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Moral Moments

Who Are You?

by Joel Marks

My life has been a life of loss of late. It’s called getting old, I guess. I’m not really old by modern-day standards; but closer to 60 than 50 is not being a spring chicken. Nevertheless I have found many things to celebrate in these middle-to-late years, and now, much to my surprise, I discover that loss is one of them.

This strange turn of affairs relates to an earlier column (in Issue 55) wherein I introduced meditation, which I treated as an alternative method of philosophizing. I suppose one could drop the middleman and just say that meditation is an alternative path to wisdom – call it philosophy if you wish: or ethics, or religion, or mysticism, or the Way, or what have you. The Hindu tradition provides a vocabulary that I find congenial: meditation is yoga, a Sanskrit word whose Indo-European root is ancestor to our ‘yoke’, suggesting a uniting of the self with the One (about which more in a future column). There are many kinds of yoga. I described mantra meditation, also called japa yoga, in the earlier column. In this column I will discuss jnana yoga.

The essence of jnana is to discover who you are. Like japa, jnana also involves a distinctive method, which is a variety of via negativa, a ‘negative route’. Very simply, one assumes a meditative posture – sit in a quiet place and quiet the mind – and then begins to question who one is. The suggested answer is “neti neta” – “not this, not that.” In other words, you will discover who you are by realizing who (or what) you are not. For example, if you ask, “Am I my body?” you can come up with any number of arguments to support a ‘No’ answer. (1) If you were to lose your arm, you would still be you (in your entirety). (2) Your body looks completely different today from how it looked when you were an infant, yet it is the same ‘you’. (3) Every single atom of your body has been replaced in that span of time, yet it was you and still is you.

“Then am I my mind?” No. (1) You could suffer amnesia and have the contents of your mind erased, but you would still be you. (Why believe that? Well, suppose you knew you were about to suffer total memory loss and then be thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil: would you not still feel dread on behalf of yourself?) (2) You might have lost your parents at birth and been adopted by others, who brought you up in a completely different environment, perhaps even in a different linguistic community, so that your mind today would be filled with different thoughts and desires – yet you would still be you, would you not?

What will be the upshot of this ‘philosophical investigation’ carried on over a long period of time? Curiously enough, the claim is that the jnanic process of elimination ends up eliminating everything, ie, convincing you that you are nothing! Of course such a conclusion is subject to a great deal of interpretation (that is, in the conceptual and verbal realm; during meditation, presumably, its meaning can be known directly). But it is also reasonable to ask if this knowledge of nothingness would make any difference in one’s everyday life. (That is precisely what these moral moments strive to do: Bring philosophy, whether theoretical or ‘transcendental’, down to earth.)

My discovery came about in this way. First I had to give up backpacking because of back problems. Then jogging because of knee problems. (These healthy activities can kill you, you know!) But they had become an essential part of my self-conception. So this inexorable process of ‘decline’ might have led to despair, depression, even death by my own hand. Fortunately – due to personality? experience? philosophy? meditation? all of the above? – I discovered that my nature abhors a vacuum; and so for each thing removed, something else rushed in to fill its place. My initial resistance to doing without was swept away by acceptance, ‘surrender’; but at the same time by a quite active seizing of new opportunities. Not just a replacement, though, but also a slowing down, allowing more time to attend to what remained. For example, I have now become more of a walker and enjoy the freedom of a less demanding exercise regime.

The parallel here to jnana yoga is striking, I believe. For I turn out to be something apart from so many things that had seemed integral to (being) me. Instead I am a being who can don and doff activities and occupations and roles, even identities. Sometimes I feel almost invincible, for who or what can hurt me if I can become somebody or something else practically at will? (Can even the body in boiling oil be sidestepped in this way? I recall the television images of immolating Buddhist monks in Saigon.)

But what if one’s mind gave out, so that one could no longer intentionally direct oneself to meditate (or weave entrancing tales of salvation as I am doing in this essay)? I fear a stroke most of all, having witnessed a brilliant friend land in a nursing home after suffering severe brain damage in an automobile accident, forever confined to a wheelchair parked in front of a television set – a very vision of hell for me (my equivalent to Winston Smith with his head in a rat cage). But recall: Mind itself may be an impediment, drawing us to a false identity. True, in meditation, mind can also be used as a tool to eliminate itself; but if it were not in the way in the first place, it would not be needed to eliminate itself. (Compare a mine which can detonate itself. Mind as minefield.) My friend, although not on drugs, now smiles a great deal of the time. Does she rest content in a more essential identity? Are there any limits to ‘less is more’? Death, where is thy sting?

© Joel Marks 2007

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. Others of his essays can be found at http://moralandothermoments.blogspot.com

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