Jacob Needleman: I Am Not I
Mar 25, 2019

12 minute read


Adapted excerpt From I Am Not I by Jacob Needleman, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2016 by Sky Nelson-Isaacs. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

Among the great questions of the human heart, none is more central than the question, “Who am I?” And among the great answers of the human spirit, none is more central than the experience of “I Am.” In fact, in the course of an intensely lived human life—a normal human life filled with the search for Truth—this question and this answer eventually run parallel to each other, coming closer and closer together until the question becomes the answer and the answer becomes the question.  

Not long after I began my career as a professor of philosophy, I discovered that there exists in many people a hidden yearning for metaphysical thought, for ideas about reality and human life that bring the hope of discovering a great purpose in the universe and, correspondingly, in one’s own given life.

Again and again I witnessed the remarkable effect that certain kinds of philosophical ideas and questions can have on the state of mind, not only in my students, but in men and women of all ages whom I happened to meet outside of the academic setting. The effect of such ideas and questions was unmistakable—in the light in the eyes, and often in the way the individual suddenly adjusted his or her posture. Something unique was awakening in the mind.

At first, I attributed what I saw mainly to the great ideas themselves, which stimulate the mind to ponder questions of ultimate meaning and purpose—questions that the current scientific worldview delegitimizes through its materialist standards of logic and evidence. It troubled me to see how so many contemporary explanations of higher human faculties—love, art, religious feeling, and even scientific thought itself—reduced these faculties to mechanically “evolved” automatisms, serving such goals as meaningless physical survival and meaningless physical or egoistic pleasure. It troubled me to see the dominance of toxic ideas and concepts that offer no hope for the attainment of the transcendence that is the unique possibility written into the very essence of human consciousness. Such toxic ideas and the worldview they engender cannot help but have a dark effect on the aspirations and morals of entire peoples, whether consciously or unconsciously.

I was especially concerned about how this situation plays out in the education and development of the younger generation of men and women, as represented by my students at the university. They come to my classes immersed in habits of thought and explanation that flatten both their perception of the world and their sense of identity. It is so even when they show up already intensely interested in philosophical questions, or great works of art and literature, or the astonishing discoveries of modern science. And it is so even when they come achingly hoping to help this world or even just to make sense of the heartbreaking storms of injustice, human suffering, and corruption raging throughout our civilization. Always, in almost all of these young men and women, their entrenched standards of thought and understanding, shaped by a toxic tangle of ideas about the universe, human nature, and Great Nature itself, have locked their minds in an airless reality devoid of intrinsic meaning and purpose.

And here they are in front of me, notebooks or laptops at the ready. On the screen in front of them or within easy reach is their assigned reading.

The text could be a selection from the Dialogues of Plato, with its profoundly scripted drama of the conversations of Socrates, compelling us to ask ourselves: Is it actually true that we human beings, including I myself, live our lives within the dim caves of illusion, never to be aware of genuine truth and goodness? And is it true that there are rare individuals quietly reaching down to us from another level of understanding, calling us to search—with their help—for our own real mind and heart? Could all this be actually true of ourselves now and here, and not merely an “ancient” or “academic” question?

Or perhaps the text is the Bhagavad Gita, the most widely revered scripture of India. From its very first pages, the students find themselves plunged into a strange and sublime ocean of ideas and images, by turns stormy and divinely serene. Here they are offered visions of the cosmos transcending everything that modern science gives us to believe about a heartless universe in which humanity and human purpose are only vanishing specks in the infinity of time and space. Here, on the contrary, the mind of India shows us a universe permeated with immense purpose, with an invisible, deathless “Golden Person,” called Purusha, at the heart of reality—just as, within the human microcosm, within myself, there is the same deathless Purusha, the as yet unseen golden person, my own true identity, my own higher consciousness, calling me to allow it into my life.

Or perhaps we have a tract by the fourteenth-century prophet of the Christian inner life known as Meister Eckhart. Here, in Meister Eckhart’s redefinitions of the experience of God, the Son of God, and the Spirit in the human soul, both the students and their teacher discover an astonishing answer to the ever-looming tragedy of human life on Earth: an answer to the plague of fear, hatred, and despair spreading within the prison of human egoism. Is it really true, we ask of Eckhart— and is it even possible—that the birth of Christ must become an event that takes place not just externally, in history, but inwardly, within oneself, within myself? What kind of human being would we, here, then become? And what Earth, what world, would then also be born? And what is the real struggle that is demanded of us?

Or perhaps the text is from the lion, Friedrich Nietzsche, with his roaring vision of humanity’s possible destiny, beyond so-called morality, beyond good and evil, beyond psychology or neurology or self-isolated “rationality.”

Or they may be looking at pages from The Varieties of Religious Experience, written over a hundred years ago by the American philosopher William James, whose honesty and common sense somehow contain a simple freedom of the mind, offering more hope than all the arcane arguments of the German metaphysicians.

Or the rapturous anxiety, wit, and integrity of Søren Kierkegaard, uncovering for our present moment the esoteric human struggle at the heart of the event of Christ.

Or Ludwig Wittgenstein’s piercing revelation of the naked confusion of our proud philosophical language and thought.

Or the divine freedom from thought of D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism.

Or the bottomless well of Jewish mysticism in the Zohar, with its revelations of the deeper psychological and cosmological levels of meaning in our all-too-familiar Bible.

Ideas, ideas, ideas! Great ideas, great visions, bringing with them the taste of a hope far beyond all ultimately lifeless thoughts of success, fame, money, and physical pleasure. But also, and how remarkable and mysteriously hopeful: a taste beyond and now strangely within the fragile hope of helping humanity and the Earth and, yes, God!

Can I really presume to carry this present book, this dialogue between my present self and my younger self, into the mansion of such awakening ideas?

But wait! What is it, really, that is the source of this longed- for hope? Does that source lie only in the content of these ideas, in their vision of cosmic reality and humanity that awakens a new aspiration in the mind, a new call for an understanding worthy of the most serious exercise of the intellect? And is this awakening of hope also due, in large measure, to the atmosphere in the classroom of deep sharing, with the students and their teacher as partners in the work of mutual listening— a work of shared listening that, instead of providing mainly mental answers, deepens the great questions of the heart?

Yes, all of that is necessary, both the great ideas and the warm atmosphere of mutual listening. But the actual arising in these young minds of an objective quality of hope—conscious hope—is due, I have found, to quite another source.

Words alone can give no real sense of this source. Year after year I stood in front of my students, watching their whole presence come quietly and intensely alive. But only now, just now, after over half a century of teaching, have I realized the real nature of this hope.

I am standing there in front of the class, about to start the second session of my course called Transformative Knowledge, in which our texts will be Fr. William Johnston’s edition of the fourteenth-century classic of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Eknath Easwaran translation of the Upanishads, especially the “dialogue with death” known as the Katha Upanishad.

In our first meeting of the class, I had offered a broad summary of some of the main philosophical issues we would be treating:

• States of consciousness and the qualities of thought specific to each state

• Transformative knowledge (gnosis) in religion and philosophy

• The ethical and metaphysical significance of transformative knowledge

• Thinking as a sacred and secular function

• Confusions and misunderstandings about mysticism

• The relationship between philosophy and spiritual discipline

• Levels of knowledge: information, theory, understanding, wisdom

Just as I am starting to speak, a student in the front row raises her hand. It is a young Chinese woman, Jiao Li, who had made a distinct impression on me the previous week, at the first meeting of the class. Throughout the entire two and a half hours, she had said nothing, only looking at me with a simple innocence and wonder that caught me by surprise each time I looked in her direction. But now, at the very beginning of today’s class, she confidently raised her hand and, without waiting for me to acknowledge her, said, with a simplicity and purity that I had never encountered in a university setting:

“What is time?” It stopped me. I started to smile, and I suppressed an impulse to make a little joke about such a profound and unembellished question. Did she really imagine that I could just deliver a one-sentence answer to this question that no one has ever really answered or could answer? Half unconsciously, right under the surface of my discomfort, I had the impression of something like vigorous, raw intelligence suddenly surfacing within her, as though surprising her as much as it surprised me.

I soon realized that it was not simply “intelligence,” as it is ordinarily understood, that I was seeing. But what, exactly, was it?

It was not until later that day that the answer came to me. Thinking about her, I found myself calling up the memory of the great friend of my childhood, Elias Barkhordian, about whom I have written in several of my books. The look in her face was exactly the same kind of look that would appear in the face of Elias and, I suppose, in my own face as well, as we sat together after school, talking about astronomy and the ultimate questions, such as “If God exists, who created God?” and “What came before the beginning of the universe?” and “What really happens to us after we die?”

I was eleven years old when I first met Elias; he was about a year older. His Armenian family had recently moved into an elegant “corner house” just within the more fashionable neighborhood that bordered on our own humble stretch of Philadelphia’s very ordinary “row houses.”

One day, as though appearing out of nowhere, Elias drifted over to our street. I remember everything about our meeting. It was a warm day, just after school had let out, and the usual noisy street games of the neighborhood children were just spontaneously beginning.

As he passed through the alley in back of my house, I was on my way to run and join one of the games. He walked over toward me and introduced himself, an action that was highly unusual. No one had ever “introduced” themselves to me. At first he seemed just lonely and out of place. But I soon felt there was something special about him, and in a few moments, we were sitting down together on the low stone wall around our neighbor’s house, talking about the latest show at the Fels Planetarium.

We wound up talking endlessly about astronomy, showering each other with facts about the planets, moons, comets, asteroids, stars, constellations, distances, great stretches of time, statistics, speeds, atmospheres (or the lack of them), and on and on.

I knew quite a lot of facts about astronomy, much more than any kid I knew. But I was soon astonished to realize that Elias knew even more than I did—much, much more. He easily outdid me in our friendly “fact competition.” But there seemed to be also something else about what he knew, something I couldn’t put my finger on. From the very beginning of our friendship, this “something” in him made me half-consciously feel toward him as toward an older, wiser brother, especially later, when our meetings would turn mainly to questions of the beyond.

We spent hours talking about astronomy, to my delight. I had found a new friend, unlike any other. When we finally parted on that first day, it was understood that we would meet again the following day at the same place. And this we did for several days thereafter, except for Sunday, when Elias was obliged to be with his family for some Christian religious reasons that I knew nothing about.

When we met again on Monday, as I started talking again about science and astronomy, he asked a question of a very different kind: “Do you think you have a soul?”

It turned out that on the previous day, he had gone with his family to a memorial service marking a year since the death of a much-loved grandfather. The ritual had touched him deeply, especially the grieving of his mother.

I didn’t know what to say to his question. I had never thought much about the soul, since the idea of the soul and even the word itself were not part of the accepted religion of my family. The Orthodox Judaism of my grandparents spoke only of individuals living on in the memory of loved ones. And this had always seemed to me hypocritical and disappointing. I did not consider this to be anything like real immortality.

Finally, I answered him with a shrug of the shoulders. And we sat there looking into each other’s eyes for quite a long time, saying nothing. I remember the afternoon sun right behind him, seeming, in its slow movement, to be entering into the top of his head.

Now, many years later, I can say what it was we were both feeling during that long silence. It was the feeling of I Am. Here, now, I exist—a feeling like no other emotion in our lives, a feeling that we touched at some point every day in the nearly two years that we met together at the low stone wall. During those years, our discussions about astronomy and science inevitably turned to philosophical questions, going far beyond anything modern science could answer.

In those moments, we were touched by the appearance in ourselves of a very fine presence that seemed a mysterious homecoming. I am here. I am home.

Over the years, I eventually came in touch with ideas and friendships that showed me what this experience really meant. It was the experience of a call from something deeply hidden within us and at the same time very close to the surface of ourselves. It was the call of I Am, the uniquely universal Self, the Purusha consciousness within every human being, the true source of love and understanding.

Words cannot describe the feeling of silent wonder, astonishment, and hope that this experience brought—along with a joyful demand, not in any sense burdensome, to struggle always and everywhere to put it first in the conduct of one’s life. Elias died from leukemia, at that time incurable, just before his fourteenth birthday. In the months that followed the onset of his illness, I would meet with him in the quiet music room at the back of his house, facing a large, carefully tended, sunshine-filled garden. As his illness progressed and he grew weaker, my feeling about his mind deepened. He spoke openly about what awaited him and regretted only that he would not live long enough to understand everything that he wished to understand about the universe. But somehow, doubtless because of the more frequent appearance in us of shared conscious presence, his death eventually, in the years that followed, brought me more hope than grief, the hope that arises from the “sound” of a truly sacred consciousness calling to us from within ourselves.

I see now that it is the intimation of this quality of hope that I have all along been trying to bring both to myself and to my students and readers in the face of the illusory hopes and inevitable pessimism so characteristic of our era.


Adapted excerpt From I Am Not I by Jacob Needleman, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2016 by Sky Nelson-Isaacs. Reprinted by permission of publisher. North Atlantic Books is a leading publisher of authentic works on the relationship of body, mind and nature to create personal, spiritual and planetary transformation.

1 Past Reflections