'I' = AWARENESS
Arthur J. Deikman 
of Psychiatry, University of California, Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute,
401 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94143. Email:email@example.com
of Consciousness Studies, 3, No. 4 (1996), pp. 350-6
reveals that the core of subjectivity - the `I' - is identical to awareness. This
`I' should be differentiated from the various aspects of the physical person and
its mental contents which form the `self'. Most discussions of consciousness confuse
the `I' and the `self'. In fact, our experience is fundamentally dualistic - not
the dualism of mind and matter - but that of the `I' and that which is observed.
The identity of awareness and the `I' means that we know awareness by being it,
thus solving the problem of the infinite regress of observers. It follows that
whatever our ontology of awareness may be, it must also be the same for `I'.
We seem to have numerous `I's. There is the I of `I want', the I of `I wrote
a letter', the I of `I am a psychiatrist' or `I am thinking'. But there is another
I that is basic, that underlies desires, activities and physical characteristics.
This I is the subjective sense of our existence. It is different from self-image,
the body, passions, fears, social category - these are aspects of our person that
we usually refer to when we speak of the self, but they do not refer to the core
of our conscious being, they are not the origin of our sense of personal existence.
Experiment 1: Stop for a moment and look inside. Try and sense the very origin
of your most basic, most personal `I', your core subjective experience. What is
that root of the `I' feeling? Try to find it.
When you introspect you will
find that no matter what the contents of your mind, the most basic `I' is something
different. Every time you try to observe the `I' it takes a jump back with you,
remaining out of sight. At first you may say, `When I look inside as you suggest,
all I find is content of one sort or the other.' I reply, `Who is looking? Is
it not you? If that ``I'' is a content can you describe it? Can you observe it?'
The core `I' of subjectivity is different from any content because it turns out
to be that which witnesses - not that which is observed. The `I' can be experienced,
but it cannot be `seen'. `I' is the observer, the experiencer, prior to all conscious
In contemporary psychology and philosophy, the `I' usually is not
differentiated from the physical person and its mental contents. The self is seen
as a construct and the crucial duality is overlooked. As Susan Blackmore puts
Our sense of self came about through the body image we must construct
in order to control behaviour, the vantage point given by our senses and our knowledge
of our own abilities - that is the abilities of the body-brain-mind. Then along
came language. Language turns the self into a thing and gives it attributes and
powers. (Blackmore, 1994)
Dennett comments similarly that what he calls the
`Center of Narrative Gravity' gives us a spurious sense of a unitary self:
self, according to my theory, is not any old mathematical point, but an abstraction
defined by the myriads of attributions and interpretations (including self- attributions
and self-interpretations) that have composed the biography of the living body
whose Center of Narrative Gravity it is (Dennett, 1991).
However, when we
use introspection to search for the origin of our subjectivity, we find that the
search for `I' leaves the customary aspects of personhood behind and takes us
closer and closer to awareness,per se. If this process of introspective observation
is carried to its conclusion, even the background sense of core subjective self
disappears into awareness. Thus, if we proceed phenomenologically, we find that
the `I' is identical to awareness: `I' = awareness.
is something apart from, and different from, all that of which we are aware: thoughts,
emotions, images, sensations, desires and memory. Awareness is the ground in which
the mind's contents manifest themselves; they appear in it and disappear once
I use the word `awareness' to mean this ground of all experience. Any
attempt to describe it ends in a description of what we are aware of. On this
basis some argue that awareness per se doesn't exist. But careful introspection
reveals that the objects of awareness - sensations, thoughts, memories, images
and emotions - are constantly changing and superseding each other. In contrast,
awareness continues independent of any specific mental contents.
2: Look straight ahead. Now shut your eyes. The rich visual world has disappeared
to be replaced by an amorphous field of blackness, perhaps with red and yellow
tinges. But awareness hasn't changed. You will notice that awareness continues
as your thoughts come and go, as memories arise and replace each other, as desires
emerge and fantasies develop, change and vanish. Now try and observe awareness.
You cannot. Awareness cannot be made an object of observation because it is the
very means whereby you can observe.
Awareness may vary in intensity as our
total state changes, but it is usually a constant. Awareness cannot itself be
observed, it is not an object, not a thing. Indeed, it is featureless, lacking
form, texture, colour, spatial dimensions. These characteristics indicate that
awareness is of a different nature than the contents of the mind; it goes beyond
sensation, emotions, ideation, memory. Awareness is at a different level, it is
prior to contents, more fundamental. Awareness has no intrinsic content, no form,
no surface characteristics - it is unlike everything else we experience, unlike
objects, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or memories.
Thus, experience is
dualistic, not the dualism of mind and matter but the dualism of awareness and
the contents of awareness. To put it another way, experience consists of the observer
and the observed. Our sensations, our images, our thoughts - the mental activity
by which we engage and define the physical world - are all part of the observed.
In contrast, the observer - the `I' - is prior to everything else; without it
there is no experience of existence. If awareness did not exist in its own right
there would be no `I'. There would be `me', my personhood, my social and emotional
identity - but no `I', no transparent centre of being.
Confusion of Awareness
In the very centre of the finite world is the `I'. It doesn't
belong in that world, it is radically different. In saying this, I am not suggesting
a solipsistic ontology. The physical world exists for someone else even when I
am sleeping. But any ontology that relegates awareness to a secondary or even
an emergent status ignores the basic duality of experience. Currently, there are
many voices denying the dualistic ontology of awareness and contents. For example,
Searle attacks mind-body dualism, regarding consciousness (awareness) as an emergent
property of material reality. He likens it to liquidity, a property that emerges
from the behaviour of water molecules composed of hydrogen and oxygen - atoms
that do not themselves exhibit liquidity. `Consciousness is not a ``stuff'', it
is a feature or property of the brain in the sense, for example, that liquidity
is a feature of water' (Searle, 1992).  But liquidity, understandable as it
may be from considerations of molecular attraction, is part of the observed world,
similar to it from that ontological perspective. To state that the subjective
`emerges' from the objective is quite a different proposition, about which the
physical sciences have nothing to say.
Colin McGinn also insists that there
is no duality of mind and matter - all can ultimately be explained in physical
terms - but he asserts that the critical process by which a transition occurs
from one to the other will never be understood because of our limited intellectual
capacity (McGinn, 1991). McGinn believes that the observer/observed duality is
apparent rather than real; there is a physical transition from the observed to
the observer. But the ontological gap between a thought and a neuron is less than
that between the observer and the observed; there is nothing to be compared to
the `I', while thoughts and neurons are linked by their being objects of observation,
contents of `I', sharing some characteristics such as time and locality.  Granted
that a blow on my head may banish `I', its relationship to the observed is fundamentally
different from anything else we can consider. The best that can be said for the
materialist interpretation is that the brain is a necessary condition for `I'.
Confusion about `I'
One can read numerous psychology texts and not find
any that treat awareness as a phenomenon in its own right, something distinct
from the contents of consciousness. Nor do their authors recognize the identity
of `I' and awareness. To the contrary, the phenomenon of awareness is usually
confused with one type of content or another. William James made this mistake
in his classic, Principles of Psychology. When he introspects on the core `self
of all other selves' he ends up equating the core self with `a feeling of bodily
activities . . .' concluding that our experience of the `I', the subjective self,
is really our experience of the body:
. . . the body, and the central adjustments
which accompany the act of thinking in the head. These are the real nucleus of
our personal identity, and it is their actual existence, realized as a solid,
present fact, which makes us say `as sure as I exist' (James, 1950).
contrary, I would say that I am sure I exist because my core `I' is awareness
itself, my ground of being. It is that awareness that is the `self of all other
selves'. Bodily feelings are observed: `I' is the observer, not the observed.
Beginning with behavioural psychology and continuing through our preoccupation
with artificial intelligence, parallel distributed processing, and neural networks,
the topic of awareness per se has received relatively little attention. When the
topic does come up, consciousness in the sense of pure awareness is invariably
confused with one type of content or the other.
A few contemporary psychiatrists
such as Gordon Globus (1980) have been more ready to recognize the special character
of the self of awareness, the observing self, but almost all end up mixing awareness
with contents. For example, Heinz Kohut developed his Self Psychology based on
considering the self to be a superordinate concept, not just a function of the
ego. Yet he does not notice that awareness is the primary source of self experience
and concludes: `The self then, quite analogous to the representations of objects,
is a content of the mental apparatus' (Kohut, 1971).
We see the same problem
arising in philosophy. After Husserl, nearly all modern Western philosophical
approaches to the nature of mind and its relation to the body fail to recognize
that introspection reveals `I' to be identical to awareness.  Furthermore,
most philosophers do not recognize awareness as existing in its own right, different
from contents. Owen Flanagan, a philosopher who has written extensively on consciousness,
sides with James and speaks of `the illusion of the mind's ``I'' ' (Flanagan,
1992). C.O. Evans starts out recognizing the impor tance of the distinction between
the observer and the observed, `the subjective self', but then retreats to the
position that awareness is `unprojected consciousness', the amorphous experience
of background content (Evans, 1970). However, the background is composed of elements
to which we can shift attention. It is what Freud called the preconscious. `I'/awareness
has no elements, no features. It is not a matter of a searchlight illuminating
one element while the rest is dark - it has to do with the nature of light itself.
In contrast, certain Eastern philosophies based on introspective meditation
emphasize the distinction between awareness and contents.  Thus, Hindu Samkhya
philosophy differentiates purusa, the witness self, from everything else, from
all the experience constituting the world, whether they be thoughts, images, sensations,
emotions or dreams. A classic expression of this view is given by Pantanjali:
Of the one who has the pure discernment between sattva
(the most subtle
aspect of the world of emergence)
and purusa (the nonemergent pure seer)
is sovereignty over all and knowledge of all.(Chapple, 1990.)
considered to exist independent of contents and this `pure consciousness' is accessible
- potentially - to every one. A more contemporary statement of this position is
given by Sri Krishna Menon, a twentieth century Yogi:
He who says that consciousness
is never experienced without its object speaks from a superficial level. If he
is asked the question `Are you a conscious being?', he will spontaneously give
the answer `Yes'. This answer springs from the deepmost level. Here he doesn't
even silently refer to anything as the object of that consciousness (Menon, 1952).
In the classical Buddhist literature we find:
When all lesser things and
ideas are transcended and forgotten, and there remains only a perfect state of
imagelessness where Tathagata and Tathata are merged into perfect Oneness . .
. (Goddard, 1966). 
Western mystics also speak of experiencing consciousness
without objects. Meister Eckhart declares:
There is the silent `middle', for
no creature ever entered there and no image, nor has the soul there either activity
or understanding, therefore she is not aware there of any image, whether of herself
or of any other creature' (Forman, 1990).
Similarly, Saint John of the Cross:
That inward wisdom is so simple, so general and so spiritual that it has not
entered into the understanding enwrapped or clad in any form or image subject
to sense' (1953).
The failure of Western psychology to discriminate awareness
from contents, and the resulting confusion of `I' with mental contents, may be
due to a cultural limitation: the lack of experience of most Western scientists
with Eastern meditation disciplines. 
Eastern mystical traditions use meditation
practice to experience the difference between mental activities and the self that
observes. For example, the celebrated Yogi, Ramana Maharshi, prescribed the exercise
of `Who am I?' to demonstrate that the self that observes is not an object; it
does not belong to the domains of thinking, feeling, or action (Osborne, 1954).
`If I lost my arm, I would still exist. Therefore, I am not my arm. If I could
not hear, I would still exist. Therefore, I am not my hearing.' And so on, discarding
all other aspects of the person until finally, `I am not this thought,' which
could lead to a radically different experience of the `I'. Similarly, in Buddhist
vipassana meditation the meditator is instructed to simply note whatever arises,
letting it come and go. This heightens the distinction between the flow of thoughts
and feelings and that which observes. 
Attempts to integrate Eastern and
Western psychologies can fall prey to the same confusion of `I' and contents,
even by those who have practised Eastern meditation disciplines. Consider the
following passage from The Embodied Mind, a text based on experience with mindfulness
meditation and correlating Western psychological science with Buddhist psychology.
. . . in our search for a self . . . we found all the various forms in which
we can be aware - awareness of seeing and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching,
even awareness of our own thought processes. So the only thing we didn't find
was a truly existing self or ego. But notice that we did find experience. Indeed,
we entered the very eye of the storm of experience, we just simply could discern
there no self, no `I' (Varela et al., 1991).
But when they say, `. . . we
just simply could discern there no self, no ``I'' ', to what does `we' refer?
Who is looking? Who is discerning? Is it not the `I' of the authors? A classic
story adapted from the Vedantic tradition is relevant here:
A group of travellers
forded a river. Afterwards, to make sure everyone had crossed safely, the leader
counted the group but omitted himself from the count. Each member did the same
and they arrived at the conclusion that one of them was missing. The group then
spent many unhappy hours searching the river until, finally, a passerby suggested
that each person count their own self, as well. The travellers were overjoyed
to find that no one was missing and all proceeded on their way.
Like the travellers,
Western psychology often neglects to notice the one that counts. Until it does,
its progress will be delayed.
Similarly, discussions of consciousness (awareness)
as `point of view' (Nagel, 1986) or `perspective' do not go far enough in exploring
what the `first person perspective' really is. In my own case, it is not myself
as Arthur Deikman, psychiatrist, six feet tall, brown hair. That particular person
has specific opinions, beliefs, and skills all of which are part of his nominal
identity, but all of which are observed by his `I', which stands apart from them.
If awareness is a fundamental in the universe - as proposed most recently by Herbert
(1994), Goswami (1993) and Chalmers (1995) - then it is `I' that is fundamental,
as well, with all its ontological implications. Arthur Deikman is localized and
mortal. But what about his `I', that light illuminating his world, that essence
of his existence? Those studying consciousness, who can see the necessity for
according consciousness a different ontological status than the physical, tend
not to extend their conclusions to `I'. Yet, it is the identity `I' = awareness
that makes the study of consciousness so difficult. Güven Güzeldere
Why are there such glaring polarities? Why is consciousness characterized
as a phenomenon too familiar to require further explanation, as well as one that
remains typically recalcitrant to systematic investigation, by investigators who
work largely within the same paradigm? (Güzeldere, 1995.)
to which Güzeldere refers is epitomized by the problem: Who observes the
observer? Every time we step back to observe who or what is there doing the observing,
we find that the `I' has jumped back with us. This is the infinite regress of
the observer, noted by Gilbert Ryle, often presented as an argument against the
observing self being real, an existent. But identifying `I' with awareness solves
the problem of the infinite regress: we know the internal observer not by observing
it but by being it. At the core, we are awareness and therefore do not need to
imagine, observe, or perceive it.
Knowing by being that which is known is
ontologically different from perceptual knowledge. That is why someone might introspect
and not see awareness or the `I', concluding - like the travellers - that it doesn't
exist. But thought experiments and intropsective meditation techniques are able
to extract the one who is looking from what is seen, restoring the missing centre.
Once we grant the identity of `I' and awareness we are compelled to extend
to the core subjective self whatever ontological propositions seem appropriate
for awareness. If awareness is non-local, so is the essential self. If awareness
transcends material reality so does the `I'. If awareness is declared to be non-existent
then that same conclusion must apply to the `I'. No matter what one's ontological
bias, recognition that `I' = awareness has profound implications for our theoretical
and personal perspective.
 I am indebted to David Galin and
Eleanor Rosch for their helpful comments during the preparation of this manuscript.
Liquidity may not be the best example of emergence; both hydrogen and oxygen exhibit
liquidity at very low temperatures.
 For an interesting discussion on this
point, see William James' essay, 'Does consciousness exist?' (James, 1922).
Robert Forman is an exception. See Forman (1993).
 For discussion of this
point and its relationship to philosophical problems, see Forman (1990b) and Shear
 For a detailed account see Daniel Goldman, 'The Buddha on meditation
and states of consciousness', in Shapiro and Walsh (1984).
 The key activity
of modern Western psychotherapy is to enhance the experience of the observing
self, discriminating it from the contents of the mind. Indeed Freud's basic instructions
on free association bear a striking resemblance to the instructions for vipassana
meditation (Deikman, 1982).
 In Buddhism, the meditation experience may
be given different interpretations. Walpole Rahula is emphatic in saying that
Buddha denied that consciousness exists apart from matter and therefore rejected
the idea of a permanent or enduring Self or Atman (Rahula, 1959). In contrast,
D.T. Suzuki identifies the Self with absolute subjectivity (Suzuki et al., 1960).
However both Vedantic and Buddhist commentators agree on the illusory nature of
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