When seeking an answer to the question of the meaning or purpose of human life, collectively or as an individual, the history of western philosophy and consequently its medicine and psychology has had a preoccupation with one question “Who am I?”

It’s a question that lends itself to a fair amount of naval gazing. Answering the question, “Who am I?” begins a thoroughly intellectual, introspective exploration of the personal ‘self’ or the ever elusive ‘I’.

“Come in good Sir. Lay down on this couch.” Says the psychoanalyst. “Now, let us discuss your childhood.”

My philosophy teacher once described the experience of psychoanalysis this way:

“Any attempt to understand the self via an exploration of the contents of one’s own mind is a little like pealing an onion. At the end of the process one is left with little more than tears and a table full of onion pieces.”

Now I’m not attempting to denigrate or diminish the benefits of professions and practices like psychology, psychoanalysis or counselling. Far from it. What I am attempting to assert is that in an effort to understand the ‘self’ and secure our personal happiness, western thinking appears to have had a preference for intellectualising or psychologising the effort.

Asking ‘Who am I?’ is one way to go about the task of understanding our humanity but in my view it’s not complete. What is often overlooked in the intellectual analysis of ideas, concepts, memories and personal narratives is the role of the human BODY in the wellness and happiness equation.

So I propose a different question. One with a very practical focus. The question is, “What am I?’

Answering ‘What am I’ rather than “Who am I” is a question that takes a person out of their own mind for a little while and into the realm of understanding their body’s relationship with other things. Other people, things and the planet.

The ‘WHAT AM I?’ question reminds us that we are organic things. We’re mammals! And 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.

We’re part of a living world. Carved out from the same organic material as everything else and sustained and nourished by a complex web of organisms.

In fact, it is perhaps more correct to say that humans are OF the earth than to say that we’re ON it!

I once heard an evolutionary biologist explain the appearance of the human species on earth like this:

“Think of an apple tree. At some point in the tree’s life it ‘apples’! Well, it might seem a little poetic but its not completely inaccurate to say that at some point in the earth’s history the earth ‘peopled’.

The human body emerged out of the existing material of the earth. We arrived at a time when oxygen was a necessary element to deal with and we survived because we were able to live within the environmental structures and systems of the day.

The 1000s of relationship between our body and the natural world are deep, intimate, vital and way more important (and complicated) than most people realise or appreciate.

The fact that we rarely consider the importance of the relationships between the human body and natural world astonishes me simply because without them we would quite quickly perish.

Forget life insurance. Without fresh water and a stable atmosphere we’re done for!

So how about framing your existence around the ‘WHAT’ and not solely the ‘WHO’? Let’s try it and see what comes of it.

What Am I?

I’m organic. So I’ll feed and nourish myself with clean water, energy-yielding and body-building nutrients that are GOOD for me and help me thrive.

I’m a feeling thing. So I’ll take time to be present to my world; exercising and sharpening ALL of my senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing.

I’m a mammal with a body built for power, strength, agility and grace. So I’ll mobilise ALL of my body through ALL that it is capable of and never allow it to lead sedentary life.

My skin is a semi-permeable membrane and my lungs breathe in the world. There is no real separation between me and the world so I won’t behave as if I could live apart from it. Instead I’ll look closely at WHAT I AM and take instructions as to how to live my life from what I find.

Who knows, in so doing I might just find what I was looking for all along: meaning and purpose life.

Damien Norris is the founder and senior whole-body movement and lifestyle coach at The Wilding Project (LINK), Perth Western Australia.

Recently featured in TEDxPerth (LINK), Damien teaches children, young people, adults and seniors how to move and live a full life!

Olympic Fun & Fitness and The Wilding Project like Rewilding is dedicated to a movement rich life. Programs like Gymnastics, GymFIT, FootyEDGE, Parkour, Workplace Athletes, ActiveAgers and more all follow a simple philosophy, “Learn to move well and then never stop.”

Damien Norris