The Designated "me": Is the Self a Product of Others' Views?
“Who are you?” and “who am I?” are two questions important to our sense of belonging and stability. It’s one of the first questions you would want answered upon meeting someone. Being able to answer this question for our selves is an important part of having a sense of stability, a place within the physical and mental environment that we are inhabiting.
This question is important because who we see ourselves as affects how we interact with the world. Our vision of self and others determines how we function, communicate, and the purpose we assign to our selves and those around us. The Oxford Dictionary defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is” and “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is”.
Initially we judge someone based on physical evidence: are they tall, short, fat, slim, male, female etc, and this view will determine how we interact with them. We judge the value of an entity also based around how we classify or identify it or them. This is friend, family, foe, entertainment, food etc.
An analogy that very nicely describes the idea of identity is ‘the ship of Theseus’. Theseus was a great king of Athens and his ship was kept as a monument. Over time, parts of the ship degraded and were replaced so often that after many years the ship, while still being called the ship of Theseus, had no original parts. So the question can be raised: is it still the ship of Theseus? One answer to this perplexing riddle is that the identity of the ship is not based on the physical structure but on the designation assigned to it by the people. It is ‘the ship of Theseus’ because we give it that identity.
Designation is based on external and transitory factors and we have a plethora of identities that correlate with different situations. For example, a woman may be a wife and a mother at home, an employee at work, a customer, a daughter, a friend and within each designation she will have a different way of acting, even many names (mum, sweetie, Mrs.., ma’am etc). Like the ship of Theseus analogy, human beings take the parts of our designation (name, age, gender, profession etc) and use this to construct the idea of ourselves. There is no part of our material identity that isn’t a social construct.
If identity is based on the designations of the body, what happens when that body ages? What if we lose a limb? So far today, everyone has lost millions of skin cells and hundreds of hairs, so if we are the body then our identity, our ‘self’, is literally disintegrating moment by moment.
Therefore, there can’t be a definitive description of personal identity. How can there be a definition of that which is in constant flux? The body is always changing and we can see this practically within our own lifetime and by watching a child or younger sibling develop. Even though the body has changed drastically, we are still the same person. There must be some part of us that is constant and therefore separate from the inconstant mind and body.
The Bhagavad Gita states that “those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both” (Bhagavad Gita As It Is 2.16).
The ancient yoga texts see the material body and mind as merely a temporary dress for the real self. It’s like a costume or a suit we’ve put on so that we are able to interact with this platform of existence. But the true self is something that is beyond these coverings. If we conclude that we are not the mind and we are not the body, then who are we? We are definitely something more, but what? The reality of our existence is more exciting and more hopeful then the temporary material body and mind. Coming to the realisation that we are more than just this flesh vehicle and the mercurial, temperamental mind means we are able to inquire further and discover what and who we really are.
The Bhagavad Gita teaches that rather than being the temporary, who we are, our true self is the part that is eternal, constant, does not age or die. It’s called the ‘atma’ in Sanskrit, or the soul, and when we can function on this platform of knowledge we can be truly peaceful and happy. The issue that we face and what is at the root of our internal dissonance is that we are an eternal being that is ever existent, yet identifying with a temporary vehicle. If we can interact beyond the material and come in contact with spiritual knowledge then we can discover true peace and happiness.