Mirror of Zen Blog

A Question from a Reader


Good morning🙏🏻
I have been thinking of the question “Who am I ?” And I have wondered if the question could be “What is I?” or “Who is I?” It’s probably not grammatically correct. But what do you think?


Good question. But it is the same question. I know that you also know that.

But just to be as clear as possible: In my experience, some people connect with the “who“, and some people connect only with the “what“. My intuition has always been that, when we use the “who“, then all of the years and years and years of identity-habit jump up more readily into awareness, rather than the objective seeing of “it” as the “it” is. “I am a monk.” “I am Paul.” “I am American.” “I am heterosexual.” “I am me.” All of this identity-tagging has been repeated so many innumerable times when communicating with the world and with ourselves, that it can just pop up into view again before the awareness has time to have a space open for some other possibility.

So, there is no “correct“ way, as you probably know, to reflect on this. It is more of a “feeling“ about things that I have when I orient a practitioner to begin working with the Great Question. As you know, whenever I give out “nudges” at random points during a sitting meditation period, I tend to prefer the more objective “What am I…?”, or “What is the witness…?” rather than asking “Who…?”. In doing this, I am making a conscious choice not to use any “nudge” which might tempt the always-ready identity-formation habit-concept (“who…?”) to appear first in the person’s mind. It is a subtle “trick“ that I employ, and very very intentionally so. This is what has worked for me, after all.


Yes. But I was thinking more about the “is” instead of “am” in the question. Like “What is I?” or “what is this I?” Or maybe it should be “Who is I?” And “What am I?”


Yes, “What am I?” The “What IS I?”, while certainly helpful on one level, will cause some “dust” of thinking to appear – – we have inner softwares oriented, by years and years of habit over thousands and thousands of conversations and readings and movies and songs, to detect “errors” in patterns and structures, and grammar is perhaps the most frequent of these. So, the thinking-mind — always looking for a “glitch” to play with, may latch onto this, in some people, and not permit that “blooming” of a space in thinking for the before-thinking realm of pure awareness to become apparent to itself. “’What IS I?’ Is that really correct?“ Even a speck of microscopic thought-dust is enough to throw off the entire project of looking inside.

“WHAT am I?” — or, even better, “What is this I?” — seems to create enough of the objective space around the question, not giving the automatic identity-arising of the “WHO am I?”, such that the awareness can emerge to reflect on itself, and a glimmer of “don’t know” is visible, which grows and grows and grows and becomes stable in your view. These are all just tricks — whatever works for you, if it causes that awarensss to become “visible”, is perfectly good enough. I have only provided the tricks that I use to teach and encourage this. Your experience might be different — go with whatever works!


Yes. I understand. Thank u… 🙏🏻

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