The fundamental question ‘Who am I?’

Looking at this question as a koan, we ‘narikiru’ (fully concentrate on, become one with, cut off everything else) to a word, sentence or a paragraph. Is it the ‘I’ or ‘who’ that we are questioning here? Pedants would argue that ‘am’ is as important in the sense of being. It provides a connection between ‘who’ and ‘I’. We should not dispose of them lightly since ‘being’ (from to be) links the entities questioned to time. It’s legitimate to ask whether – or how – this temporal function influences both ‘who’ and ‘I’.

Let me illustrate this by an example. The first obstacle in finding an answer is a strong identification with a particular role. Several years ago, I have lost my job as a lecturer when the Department of Physics was closed down. Facing an uncertain future as a scientist was not easy though the university had handled the severance process according to managerial rules.  There was some time for making other arrangements – some colleagues took early retirement, some moved to other departments – and of course we had to see the last cohort of students through. As the situation developed, anxiety muddled my thoughts during daytime. In this period I had several vivid dreams. They indicated that I knew subconsciously what I could do and how to progress.

In order to ‘reinvent myself’ I was working with a consultant. Initially I could not see what other job but work in a very specialised branch of physics I could do. He had guided me through the process of identifying my skills which is much more generic offering to a prospective employer. For example, doing physics involves both analytical and synthesis skills; these underlie vast array of disciplines and jobs. Sufficient to say, that physicists are sought for by city firms. Of course, there is a need to document whichever skill one claims to have.

One night I dreamed of climbing a steep mountain without any gear, just using hands and feet. Suddenly there was this impenetrable vertical cliff wall in front of me, seemingly stretching up to heavens. For some reason, it was not possible to climb down. No up, no down… In desperation, I’ve looked around and there was a ledge leading to the side where a passable path ran.

The meaning of this dream was immediately clear to me: I’ve decided to retrain as a software engineer. Having done my part-time study at Oxford University I was fortunate to get a fixed-contract job at Open University, and eventually to end up working at Oxford University.

While sitting in zazen regularly during this time, I had no guidance. There was no resident master in London group to which I’ve belonged for several years; the trips to our mother temple in Japan have stopped as well. In any case it is doubtful whether anybody could have helped me to make up my mind, let alone to find another job. The process was running of its own accord.

But what was this process? The key was to see myself initially as a narrowly-specialised physicist, and to believe that others saw me as such as well. I did not know it at the time, but it was really like starting on the beginner’s koan ‘Who am I’? I imagine these would have been my initial answers: physicist, neutron scatterer, partner… Very specific. It took the drama of losing my job to move to the next layer: I can be this but also that, I’m not only a specialist…etc. Initially reinventing meant giving myself another identity, beyond the existing one.

This, of course, is only the beginning of getting to the bottom of this koan. Or, if you prefer, to finding an answer to the fundamental question ‘who are you? Who am I?’ In dealing with life ordeals the motivation is rarely a spiritual one, more likely the mundane: having a job, looking after family, securing the necessities of life: air, water, food, shelter. Hence difficulties with relating ancient koans to the realities of modern life of lay people.

And yet we need to find an answer to this most important question – to find it once is not sufficient. We must check: is the ‘I-process’ fooling us with a superficial change?