On Using the Word “I” in the Nonduality Community

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Potrait.

In the nonduality community, there is a paradoxically simultaneous aversion and attachment to the use of the word “I.”  C onsequently, some people decide not to use it at all because they are afraid of giving the impression that they believe there is a separately existing self.  This decision results in some needlessly awkward language.  I have heard people actually say—out loud—the following things while speaking in third-person about themselves: “this swami is eating a sandwich,” “this woman is going to meditate,” and “this dream character disagrees with you.”

This sort of talk sounds ridiculous and is quite unnecessary. I have never heard anyone say: “I was mislead by Ramana Maharshi’s use of “I” into believing there was a separate self. Curse him!” There is nothing in the word “I” as such to necessarily give this impression.  When I use the word, I intend to use it to refer to the particular changing unity of body and mind that my parents named “Adam Pearson.” I don’t mean some separate self within this body-mind, nor do I mean to imply that this body-mind is separate from its surrounding environment; in fact, it is seamlessly one with its environment and inextricably embedded in it.  The word “I” is perfectly suited to doing what it needs to do, namely, function as a conventional way to refer to the particular human body-mind that is the focus of our life.

What do we risk when we use the word “I” in the nonduality community? I have found that what we risk is not so much misleading people as being judged by them.  People may think we are “unenlightened” or believe in a separate self.  But so what? Does this really matter? If we are afraid of seeming “unenlightened” or “deluded,” then we are still attached to an image of ourselves—that is, our contingent body-minds—as “enlightened” and “free from delusion.” But if we have this fear, then we are still clinging to the egoic idea that “I must be superior to others or I will be found inferior.” When we let this idea go, it ceases to matter whether others believe us to be enlightened or not, deluded or not.  We ourselves know where we are at and that is sufficient.  And because we feel this way, we can use the word “I” in peace.

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