Even though teams of scientists around the world are working on great mysteries, from the origin of the universe to the origin of life, the greatest mystery remains personal, the mystery of the self. So far as we know, human beings are unique in pondering our own existence as selves and also our place in the universe. You would think that this trait is enough to solve the mystery. After all, if I am aware of myself, I should be an expert on how the self operates.
But exactly the opposite is true. No one can say, with any hope of reaching a consensus, even the most basic things about the self. For example, “self” is both a word and a concept, yet no one knows how or when human speech came about, and concepts, which imply thinking, confront us with our ignorance about what a thought actually is. Take the simplest statement about the individual self, “I am.” When you say these two words to yourself, is it really possible that your brain cells know English and possess a voice?
The world’s spiritual traditions can be reframed as explorations into “I am.” Jehovah uses the phrase when he speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, as well as in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” In the ancient Vedas, supreme knowledge is conveyed, mysteriously enough, in the declaration, “I am That.”
The upshot, if we gather these statements together, is that “I am” is a statement beyond what we ordinarily think ourselves as individuals and holds the key to truth, life, existence, and a higher power known as God. The gist of the Upanishads is that all things are done by, for, and because of the self, the foundation of reality. However you parse our different types of scriptural heritage, as a species we have been fascinated and baffled by our own self-awareness.