Where is I?

January 13, 2019

Where is I?

When you say “I am hungry” or “I am a designer,” where does that “I” come from? Where is the place that, as the body fades away, sees the last light of consciousness? Where are you, dear reader?

Though we point at our breast to indicate personhood, it seems more an easy gesture of semaphore, that part of the body being big enough for the quick pointer not to miss. Where the tip of a finger is not visible, the raised hand has to suffice—the “I” could be anywhere in an armspan. The pain of heartbreak overwhelms and floods “my heart”—though a potential annihilation, it is one that belongs to your “I”.

René Descartes called the pineal gland the seat of the soul, a theory later popularized by theosophists who equated it with the ajna chakra or third eye. The size of the pinkie nail and shaped like a pine cone, this gland sits, logically for an I, at the crossing of the invisible axis drawn back from the eyes toward the brainstem and another drawn between the ears. Here at the exact center of the brain, this is surely where I is.

But science doesn’t help us here. Tests show the pineal gland only as the main producer of melatonin, a vestigial light-detecting organ that, in the brains of mammals got absorbed inside, but which is still visible on the heads of some reptiles. Others theorize the possible synthesis of DMT there, but only under duress. So, I am not there.

Many of the ancients placed I in the liver, with the brain as valuable as scrambled eggs or lard. The livers of sheep told the future; the livers of people were removed and placed in the canopic jars with the brains mixed together and removed through the nose, thrown away or perhaps used for tanning leather. For the ancients, though, I was multiple, with the Egyptians distinguishing between the jb (heart), the ka (double), the ba (personality), the rn (name), and the akh (lifeforce), while the Greeks were always guided by a daemon, including that famous one who authored the dialogues for Socrates. Different Is for different occasions, a bundle of selfhood rather than a point.

The monotheistic faiths have always been conflicted about I, with fundamentalists and mystics taking different views on immanence versus transcendence, particulate Is or one unified one. God’s name is I am that I am (ehyeh asher ehyeh), an infinite I focused into six syllables. This biblical view shows the name as the site of I, as Adam and Eve were given the task of naming all the plants and animals of Eden, rendering them animate. Modern Christians and mainstream Muslims, in the interest of a believable afterlife scenario, render the I impervious to death, a soul that, while a component of I, is still dissociated enough from intelligence that it can accidentally escape while sneezing or due to a badly written contract with Satan.

Yet the Sufis always thought about this differently, seeing any personal I as bound up in, a small piece of, the much bigger “I am.” Many, including Rumi and Ibn Al-Arabi were fond of quoting the 16th ayat of the Sura Qaf: “And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than his jugular vein.” The goal of Sufi practice was to correctly identify one’s small I with the universal I. Tenth-century mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj was executed by humorless scolds in Baghdad for exclaiming in ecstasy, “Ana al-Haqq” (I am Truth), claiming identity with God.

Another goal of other practices is to move the I from one part of the body to another, thereby defusing and diffusing it. Meditation on breath can move I from the painful tornado of desire and fear in the head—just thoughts, just clouds—to the breath of the lungs, and then elsewhere. This sleight of hand is like helping party guests escape through the back door when the police arrive. Breathe in and out. Focus on the breathing and understand thoughts as wisps—it’s the breath that’s substantial. Picture your I as sitting in saloon doors, doors set up between an infinite outside and an infinite inside. Inhalation makes the doors open one way, exhalation the other, but since both sides are of infinite volume, gradually your I will identify with the doors rather than your body. The resulting change in perspective is hard to hold on to, but fun to observe.

If I is seated on a boundary between infinite spaces, perhaps each I is seated on that same boundary, a part of the same membrane between inside and outside. We recognize each other as separate because that membrane undulates, has pockets to maximize surface area, and each I gets trapped in these pockets and thinks itself cut off from the others, though in reality is just a curtain fold away. What if we understood the unity of our common dimension?

I is with you.


Index Atlas Weekly Mailing List