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On Being-I, On Being-Not-I, On Being-Who-Will-I-Be?

 

To be, or to be me? Shakespeare may have asked a version of this quote somewhat rhetorically, but after reading noted phenomenologist Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, I felt compelled, almost instructed, to contextualize my efforts of understanding my presence in this world in which I exist, and live. I undertook these meditations entirely from a Heideggerian perspective—an exercise that’s still personal in the way I imagine he would have intended for it to be. Though I base them in a worldhood that would be defined as New York City in geographical boundary, I consider the location metaphorical and extendable to the cities I have already lived in, currently live in, and will eventually live in.

 

On Being Dipti

One day in June 2012, I came to the conclusion that I was out of control, even though I was sitting motionless in a place I had sat in a thousand times before. Inactive, but somehow moved, changed, discovered. These feelings, these emotions, these passions—they seemed unregulated. What were these passionate emotions I was feeling and why were they out of control? I was whirling even in stillness.

It was an inaccurate question. Soon enough, it wasn’t what I was feeling, but the realization that I didn’t know who was feeling these sensations that became my concern. I read, I wrote, I thought a lot about the ‘I’ in my I-ness. Who was I? Who am I?

I started meditating, not to discover some transcendental version of I-ness, but to connect with my consciousness, which heretofore I hadn’t considered as an important constituent of who I thought I was. Over the last two years, we’ve been interacting more frequently (according to my conscious knowledge) than ever before. “Hello, Dasein,” I said only recently. It has a name. That name is Dipti. In each case, it is mine.

We all know that we breathe and we all know that we experience—we have all these verbs to denote our existence or some form of our being-ness, but how do we practically contextualize this being-in-the-world, as Heidegger suggests?  Here I attempt to explore some of these questions, using the phenomenological approach in order to authentically understand some ordinary experiences from my life.

My average everyday consists of being a writer, being a student, being an intern, being a foreigner in New York City, being my parents’ daughter and my sister’s sister and my friends’ friend. People say that life isn’t to exist; it is to live. But it’s only after living day after day have I realized the potency of the term: existence. It’s in this existence that I feel strung with the concern to know, to touch, to disclose this I-ness that is really (or authentically) who I am. In a fragmented, highly individualized post-modern world, perhaps we are no longer as burdened with the notion of what is Being, but rather, the question: who am I?

Heidegger says, “Every inquiry is a seeking. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought.” In searching for the answer to who I am, I already knew what I was looking for: the ideal me, a version of the self conditioned by history, culture, society, economics, politics and religion. It was difficult to detach this notion of other-hood from my I-ness, so in searching for who I am, I found out what I was trying to be instead.

Back to Being, then. Heidegger also says that the very notion of Being resists definition, because it has become an empty concept. We’ve become conditioned to take everything for granted, especially in today’s age of immediate gratification when the given-ness of our Being is mythologized or naturalized. We behave as if we are entitled to our existence even though we don’t truly understand how or why we came to exist and what it means to exist thereof. In this way, our Being is both familiar and unfamiliar to us and it is in this paradox that it presents itself as self-evident. I found myself wedged in between this gap of knowing and not knowing, of feeling and not feeling, and of being and not being.

For this reason, Heidegger’s strategy to disavow everything we think we already know about how we live our lives appeals to me. To narrow my focus down to what it means to be and to be me, I must shelf all notions I have on the necessity of becoming something, some other, some self-created version of the self that is consequently inauthentic. In other words, I must de-familiarize myself with the world I live in and the relationships I maintain with the objects and people that constitute it. I cannot use my cultural, religious and economic background as a definition for who I am, nor can I let my physical possessions and emotional relationships typecast me as a certain kind of person. To use Heidegger’s terminology, these factors are phenomenal existentialia and are equiprimordial in that they contribute to my I-ness, but are not my I-ness in and of itself. So, in the case that I have lived in multiple cities and attended different schools such that these aspects of my life have been constantly changing, I believe there has to be some constant factor, rooted in my authentic I-ness, that grounds my existence. Even as I change, my I-ness should exhibit a permanency of sorts, because no matter what I do, or where I live: I will always be my I-ness.

Just as I will exist ontically, regardless of whether I pay attention to my existence or not, so too I must consider Dasein (or simply, my consciousness) as the quintessential part of my ontological self. The goal, then, seems to be the discovery of an ontological mode of Being that is recognizably conditioned by an existence with-in-the-world (physically and spatially speaking) but at the same time connotes an experience requiring a definition far greater than what conventional modes of thinking can award us.

 

On Objects

I am a materialist. I have too many objects in my studio. There’s the bed, the couch, the other couch, the coffee table, the table I don’t put coffee on, the table for the lamp, and the lamps themselves, to name a few.

Once, I had the strange thought that the objects in the room were communicating with me. How did I know the table was heavy? Because it looked heavy, I could see its heaviness. In other words, it told me so. On reading Heidegger I see that the point isn’t to discard such thoughts but to determine why such a thought could be conceived in the first place? What is our relationship with the objects that spatially inhabit the world in which we exist? How do these objects participate in our existence?

So I wonder: what does this I-ness in Dipti know about the I-ness of the table? Is there, perhaps, an I-ness to the table too? I think Heidegger would disagree, since he would argue that the table is world-less and thus, the way the table occupies space is different from how I, as Dasein, would. Consequently, the nature of the table’s being will also be different from that of Dasein. But, to what extent? Is it possible for birch to actually look less heavy than mahogany simply because it is of a lighter color, unscientifically speaking? If yes, then this is to say that the ontical qualities of objects are closely related to their ontological characteristics. Perhaps such a derivation is plausible, given the fact that the phenomenal constitution of objects is different from that of people, and we may not be able to arrive at the same conclusion in the case of the latter (for example, there is no implicit relationship between skin color and weight). Thus, the table is an entity that exhibits the phenomenal qualities of equipmentality, but the table cannot be as Dasein is because it is inanimate, and therefore cannot develop a concern for its own being-ness.

The role of animism, then, might be key. Being animate by virtue of being a-live, I am able to apprehend some notion of existence for these objects (perhaps on their behalf), as they are ready-to-hand for me. Conceivably, the table lacks its own world even as it equiprimordially constitutes my worldhood. So, in a sense, we could argue that while the table may not have a world of its own, my table could, and we might even say that my table’s world is mine. In calling the table mine, perhaps I animate it in a way that both constitutes and fosters its participation in my worldhood that is “in each case mine.” Since I always already harbor a concern for my being-ness, I must invariably have developed concern for my table too, since it constitutes my worldhood in a manner that in turn constitutes some extent of my being-ness.

Even in terms of language, we say: I am the owner of this table, but we also say, this table is owned by me. One thought is active, wherein I am the agent expressing something over the object (in this case, ownership). The other statement is passive, wherein the object reflects something about me. The relationship, then, between the objects I possess and I, myself, is reciprocal.

Heidegger also outlines that all equipment possesses the phenomenal characteristics of being “for-the-sake-of-which” or “in-order-to” and I would like to link this mode of constitution to how we can learn about ourselves from the objects that surround us.

 

On Being Dipti in My Living Room in New York City

I lived in a studio apartment in New York City. It is important to note two things about the experience of being me in my living room in New York City, which I am just about to describe: I live alone, and all the objects in my studio were selected by me, based on my own tastes and preferences.

Keeping the reciprocal nature of the relationship with objects in mind, we can say that by virtue of being in my living room, my table exists in a certain way that constitutes its own worldhood and consequently, mine. So, because of the way things are, my table constitutes my being in some manner as well. Heidegger writes, “Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence—in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself.” I read this statement as a system of possibilities: to be or not to be; or perhaps to be me or not to be me? This is to say that while the objects in my living room are instrumental in deciding what goes where (because of the phenomenal characteristics of their own equipmentality), I am still the one who determines the object-type I want or need. Do I want a coffee table made out of glass or do I want a dining table made of wood? What design or color should the couch be? In other words, we can ask, what is it about the I-ness of my table that says something about my I-ness?

I’ve often thought about this whenever I have guests over. They usually say one of two things: “I love your apartment,” or “this apartment is so you.” I’ve wondered that each time they tell me how Dipti-ish this apartment is, they’re probably not referring to the layout of the furniture or the place each object occupies. The place each object occupies clearly says something about the object itself, not me. It seems, rather, that they are talking about the region that is my apartment, or what I understand to be the range of possibilities of my I-ness that is encapsulated in this space. Thus, even if I switched the sides my bed and couch currently occupy, my apartment would still be “so me.” But, for example, if I were to exchange the white cloth couch with gray flowers on it to a black leather couch instead, the objects in my apartment would lose some of my I-ness because typically, I am not the kind of person who would purchase a black leather couch, keeping in mind whatever it means to be someone who has a black leather couch in their living room. These choices about what to buy and what we own are made by the being one’s-self or “who” we are. 

In this sense, Heidegger’s argument that “equipment has its place, or else it ‘lies around’” is important to note here inasmuch as it suggests that this equipmental place is established with Dasein’s directionality and concern (thereby re-enforcing the reciprocal relationship between Dasein and the objects of worldhood as noted above). In general my apartment exhibits the “character of inconspicuous familiarity,” but Heidegger suggests that until and unless something is missing or broken in the environment, Dasein does not become explicitly aware of the region.

Moreover, when we become explicitly conscious of something, for example, realizing the heaviness of the table versus barely noticing it at all, the object (or the experience of it) becomes estranged or excessively de-familiarized to us. I think this is why Dasein’s everydayness is such a key point for Heidegger. It’s important to consider the choices we make when we don’t even realize we’re making a choice, as opposed to observing ourselves phenomenologically (like a prolonged out-of-body experience). In this way, “Dasein is its disclosedness.” When I realize the heaviness of the table, I also realize the table, the floor, my apartment, my building, New York City, and what I’m doing in New York City (which, I would argue, is connected to Heidegger’s concept of de-severence).  These thoughts are both rapid and successive and happen in some order of time that are so closely linked to each other that I determine I am experiencing all this in the present.  Since Dasein is de-severence, my consciousness can notice multiple aspects of my existence (of which I am “thrown” into) but based on the directionality of my concern, the objects I am consciously aware can change from time to time (likened to the Bergsonian concept of moments becoming spatialized when consciously paid attention to, as opposed to being in real duration).

I am further tempted to apply Heidegger’s concept of mood to illustrate the reciprocal relationship between Dasein and the objects that constitute its spatiality. The environment in which I live discloses something about me; it reflects my general mood. Thus, the phenomenal characteristics of the objects in my living room are also a reflection of my state-of-mind. My mood constitutes this space because according to Heidegger, we carry our de-severent space with us.  The relationship between what my “here” and my mood is, is what becomes disclosed to me upon circumspection of my environment. For example, if perchance I’ve had a busy week and I’ve left my apartment in a mess—dishes in the sink and clothes everywhere—the out-of-placeness of these objects will disclose my mood as being anxious, or hassled, or frustrated, or pressed for time. In another case, certain objects might possess a sentimental value owing to some personal history—such as an old photograph of my grandparents—and if I were to behave in a way so as to focus my attention on it, it will disclose my mood as being nostalgic or touched. But, such an analysis prompts me to think of the nature of de-severent space, and perhaps its relationship with Bergsonian temporality. When I am in my apartment on any given day, I cannot and do not focus on all the objects in it simultaneously. At any given moment, my attention is prioritized to whatever is already in my focus. Here, it is important to recall Heidegger’s claim that Dasein always has some mood. If I am always already in some mood, we can assume that the objects I notice are also capable of revealing that very mood. If I am excited or happy, I will probably not notice the mess in the living room, rather something else like the music system instead. Consequently, I will focus on my iPod, then the song I wish to play (which also discloses some, perhaps the same, happy mood). The possibility of a constantly shifting de-severence of my being “here,” then, reminds me of Bergson’s theory of time as duration, both infinite and continuous, where any difference between the past, present and future lapses. However, as Bergson argues, time becomes spatialized when the nature of our attention towards it breaks the flow of duration; when we are no longer simply being, rather, when we are being de-severent (to connect to Heidegger again). In this manner, I understand how de-severence constitutes the spatiality of Dasein’s being. Heidegger also writes, “The circumspective de-severing of Dasein’s everydayness reveals the Being-in-itself of the ‘true world’—of that entity which Dasein, as something existing, is already alongside.”

           

On Being Dipti on the Streets of New York City

Now, given this thorough reflection on my relationship with the objects in my apartment, I am keen to analyze the being-in aspect of my average everyday as it involves being-with-others as well.

I ask: what is it about being-with-others that teaches me something about being-self?

To begin, I am reminded of the experiences I’ve had when I’ve been caught in large crowd situations. I find that whenever I’m in crowded places, my conscious attention is fixed more on myself (my body, my gestures, pace of movement etc.) rather than the people I’m surrounded by. This thought is extremely interesting to me, especially because it implies that the experience of being-with-others, who also equiprimordially constitute my worldhood, is different from my relationship with objects (since when with objects, I focus on the objects, but when with people, I focus on the self). The only common factor in this scenario seems to be the grounding of being one’s-self, since in both cases something is revealed to me about my I-ness. Perhaps then, it is possible that there is some ontological relationship between my existence and that of other Daseins, and moreover that some mood or state-of-mind can be disclosed by this being-with-others as well. In other words, the relationship between my consciousnesses with that of others could be reciprocal as well.

Heidegger explains that our being-with-others is really a projection of how we are being towards the self. But at the same time, he notes that our basic mode of being-with-others is indifference, or solicitude. He writes, “everyday Being-among-one-another, distantiality, averageness, leveling down, publicness, the disburdening of one’s Being, and accommodation—lies that ‘constancy’ of Dasein which is closest to us. Neither the Self of one’s own Dasein not the Self of the Other has as yet found itself or lost itself as long as it is in the modes we have mentioned.”  Is this to say that we maintain a similar sense of indifference towards ourselves as well? When I look at my face in the mirror or simply bend my head and look down at my body, I am almost instantly struck with a feeling of peculiarity. My body seems solid and external and quite frankly, not mine, and I can barely recognize my face in the mirror. One could argue that such fleeting sensations operate as “out-of-body” experiences. In these moments, I feel like I am not I.  And if I am not I, then who am I? Heidegger says that, “the ‘not-I’ is by no means tantamount to an entity which essentially lacks ‘I-hood’ but is rather a definite kind of Being which the ‘I’ itself possesses, such as having lost itself.” I wonder, then, if being-with-others is in its entirety a kind of out-of-body experience—when I is always already not I. Heidegger also writes, “Everyone is the other, and no one is himself.” So, when I am in a large crowd or group of people, the not I-ness of my I-ness is revealed to me. I am both what I am and what I am not, and this is how Dasein is its possibilities (what I could have been).

Interestingly enough, when the realization of alienation or estrangement dawns upon the self as a result of being in a crowd or observing oneself phenomenologically, one could argue that being-alone is simply another mode of being-with, especially given that it seems to be fostered by the latter. If I am not I when in a crowd, then how do I feel when I am alone? Do I ever come to notice my body as a whole or any part of it (as I might an object) as a de-severent space? Heidegger writes, “Being-with and the facticity of being with one another are not based on the occurrence together of several subjects.” From this, I infer that just as being-with is being-alone, so too is being-alone an extension of being-with. We carry the knowledge that other Daseins exist, especially since their presence is built-in to a network of signs and references in which we live. Even though I live alone, I am aware of the fact that I am not the last person on the earth. Moreover, with advancements in technology and social media, we are constantly being-with even when we’re physically alone (and even studies note the reciprocal effect of over-communication resulting in intensified feelings of alienation).

Thus, being-alone and being-self invariably involves being-other, and perhaps it is because of this inter-relationship that the “out-of-body” experiences described above are even possible. On a side note, similar to the notion of waking up from a dream and not knowing who, what, or where you are, I am intrigued by the idea of applying the concept of being both self and other to theories of alternate realities and multiple universes as well.

 

And I Conclude

If, like Heidegger, I decide that the worldhood of my world really consists of objects and other people, then here, I have reflected on the different aspects of myself that are revealed to me by such reciprocal interactions and involvements. As Heidegger frames, “who it is that Dasein is in its everydayness.” Further, he writes, “The question of the “who” answers itself in terms of the ‘I’ itself, the ‘subject’, the ‘Self’. The ‘who’ is what maintains itself as something identical throughout changes in its Experiences and ways of behavior, and which relates itself to this changing multiplicity in so doing.”  So based on all these discussions, what can I learn about myself? Who am I? The answer to this then is that I am: what I am, what I am not, and what I will be. I am already what I will become and what I will not become as well. Heidegger writes, “If Dasein is, it already has, as directing and de-severing, its own discovered region. Both directionality and de-severence, as modes of Being-in-the-world, are guided beforehand by the circumspection of concern.”

According to me, the idea of an ongoing concern feels similar to the notion of Bergsonian duration, while de-severence is the making spatially discrete (as Bergson notes one does with Time) for convenience. I also recall the famous quote by Jalal ud-din Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean, but the entire ocean in a single drop,” which quite poetically captures what I think Heidegger argues later about Being and Time.