The Theory of I

In Buddhist blogs the point of view is one thing that interests me. Not only the opinion of the writer but the writing style of first, second or third person. I have noticed in some blogs writers very self-consciously avoiding the use of the “I” perspective. It is as though a struggle takes place between self-consciousness and intellectual knowledge of Buddhist theories of identity. This is something that I have noticed in a casual way for some time but it was brought to the fore recently by a Facebook posting by Clarke Scott, graduate student at the University of Tasmania, Buddhist monk by the name of Loden Jinpa and keeper of the blog lodenjinpa. Clarke wrote:

can the problem of personal identity be characterized as one of tension between the theories of Anatman and the givenness of first-person experience?

Clarke added after brief discussion:

as it would seem to me that there is tension between the theory that there is no referent to the first person pronoun “I”, yet we naturally have a strong sense of the self. However, I would argue there are implicit tools in Buddhist philosophy. Therefore, perhaps anātman is merely a heuristic tool to get at this conventional self.

This philosophical talk has brought on some thinking on my part and brought up the theme of voice in Buddhist blogging. Particularly it as led me to propose some psychological hypotheses regarding the reasons for the differing “voices” that appear in writings about Buddhism on the Internet specifically.

One of the questions that came to mind was: Is personal identity necessarily problematic? Taking my evidence from the Buddhist blogosphere it would seem so.

As the opening paragraph indicated it is noticeable when a writer strains to use something other than the first person while blogging. When there is some knowledge of Buddhist theory of anatman or “no-self” as it gets interpreted in English (and a few other languages) it seems to cause discomfort or “tension” to use Clarke’s term in the writer. Part of this stems from an incomplete understanding of the term and another part comes from the pseudo-social realm that is the Internet. Someone may be thinking “If I talk about myself by using the “I” word then I am not following the doctrine of no-self”. Hence the self-consciousness in the writing.

This self-consciousness shows up in a couple of ways. The most obvious is the use of the second and third person voice.

In more strident approaches the rather preachy “You” perspective is used-and I think these blogs are some of the most interesting in that they often represent the self-talk of the writer’s ego-they are sharing the lectures that they  are giving themselves.

And in the third person “One” is sometimes used in a rather disembodied way as if to give a perceived distance from either a personal attachment to the opinions or the desire to attempt to convince anyone else of them. The opinions become then, like little soap bubbles wafting around in the wind.

In writing it is necessary to use different perspectives for different purposes but much of it happens subconsciously and is very much tied to the content of the message and the meaning of that content for the writer. (the field of psycholinguistics deals with this) While writing, very few people actually consider the needs of the audience over the need to express something. And when audience needs are considered they are from the perspective of what the author thinks the audience wants to hear. This is a reflection of their own judgment of the audience-a projection. Or what the author thinks the audience will respond to in the strongest way. Writing is a form of broadcasting in this way.  But when reader’s responses become  a rating system that can begin to direct the writing and divert the writer from what had been their original intention when blogging there is a problem. How many dead blogs are out there for just this reason?  The writer has lost themselves in the sea of opinion or in some cases non-opinion if there hasn’t been much response initially.

On the other hand there are the first person blogs which tend to catalog every internal nuance and notion that occurs. These are the unconscious self-conscious style. The writers generally have not developed the self-reflexive capacity of awareness of what their minds are doing yet. This is sometimes seen in the case of those just becoming familiar with Buddhism or where someone has only a cursory knowledge of the Dharma. These blogs are usually about “happiness” and attempts to fulfill that goal and tend to be more towards psychological self-examination often in a negatively critical way. Life sucks, relationships suck, work sucks, TV sucks, I suck, my hairstyle sucks, my car sucks. There is great frustration expressed. Nothing is as it should be in some idealized version. It is the catalog of the realization of suffering engendered by ego clinging.

What I have noticed is that Buddhist blogs, just like spiritual practice seem to go through some kind of evolution with regard to voice and becoming aware and comfortable with the voice becoming more authentic.

It seems to progress as follows:

  • I am blogging about the inner turmoil I am experiencing. I am preoccupied with it and I often castigate myself for being so self-centered when I have heard there is no self. I should forget myself.  I must do more for others. I should do better. I must escape myself.
  • You need to hear this too. I will tell you what you need to know. Pay attention. I am escaping myself by projecting all of this turmoil on to you.
  • If I don’t exist then neither do you so ideas are all that there is. If I can stay in this realm I don’t have to experience my discomfort. I don’t have to engage my feelings about myself and life. This is intellectualization.
  • Having experienced the changes in identity over time, examined them thoroughly and having come to the realization as to their nature, writing in the first person is OK after all. And this first person is actually the only one available and the one that needs to be brought to consciousness. It’s the point of contact through which this realization occurs. This point of contact is common to all.  Therefore the sense of isolated self suffering alone begins to dissolve. This is the beginning of true compassion.

As a person works through to the last instance, the consciously self-conscious, with many diversions along the way,  they go beyond the strictures of conventional self and something else begins to emerge, or more aptly is revealed. It isn’t a non-self-a nobody home kind of idea that anatman suggests at first blush. It is exactly the search for voice that brings about the realization as to it’s point of origin.

None of these are mutually exclusive and none of them are completely abandoned even in a long practice. To revisit a previous perspective can reveal further valuable details.  Sometimes one can ride that carousel around for hundreds of turns.

They can all however be seen as viewpoints for specific purposes. As one goes through the refining process, just like trying to extract the gold from the ore, there are many processes involved. And sometimes even the same process must be repeated numerous times. Think of an air filter in a room. One should be able to turn it on, clean the air and turn it off.  Yet these things run continuously. Why?

Going from one voice to another is the refining process working. It is attempting to alleviate the discomfort or the tension of the separation of the non-stable, non-solid conventional identity. And it works until the work is done. Is it ever done?

The “I” in theory here is a shifting amorphous thing with enough different voices to fill a choir loft. The word tension is a great word for the coming to terms with the “I”. It is the interaction between the self-perceived solid personal identity and the actual flowing nature of all identity.


But when all the philosophy and psychology doesn’t quite satisfy-See the video for instructions.

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