Zen has a rather stark response to any attempt we might make at saying that this or that ‘is who I am’. Am I my job? No, that’s not it. Am I my temperament, my likes and dislikes? No, that’s not it. Am I my religion, my relationships, my memories or my history? No, that’s not it. Am I then the totality of all these things and many more besides? My body, my intellect? No, that’s not it.
So what is the answer to the question, who am I? There isn’t one. Or if there is, it’s not one we can know. If, in Christian language, we say ‘I am a child of God’, does that get us any closer? Well, in one sense it does, in that it doesn’t give us any kind of precise answer but does remind us of our common humanity, our fraternity, with all other children of God. But I think there is great wisdom in shifting attention away from the question as it is formulated. For one thing, such a question risks leading us down the path of wondering what it is that makes ‘me’ unlike ‘you’, a path of differentiation. I don’t think our identity consists in such separations.
If our response to the question ‘who am I’ is ‘I don’t know’, we are probably getting closer to truth. ‘I’ am not primarily a ‘knowing’ being, contra Descartes, but a ‘being’ being. So perhaps the question is better put as ‘how shall I live’ than ‘who am I’. In sitting zazen, we let go of the notion that we are a mind controlling a body and simply realise our existence. Indeed, one gets to the point of no longer even saying ‘I am’, but simply ‘am’ and then, perhaps, to the point of saying nothing at all. It is in the place of such self-forgetting emptiness that we touch the true fabric of life, the generative, spacious emptiness from which life springs (formless and void, to use the language of Genesis!).
But at a very practical level, there is a great simplicity and a great relief in simply letting go of the kind of self-preoccupation that places a question of our identity at the heart of life. It turns out that we realise our true identity by not fretting about it. Somewhat like ‘the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’ as one perceptive teacher once put it…