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Do I Exist?


Did you ever hear somebody say something that sounded really dumb, but later their words got you thinking? In my experience, children are particularly good at this.

My older daughter Erica was about five years old when I decided she was old enough to help around the house. We were babysitting a 6-month old boy named Sean. I gave Erica a small blanket and asked her to play peek-a-boo with the baby. Despite the fact that she had played peek-a-boo for most of her life, giggling when the soft furry blanket was held in front of her face, and she had played this game with other children, today was different. She was entering an ornery stage.

She asked me "Why do babies laugh when you hold a blanket in front them?" I explained to her "babies think things donít exist if they canít see them. Itís funny when things disappear and re-appear, like magic."

Erica was just old enough to appreciate a magic trick. Sheíd seen a bird come out of a hat that appeared empty. So, she played peek-a-boo with Sean.

After Seanís mother picked him up, I asked Erica to set the table. She did not like setting the table. She defiantly walked behind the couch and crouched down so I could not see her, and shouted, "I do not exist."

At the time it was both funny and frustrating. But since Iíve been studying meditation, Iím starting to see the deep philosophical wisdom in my daughterís defiant statement.

In meditation, the student is asked to answer the question: Who am I?

The teacher makes this simpler by breaking it down into three questions:

Am I my thoughts?

Am I my feelings?

Am I my body?

Usually, a student will say, "Arenít we a combination of all three?"

And the teacher says, "Ask each question and wait for the answer."

Each of us has an innate sense that we exist as separate entities, and we define these entities by our thoughts, feelings and body. The purpose of this meditation is to question our assumptions.

So, first: Am I my thoughts?

The most obvious thing about my thoughts is that they are constantly changing.

Most of the time, they just happen, like random channel surfing: My thoughts will zoom from whatís for lunch? to I really ought to write Karen, to I wish I hadnít said that to my client.

If I want, I can choose what Iíd like to think about. I can plan a trip or calculate a math problem.

Sometimes I can request thoughts. For example, when Iím writing a story and I donít know what my character is going to do next, I can ask the universe for an answer, and usually I get one. I get a movie in my head showing me the next scene in my story.

In all these situations, my thoughts are changing, yet I feel myself as a constant.

I can even change an opinion about something and still feel that I am myself.

I am no more my thoughts than a television is the shows on its screen.

What about my feelings? They too constantly change. They may be triggered by a thought.

News that a friend will be visiting can trigger happy feelings. News that a friend has died can trigger sad feelings.

We can even decide to have a feeling. When we go to a scary movie, we know itís just a movie. But we can decide to allow ourselves to be scared when things happen on the screen and the scary music is playing. We can decide right now to be happy or sad or scared Ė we can pick any emotion we want and feel it right now.

But like our thoughts, our feelings are not constant.

And we are still ourselves whether we are happy or sad or scared.

So, we are not our feelings.

What about the body? From a biological point of view, our bodies donít have a single atom in them that we had 7 years ago. We certainly donít look the way we did last year, let alone 25 years ago. But our sense of identity has remained constant through all of this. So, we are not our bodies.

Thus everything we identified in the beginning (our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies) is not our self. From this standpoint, I do not exist.

Now, letís take a look at what weíve just done.

We have gone through three levels at looking at ourselves.. First we were the I.that we thought of as thoughts, feelings, and body. But we stepped away from that I. We became split into two parts which we can call witness and ego. And now, we are acting as a third self Ė looking at the Witness and the ego.

Which of these selves, if any, really exists?

Let me ask that question in its simplest form: Do I exist?

Now, we donít hesitate. We answer immediately Ė Yes. I have an innate sense that I exist.

I am.

But which I is that?

Iíll answer with a limerick by Alan Watts.

ĎThough it seems that I know that I know,

What I would like to see, is the I that knows me,

          When I know, that I know, that I know.í