Who am I? That is not an easy question to answer. There are numerous levels and means by which I attempt to reify my sense of being this particular self. Among these is my past. I define my present self by reference to past events, passive and active, that I pick out as defining “me”. I am, in effect, my past. But this selection process is far from unbiased. There are those, no doubt, who mostly pick out interpreted events from the past that give them a positive image of themselves. I, on the other hand, tend to choose those things that make me feel bad about myself. There isn’t anything truly sordid or hurtful back there—just a lot of stupidity. How can I make that work for me?
I’m engaging in all this me-talk because I would like to share something of how an understanding of traces can help us to understand our self-imaging and thus provide a tool by which to reframe it.
Traces are concepts by which we interpret the world. As applied to past events they are like footprints, a sign of something having passed, but not the thing itself. What was it? To a large extent it is only what I imagine it to have been. Calling it “stupid” is really just adding a trace on top of a trace. Defining oneself by reference to the past is thus twice removed from both the “real” event and one’s actual self.
Understanding that our every assessment of ourselves constitutes a trace—a phantom creation of the imagination, a mere echo of what might have been the case—opens us up to wander among every and all traces. The past is not negated but rather our clinging to any one interpretation of it is. We can learn from it without being defined by it.
When we don’t answer the question “Who am I?” with “Who was I?” we are free to return to the present. And when there we discover that “I am a ‘Who’?” When we realize that we haven’t a clue who we are or who we were, there are no traces to which we need to cling, though traces there will be.
Ziqi lost his “me” when he realized that he was a “Who?” and not a concrete someone. Who causes the forest to sway and sing? The “Who?” of “creation” is really no different from the “Who?” of ourselves. Both we and the world are self-so, an inexplicable happening, an arising encompassed by mystery. Zhuangzi suggests we trustfully and thankfully ride the wave of our not-knowing and enjoy our arising as it is, and not as we would like it to be. If, on the other hand, we “take our mind (understanding) as our teacher” we will be forever entangled and encumbered by traces.