How Do We Know Who We Are?

“Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.”

Photo by Caroline on Unsplash

We can think about this quote in grand, philosophic ways about the nature of the universe and human behavior. We can also think about it in terms of our own identity and actions and experiences.

In The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts argues with equal parts conviction and compassion that “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.”

He explores the cause and cure of that illusion. The profound unease emerges as we confront our cultural conditioning, but it leads to a deep sense of lightness. We must surrender to the comforting mystery and interconnectedness of the universe. You don’t get there when you’re trapped in your ego.

Unfortunately, for many professions, you have to remain in your ego. How else are you going to grind for 60–80 hours a week on your startup? How else are you going to bootstrap it for your new restaurant for years until it finally takes off?

The opposite of this leads to burnout and separation of the self, too. Meeting the needs or expectations of everyone around you. The ego is necessary as you are all about the hustle and you don’t have room for meditation or spiritual practice, or even much basic wellness or mental health work.

The book explores many of the core inquiries which religions have historically tried to address — the problems of life and love, death and sorrow, the universe and our place in it, what it means to have an “I” at the center of our experience, and what the meaning of existence might be. Watts offers a new understanding of personal identity. His classic book reveals the mystery of existence, presenting an alternative to the feelings of alienation that is prevalent in Western society, and a vision of how we can come to understand the cosmic self within every living thing.

How do we learn to ask better questions?

What questions am I afraid to ask?

Big Self Podcast host. Creative Writing Ph.D. I write on Self-Improvement, Mental Health, and Psychology. Join us at bigselfschool.com. @bigselfschool

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