We have, all of us, something in common–together with the fact that we just exist now: it is that to everyone present here, whether he recognizes it or not, the most important thing, the thing that really matters to him, is himself. I am not referring now to some specific ego features such as selfishness, self-love, or self-importance, but to something very simple, factual, quite unavoidable. Am I not extremely important since everything that exists exists because I am? And if I think the opposite, is it not again I who think it? Everything passes through me. I am the only one who can experience or live my life. It is not asecondhand life, although unfortunately most of the time we seem to forget that.
This fact brings us immediately to the most difficult question. What is myself?
Let us try to consider that, avoiding as far as possible our «ready-made» patterns of thought. We are of course immediately tempted to refer to a philosophical point of view, or to recall the Buddhist or Hindu conception of the self, or to approach the problem in terms of depth psychology, behaviorism, or any other of our personal «idiosyncrasies.» Let us try to face the question in a more provocative way, I would say in a naive way. So I come back to myself. What is it? Do I have anything of my own?
My life? I may say, In a way it was given to me. I have done nothing for that. It is now given to me as an existential fact. I can become aware of it. It operates through my body.
This body given to me works by itself according to definite laws. It is the site of myriads of processes and of constant exchanges with the outer world. Various determining influences have given it its peculiarities: race, heredity, climate, food; and also more distant influences: astrological, cosmic, etc., of which we know very little. Anyhow, it works, and most of the time I am unconscious of it. It is like an animal. An animal in itself is a great thing, as the etymology reminds us: «anima,» like «spiritus,» refers to the breath, to the mysterious «animation» of the body. Thus animated, the body goes and comes, eats, sleeps, evacuates, has sex affairs and sometimes calls on me to be recognized, to be taken care of; but it usually works as well without me. In the best moments of awareness it appears to me as an integrated part of a greater whole, from which it is inseparable. Made of matter, my body obeys the causality of what we call the physical world.
Now there is another, greater whole of which I am a part, to which I belong, in which I bathe. That is culture or society. I may sometimes realize that everything I have, all my thoughts, my words, all my feelings, my body’s learned ways of behavior–all the contents as well as most of the dynamics of what is called my psychological life–have been «inputted» into me.
My only originality seems to lie in the way it is put together. Everyone has a style, some characteristic habits and associations; but so it is in a computer also. The way all this has been put together has merely happened. It came about through contingency–through accidental events–and developed quite unconsciously. My computer deals with new inputs according to its own conditioned program. Nothing completely new can ever come out of it. None of us, for instance, would be able to draw an entirely new animal. Known elements or features would inevitably be made use of. I may say, roughly, and provocatively, that everything, including my character and equipment, has been given to me. My psychic life, even though it obeys the causality of intentionality, is also given to me and is basically conditioned or motivated by its cultural world.
At least something seems to remain undoubtedly my own, something that gives me the sense of my identity: 1, myself, the one who pretends to be aware of all that. But here again, is it not one of those deeply rooted assumptions that we never put into question? Our «ego» actually turns out to be just as much of a gift, maybe a poisonous gift, but nevertheless, a grand gift from our culture.
We are not just simply born into human existence. As existentialists would say: human existence is initially ego-consciousness. And this only appears in a child born and reared in a human society, usually after the age of two, when the neurological system has completely matured. Ego consciousness appears then, altogether, as affirmation of oneself as I–ego, as discrimination of oneself from what is not I–the other; and as a fact presented to oneself and recognized by the ego. Immediately dissociation arises in the ego: the ego in ego –consciousness being simultaneously ego as subject and ego as object. In spite of all its dramatic attempts to escape this conditioned subjectivity, the ego seems never able to be a subject without an object … unless, with some help, it can go down to the very root of its fundamental contradiction.
Should I conclude that I am just a specific conjunction of outer influences, a sort of metabolic link within the cosmos? Something remains evidently irreducible to such a perspective. However deeply I realize that what I am is altogether «imported,» conditioned, and divided, I still believe in a mysterious and compelling vocation: that of being myself. Like Isis desperately trying to gather the dispersed members of Osiris the ego is ever in quest of a unified, meaningful identity.
In fact with ego- consciousness and its provocative ambiguity there has been awakened in us a strange and immediate sense of responsibility. This brings me much nearer to what I can recognize as my own. Especially if I recall that to be responsible means properly to respond, to answer. All I can possibly do, as a matter of fact all I am doing, is responding, responding to my existence. What really defines and shows us a man is his response. If there is for me the slightest possible choice in the midst of operating laws, whether from hazard or necessity, is it not in the way I respond–that is, in the quality of my participation in all that is given to me through the immediate experience of my life?
lLet us be clear that my genuine responsiveness is not to be found in any of the formal responses that my programmed computer never fails to produce. It has to be sought beyond that. It is an intentional act of knowing, which has a singular capacity for freedom since it can exist beyond my «formal» conditioning. This primary, free response is my attention. My attention is my own and fundamental answer to my existence. It is both my response and what I can be responsible for. An opening as well as an engagement, it is my becoming present to what is, it is hic et nunc my participating in the actuality of being. Arising as a basic act of knowing through actual being, my attention is simultaneously awakening to myself and to the world. All the rest, I mean all the other responses which are formal, all my acting out, all my outward manifestations proceed, so to say, by themselves, depending in their quality on the quality of my attention.
The idea of quality of attention is not familiar to us, nor is the idea of different possible levels of attention. But this would need an elaboration we cannot make here. Let us just say that our attention is much more than we generally think. It is much more than a simple mental or cerebral mechanism. It concerns our whole being. If its potentialities are far from being fully actualized in our usual life, maybe it is precisely because it is not recognized as a multidimensional keyboard and as the unifying principle of our being.
Paradoxically this basic act of knowing, which is attention, is only actualized when we don’t know–that is, when there is a question. Its level and, so to say, its degree of «totalization» are proportional to our questioning. You have surely noticed that when a question is vital–when it takes us in the guts, as you say–it suspends all unnecessary movements, emotional and physical as well as mental. It clears the way for real awareness and sensitivity, which are components of my total power of attention. It is only between my not knowing and my urge to know that I find myself present, mobilized, open, new–that is to say, attentive.
Attention in its active form is therefore inseparable from interrogation; it is essentially, in its purity, an act of questioning. This act is the privilege of our human existence. An animal contents itself with being. The responsibility of man is to question himself on the meaning of his being.
In our society, mainly concerned with production and efficiency, the drama is that our capacity for questioning, still so vivid in early childhood, is very quickly eradicated or pushed aside for the benefit of our capacity for answering. When a child has a real question, most of the time he is immediately given a stupid answer. In the best cases the educator goes to the dictionary to be sure his answer is accurate. But anyhow, unconsciously, if not proudly, he closes the question. From school to the end of our life it is always necessary to answer. We are compelled to learn how to answer. If we don’t know how to answer, we are just no good. So little by little we become some kind of model machine able-to-answer-all-situations with all the necessary blindness as regards its own contradictions. That kind of answering, whose degree of sophistication may sometimes hide from us its conditioned character, is required by our life. But under its dominating necessity, is it possible to keep alive in ourselves our most authentic and precious capacity, which is questioning?
This is the whole problem confronting us, actually. But are we strong enough, free enough, concerned enough, to really question ourselves while answering? The challenge is just as difficult as facing a Zen koan. While playing our part, while being engaged without cheating in the situation that calls us, can we at the same time neither affirm nor deny, neither resist nor follow, assume that we neither know nor don’t know, that we are able or unable? Can we be acutely present to what is, without judgment or indifference, without any solution or escape? It would mean being aware on all fronts, renouncing the known for the unknown, with standing the inevitable principle of repetition, staying still within our movement.
Total questioning in our living is the key to being, but whoever ventures unprepared into the experience will meet a wall of resistance in himself, if not simply fear that he is stupid, incapable, and so on. Only exceptionally motivated searchers will take the risk and leave room for questioning–and get beyond the phantasms of insecurity. Most of us, are so busy with successful answering and so identified with our own image that we need severe shocks such as death, suffering, illness, deep frustration, or «supergratification» to awaken to the question.
The question is here, waiting for us, following us everywhere, since we ourselves are that very question. I have started with it, asking, «What am I?» but this approach has kept me an outsider, a mere on-looker of myself. When born in the mind, the question calls forth an answer through the mind and keeps me divided under my compulsion for explanation and for power over my object world. Understanding needs more. It needs experiencing–that is, to be put to the test and to pass through. I have to engage myself, to respond totally in the act of knowing myself. Arising from being, the question finds an answer through being. Our question has thus shifted from a ratiocentric point of view to an ontocentric point of view and has become «Who am 1?»
Behind the misleading screen of all our other questions it is the question of each one of us in our human existence. It is humanity’s first and last question. It is today as it was centuries ago. Throughout human history, dim, bright, or enlightening lights have repeatedly reactivated that question. It is the axis around which moves in a spiral the eternal revolution of human culture.
Excerpted from «Man’s Ever New and Eternal Challenge», in On the Way to Self Knowledge, edited by Jacob Needleman and Dennis Lewis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), pp.54-60.