Who am I? Is this the existential question that has plagued mankind since the beginning of time? Well… errrr no, possibly not…. but maybe it should be. So what is the true nature of the self? I’d like to dig deeper into this over the following two posts. But for now let’s explore two of the principle conventional viewpoints that attempt to explain who we are and how we came to be that way
Nature vs nurture
This debate has been going on for a long time. Is what we are hard-coded at birth, ie – is the self pre-determined by our DNA? Or are we born with a ‘clean slate’ and is who we are exclusively determined by our environment? Although there does appear to be some logic supporting both points of view, I would suggest the neither can fully answer this question. But let’s briefly explore them to see what they’re positing….
How does the nature school of thought address this question: ‘Who am I?’ Well, they would have us believe that who we are is pre-defined at the time we are born. This point of view describes our personality, including all our traits, characteristics, idiosyncrasies and so forth as being pre-determined. This means that neither we, nor our environment can have any influence on that. Sound like the full picture to you?… it certainly doesn’t to me
Most likely all of us have some experience and awareness of changing over time. By choosing to relate to people and things differently, it causes the way we are to alter (for the better or worse)
Furthermore we can think about identical twins who have identical DNA. If it were true that our DNA defined us, then surely such twins would have identical personalities. However we know that everyone’s personality is unique irrespective of their DNA. So we can clearly see this point of view doesn’t hold true in all instances and so is unreliable
And what does the nurture camp respond to the question ‘Who am I?’ They say that we are entirely the product of our environment. We come into this world without any pre-dispositions or personality traits, and all that we are is shaped by what happens around us
We only need to spend any amount of time around new-born babies and it won’t take us long to distinguish different traits between them. How would this be possible if they’d only been exposed to the same environment of the hospital ward for only a couple of days? Sure, their experiences may have varied slightly, but not enough for such unique personalities to have emerged so quickly
Also we hear of stories of very small children who have particularly distinctive traits or behaviours. Such that it seems impossible they couldn’t have come from somewhere before that life. An example I heard as told by Gen Rabten in a teaching, is of a 2-year-old who went to a swimming pool for the first time. He made a big scene because he was determined to jump off a 10 metre diving platform and his mum was trying to restrain him and calm him down
An onlooker saw what was happening and offered to his mother to take him up (to scare him and act as a future deterrent). The result? He got away and happily jumped off, saying ‘again, again’ when he resurfaced. Sound like something that he could’ve learned from his environment of that life?
That’s not to say we aren’t shaped by our environment, of course we are influenced by it, so this point of view still has some correlation to reality. However it’s clear it doesn’t represent the full truth, as illustrated by the story
An alternative view
So if we’re not exclusively the product of our DNA, nor our environment then where do we come from? Keeping mind we don’t want to be too black and white about it because, as we’ve established our environment does shape us to some degree. But this view doesn’t explain or address where our unique personality traits or tendencies come from.
Who am I? A deeper exploration
Although not pre-defined by our DNA, many spiritual teachers identify the self, spirit or mind as having existed long before this life. Our DNA may shape our physical characteristics, but it’s the actions we engaged in in previous lives that determine our personality and experiences in this life. Don’t believe it? Well hundreds of millions of people throughout the world would disagree, so maybe it’s worthwhile trying to stay open
And of course we are shaped by our environment, it’s just that it doesn’t ‘exclusively’ determine who we are. Although we do come into this life with a ‘pre-determined’ personality in one sense (being that we’re the product of what we did and what happened to us in past lives), we have the power to re-define who we are and craft ourself into someone truly amazing. Not sure about all this? Well then probably best to keep an open mind. Read the next post in this series here