I Am Not I

 Jacob Needleman

North Atlantic Books

You will see that your mind is a ragtag collection of opinions, beliefs, fragmentary, imaginary certainties about anything and everything—things you have been told, or heard, or which are constantly absorbed into your mind in the atmosphere of your circle of friends, chance acquaintances, your schools, your entertainments—the fashionable worldviews and habits of explanations that are really no more than fossilized mental habits…You will realize that what you need is not new beliefs, new information, new theories, but an entirely new mind.

                                          from  I Am Not I


If only I knew then what I know now

Jacob Needleman is a respected scholar and author of a number of popular books on religion and philosophy, including The American Soul, Lost Christianity, A Sense of the Cosmos, and Time and the Soul.

Now in his eighties, he has written a very different kind of book. Its title, I Am Not I, comes from a poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez (“I am not I/ I am this one/ that walks by my side/ without me seeing him...”)

In what might be his final work, Needleman imagines a dialogue between himself as an old man coming to the end of his life (“Jacob”), and his younger, yet-to-be born self (“Jerry”), wanting “to prepare you for your life in the world of toxic ideas.”

He opens with his belief 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.”

He warns Jerry against the “plague of fear, hatred and despair…within the prison of human egoism.” For, unfortunately, it is the human ego that we identify with—this “I” we know so well, the everyday self that is anxious, forever fretting, always wanting something more or something else, and uncomfortably aware that it will perish someday with the physical body.

The ego is also largely unconscious. Echoing the early twentieth-century Russian mystic Gurdjieff, Needleman sees people “engulfed in a state of hypnotic sleep,” as automons living their lives mostly out of established mental habits.

But in his lifelong study of the world’s major religious and philosophical systems, Needleman recognizes another I “that walks by my side without me seeing him,” a cosmic consciousness that is not time-bound, that is not anxious or fearful or petty; a universal Self that is not…well, self-ish.

This transcendent consciousness is called different names in different traditions—soul, God, or the gods, the higher self, or deeper wisdom, the “still small voice within,” or even “the better angels of our nature.”

Ultimately, the cause of much human suffering can be reduced to a case of mistaken identity: We believe we are vulnerable, fallible, time-limited physical beings (and we are!) but, argues Needleman, we are also something far more. Each of us is another “I” who participates in a transcendent consciousness that is not vulnerable or time-limited—“my own true identity, my own higher consciousness, calling me to allow it into my life.”


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 14, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.