What is “me”?
What is it that feels position in place and time? What is it that holds a viewpoint, that hears the wind blowing through the trees, and that feels the sharp, small pain when a mosquito bites?
It seems to be a permanent, ongoing thing, this “me”. Aware of itself, using reason to guide its actions, yet also vulnerable to emotions and erratic behavior. This is a central question in Zen, because “me” is the common denominator in all our situations, positive and negative, spiritual and mundane. Therefore, getting to the bottom of who and what we really are – and are not – is the avenue to transcendence.
Is the mind “me”? If so, where is it?
The mind is often assumed to be separate from the physical body, a "ghost in the machine" as Gilbert Ryle derisively termed it, animating the body and using it like a captain uses a ship. But this concept can only go so far. We can imagine the ghost/captain at the controls, with a viewscreen displaying what the eyes see and speakers piping in sounds picked up by the ears, steering the body with buttons and levers. The problem now becomes deciding on who and what is animating the captain – where is the “me” inside it? And if we posit another captain inside the ghost, where is the “me” within that captain? This literally goes on for ever – we’ll never get to the true essence of our self through this kind of imagining.
In the West we view the brain as the seat of the mind. Can we pinpoint where exactly in the brain it is? I’ve read studies of people with head injuries, and it’s remarkable how well the brain can adapt and reconfigure itself after being damaged. People can still function even when losing half of it. Which half contains “me”? If I can still live after losing either one, albeit with noticeably reduced abilities, then it’s clear that the ultimate seat of my self cannot be there.
In Asia, when asked where their mind is located, people are likely to put their hand over their heart. The Japanese word for “mind” is shin, which also refers to heart or soul. So instead of heart, soul and mind being seen as separate things, they are viewed as one thing with different facets.
What about memory? Memories are a constant presence and influence, whether they come from our waking life, our dreams, the “collective unconscious”, or are simply subconscious fabrications. Is the memory “me”? Or something used by “me”? Is there a “me” after Alzheimer’s disease takes my memory away? If not, what about small or temporary memory losses, like when I forget the name of the person I met last week? Is “me” gone then?
Maybe awareness is “me”. When you are awake and conscious you seem to have a fully functioning self. It’s there every time you bring your attention to it, so it seems to be a permanent thing. Like looking into your bathroom mirror – it might seem that your face is continuously displayed there, because every time you look into it, there you are! But of course, your face isn't reflected in the mirror when you aren’t standing in front of it. Just the same way, how permanent is your awareness? What happens to it when you aren’t paying direct attention to it? What happens when you’re asleep or completely absorbed in some task? Where is it then? Does “me” disappear?
What, then, is this “me”, really? What is it made of? There sure seems to be a “me” here – who or what is reading these words? What is it that hears the cat scratching at the front door? When I stub my toe, what feels the pain?