Am I my thoughts, the thoughts that I am thinking? No. Thoughts come and go; I am not my thoughts.
Am I my body? They tell us that millions of cells in our body are changing or are renewed every minute, so that by the end of seven years we don’t have a single living cell in our body that was there seven years before. Cells come and go. Cells arise and die. But “I” seems to persist. So am I my body? Evidently not!
“I” is something other and more than the body. You might say the body is part of “I” but it is a changing part. It keeps moving. It keeps changing. We have the same name for it but it constantly changes. Just as we have the same name for Niagara Falls, but Niagara Falls is constituted by water that is constantly changing. We use the same name for an ever-changing reality.
How about my name? Is “I” my name” Evidently not because I can change my name without changing the “I”.
How about my career? How about my beliefs? I say I am a Catholic, a Jew – is that an essential part of “I”? When I move from one religion to another, has the “I” changed? Do I have a new “I” … or is it the same “I” that has changed?
In other words, is my name an essential part of me, of the “I”? Is my religion an essential part of the “I”? Labels are so important to us. We spend so much of our lives reacting to labels, our own and others. We identify the labels with the “I”.
When you are caught up in labels, what value do these labels have, as far as the “I” is concerned? Could we say that “I” is none of the labels we attach to it? Labels belong to “me”. What constantly changes is “me”. Does “I” ever change?
The fact is that no matter what labels you think of (except perhaps human being) you should apply them to “me”. Suffering exists in “me” so when you identify “I” with “me” suffering begins.
For example, say that you are afraid or desirous or anxious. When “I” does not identify with money, or name, or nationality, or persons, or friends, or any quality, the “I” is never threatened. It can be very active, but it isn’t threatened.
Think of anything that caused or is causing you pain or worry or anxiety. First you can pick up the desire under that suffering, that there’s something you desire very keenly or else you wouldn’t be suffering. What is that desire? Second, it isn’t simply a desire; there is an identification there. You have somehow said to yourself, “The Well-being of ‘I’, almost the existence of ‘I’ is tied up with this desire.”
All suffering is caused by my identifying myself with something, whether that something is within me or outside of me.
Extract from the section ‘The Stripping of “I”!” in Awareness by Anthony de Mello