Like many others, for quite some time now I have been trying to unravel the mystery of myself, asking the perennial-wisdom question “Who Am I?” For me, the answer has been emerging over the years through the unparalleled guide of Buddhist meditation. However, in spite of what I have learned by sitting on my cushion, I was still somewhat surprised recently to hear about the latest discovery in genetic science, which suggested that my basic personality is built into the shape of my cells.
This January, geneticists announced that they had found a gene that selects for a very common personality trait, one that produces “novelty seeking behavior.” As I read about this discovery in the newspaper, I knew they were talking about me. I have always had a deep-seated desire for new experiences, an urge which may have been partially responsible for leading me into Buddhism, as well as into a lot of trouble. The geneticists are saying they could have predicted my behavioral tendency at birth, just by looking at my cells.
The scientists were graphic about the shape of my excitable genes. It turns out that we novelty seekers have a longer dopamine receptor on certain of our genes, and since dopamine is the chemical most strongly linked to pleasure and sensation seeking, an extra long receptor means I want more pleasure and sensations. Freud might have had something else to say about this long receptor, at least in the male of the species.
Of course, like most people, I ordinarily live under the illusion that my personality type—my basic approach to life—is “mine.” Although I don’t question the issue from moment to moment, the underlying assumption is that “I” have created and somehow own this personality. I usually trust that the dog is wagging the tail, and not the other way around. If the genetic scientists are to be believed, however, it’s more a case of the tail of dopamine receptor wagging the dog.
The discovery of genetic links to human behavior is not new. Scientists previously have found genes that select for many behavioral illnesses, including schizophrenia and alcoholism. But this latest finding marks the first time that an ordinary human trait has been typed, and the scientists are convinced they will find genes that select for each of what they call “the basic building blocks of normal temperament”—novelty seeking, avoidance of harm, reward dependence and persistence. No doubt you are in there somewhere, dear reader. There is growing evidence that our attitudes about life began at the moment of conception.
The idea that our essential personalities are somewhat hard-wired should come as no news to meditators. Most of us who have been engaged in spiritual practices for any length of time would have to admit, often to our chagrin, that our personalities have not changed much. Many of us have, at times, even wandered off the Buddha’s path to go looking for new and more wonderful personalities. We were hoping to exchange one set of fears, reactions and fantasies for another. It turns out that becoming enlightened may actually be easier than altering our personalities. And, presumably, once we are enlightened our personalities won’t matter much anyway.
As I was reflecting on the latest breakthrough in evolutionary biology, I remembered that my entire physical structure grew up from those same genetic seeds. The shapes of my skeleton, lungs and heart are coded into those molecules of DNA. My body is also not “mine.” Come to think of it, I don’t remember ordering the one I got; no catalogue of choices was offered. My body was given to me at birth; it’s a drop from the gene pool, a gift of evolution.
Through the discoveries of modern science, we learn how evolution has shaped us; as we develop in the womb we pass through the stages of cellular life, fish, amphibian and on into our present status as animals. Sometimes, while meditating on the body, I can feel the fact that I am, indeed, a midsized mammal. I am also a vertebrate. And so are you. (To experience this for yourself, just grind your teeth together for a few seconds and feel the shape of your skull. We humans share a bone structure with all the chewers on the planet—we have hinged jaws and teeth.) Our skeleton has been formed by 500 million years of continual adaptations, and its shape is encoded in the whorls of our genes. We don’t really own this body; we inherit it from the life that has come before us.
In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha says, “This body does not belong to you or to anybody else. It is the result of previous activity performed and intended; for now, it should be felt.” The Buddha is not only teaching evolutionary biology here; he is telling us that in order to turn this knowledge into wisdom we need to dive into the body and experience it, to become intimate with ourselves from the inside out. Otherwise, we will never understand the extremely powerful influence of our evolutionary karma; we won’t know the truth of our nature “as” nature. The Buddha wants us to know our body as the manifestation of a long process of events, the result of an immeasurable amount of “dependent origination,” an impenetrable interplay of causes and conditions. To identify it as “my body” is to forget that it is not really mine to own. It’s a loaner. It is evolution’s body.
In the Satipathana Sutta, the Buddha presents the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” and the first of these is mindfulness of body and breath—the fundamentals of our current incarnation. The sutta describes a number of different practices for developing awareness of the body: meditations on its posture and movement, on its separate parts, and on the death that is built into this physical form. The Buddha even advises the monks to contemplate the body “in terms of the elements.” We are shown how to experience the earth, air, fire, and water elements inside us, and through this meditation we begin to understand that we are not separate from the world, but rather, composed of it.
I am, as might be expected, quite identified with my body, and there are certainly good survival-related reasons to continue this identification. Nonetheless, I am increasingly aware of how important it is to my freedom and happiness to understand the origin and context of my physical existence as well as of my personality. For one thing, when I am in touch with my body as part of the ongoing flow of earthlife, I no longer feel so separate and isolated. I become part of a much larger story, and my ancestors increase by a thousandfold and many phyla. Secondly, when I am aware of this body as part of a vast process, I no longer feel so attached to the changes it goes through, nor do I fear so much the thought of its fate.
Exploring the nature of the body is the first step toward unravelling the question “Who am I?” The Buddha then guides us through three more “foundations of mindfulness” so that we can look at other basic components of our self-identity: perception, emotions, thoughts and concepts, and consciousness itself. This progression could be thought of as a journey through various stages of evolution. (Buddhism recapitulates ontogeny, which recapitulates phylogeny.) Along the way, we become intimate with this “fathom-long body,” with the sources of personality, and with the mystery of consciousness. We experience the full range of our genetic inheritance and our connection to all of life.
In the end, when I consider the findings of the geneticists along with the teachings of the Buddha, I am struck by how much we are all related. We seem to be individuals, but we have many more commonalities than we do differences. We share a gene pool that determines our size and shape as well as our possibilities and limitations. We also share the collective karma of humanity, this particular moment in the evolution of consciousness, these limits of knowing. Since we have so much in common, perhaps we would be wise to put the question “Who Am I?” into the plural. Let’s ask, “Who are we?” Our question then becomes a community koan, and we all become Bodhisattvas helping each other evolve.
Nisargadata Maharaj, a great master of self-inquiry, put it this way:
“In seeking you discover that you are neither body nor mind. And the love of the self in you is for the self in all. The two are one. The consciousness in you and the consciousness in me, apparently two, really are one… and they seek their unity. And that is love.”