The Weirdness of Nonduality #1: Who Are You?

A series of dialogues, arguments, expositions, and stories seeking to reveal the utter weirdness, as well as the possible truth, of nonduality. This is the first piece in this series.

Andrew Taggart
Jul 2 · 12 min read
Credit: Alexandra Taggart

A: How are you?

B [B is a sensible man with close-cropped hair and wearing a white collar shirt]: Who is it that asks, “How are you?”

A: A. I think you remember me.

B: I do. And who are you, A?

A [slightly annoyed]: “Who am I?” Come on now, what do you mean: “Who am I?” I’m right here; I’m me!

B: I know your name and I do remember you, A. But what are you? What is it that goes by the name “A”?

A [a touch upset yet not exasperated]: You know, I don’t know what you mean. What in the world are you getting at?

B: Just this: I’m trying to inquire with you to discover your true nature. Here, specifically, is what I mean: does the tree over there [pointing] go by the name “A”?

A: No, don’t be ridiculous.

B: Does the chair right here [pointing] go by the name “A”?

A: No, it does not.

B: And what goes for trees and chairs goes for every other thing like them — namely, that they are separate from you, that they are not you?

A: That’s right.

B: Then tell me: if rocks and trees and winds and buildings and everything else is not you, then what is you? What is it that makes A A?

A: I’m here, aren’t I?

B: Your existence is not in question; it’s your nature that is. What about your existence is it that makes you you?

A [hesitantly]: I’m… not sure. I come from Country X; I descend from Family Y; I have Job Z. Apart from these things, I have sociological characteristics such as Race A, Class B, Gender C, Sexual Preference D.

B: OK, sure. But set aside where you come from as well as whatever empirical qualities are often attributed to you. Suppose we bracket all of those things on the grounds that none of them can tell us what is essentially you; they can only say what is contingently so. Is that fair?

A: All right, sure.

B: Then putting aside all of those qualities, what would you say about this: who, essentially, are you?

A: Well, I have intellectual interest P, hobby Q, habit R — is that what you mean?

B: I mean none of those things, either. Go on and set aside everything that is contingent — that you happen to have been born in one place rather than another, that you happen to have certain empirical qualities attributed to you, that you happen to have certain intellectual interests, quarks, habits, and dispositions, indeed that you happen to have a certain personality. None of these, I’m inviting you to see, are essentially you.

A: Then maybe there is no essential me. Then maybe it’s just a shifting kaleidoscope of transient qualities.

B: But when you wake up in the morning, do you really believe that? Do you really believe that the you you are now is ontologically different from the you you were many years ago? Based on your own daily conduct and on your own genuine thoughts about yourself, is that the sort of thing you really believe to be true?

A: No, it was just a theory. That’s not what I really believe.

B: Good. Then, once again, setting aside all the contingent empirical qualities we’ve just mentioned, tell me — who, fundamentally, are you?

A: I don’t know. Perhaps there is no me after all.

B: While the first statement comes from the heart, the second statement, made in bad faith, strikes me as defeatist. Nihilism of the kind you mention is begging the question, isn’t it? Aren’t we simply asking — in an earnest, inquisitive way — who you are? And on that score, aren’t you suggesting that you don’t know?

A: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.

B: To be clear, then, you really don’t know who you are — is this what you’re saying?

A: Not in the way you seem to be asking. And that’s because no one has ever asked me this before. It’s just really weird, and I’m already starting to feel dizzy.

B: All right, I see: no one has ever asked you this before; they’ve taken this most important thing for granted. And, yes, it is quite weird and maybe all this will just be a strange dream you vaguely remember someday. Are you feeling too dizzy to continue?

A [steadying himself]: No, I’m OK. Let’s keep going. I’d like to see where you’re taking me, if you are taking me somewhere.

B: Good. I’m inquiring into your true nature, if such exists, because I want to know what you really are and I’m starting to get the sense that you do too. Just to be clear, then: do you know that you exist?

A: Yes, I know that. I’ve never had any reason to doubt that.

B: Good, I think so too. But you don’t know what you are — do I have that right?

A: Right, I know that I am but I don’t know exactly who or what I am.

B: I’m with you. Well, perhaps we can start here: would you not say that being a person is at least a necessary condition (if not also a sufficient one) of who you are?

A: Of course, that’s obvious. Yes, I’m a person.

B: Let’s go from here, then. And of what does a person consist?

A: All sorts of things. Physiology… [A trails off.]

B: Just physiology? Is being living, functioning matter all there is to you?

A: No, surely not. There’s also consciousness.

B: All right, let’s add consciousness to our picture of who you are. Is there anything else?

A [thinks for a while]: Not that I can think of.

B: Would it be fair, albeit crude, to say that whoever or whatever you are you are a body, a mind, and/or a mind-body composite?

René Descartes’s Illustration of Dualism (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

A: Sure, that seems fair to say. That’s, I take it, what a person essentially is.

B: Great, I think we’re getting somewhere. But tell me: are you any mind and/or any body?

A: Of course not. I’m this mind and this body [drawing a circle around what A takes to be A’s body and, presumably, A’s mind]. I am the combination of this mind and this body. I’m not, for instance, your mind and your body.

B: All right. Now, are you that body, or do you have that body?

A: Come to think of it, I am not this body; I have this body.

B: And are you that mind, or do you have that mind?

A: That’s harder to say.

B: Because you identify more closely with that mind than you do with that body?

A: Presumably, yes.

B: If that body gets injured, do you get injured or does what you have get injured?

A: It feels as though I get injured, but according to what I’ve said so far, it seems that only my possession — this body — actually gets injured. That’s strange. Breaking an arm certainly feels as if it impairs me even though, based on what I’ve said, it isn’t really me. Yet perhaps what isn’t me but is utilized by me can impair me?

B: Let’s see. Now consider this question: what if you can’t seem to recall someone’s name, someone you’ve actually known very well for many years — does that mean that your memory, a possession of sorts, is ‘injured’ or that you are injured?

A: When I think about your question, my reply flickers back and forth. Part of me thinks that it’s just a faculty that’s not operating (and hence that faculty is not me), yet another part of me thinks that, no, what’s so scary about the idea of losing my memory, if such were to happen, just is the idea of losing my self. What scares people about possibly being diagnosed with dementia is not losing memory or rationality per se; what scares them — and me — is losing my self in the offing.

B: And what would you say about this: when that body perishes, do you perish?

A: It feels that way.

B: You are not the body, then, but you are dependent for your continued existence upon that body?

A: So it seems.

B: And when that mind goes dark, do you also go dark?

A: It also feels that way.

B: You are, you believe, more ‘of’ the mind than ‘of’ the body, yet you — whoever or whatever you are — depend on the continued functioning of that body and that mind in order to persist in your existence?

A: That seems so.

B: Now tell me this: where are you? Are you in the foot, for instance?

A: No. Because the foot can be removed without at the same time removing me.

B: I think you see where I’m going with this, so let’s skip forward in the inquiry. You see that I could ask the same questions about your arm or shoulder or about certain internal organs and so on. Then even though you’re not identical with the body, do you have a residence in the body?

A: I don’t know.

B: If you were in the body, where might you be?

A: It feels as though I’d be in or near the heart — I mean near the center of my chest. I don’t mean, literally, that I believe and feel that I dwell in my physical heart.

B: I see. Are you in the mind?

A: I believe so; that’s what my intuition says.

B: So, you’re in the mind, but you’re not identical with the mind?

A: I think so.

B: Then where are you in the mind?

A: It feels as if I’m located behind the eyes, back here somewhere [pointing behind his ‘third eye’].

B: So, somehow you’re in the heart (or the center of the body) and somehow you’re also back behind the eyes. Don’t you find that rather bizarre? For instance, are you two places at once?

A: Yes, definitely, it feels bizarre. I imagine that maybe I can change locations: sometimes I may be dwelling behind the eyes and sometimes within the heart, but probably I’m most of the time dwelling behind the eyes.

B: But either way you are ‘the center’ or ‘source’ of this mind-body ensemble?

A: That’s right.

B: Let’s look at where we are: you grant that it’s hard to pinpoint what you are (apart from saying something rather vague about the bodily and mental conditions without which you would not be and about how you are some as yet unascertainable combination of that mind and that body without being identical to one or the other) and you grant further that it’s hard to target where you are in ‘all this’ except for saying that perhaps you dwell most of the time behind the eyes and part of the time within the heart?

A: Yes, it’s really quite strange. I mean until you inquired with me, I seemed to know what I was and where I was. But after looking at the matter more closely, I can’t seem to say what I am or where precisely I am. It’s all very elusive and a bit scary.

B: Too scary?

A: No, let’s keep going.

B: Then let’s start again by looking more closely at the nature of the mind and the body. By mind, don’t we really just mean, provided that we stick only to our own experience, thinking, imaging, and feeling? Don’t we think about a project, image a design or a person, and/or feel sadness or excitement? Aren’t those activities — thinking, imaging, and feeling — really all we mean by mind or, better, minding so long, again, as we stick to our own experience?

A: OK, sure, I’ll go along with that.

B: All right, then what about the interface of the mind and the body — I mean perception? Isn’t perception — here used broadly to mean: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling — reducible to sensing — sensing, presumably, some outside or objective world?

A: Sure.

B: Lastly, what of the body? Is there anything more to the experience of the body than that which we experience in the form of sensations — tickles, itches, pains, blinks, dullnesses, hotnesses, coldnesses, and so on?

A: Well, yes. There’s more to it than that. There are all sorts of processes of an involuntary nature, processes with which I am not consciously familiar.

B: I’m not talking about all that. After all, we’re talking about what you are, not about what certain gut bacteria are. I’m talking, remember, about the experience of the body just as before I was talking about the experience of minding. How do you experience your body?

A: Ah, I follow you. I experience sensations together with thoughts about those sensations.

B: One thought could be: “Oh, I hope that sensation isn’t a sign of a really bad illness.” But I take it you don’t mean that yet. You doubtless mean, rather, that you experience sensations, which are ‘surrounded’ by an image or silhouette of the body. The image separates the hand from the table while the sensation is said to be ‘on the side’ of the hand, not on the side of the table (which is a thing apart from me). That is, don’t you feel the itch together with the image of its being your forearm that itches? Don’t you feel the pressure together with the image that this is my hand on this alien table, this table that is not me?

A: Yes, that’s right.

B: So, we can speak of minding (thinking, imaging, feeling), perceiving (seeing, touching, tasting, etc.), and sensing (plus imaging) — are you with me so far?

A: I am.

B: Well, then: consider, as we hinted at before, the self in relation to thinking. Does a thought come and go?

A: It does.

B: Do you arise with the thought, and do you leave with the departing thought?

A: I do not.

B: Then are you the thought and, more pointedly, are you thinking?

A [as if realizing something he had already alluded to, already half-known]: Wow, evidently I can’t be. I can’t be if I remain while each thought comes into being and goes out of being. I must be something other than the thought.

B: Exactly. Similarly, do you arise with an image, and do you depart with the departing image?

A: I do not.

B: Then are you the image and, more emphatically, are you imaging?

A: Again, I can’t be. I must be something other than any image, than all imaging in fact.

B: Won’t the same hold for feeling since each feeling comes and goes?

A: It must.

B: And what about for perceiving?

A: It must.

B: And for sensing?

A: It must.

B: But you see what follows, don’t you? You can’t be that mind insofar as you experience it, you can’t be the interface of that mind and that body insofar as you experience them, and you can’t be that experienced body— right?

A: According to what we’ve said, that must be right.

B: Then you can’t be a person if a person just is an experienceable mind-body composite — isn’t that also right?

A: Yeah, I guess so.

B: Yes, and it’s more than guess so. But then if you aren’t an experienceable mind-body composite and therefore aren’t a person, then who or what are you?

A: I don’t know. I really don’t know.

B: Before you seemed sure that though you weren’t the mind or the body, you resided somewhere in that body and that mind. Might that not be so?

A: Sure, it might be.

B: Let me ask that again: if you are not that experienceable finite mind, if you are not the experienceable interface of the finite mind and the body, and if you are not that body at least insofar as you experience it, then who or what are you?

A: I don’t know. For the life of me, I don’t.

B: Shall we go one step further?

A: Given that I’m totally lost, I think we must.

B: You’re not lost; you’re just beginning to examine what you’ve been taking for granted, something beneath your nose. Here, then, is that something further: might it be true that you — whoever or whatever you truly areare not actually limited to that mind-body composite?

A: I reckon it might be. Which, if true, is just really, really out there.

B: Out there it may be, yet what we’re after is the truth. Aren’t we?

A: I’d like to think so.

B: Then don’t reckon that not being limited to the mind-body composite may or may not be true. Don’t stay with this possibility, remaining ever-content in some agnostic middle ground. Go and see for yourself whether it is or is not so. Discover the truth for yourself through patient, loving inquiry of the kind we engaged in today. Ask yourself, “Who am I? Who is it or what is it that contemplates this experience? If I’m not limited to this body-mind composite, might I be unlimited?” Don’t be satisfied with the answers you gave earlier. Instead, see with the loving eyes of contemplation what is actually disclosed. [At which point, the sensible man in the white shirt and with close-cropped hair departed.]

This is the first in The Weirdness of Nonduality series. The next one? Possibly: “The Weirdness of Nonduality #2: Can I Die?”

Andrew Taggart

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Practical Philosopher, Ph.D. | Founder, Askole (https://www.askole.com/) | Examining What Technologists Are Taking For Granted