Part of a series, this essay explores a question raised in Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.
Who Am I, Really?
If you’re sure you know and are ready to dismiss the question, what follows may be a waste of your time — or exactly what you need. Here are five prospective responses. They are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Add your own.
1) I am a mystery that I explore more deeply every day.
2) I am a mix of elements that’s worth four or five bucks.
3) I am the result of the exploits of God, Adam, Eve, and that horrible snake.
4) I am a ___-year-old, ____-generation _______-American ___________ [ your occupation] from _________.
5) I am a child of the stars.
The identity story I choose (or that chooses me) provides a unique view of myself and the world and a wildly different array of possibilities for my need for healing, my views on Shadow, and life in general. Every human being in the history of humanity had a sense, clear or vague, conscious or unconscious, of who they (thought they) were. We’ll engage this question through three distinct, interrelated perspectives — Body-Mind (aka middleworld), Soul (aka underworld), and Spirit (aka upperworld).
Body-Mind, or middleworld, as used here, refers to our conventional, everyday lives. We do, think, and feel, and we recognize, to various degrees, the connections among doing, thinking, and feeling. Our thoughts and feelings impact what we do and vice versa. In terms of our who-am-I inquiry, the Body-Mind perspective encourages us to assess skills, strengths, likes, dislikes, and aspirations in order to identify with a job, social role, or occupation. We are educators, plumbers, nurses, stay-at-home-parents, and truck drivers, etc. From a Body-Mind perspective, our job may be a valid response to that pesky question famously asked by Mary Oliver, “…what is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Turning toward Soul, we learn from eco-depth psychologist, Bill Plotkin, that our “soulwork…does not correspond to a job title.” Howard Thurman directs us to find “what makes [us] come alive.” Frederick Buechner refers to “the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Harvey Swift Deer speaks of “sacred dance,” and William Blake wrote of being “organized by Divine Providence for Spiritual communion.”¹
These various takes on a similar theme begin to move us beyond job descriptions and earning an income (each of which has its place) toward a somewhat deeper inquiry. Plotkin and Swift Deer differentiate soulwork or sacred dance from survival work or survival dance, which, in no way deprecatory, simply refer to “our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically….”² Aptitude and career tests and other Body-Mind assessments can be useful for matching us with survival work we might enjoy, and rarely, if ever, address soulwork, sacred dance, deep gladness, spiritual communion, what brings us alive, or what poet David Whyte calls the “one life / you can call your own.”³
Plotkin works with Soul as an ecological, rather than a psychological or spiritual, entity, referring to it as one’s “ultimate place,” or one’s “unique ecological niche” (“eco-niche”).⁴ Discovering one’s ultimate place or unique ecological niche in the world feels very different from getting a really good job with good pay and benefits. Our task from a Soul perspective is to find and create delivery systems that allow us to “offer our unique gift to the world.”⁵ These delivery systems change as we develop and are not who we are. They may manifest as survival work, soulwork, or both. For example, writing, teaching, and coaching are among my delivery systems.
From a Spirit or upperworld perspective, self-inquiry has been around at least from the beginning of the Advaita Vedanta tradition as a means of exploring this question. One iteration guides us through asking and returning to the question, “Who am I?” in a way that gradually eliminates who and what I am not. When I notice what arises in awareness (externals like clouds, sore muscles, job title, and cars, and internals like emotions, thoughts, concepts, and beliefs), I objectify and eliminate what I am not, as in “This cloud arises in my awareness, but I am not this cloud,” “This thought arises in my awareness, but I am not this thought,” “This pain arises…but I am not this pain.” Eventually I may get curious about “in whose awareness does all of this arise?” Who is this observer/witness? Who am I, really? Of course, this observer, or witness, or awareness itself is just another thought or concept until and unless I directly experience it. Then all heaven can break loose, until I get distracted again.⁶
Body-Mind, Soul, and Spirit perspectives each offer something of value. The center of gravity of our democratic, capitalist, American culture privileges the Body-Mind, replaces or dilutes Spirit with conventional, middleworld religious beliefs and requirements that usually protect us from any direct experience of Spirit, and generally ignores Soul — as Plotkin has developed it — or uses it in a variety of often disparate ways.
Ram Dass, in his teachings on change, aging, and death, shared a metaphor for waking up through these who-am-I perspectives or states of consciousness: he asks us to imagine that we each have a built-in receiver that picks up planes of consciousness. Most of our American receivers are tuned to pick up just one or two of the available channels — channel one’s physical traits (shapes, sizes, and colors, etc.) and channel two’s moods, emotions, and social roles. We don’t pick up more because middleworld culture doesn’t teach us (or know) how to fully tune our receivers. Said differently our American culture’s center of gravity holds a Body-Mind/middleworld perspective. We have not, as a culture, learned to tune into, nor do we seem to value, the Soul- and Spirit-based perspectives available on channels three, four, and five.⁷
Of course, amid our cultural attunement to channels one and two, some individuals do have access to additional channels. What channels are you attuned to? What’s your view on all of this?
Which leads us to story…in the next essay.
¹Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, (Beacon, 1992), 94. Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, (New World Library, 2008), 316. Howard Thurman attribution: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/07/09/come-alive/. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, (HarperOne, 1993), 118–19. Harvey Swift Deer, in Plotkin, Nature…, 258. William Blake, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman, ed., (U of California P, 1981), 724.
²Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, 258.
³David Whyte, “All the True Vows,” The House of Belonging, (Many Rivers, 1997), 24.
⁴Plotkin, “ultimate place” in Nature and the Human Soul, 35–38; “unique ecological niche” in The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries, (New World Library, 2021), 6–17. A 52-minute interview with Bill is available here (there are more): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOTaKXHMabM
⁵Plotkin, The Journey of Soul Initiation, 18.
⁶This paragraph is meant to be descriptive, not instructive. My encounter with self-inquiry began with the writings of David Frawley and Ken Wilber, which led me to Ramana Maharshi’s work. Here’s a link to Frawley’s writing from 1998: https://www.vedanta.gr/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Frawley_SelfInquiry_ENA5.pdf. Online references to self-inquiry are abundant and unequal. Inquirer beware.
⁷Ram Dass, “The Art Form of Dying,” Conscious Aging: On the Nature of Change and Facing Death, CD, (Sounds True, 1992), Disc 2, 2:50–6:25.