Who are you?

“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.” Kierkegaard

Do you remember the quotation that I gave from Emmanuel Kant? He said the spotlight world is, “a mere representation, through the senses, of a purely spiritual life — the whole world of sense is only a picture hovering before us, formed by our present mode of knowledge — a dream lacking any objective reality in itself.”

This sounds remarkably like the verse that comes at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.

Shakespeare was more caustic when he had Macbeth declare:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

What is remarkable is that most of us see this dream world as the ‘real’ world, and scoff at the possibility of another, truer world, which is the origin of the dream world.  But, to release the hold that the ‘real’ world has on us, we must die to it.  As Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The ‘seed’ is the dynamic center; to ‘die’ is to free it from all the investments, all the words and forms in which we have imprisoned it. This calls for hard work and much suffering: work that few are prepared to do, and suffering that even fewer are prepared to undergo. This work is religious work.  With the closing of monasteries and convents in the West, with the upheavals in Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia generally––the area in which true spiritual work, according to Gudjieff, was once carried on––the light of religion is fading. Does anyone really want to live in a world without religion, a world where profit and pleasure alone are considered worthwhile?

Gurdjieff likened the human being to a horsedrawn cab: the body is the carriage; the Self, (lantern mind,) is the horse; the personality (spotlight mind) is the cabby; and Buddha Nature is the owner.  As Gurdjieff pointed out though, in the modern human being the carriage is badly maintained, the horse half starved, the cabby quite drunk, and, because the Buddha nature is asleep, the cab is taken over by any old passenger, who has no clue about where he or she would like to go. Even so, the horse, the lantern mind, makes the cab go, not the cabby sitting holding the reins.

Let us then consider the religions of lantern mind, of which there are several. I should like to concentrate on the two best known: the religion that goes by the way of devotion, and the religion that goes by way of samadhi. The first––of which Sufism is the finest example­­––goes through devotion, via ambiguity (me-as-center/me-as-periphery); the second––of which Patanjali’s yoga or Raja yoga is the finest example––goes by way of samadhi, via unity (Me.)

In this posting let us talk for a while about Sufism.

A Sufi poem says,

If then you perceive me, you perceive yourself.
But you cannot perceive me through yourself.
It is through my eyes that you see me and see your self,
Through your eyes you cannot see me.
A Sufi poem[1]

Who, then, is ‘me;’ and who are ‘you?’

To get this question into perspective let me ask, ‘Suppose that you are in a café, chatting with a friend. To whom or to what are you talking?’ Are you talking to her body, her face, her eyes?  Or, are you talking to HER. If so, again, who or what is she? Consider the question for a moment, it is a very important one.  Next time that you talk to someone be observant to what is happening.

Suppose now, that you talk by telephone to a person in the City Hall, someone whom you have never met: to whom or to what are you talking? An idea? an image, a voice? Or none of these?

The following might help you see what I am getting at.

There was just the room with its shabby furniture and the fire burning in the grate and the red shaded lamp on the table. But, the room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before. I was filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since.[2] (My emphasis)

In Exodus 34 it says, “When Moses came down … from the mountain, [he] did not know that the skin of his face shone [while] he had been talking with God.” To whom had Moses been speaking when he spoke to God?”

When a young a girl talks to her doll, what is she talking to? Young children often have a ‘familiar,’ who is their companion. Calvin, for example, in that wonderfully engaging comic strip, had Hobbs as his familiar. Who, or what is the familiar?

 Finally, to whom, or to what, are you talking in that eternal mono-duologue that goes on in your mind? 

 Normally, all of this, if it is thought about at all, is dismissed in various ways: the young girl and Calvin are using imagination, Moses is just a myth, and so his Lord just does not exist, the man filled with a Presence probably had had a few drinks too many. We are so thoroughly entrenched in the view that we are simply a body, a thing among things, and that the mind is a ghost in the machine without meaning or importance, that any other explanation is deemed, at best, to be just fanciful.

 Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, in a famous book entitled “I-Thou,” can perhaps help us.  According to him there are two, what he calls, primary words: ‘I-thou,’ and ‘I-it.’ He says further that primary words do not signify things but relations.  As the famous philosopher, Kierkegaard, says in the epigraph to this posting, “the self is a relation.” Moreover, primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence. I and thou are always found together: if thou is said, I is said along with it.  The same applies to “it:” if it is said, I is implied.

 This means that you and me are not separate and independent, but we arise together and simultaneously; you and me are One, and, like the inside and outside of a cup, inseparable.  Wife, son, friend, or stranger, these give ‘you’ form, just as Albert Low, husband, father, friend or body give ‘me’ form.  Neither you nor me, originally, have any form. (As Hakuin says, “True self is no self.”)  This is why Buber goes on to say, “When ‘you’ is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object….there is no thing.” Buber goes on to ask, “If I and you have no form of their own, what then do I experience of you?” and, in reply to his own question he says, “Just nothing.  For I do not experience you” When you are chatting with your friend in the café, or when you are talking on the phone, you are not talking to something or someone. You cannot experience your friend.

 As long as we try to understand this with our reason––that is with the spotlight, discriminating, mind––we will end in utter confusion.  Experience is what makes up our ‘normal,’ everyday mind, which, as we have seen, is spotlight mind. Most people are firmly convinced that what cannot be experienced is unreal, or imaginary.  The triumph of reason, we are assured, is our greatest achievement. Yet, you cannot experience ‘you,’ your fiend, anymore than I can experience me; me and you are different names for me-as-center/me-as-periphery, the source of all experience. Again, to quote Kierkegaard further, “The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self.”

The Sufi poem with which I began this posting ends by saying,

Dearly beloved!
Let us go toward Union.
And if we find the road
That leads to separation,
We will destroy separation

A famous Sufi mystic, Ib’n ‘Arabi, put it this way, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” Ibn ‘Arabi, was born in Spain, in the 12th century, and in his time was one of the most revered of Sufi teachers. Henry Corbin, a philosopher, theologian and professor of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, wrote about him in his book Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi.

‘Arabi’s method was theophanic prayer, which Corbin describes as a creative prayer “that becomes a dialogue, creative because it is at once God’s prayer and man’s prayer.” (Theophany means the appearance of a god to a human being.)  The key phrase in this quotation is ‘at once,’ which I have emphasized. Perhaps it might be clearer to say that God’s prayer is simultaneously man’s prayer. A Sufi poet, Al-Hallaj, gives an example of theophanic prayer in which the reader is not sure whether it is God or Al-Hallaj who is speaking:

I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body,
If thou seest me, thou seest Him;
And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both.

 Corbin tells us that for ‘Arabi, and for Sufis generally, “the heart is the organ that produces true knowledge, comprehensive intuition, the gnosis of God… The Gnostic’s heart is the “eye,” the organ by which God knows himself, reveals Himself to Himself…the heart… is the seat of God’s divine consciousness and …God is the seat and essence of the Gnostic’s consciousness.”[3]

 Using the language that I have developed so far, the heart or eye “by which God knows himself” is the viewpoint, or, more broadly, it is the Self. Al-Hallaj says, “I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I:” I am God; God is me. God is revealing himself to himself. In his poem, Al-Hallaj shows that the ambiguity that is the basis of the Self is also the basis of the Sufi’s ‘heart.’  The Sufi expresses this ambiguity, not as me-as-center/me as periphery, but Thou-as-center/Thou-as-periphery: instead of saying, “I-Thou,” he would say, “I-God.” What is important in all of this is that ambiguity is at the heart of theophanic, that is to sau it is at the heart of authentic prayer.

 In an earlier posting I have said that yearning is the drive behind all spiritual endeavor. Yearning is dynamic unity transmuted through me-as-center/me-as-periphery.  Yearning, however, is rather a weak word to describe what drives us in spiritual endeavor. ‘Arabi used the word himma, instead of yearning. Himma is a word for which a ready translation is not available, but which Corbin feels is best suggested by the Greek word enthymesis, “…which signifies the act of meditating, conceiving, imagining, projecting, ardently desiring… a vital force, soul, heart, intention, thought, desire.” The force of this intention, he tells us, is “so powerful as to project and realize [something] external to the being who conceives the intention.”[4]

 Corbin writes about Arabi’s  “companion and celestial guide,” or Khidr. Fundamentally, the Khidr can be thought of as ‘you.’  But an ‘encounter’ with the Khidr is usually only possible through theophanic prayer.  Corbin says that such an encounter always signals a return to the center of the world, as it is only possible at the “center of the world. According to the Koran, the Khidr was also Moses spiritual guide.

To help you see what all this means, let me refer back to the quotation that I gave above, “the room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before.” This quotation gives an example of spontaneous, theophanic prayer. The ‘Presence’ is Khidr.

What sort of ‘person,’ then, is the Khidr? What is this ‘Presence’ referred to in the quotation? Is he just a fantasy, some archetypal image, or is he a ‘real’ person? As Corbin says, any of these answers carries with it its own difficulties.

If we adopt the Jungian point of view, then Khidr is an archetype, a product of the collective unconscious, which is ultimately in the realm of knowing. As such he is a product that borders on being a figment of imagination, and in any case he loses his ‘reality.’    And if we think of him as a ‘real’ person, then he is to be found in the realm of spotlight mind, a thing among things.

We must bear in mind a similar question can be asked about ‘you.’ Not you as a personality, as a man or woman, as my boss or my friend, but ‘you’ who can be invested in any and all of these. Are ‘you’ a figment of my imagination, or do you exist apart from me, ‘over there’ –– as a soul inhabiting the body of that man or of that woman, of my boss or of my friend –– or must you be understood in some other way?

Do not forget that what can be said of you, can also be said of me.  Am I figment of my imagination, a delusion––as some materialists think ––or am I just the brain––as many neuro-scientists would say?  As we have seen, ‘you,’ can be seen as God; many people would interpret the Presence as the presence of God.  Is God a figment of the worshiper’s imagination, the ‘God Delusion’ of Richard Dawkins? Or is he, as the Mormons claim, a man in a body who inhabits another planet?

It goes without saying that by ‘God’ in this posting I am not talking about the God of the televangelists, nor the God of most priests and ministers.  Their God is ‘real’ because he dwells in the spotlight world, another thing among things.  He truly is a figment of their imagination.  But the God of St. John of the Cross, of St Thérèse d’Avila, or the God of Gandhi, who is He?

The cynic invariably claims that we create God in our own image. Ibn ‘Arabi would agree that we do create God in our image, but this is because God creates the human being in His image. “The God whom [humans such as St. John] create, far from being an unreal product of our fantasy, is also a theophany.” ‘Theophany’ means the appearance of God in a perceptible form. For ‘Arabi, prayer is the ultimate theophany:  It is, “The ultimate appearance of God to the human being, and in this way prayer is creative.” but the God to whom the prayer is addressed, because it creates Him, is precisely the God who reveals Himself to prayer in this Creation.”[5]

A Sufi was asked, “Whereby do you know God?” And he replied, “By the fact He is the Syzygy [pair of opposites].[6] I would say, because he is the basic ambiguity. Khidr corresponds to what in this book  has been called me: the “viewpoint,” the ‘me’ in me-as-center/me-as-periphery. He is the unity underlying the conflict of opposites, an essentially personal unity. Let me quote Corbin at some length in support of what has just been said:

The term self [me] refers neither to the impersonal Self, to the pure act of existing attainable through efforts comparable to the techniques of yoga, nor to the Self of psychologists. The word [is] employed solely in the sense given it by Ibn ‘Arabi and numerous other Sufi theosophists when they repeat the famous sentence: ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord….’ This Lord is not the impersonal self, nor is it the God of dogmatic definitions, self-subsisting without relation to me, without being experienced by me. He is the one who knows himself through myself, that is, in the knowledge that I have of him, because it is the knowledge he has of me; it is with him alone, in this syzygic unity, that it is possible to say thou.[7]

Christ said, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Perhaps he should have said “Love thy neighbor. Thy neighbor is thyself.”


[1] Corbin, Henry, (1979) Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi (Bollingen Series XCl; Princeton.)

[2] Happold F.C. (1970) Mysticism, A study and an Anthology ( Penguin Books: Harmondsworth.)

[3]  Corbin p. 222.

[4]  Ibid., p. 222.

[5] Ibid., p. 188.

[6] Ibid., p. 188.

[7] Ibid., p. 95.

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11 Responses to Who are you?

  1. Randy H. says:

    “To whom or to what are you talking?” The west coast Kwagiulth culture have Sisiutl, the double headed Sea Serpent that can transform to a human at any time and is sometimes depicted with the two heads facing each other. Looking directly into its eyes can cause instant death.

  2. Indeed, to whom or to what are you talking?
    En lisant Nissargadatta, il m’arrive souvent d’avoir envie de savoir ce qu’il répondrait à son interlocuteur si celui-ci lui répondait, lorsqu’il affirme n’être pas celui que vous pensez, ou n’être ni le corps ni celui qui parle, “Mais, qui est là assis devant moi et avec qui je cause depuis un moment? Qu’est-ce que je vois et qu’est-ce qui me réponds, si ce n’est vous!?

  3. Low Albert says:

    Sans doute, Nisargadatta réprondrait, “Qui êtes-vous qui demandez cette question?”

  4. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    The words you said in this posting are like a cold shower taken under a rainbow appearing on a warm summer sunny day. It cleans up, refreshes, wakes and gives a sprint to go along the way feeling not be anymore alone. No way I could understand with my only reason all of what you said, but like water that speaks without words, I felt the meaning of who we all are, maybe we feel reels with our unique and specific forms, but like you well quoted at the end : “ Love thy neighbor. Thy neighbor is thyself.”

    You and me are One, whatever who is ‘me’ and who is ‘you’. The understanding of this is possible at an inner level, with ‘’Duhkha’’, the Sanskrit word for suffering, that wheel whose axle is off center and that would create two centers on that same wheel. Ours hands are alike but different, two by forms, one in Dynamic action, and so are we, all the ‘me’ and all the ‘you’ all around the world.

  5. Jacqueline V. says:

    This is the first time I have heard of the khidr. I wondered first whether khidr might be thought of as ‘faith or ‘belief’ – as you say: ‘the Khidr can be thought of as ‘you.’ But reading on, what I read in Corbin’s explanation of Ib’n Arabi is that khidr is what you would call ‘knowing’ – that is to say, the knowing that is always there, the ‘dearly beloved’ that longs for unity, the knowing that is not knowing something – which you have also called knowing-being. I would not use the masculine article, as this labels khidr and makes it a thing (or as you say, a person, like the Mormon’s God). If I am understanding, awareness of or to khidr will not exist if forced into existing as something by using a label or name. Could one say that it is from within khidr that we are aware of/as the I-thou, the ‘self as a relation’?

  6. Low Albert says:

    In this blog I am inviting you to explore the mystery of you, or rather the mystery of you-me. Please start with that. The ‘you’ that I am referring to could be God, Khidr, the Presence, my friend in the café, Calvin’s Hobbes, or that you of the inner mono-dualogue. If you stay with the words of the blog alone, then you will never see what I mean. Without the problem the rest is just words, but only you can provide the problem. When you talk to me to whom or to what are you talking?

  7. Guy Laramée says:

    “I am am an other even to myself”, how could I ever dream of being one with another human being, right ?

    The problem seems to lie exactly there, right ?
    What I call “I” is an “other” it is precisely where “otherness” lies, right ? So the problem is not to get along with “others”, as seen through the lens of “naturalisme”, i.e. as though they were pre-existing, right ?

    The problem is staying in the crack, no hope, no “no hope”, nothing.

    Isn’t it also why there can be no method on the way, why no brown robes, no Kyosaku, no ritual however minimal can ever lead us “there” ? But isn’t it also why there can also be no “no method”, because that would be the ultimate entrenchment of this primal separation of “I” versus “I” ?

    If there is no where to go, why bother about if you’re going to take a bus or a train ?

    I hate myself when I write these things but loving myself for doing so might be even worse…

    So where do we go from here ?

    Snow melting in the window.

    • Albert Low says:

      “I am an other even to myself”, how could I ever dream of being one with another human being, right?” Basically, as I pointed out in the last posting, you are one with the Other, just as, basically you are one with the world. “I” is a form in which ‘me’ is invested. This investment is made possible by language that fixes what otherwise is fluid and dynamic. Fixing ‘me’ in a form separates me from all else. The problem is how to release me from the prison to which I have condemned myself.

      It is not so much“no hope” but letting go of false hopes. While it is true, “no brown robes, no Kyosaku, no ritual however minimal can ever lead us ‘there’ ” They can help to keep the question alive long enough for us to see there is no “there” for us to get to. The belief in a there is the basic false hope, a hope that comes with the original investment of “me.” The investment is made in the hope for ultimate security, certainty, comfort and peace.

      “If there is no where to go, why bother about if you’re going to take a bus or a train?” Again it is not a question of nowhere to go, but letting go of the belief that there is somewhere to go.

      Why hate yourself for questioning?

  8. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    How to fix with words or with thoughts that dynamic action all we are. This has to be done every time I try to formulate questions I ask to myself in responses to those postings or in my own journal. But it has to be done, from a logical point of view, I mean to translate that dynamic power in a possible comprehensive form, because the intelligence to do it have been given to all human beings. The question in how to use it with intelligence, an intelligence that does not seems to me be only a question of logic.

    The so ‘simple’ reality of who are you, you and me, being One, has his own intelligence outside words and thoughts: we can feel it when we stop thinking and allow a total and confident presence to let the Unity be we, be you and be me. That can be achieved only trough our each one tangibly named identity, called forms, which are One. That dynamic action is alive and is being felt when someone call to speak, or write to say hello, or ask to meet somewhere. This is where and when appears the magic, the wonderful of life, being accessible to all. It needs to keep doors carefully opened, to choose and take moments to celebrate together or with another, drinking good wine or healthy vegetable juice.

  9. Embrassed says:

    “He is the one who knows himself through myself, that is, in the knowledge that I have of him, because it is the knowledge he has of me; it is with him alone, in this syzygic unity, that it is possible to say thou.[7]”

    “He” watching Himself while kids under 5 by the millions, dressed as “He”, will die this year again in terrible agony through wars and famines.

    Dare I say to this noble assembly in a respectable way that to say the least “His” priorities are highly questionable ? Why put on your robe at the sound of the bell to search for such a careless Presence monitoring you 24/7 in a north korean way ?

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