I is a paradox

When you’ve finished this little essay, read the related one, Buddhism for Christians

“No man is an island.”
John Donne

I certainly feel like I was real. My body has sensations that no one else shares, or even can know directly. My perceptions of my surroundings cannot be shared. As the philosophy cliche has it, there is no way of knowing if your sensation of red is the same as mine or not; we can only agree on what the concept “red” refers to. Apart from the possibility of telepathy, my thoughts are private, and you only know about them through my words and actions. To myself and others, I appear to be an independent agent who is responsible for what he does. There is a definite boundary between me and the rest of the universe, for example the chair I sit on or the person I talk with.

And yet, Donne is right. I am not a unit, an entity, but a component.

The Buddhist analogy of the wave expresses it well. There is the limitless ocean. A wave arises. You can point to it, identify it as “that wave.” It has boundaries, it can affect objects, perhaps even overturn a ship. It progresses from one location to another. It is real.

However, the wave is not a unit, a thing, merely a deformation on the surface of the ocean. A body of water rises, then goes down again. Its energy is transferred to a neighbouring body of water, so that the energy progresses while the water doesn’t. (There may be a current moving the water along, but that’s independent of the waves. Only near the shore, where sea bottom undercuts the wave, does an actual physical body of water move.)

The wave has a duration of existence. After awhile, its energy ceases, or more exactly is transformed into something else, and the wave smooths out.

This is remarkably similar to me and my body. Constantly, I inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Every day, I take in food and water, and get rid of wastes. Cells in my body die and are replaced (or not; aging is change too). The wave is constantly changing volumes of water; my body is a constantly changing volumes of materials. There is zero overlap between my body now and what it was 10 years ago.

Another analogy is my thumb. It has a shape, structure, functions, boundaries. But it is not a unit, merely a component of a body. If it were to be cut off it would become a unit — but it would no longer be my thumb, and it would lose its functions. This is as if the water currently forming the wave were scooped out of the ocean. It would become a unit, but no longer the wave.

In ego-dominated cultures like ours, a person is seen as a unit, a distinct entity that then may have relationships with other distinct entities. But there are great difficulties if you try to pin this supposed unit down.

When I do something, such as lifting an object, I am not the action, but the agent doing the action. When I say something, I am not the words or their meaning, but the speaker. When I think a thought, feel an emotion, have a memory… whatever you can say about me is something I am doing, not something I am. “He is funny” is a description of some of the things I do, which make people laugh. “She is jealous” describes certain behaviour patterns, not an inherent quality of the person. To describe personality traits, such as “she is extraverted and intelligent” are also shortcuts for long-standing patterns of action. There is actually nothing you can say about the entity who controls the movements of the body, thinks a thought, feels an emotion, is responsible for the pattern of habits that form the personality. “I” is actually indescribable.

It is indescribable, because “I” as a unit don’t really exist. I am only a component of All. Everything we can sense, including matter, is a form of energy. Temporarily, a collection of energy is the entity, the wave, that goes on for a while, and interacts with a collection of energy forming the matter of my body, and this interaction interacts with other forms of energy that forms its environment.

This leads to all sorts of interesting consequences. Here is one:

If all is one and one is all, then all love of any other component of the universe is self-love, and any hate of any other component of the universe is self-hate. Harming anyone else is harming the universe, which is me, so it’s harming myself. So, generosity is the ultimate selfishness, kindness to others is self-care.

I am very interested in reactions to these thoughts, in particular other consequences of the non-existence of the ego.

28 Responses to I is a paradox

  1. TA Sullivan says:

    Once we begin focusing on the unity of all things rather than our individuality, we have lost the ability to participate in the ‘games’ of life. We now begin to see the plays for what they are and no longer feel a need to participate in the dramas that constitute physical life. That is when altruism becomes real.


  2. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Sorry my friend. You see, I am the chairman of the Antisocial Committee, which, as a matter of principle, has never met.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. pendantry says:

    Hi Bob… I suspect this isn’t entirely your cup of tea, but…

    I’ve just nominated you for the ‘three day quotes challenge’ (see my most recent post for more). You should have had a pingback, but I thought I’d better write you a short note just to make it a bit clearer. These Internetisms get a bit cryptic! πŸ™‚

    Of course there’s no obligation to participate, but you might find it fun, who knows?

    Happy blogging!


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Being in the moment: in search of wu wei | Wibble

  5. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Yes, I wish I had a sense of humour, but it always dribbles away from me.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dr Bob Rich says:

    The I is an illusion of course. It is the illusion of the interaction of the piece of life force with the body it temporarily uses as a space suit for surviving on this planet.

    About your previous question: I have a Ph.D. in psychology, a doctorate in mythology from the University of Selfril Islands, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Hard Knox.

    I keep my editing fees cheap, because I know that few writers can afford to pay the exorbitant charges of some others. Besides, editing gives me an opportunity to be of service.


    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hariod Brawn says:

    Thank you for this illuminating article Doctor Rich. I am reminded of the Ship of Theseus here, wherein we are invited to question if the ‘I’ as subject is enduringly instantiated at all. As you rightly identify, it is not of course, and remains alone a morphing narrative construct in my view. May I ask of you, when you write of “me and my body”, as you do here in this article, are you merely conforming to the consensus understanding wherein it’s supposed that there exists an agent of selfhood, or do you believe there to be the same in actuality?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      We cannot speak of deep truths, except as metaphor, story, poetry. But here goes.

      There is only One. Some of the One is matter, and some of that matter is a bit of meat and bone and stuff that has gone on for a short 71.75 earth years, constantly renewing itself while it has aged.

      Some of the One is energy, which is never destroyed, but transforms from one kind to another, always tending toward entropy.

      And there is life force, which transforms lower order energy into higher order, at the cost of more entropy of course.

      Life force is just a part of All, of the same stuff as the energy from the stars and matter, but different with different functions. Some of that life force has chosen to use my body as a temporary home, because it has some jobs it can only do that way.

      Anyway, that’s my story.


      Liked by 3 people

  8. Dr Bob Rich says:

    The rest of your comments: you’ve read me correctly.

    Rules are not railroad tracks but guide posts.


    Liked by 2 people

  9. Dr Bob Rich says:

    As for cliche: I left off the Β΄ because it’s a special character that produces garbage code on some browsers and in some email clients.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pendantry says:

      I’m out of touch with the current rules on character sets. But ‘ Γ© ‘ (ALT+0233) is a character that is in common use in several languages, and I don’t think it’s one that should cause trouble.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        Maybe only on a Mac? My Safari converts things like that into symbol salad.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pendantry says:

        I’ve never used Safari. I would argue that if it can’t handle very common accents then it’s not doing a very good job. However, I do hear you: I never forget that the interwebs is WYSINWOG (an acronym it’s possible I may even have coined, as I first devised it back in the early 1990s… though I may, as ever, be mistaken).

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you, Pendantry.

    I don’t feel there is meanspiritedness in this paradox. The reason is that you become what you do.

    A billionaire was known for his harshness in dealing with employees, customers, business partners. This was hurting business, so he hired a PR consultant. This expert advised well publicised donations to charities. Sigh. the fellow started spending money.

    As an old man, he authorised a writer to produce his biography. By then, he had handed all his business affairs over to his sons. He himself was just too busy, looking after his many charities. The joy of giving had become the meaning of his life.

    At his funeral, he was lauded as one of America’s greatest benefactors.


    Liked by 2 people

    • pendantry says:

      I take your point; that’s a good anecdote. But I would prefer not to internalise a meme such as ‘generosity is selfishness’ as I believe it would tend to hinder promotion of a worthy value.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. pendantry says:

    Mitakuye Oyasin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you for the education. I guessed a Japanese writer I hadn’t heard of.

      I see you share my respect for traditional cultures. We indeed are all connected — not only humans, but all existence is one.

      Thank you for looking around at my offerings. No typo in this one?


      Liked by 1 person

      • pendantry says:

        Well, ok, since you specifically ask, I do have one or two penn’orth to offer; and I do so in the belief that since there is no ‘I’, there is no harm being done. Other than, of course, a potential total waste of time πŸ˜‰

        1. Title: “I is a paradox”
        When I first saw this title I thought ‘hmm, that’s wrong’; but soon came to realise, given the subject matter, that (a) I would tie myself in knots were I even to try to suggest that “I am a paradox” would be somehow more correct and (b) the existing title is a great ‘hook’, potentially enticing those who might be interested in the topic into choosing that link rather than any of the others on offer. Which is, of course, exactly what happened to me.

        2. First sentence: “I certainly feel like I was real.”
        The mixture of present and past tenses is jarring: but this is again a great ‘hook’; the juxtaposition of tenses makes it a great introductory phrase for the subject matter. “I certainly feel like I am real” would be the ‘more correct’ choice because of the agreement in tenses: however, one must also consider that ‘the hand, having writ, moves on’: “I — the writer — was real” at the time of writing… leaving one wondering who the “first I” is/was.

        3. “As the philosophy cliche has it, […] ”
        I would use “clichΓ©” here, even though either form is accepted, for consistency with the accented form used on ClichΓ©s define a culture.

        4. “After awhile, its energy ceases, […]”
        Should be “After awhilea while, its energy ceases, […]”
        Awhile‘ means ‘for a while’.

        5. “There is 0 overlap between my body now and what it was 10 years ago.”
        [pedantry] I would suggest use of either ‘no’ or ‘zero’ rather than the numeral ‘0’, mainly for clarity (to obviate possible confusion with the letter ‘O’/ ‘o’).

        6. “This is as if the water currently forming the wave were scooped out of the ocean.”
        [pedantry] I want to add the words ‘to be’ between ‘were’ and ‘scooped’. But please don’t ask me to justify it — because I don’t think I can…

        7. β€œshe is extraverted and intelligent”
        [pedantry] I’ve always understood the spelling to be ‘extroverted’, though I see that Wiktionary (not authoritative, but convenient) offers either.

        8. “[…] thinks a thought feels an emotion, […]”
        Missing comma after ‘thought’. Necessary to avoid confusion. (Note that there are several other commas in this article I might want to discuss, but comma positioning can be a stylistic choice, and life is way too short.)

        9. “So, generosity is the ultimate selfishness, kindness to others is self-care.”
        While I agree that ‘kindness to others is self-care’ in the context of this piece, even if it can be argued that generosity equates to selfishness, I feel that it harms I to to insist upon such meanspiritedness πŸ˜›

        And with that — I’m knackered. Apologies for my own typos, if any, and I do hope I haven’t messed up any of the HTML…


        Liked by 2 people

    • Hariod Brawn says:

      Brilliant Pendantry! I do all this sort of proof-reading as I read other’s articles, and yet get paid nothing at all for it of course. All of which goes to show just how unprofitable pendantry is of course. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

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