Stripping Down to the “I”
The following is the 16th chapter in AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words
by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the Center for Spiritual Exchange
“I suggest another exercise now. Would you write down on a piece of paper any brief way you would describe yourself—for example, businessman, priest, human being, Catholic, Jew, anything.
Some write, I notice, things like, fruitful, searching pilgrim, competent, alive, impatient, centered, flexible, reconciler, lover, member of the human race, overly structured. This is the fruit, I trust, of observing yourself. As if you were watching another person.
But notice, you’ve got “I” observing “me.” This is an interesting phenomenon that has never ceased to cause wonder to philosophers, mystics, scientists, psychologists, that the “I” can observe “me.” It would seem that animals are not able to do this at all. It would seem that one needs a certain amount of intelligence to be able to do this. What I’m going to give you now is not metaphysics; it is not philosophy. It is plain observation and common sense. The great mystics of the East are really referring to that “I,” not to the “me.” As a matter of fact, some of these mystics tell us that we begin first with things, with an awareness of things; then we move on to an awareness of thoughts (that’s the “me”); and finally we get to awareness of the thinker. Things, thoughts, thinker. What we’re really searching for is the thinker. Can the thinker know himself? Can I know what “I” is? Some of these mystics reply, “Can the knife cut itself? Can the tooth bite itself? Can the eye see itself? Can the ‘I’ know itself?” But I am concerned with something infinitely more practical right now, and that is with deciding what the “I” is not. I’ll go as slowly as possible because the consequences are devastating. Terrific or terrifying, depending on your point of view.
Listen to this: Am I my thoughts, the thoughts that I am thinking? No. Thoughts come and go; I am not my thoughts. Am I my body? They tell us that millions of cells in our body are changed or are renewed every minute, so that by the end of seven years we don’t have a single living cell in our body that was there seven years before. Cells come and go. Cells arise and die. But “I” seems to persist. So am I my body? Evidently not!
“I” is something other and more than the body. You might say the body is part of “I,” but it is a changing part. It keeps moving, it keeps changing. We have the same name for it but it constantly changes. Just as we have the same name for Niagara Falls, but Niagara Falls is constituted by water that is constantly changing. We use the same name for an ever-changing reality.
How about my name? Is “I” my name? Evidently not, because I can change my name without changing the “I.” How about my career? How about my beliefs? I say I am a Catholic, a Jew—is that an essential part of “I”? When I move from one religion to another, has the “I” changed? Do I have a new “I” or is it the same “I” that has changed? In other words, is my name an essential part of me, of the “I”? Is my religion an essential part of the “I”? I mentioned the little girl who says to the boy, “Are you a Presbyterian?” Well, somebody told me another story, about Paddy. Paddy was walking down the street in Belfast and he discovers a gun pressing against the back of his head and a voice says, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” Well, Paddy has to do some pretty fast thinking. He says, “I’m a Jew.” And he hears a voice say, “I’ve got to be the luckiest Arab in the whole of Belfast.” Labels are so important to us. “I am a Republican,” we say. But are you really? You can’t mean that when you switch parties you have a new “I.” Isn’t it the same old “I” with new political convictions? I remember hearing about a man who asks his friend, “Are you planning to vote Republican?” The friend says, “No, I’m planning to vote Democratic. My father was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat, and my great-grandfather was a Democrat.” The man says, “That is crazy logic. I mean, if your father was a horse thief, and your grandfather was a horse thief, and your great-grandfather was a horse thief, what would you be?” “Ah,” the friend answered, “then I’d be a Republican.”
We spend so much of our lives reacting to labels, our own and others’. We identify the labels with the “I.” Catholic and Protestant are frequent labels. There was a man who went to the priest and said, “Father, I want you to say a Mass for my dog.” The priest was indignant. “What do you mean, say a Mass for your dog?” “It’s my pet dog,” said the man. “I loved that dog and I’d like you to offer a Mass for him.” The priest said, “We don’t offer Masses for dogs here. You might try the denomination down the street. Ask them if they might have a service for you.” As the man was leaving, he said to the priest, “Too bad. I really loved that dog. I was planning to offer a million-dollar stipend for the Mass.” And the priest said, “Wait a minute, you never told me your dog was Catholic.”
When you’re caught up in labels, what value do these labels have, as far as the “I” is concerned? Could we say that “I” is none of the labels we attach to it? Labels belong to “me.” What constantly changes is “me.” Does “I” ever change? Does the observer ever change? The fact is that no matter what labels you think of (except perhaps human being) you should apply them to “me .” “I” is none of these things. So when you step out of yourself and observe “me,” you no longer identify with “me.” Suffering exists in “me,” so when you identify “I” with “me,” suffering begins.
Say that you are afraid or desirous or anxious. When “I” does not identify with money, or name, or nationality, or persons, or friends, or any quality, the “I” is never threatened. It can be very active, but it isn’t threatened. Think of anything that caused or is causing you pain or worry or anxiety. First, can you pick up the desire under that suffering, that there’s something you desire very keenly or else you wouldn’t be suffering. What is that desire? Second, it isn’t simply a desire; there’s an identification there. You have somehow said to yourself, “The well-being of ‘I,’ almost the existence of ‘I,’ is tied up with this desire.” All suffering is caused by my identifying myself with something, whether that something is within me or outside of me.”