The sense of who we are usually defies scrutiny or definition. Having a ‘strong’ sense of who we are, whatever that might mean, has variably been lauded as wholesome and healthy as well as relegated to being a delusional construct. Reflecting upon the sense of who we are is often seen as an endeavour that is more or less pointless and we’d be better off investing our time and effort on more tangible activities like earning a livelihood, keeping ourselves busy or seeking happiness. Most of us who choose to reflect upon this subject, refer to our body or mind or both as who we are. So we are substance and material and the sense of who we are is not distinct from our material building blocks and our individual characteristics are a reflection of the properties and the complexity of our physical substance.
Does the ‘sense’ of who we are have referent basis? Many have suggested that it doesn’t. Irrespective of its physical or psychophysical grounds, it does not inherently exist and it cannot really be found. What we do actually find on contemplation is some artefact that is generated from social, biological and ecosystemic variables interacting with each micro moment of our becoming conscious. In many ways, we are not conscious, in each moment we become conscious and this moment of awareness imputes our self in alignment with the emphases of the aforementioned variables. The sense of who we are might just be an imputation, and nothing more.
In order for anything to be truly and independently and inherently existent, two criteria have to be fulfilled. One that, the basis of reference exists independently of the perceiver and the other that it is existent free of any other external factors, that is it is independently existent in and of itself. These criteria are not fulfilled essentially by any phenomena! Were the latter condition fulfilled, such a phenomenon would be permanent and not change at all, and would be the same at all times! Every phenomena, including our self and the contingent sense of self depend on a myriad interconnected other phenomena which are its causes and conditions and themselves non inherently existent. So we are dependently existent, nominally so, and we function. In so much, we exist, till the causes and conditions that effect our manifestation are operating, but we do not inherently exist! No phenomenon does!
Experienced meditators claim that when we search for a self and a creator we invariably find them. If, from the start we do not aspire to such a goal, there is nothing to be found, except nothingness or ’emptiness’, which itself does not have inherent existence. Such a finding is a source of immense joy and freedom and ought not to lead to nihilism or despondence. Because of this ’emptiness’, a state of non-implicative negation, things and phenomena arise and there is a field of possibility! In deep meditation, there is a state of there being ‘no apprehender and no apprehended’. Such a state inheres nothing and realizes that who we are, the sense of who we are and all phenomena are based in absolute absence, in voidness! This absence might indeed be the actual substrata of any phenomenon, actual reality!
In the absence of the reification of the signals that arise from this ’emptiness’ lies peace, compassion and clarity. Whether we are body and mind or just an imputation that is dependently arisen is worthy of diligent contemplation and meditation. Such a process carries with it the flavour of complete ‘absence’. With experience and practice, all form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations as well as consciousness are seen to be empty of inherent existence and are let go of and the sense of who we are becomes just as evanescent and insubstantial as any other phenomenal process.