If you’d told me even a year ago that I’d be writing about spiritual topics for a website I would have laughed.
But here I am.
And I want to talk about my profound experience with spiritual self-inquiry.
Starting with just a simple question, I’ve transformed the whole way I look at myself and my life.
Well, first things first…
What is spiritual self-inquiry?
Spiritual self-inquiry is a way to find out who you really are at a deeper level.
The practice was made very popular in the 2oth Century by the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi, and originates in ancient Hinduism.
Spiritual self-inquiry is called atma vichara in Sanskrit (आत्मा विचार), which literally means “thinking about essence.”
It’s about getting in touch with your spiritual side by asking a simple and profound question and letting it unfold to its conclusion: “who am I?”
At first, the question seems overly basic. After all, what’s the point in sitting around thinking about who you are?
But once you give spiritual self-inquiry real focus and time, it begins to reveal mysteries about yourself and the universe that are transformational.
Here’s how it transformed my experience of life and my own identity.
Yogapedia explains that, “It is a meditative practice that can be thought of as an internal dialogue and involves discovering one’s true nature, thereby answering the question, “Who am I?”
“Atma vichara is one of the main practices of Jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge.”
The top 7 benefits of my experience with spiritual self-inquiry
1) I realized that my existence is a mystery
So…Who am I?
I mean, I can tell you my name, age, profession and interests…
I can describe to you what I smell, see, hear and taste…
I can tell you my driver’s license number or my favorite food…
These are all things about “me.”
It’s true that they are facts as far as I know them, and that they matter to my daily life and the rights and rules that govern my life.
These are all things that seem to be experienced by the “I” inside myself.
But what is that “I” exactly?
Sitting quietly and allowing the self-inquiry to progress showed me that the root of my being is a mystery.
2) I’m not my body
My body hears, sees, touches, smells and tastes. It also has weight, can move, and has the ability to learn and absorb information.
But it’s not “me.”
My organs and limbs are not the “I” which is observing and engaging in spiritual self-inquiry.
I’d hate to not have one of my hands, but I’d still be without a hand.
I’d hate to not be able to taste, but I’d still be “me” if I couldn’t taste.
When I’m asleep, I don’t know where I am, but I come back to wakefulness when I’m “back” in my body, so it at least seems linked to who I am…
My body matters, and physical health is important to me, as is diet, energy level and a sense of physical wellbeing…
My breath carries a lot of importance as well.
But it’s not the whole of it…
3) I’m not my thoughts or emotions
Thoughts and emotions come and go, waxing and waning.
They may mean a lot to me, or nothing at all. But they’re not “me,” they happen to me.
Therefore even the thoughts I have and deep experiences that move me aren’t my core identity.
My thoughts and emotions affect who I am, but they’re temporary and they aren’t my being itself.
The most that can be said is that they impact my being and matter to me, or could change how I choose to live my life and what I focus on.
As this excellent video outlines, our own existence and “I” is not as straightforward as it seems.
We’re not our body, senses, thoughts or emotions.
What, then, is that mysterious “I”?
4) Spiritual self-inquiry tackles really deep questions
One of the best things about spiritual self-inquiry is that it gets at really deep questions about existence.
These aren’t intellectual or even philosophical questions: they’re existential.
If you’re like me and questions about existence plague you, then spiritual self-inquiry can be the perfect medicine.
“Admittedly, self-inquiry is only for the spiritually adventurous, those who are obsessed with finding the answers to life’s deepest questions—
“People like the Buddha, who sat down after years of asceticism and vowed not to get up until he knew who he was…
“Or Ramana Maharshi, who, when overtaken by the fear of death at age 16, fervently inquired into who he was if not his physical body and spontaneously awakened to his identity as the deathless, eternal Self.”
Spiritual self-inquiry is about finding real inner peace that goes beyond the philosophical level.
5) Getting back to the source
Spiritual self-inquiry takes you back to the source.
It’s all about getting past the false “I” to that primordial being that’s your source of existence.
The “real” I that is behind all the other parts of the self is not a thing, it’s more of an experience.
And when I began to feel the real me that was observing the labels I attached to “me,” a sense of peace and wholeness came over me.
Subtle changes started shifting that made me feel more grounded and full of joy.
Instead of feeling alone or lost in space, I felt that I was secure in my own living, breathing self.
“This practice of self-attention or awareness of the ‘I’-thought is a gentle technique which bypasses the usual repressive methods of controlling the mind.
“It is not an exercise in concentration, nor does it aim at suppressing thoughts; it merely invokes awareness of the source from which the mind springs,” writes David Godman.
6) The best technique for spiritual self-inquiry is the simplest
The best way I’ve found for doing spiritual self-inquiry is to keep it simple.
You sit like you’re meditating and let your mind settle and become blank. Then you ask “who am I?” inside yourself.
Instead of letting the mind tackle it academically or as a religious or spiritual definition, let the question percolate.
“Let your inquiry be earnest but effortless, without tension or anxiety.
“Here’s a hint: You definitely won’t find the answer in the file folders of spiritual beliefs you’ve amassed over the years, so look elsewhere, in your actual, present experience.”
7) A basic question can lead to profound realizations
Spiritual self-inquiry has shown me that a simple question can lead to profound realizations.
By asking “who am I?” and sometimes “who is thinking these thoughts?” I have been able to uncover layers of existence I never knew about…
I’ve found that myself is a real thing, which is linked deeply to the fabric of the universe.
I have gotten in touch with the awareness that is aware of me being aware.
This “meta-consciousness” has been revealed as the “real” me that continues to exist and experience life through all the ups and downs.
Getting in touch with that has been a real blessing, and I continue to practice self-inquiry on a daily basis.
I highly recommend this technique to everyone who is looking for deeper, experiential answers about life and who feels unsatisfied by the type of meditation they’re currently doing.
Finding your spiritual side
I know that not everyone considers themselves to be a spiritual person or has an interest in spiritual topics.
That’s perfectly fine, and I understand it.
It was only recently that I really began to take this stuff seriously. For me what’s made the difference is the progress I’ve seen.
I’m not following any fake gurus or listening to any crazy theories, I just tried a technique to see if it works.
And it worked: really well.
That’s why I encourage readers to try out spiritual self-inquiry for themselves.
You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.