The Ship of Theseus: who & what we are

What defines us? What makes me me and you you?

If you over time replace all parts of a ship, is it still the same ship?

This is literally an ancient question, and there are many answers.


First, we can look at our human self.

Just like the ship, the parts of our physical body are replaced over time. The molecules making up this body right now come from innumerable sources and each one has a fascinating story we can only guess at.

The patterns of our body is more stable but also changes over time. We can still recognize a liver as a liver and a heart as a heart, but it’s a bit different now than it was before.

The patterns of our psychology is similar with some stability over time along with change.

Some of our most basic and original labels and identities may stay the same throughout our life, like our birth name, birthplace, birth time, and national id number. And some may or may not change, for instance, our name, nationality, sexual and political orientation, food preferences, and so on.

We have memories that create some sense of constancy. We remember our childhood and generally what we did and where we lived through our life.

Perhaps most importantly, we collectively agree that you are you and I am me even if we change over time.

In short, it’s all changing, the one constant is some of our most basic labels, we agree that we are basically the same even if we change over time, without memory there wouldn’t be any knowing of who we were or are and sense of constancy, and it’s conceivable to have a society where they agree on a different way to look at all of this.


There is something timeless here, and that’s what all of this happens within and as.

When we look, we may find that in our own first person view, we are capacity for all of this, we are what our field of experience happens within and as.

We are what any mental representations of time and space happens within, and any memories and ideas of change happens within and as.

All of this change, our labels and memories, and our collective agreements happen within and as what we are.


Why is this important? Is this anything more than a thought experiment?

It can certainly be just a thought experiment, but we can also take it further.

All of the insights above under “who we are” helps us notice what we are.

We may recognize that all of our human self is changing and subject to change, and that our labels and memories and collective agreements are what tenuously hold it all together. It can seem scary to really take that in, especially if that’s all there is.

We can take this a few steps further.

We may notice that our experience is always changing. What’s here and now is fresh and different from the past.

We may notice that any sense of change comes from our mental representations of a timeline with past, future, and present, and certain things placed in each of those categories. We wouldn’t have any ideas about change unless we had images of the past (memories) that we use to compare with our images about what’s here (present).

What’s here in our sense fields is all there is, and any sense of past or future can only be found in our mental images and ideas. Even an idea about the present comes from mental representations about the present, including what’s here in the other sense fields. (One step behind what’s here.)

From here, we may notice that we are what all of this happens within and as. We are what our sense fields, including our mental field with ideas about past, future, and present, happens within and as.

When we notice what we are, all this change is OK. It’s even a gift since it helps us notice what we are.

Of course, recognizing change doesn’t inherently bring us to this noticing. Most of the time, we just live with change and often pretend things change less than they do. But if we are open to this noticing, and perhaps have the guidance and tools for noticing, recognizing change and impermanence can be very helpful.


In a conventional sense, recognizing change can help us appreciate what’s here more. This moment will never come back. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In reality, it’s a once-in-all-of-existence experience. It will never happen in any other place, and it will never happen any other time.

And in our own immediate noticing, we may find that what’s here is really and literally all we have. All we have is what’s in our sense fields – sight, sound, taste, smell, sensations, and mental representations. The past and future and any ideas about the present can only be found in our mental representations here and now.


Understanding and exploring this within thought can be interesting but it’s not transformative. If we are looking for transformation, we need to notice directly and allow this noticing to transform us.

We can do this through traditional sense field explorations, or modern varieties like the Living Inquiries. And we can notice more directly what we are through guided inquiry like the Big Mind process or Headless Experiments.


  • The Ship of Theseus and what we are
    • our human self
      • matter moves through, changes all the time
      • patterns more stable although also changes over time
      • some labels can stay the same – name, birth time and place, personal id number, gender, nationality etc, although some of these change as well
      • memories creates a sense of constancy
    • what we are
      • ….
    • practical implications
      • helpful to realize that sense of constancy comes from labels, memory, and agreement
      • helps us see that our “home” is as what we are


Some of our labels may stay the same through our life, for instance our birth name, birth time and place, original nationality, national id number, and so on. Some may stay the same or change over time, like our name, sexual orientation, political orientation, nationality and so on. And some are more likely to change over time, at least from childhood to adulthood, like favorite food, music preferences, what we like to do in our free time, and so on.


Some of our labels and identities may stay the same throughout our life, for instance our name, nationality, national id number, and so on. Some emerge in adulthood, like sexual orientation, political orientation, and work. And many of these can change, including our name, nationality, sexual orientation, political orientation, work, and food and music preferences.


There is something timeless here, and that’s what all of this happens within and as.


We are the no-thing all things happen within and as.

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