in my life, that’s been unchanging. And I think that the fulcrum of that has always been love of some kind.

Ken: Okay, I’ll come back to that later. Julia.

Julia: As you asked that question, I realized that I had a sense of a continuity of a field of awareness.

You said remember what you were like when you were six, and I remembered walking around this beautiful garden we had and taking things in. I remembered that sense of experience coming into this field of awareness.

Ken: Okay. Is awareness something that is permanent, unchanging? Is it independent? Is it one thing? Is it a thing? I’d ask the same questions about love, do you experience, Cara.

Cara: [Unclear]

Julia: When I look for it, I can’t find it.

Ken: When we look for it, we can’t find it. Right? How many had that experience? Okay. Now, this is a very important point. In a certain sense, it defines the difference between much of Western philosophy and much of Eastern philosophy. Western philosophers, by and large, did not trust either their experience or their logic. Eastern philosophers, by and large, trusted their experience and their logic.

Because, what we’ve just done is something that philosophers, contemplatives, and scientists, and all kinds of learned people—and some not-so-learned—have done over and over again, for centuries, probably for millennia. And every time, it comes down to the same thing: can’t see anything there.

Now, there are two things you can do with that. One is, you can say “Oh, I must have made a mistake,” which is what an awful lot of Western philosophers have done. They’ve gone back and re-examined their logic and come up with [unclear] things like that. There were a few who didn’t, like David Hume, and a couple of others. And the reason is because that didn’t correspond to their experience, the experience…or their sense that there’s something which is me. And this was influenced by Christianity, to some extent, where there’s a soul and…but many other things, too.

In the East, particularly in Buddhism, well there isn’t anything there. Oh, there isn’t anything there. Then, this sense that I have of there being something there, that’s where the problem is. And so the way that I think of myself, the way that I, quotation marks, experience myself, that’s what the problem is. And in very simplistic terms, that’s the difference.


Section 10

Ken: So in our final little bit here, before we break for lunch, I want to invite you into a possibility of experience. And that is to take the next few minutes, let the body and mind settle as we have, resting with the breath, and then I just want you to be no one. Just to be no one for a few minutes, and we’ll see what that’s like. Let go of any idea of being something, being a permanent, independent unit, or being this, or being that, the story that you have, all of the stories that you have, etc. Just forget about all of that. And just rest in the experience, or the possibility, of being no one. Okay?




Let’s hear a few comments. What was that like for you? Steve? Art, could you pick up—oh, you’ve got one there.

Steve: I had an interesting experience of two parts. The first was putting Steve out there, so there was still a Steve, but he was out there, which was a relief, a change. And then I was…had to…have him, that “out there Steve” dissipate to experience it somewhat.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Sandy? Frances?

Sandy: Actually had a really hard time with this one. In the other ones, I found I could pretty much stay in attention and be okay and I found that being no one, I couldn’t…I couldn’t even really stay in attention.

Ken: Doesn’t compute.

Sandy: No, it just didn’t compute. It was the first time I just felt like I’m not even there at all.

Ken: This is not usually where one starts in meditation. [Laughter]

Sandy: And I appreciate the introduction! [Laughter]

Ken: Frances.

Frances: Well, I had the same experience. I found it incredibly difficult. Initially, my brain just kept asking questions like, “What does it mean to be no one?” And then it moved onto being defensive, which was, “I don’t want to be no one. I want to be someone.” And my brain fought it the entire time, basically. And then I thought, Well, what does it mean to be no one? Maybe it just means that I’m like a dust particle, and just part of all the particles in the earth. But then, what does that mean? Like that means I can’t help anyone or…I, you know, just got very…thought about it way too much.

Ken: [Laughs] Well, this is what this…Thank you both for your honesty. Patsy, did you want to say something?

But this is exactly…the habit of seeing ourselves or viewing ourselves as somebody is very, very strong. And the notion that oh, that may not be how things are, which we can arrive at very, very quickly through any kind of logic or analysis, runs smack into all of that conditioning, that habit. And that is one of the primary tensions in spiritual practice. And we address that tension by developing a capacity of experience, a capacity in attention, so that we actually can open to that experience. Because it’s how things are, but it’s something we have to build up to because, for reasons that both of you described, our reluctance, or the way that we ordinarily think of ourselves is just so conditioned the other way.

And that actually, as we’ll explore this afternoon, is part of the problem, is that we have all of this conditioning and it does lead us to act in ways that aren’t always in our interests. Okay, Patsy?

Student: I think part of me is that this is something I tried. I joined a new company last year, and…but I’m in school part time, so my goal of joining this company, I work from home, is to work nine to five, you know, stay under the radar, and I’ve been there since July and, as it happened, I got put in some high-profile projects. And in certain divisions of the company, there is no one who does not know who I am. And it was like…and that was part of the annoyance. Like, I’ve already tried that and it didn’t work. So…

Ken: Ah! But you didn’t try it hard enough. You have to be really serious!

Student: Obviously not.

Ken: I’ll tell you a story about that in a minute. Patsy.

Patsy: I liked it. I think I exper…I was able to stay there for I don’t know how long, you know, fleeting seconds or something.

Ken: That’s usually where we start is that fleeting second.

Patsy: And then I loved it, so I felt free, like I’m not…I don’t have to be accountable. I thought I could…I started thinking about fun things to do, and then I tried to go back to just being with it

Ken: How many of you felt it as a kind of relief? Yeah. Interesting. So this sense of self is actually a bit of a burden.


Section 11

Ken: I’ll just close with a short story. A Sufi has reached the point in his practice where people have started to gather around him and request him for teachings. And he feels a little uncomfortable with this. So he goes to his master and says, “People are starting to ask me for teachings. I don’t think I should be doing that. I’m not really comfortable with this. What should I do?”

“Oh, that’s very straightforward. Just do something every now and then that is completely bizarre and stupid. And they’ll go away.”

“But I can’t do that. What will people think of me?” [Laughter]

His teacher says, “Oh, so I thought this was a question about how to handle students, but I see it’s a question about how you are perceived by others.” [Laughs] Okay.