My Quest

For as long as I can remember I’ve been consumed by the question: what does it mean to be an integrated self? Since childhood I’ve wondered: what is this ‘I-ness’ that persists through time, that unifies my experience? Although I spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, I didn’t talk about them much with my childhood peers, as doing so produced a feeling of alienation.

When I began studying philosophy as a seventeen-year old freshman at University College Dublin I found myself among kindred spirits. Questions about personal identity and the constitution of selves were the stuff of coffee-break conversations among philosophers. Eleven years later, having spent a year studying in Amsterdam, worked in the travel industry, traveled a lot, and earned an M.A. in philosophy at University College Dublin, I set off for graduate school in Chicago.

As a Ph.D student in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago I devoted a lot of my time to trying to come up with a robust description of what it is to have a self-conception. To my frustration I found that the parameters of analytic philosophy prevented me from articulating a satisfying description of selfhood. The problem was yoga!

The language of analytic philosophy was unable to accommodate the experiences I had as a student of yoga. I had a very visceral realization of this one morning after a meditation session during a discussion of Zen with my meditation teacher. In an instant I grasped that what I was learning about myself on the yoga mat, during meditation and asana practice, was exactly what the content of analytic philosophy, to which I was supposedly devoting my life, could not provide. Everything I learned at graduate school about having a self-conception and being an integrated self was merely a metaphor for what I learned experientially on the yoga mat. The knowledge I sought was to be found by enquiring into myself, rather than reading books.

Although my experiences as a student of yoga and a student of philosophy have been very different in many respects, in one deeply important way there has been a common thread through both, the feeling of coming home. The first time I attended a yoga class I knew that I had come home to myself. The relief was enormous. As a young student of philosophy I realized that I was at home among a community of like-minded people who cared more about the questions than the answers. But there have been some important differences also.

Although my experiences as a student of yoga and a student of philosophy have been very different in many respects, in one deeply important way there has been a common thread through both, the feeling of coming home. The first time I attended a yoga class I knew that I had come home to myself. The relief was enormous.

As a young student of philosophy I realized that I was at home among a community of like-minded people who cared more about the questions than the answers. But there have been some important differences also.

Photos by Robert Sturman