Looking at “I AM”

One has the sense that there is a kind of permanent presence – a unified whole – that attends this experience of existing. Before anything occurs – any seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – there is this awareness, this boundless flow in and to which all phenomena and sensation appear.

more violets
I cannot believe these violets! Such a vivid profluence!

In contemporary nondual traditions that include A Course in Miracles this is often named “awareness” or “consciousness” and we are told that “we are that.” It is the great “I Am.”

For example, here are a few lines from one of Nisargadatta’s talks that are generally consistent with this theme.

Give attention to how this “I Amness” has appeared – then you will know. Accept this identification only: that you are this manifest pure beingness, the very soul of the universe, of this life that you observe, and presently you are just wearing this bodily attire.

Robert Adams, a devotee of Ramana, often shared with his students an essay he wrote entitled Confessions of Jnani, which included the following paragraph.

I am infinite, imperishable, Self-luminous, Self-existent, I am without beginning or end, I am birthless, deathless, without change or decay. I permeate and interpenetrate all things. In the myriad universes of thought and creation, I Alone Am.

I am not insisting that Nisargadatta and Adams were confused. I am asking if reading their work as if they were confused is at least as valid as reading it as if they were clear and correct.

Clearly both men came to an insight about identity that was premised on the enduring nature of the experience of “I am,” which they did not associate with temporal material processes. And one can understand that! When we make contact with this “I am,” it feels and seems both infinite and eternal.

But the way a thing feels or seems may not be the way it actually is, right? If I hold up my hand I can neatly blot the distant hill from my field of vision, but my hand is not larger than the hill. It just looks that way, given the physics and biology involved.

In the middle of a moonless night when I go out to see the horses, they appear faint and hazy, even up close. They are not actually spectral quadrupeds – it is simply how they look given the physics and biology involved.

The question is: can we extend this fact to our experience of “I Am?” Can this sense of “I Am” which Nisargadatta and Adams (and countless folks in that contemporary advaitic tradition, broadly defined), simply be how it feels to be a human observer?

these little garden paths, like secrets . . .

What if “I am” is explicable not in grandiose spiritual terms but rather in physics and biology? This is just what it sometimes feels like to be a human observer – with these specifically human perceptual and cognitive abilities? It’s just what it is – no more and no less. This – this this.

That would strip the “I am” experience of its spiritual gloss, wouldn’t it? It would take God and Christ and Samadhi and the Buddha right out of the equation . . .

Would that be okay? Why or why not?


  1. … and what if physics and biology were explicable in terms of “I am”? I like to reverse things sometimes to mix up the mind, like say “the blue is sky”.

    1. Hi Mike.

      In a sense, yes, physics and biology are explicable in terms of “I Am.” That is, absent consciousness, how can one explicate anything? In this sense, consciousness is a priori.

      Yet it does not follow that therefore “all is consciousness,” or that “I AM” is the boundless container in which all phenomena and experience arise and we are that boundlessness.

      It seems clearer to say that consciousness arises in certain contexts, the precise nature of which we are still figuring out. When you stack atoms a certain way, those atoms become aware of other atoms. When you stack them another way, one that allows for language and memory, then those atoms become aware of other atoms and become aware of being aware.

      That’s where we are as human observers. We are aware we are aware: we are temporal widening loops of knowing. We are the cosmos looking at the cosmos. Or, maybe a better way to say it: we are a local expression of Life gazing at the apparently boundless panoply of Life, often without fully comprehending it.

      The local expression we are is terminable. In the same way a sunflower can die without ending all sunflowers, or all flowers can disappear without ending atoms, Sean can die disappear. And that unique local perspective – that little chunk of Life studying itself – will be gone. But Life will not; the cosmos will not.

      In that sense, I think it is clearer to recognize that there are cosmic laws in place that transcend our experience as observers, and that “physics” and “biology” are tools by which we look at and think about those laws. They are functional and helpful. They enable toothbrushes, websites, chemotherapy and electric guitars.

      Consciousness is what happens to some of what arises according to those laws. I don’t think it’s inherently superior to anything else – I don’t feel more important than a maple tree or an amethyst or a mandolin – but still. To be aware the way human observers are is VERY FUCKING AMAZING. I am making the best of it.

      The real work for me in the past year or so has been to undo in my own thinking – and to try and find ways of expressing that undoing that aren’t violent, subtly or otherwise – of the tendency to declare oneself utterly right. There is only one way and I’ve got it and you don’t. I find that that kind of fundamentalism inane to the point of violence, whether it’s coming from Christians, Neo-Advaitists, students of A Course in Miracles, Capitalists or Communists. There is not the way, the truth and the life: there are many ways, many truths, and they all comprise Life.

      The question of the relationship between “I Am” and science is a good case in point. In an absolute sense, saying that science is contingent on consciousness – that the latter precedes the former – doesn’t feel coherent at all to me. Yet in the relative sense – that the observer Sean must be conscious in order to discuss the physical and biological roots of consciousness – it is very clear and helpful. So it’s both, and its “bothness” is non-trivial.

      So how are we looking at it? How would a different observer see it? And so forth.

      There is a whole subtext to this dialogue that relates to language – what it is, how it functions – that is also important. We have a tendency to take language as representative when it is more constructive. Is “Mind” a noun – a thing – or is it a process, as in “mind is what the brain does?” We say “mind” and most of us think of a quasi-spiritual object but it may be more of a description of a process, like saying “he’s crying” is describing a process rather than naming an object. He is “doing something,” rather than he IS that thing.

      Of course I am just learning as I go . . .

      I don’t always find his work clarifying but I tend to agree with David Chalmers that we are at least a couple of epistemological revolutions away from truly understanding consciousness. “Sean” and “Mike” will be gone then, but we can still happily lug a few bricks to the existing edifice. And really, being happy – in the natural serious way of being helpful, productive, dialogic, communal et cetera – is what we’re after.


    2. Just reflecting on this a little more . . . Chris Fields is doing some interesting work with respect to Heinz von Foerster’s ideas about eigenforms and eigenbehavior and Donald Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception, basically arguing that . . .

      . . . spacetime itself, including both the space in which objects appear to be embedded and the time over which they appear to persist, is a relational, error-correcting code for the fitness consequences of the interactions . . .

      In other words, our “reality” is essentially an interface model that enables fitness without regard for truth. It’s not real so much as helpful. This is akin to Francisco’s Varela’s observation that what’s true is what works . . .

      None of this obviates the nondual perspective; it seems clear the cosmos is constructed in a way that allows it to look at itself. But writers/thinkers like Varela, Hoffman, Fields et al seem to be able to get there using the language & craft of physics & biology. I find it more helpful than the spiritual alternative because it seems to open more space for application and exploration.

      Basically, if there’s a natural explanation, why indulge the supernatural explanation?

  2. Thanks for the great dialog – languaging is very much the curiosity for me now. Like, anything we’re talking about is a pointing, and can point differently. Like “science” can be meant to point to something pure, and so isn’t much different than spirituality (the form, like Newtonian, not held as fact, relativity neither, and certainly not quantum physics – that not being able to be “held” at all!). The pointing to science as its story, is the other languaging, like believing that electrons are actually there without the observing; and that the story then is inter-related to personal interest as well.

    I had a depressive period in young adulthood, and I remember clearly once walking outside, thinking about science facts causing everything, like even the breeze on me being the pressure of air molecules. That felt depressing. Was my depression coloring science? – of course. Was my story of life (and science) coloring me depressed? – of course. This was in college, where I had chosen engineering for a major, so the story of choosing a pragmatic career had evolved from continuing to select for “hard” truth – and the “hard” life that lay ahead of me had just started.

    A recent bout with the depression story had a remarkable contrast. I was walking along again. I felt the familar depression and started to wonder, “isn’t the neurochemicals mis-acting on the neurons pain, just like any other ‘real’ pain?”. I was also inquiring with some of the wonderful non-dual “concepts” I am so grateful for now. One is that the body can not handle all the attention focused on it by being “self-centered”. It is like taking the warm and enjoyable and life-giving rays of the sun, and then using a magnifying glass to focus it on a bug. So that came to me, and that the wondering about “my” own brain and depression history, etc, was exactly that, and it all immediately evaporated! I returned to the humor of such a simple mechanism, the grace of it being available at any “time”, and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face.

    So the story is great when I allow it to be helpful, but there is no hard and fast story I can count on anymore. I totally agree that I Am is just a story! (it’s just a lot shorter! kidding in a way, but helpful in that way, in a way)

    I’m really glad we’re having fun lugging bricks at the old edifice together, and building new sand castles together!

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