Who am I?
Who are you?
What is the purpose of our lives and what can we do in our lives that is meaningful and lasting?
These seem like stupid questions, but they can hold the key to a fulfilling and worthwhile existence.
The crucial method for exploring such questions is spiritual self-inquiry.
What is spiritual self-inquiry?
Spiritual self-inquiry is a technique for finding inner peace and truth.
While some people compare it to meditation or mindfulness practices, spiritual self-inquiry is not a formal practice with a set way of doing things.
It’s just a simple question that starts the unfolding of a deep experience.
Its roots are in ancient Hinduism, although it is practiced by many in the New Age and spiritual community as well.
“Self-inquiry was popularized in the 20th century by Ramana Maharshi, though its roots are in ancient India.
“The practice, which in Sanskrit is called atma vichara, is an important part of the Advaita Vedanta tradition.”
1) The search for who we truly are
Spiritual self-inquiry is about the search for who we truly are.
It can be done as a meditation technique or just a way of focusing our attention, in which we discover the roots of our being and its reality.
“Turning your light inward and embarking on the path of self-inquiry is a simple but powerful method of meditation,” writes Stephan Bodian.
“Both koan study and the question ‘Who am I?’ are traditional methods of peeling back the layers that hide the truth of our essential nature the way clouds obscure the sun.”
Many things hide truth from us: our desires, our judgments, our past experiences, our cultural prejudices.
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Even just being very exhausted or over-irritable can blind us to profound lessons that the present moment has to teach.
We get so caught up in the stresses, joys and confusion of daily life that we can often lose sight of our own nature or what’s really the point of this whole charade.
By engaging in spiritual self-inquiry, we can begin to discover deeper roots inside ourselves that make inner peace easier to come by.
Spiritual self-inquiry is about quieting the mind and allowing that core question of “who am I?” to begin working its way through our entire being.
We’re not looking for an academic answer, we’re looking for an answer in every cell of our body and soul…
2) It’s clearing away the illusions we live under
The idea that we live under a kind of mental and spiritual illusion is commonly found in many religions.
In Islam it’s called the dunya, or temporary world, in Buddhism it’s called maya and kleshas, and in Hinduism, our illusions are vasanas that lead us astray.
Christianity and Judaism also have ideas about the mortal world being full of illusions and temptations that lead us astray from our divine origins and sink us into misery and sin.
The essential concept is that our temporary experiences and thoughts aren’t the ultimate reality or meaning of our life here.
Basically what these concepts are, is that they’re ideas of ourselves and who we are and what we want that keep us trapped.
They’re the “easy answers” that we use to tamp down our questioning heart and tell our soul to go back to sleep.
“I’m a middle-aged lawyer who’s happily married with two kids.”
“I’m an adventurous digital nomad who’s searching for enlightenment and love.”
Whatever the story is, it reassures us and oversimplifies, slotting us into a label and category where our curiosity gets satiated.
Instead, spiritual self-inquiry tells us not to close down.
It lets us have space to stay open and keep being open to our pure being: that feeling of existence or “true nature” which doesn’t have labels or contours.
3) Reflecting without judgment
Spiritual self-inquiry is using our perception to take an objective look at our existence.
The labels begin to shed away as we stand in the middle of the tornado and try to find out what still remains right in the core.
Who are we really?
There are all sorts of ways to judge who we could be, should be, might be, would be…
We can look at our reflection, or “feel” who we are through our body and our connection with nature.
These are all phenomena that are valid and fascinating.
But who are we really behind all of the experiences and interesting thoughts, the sensations, memories and dreams?
The answer that comes is, invariably, not an intellectual or analytical answer.
It’s an experiential answer that echoes through us and reverberates, just like it did for our ancestors.
And it all starts with that heartfelt reflection and simple question: “who am I?”
“Reflection is a wonderful tool that is our birthright.
“Without lapsing into psychic distance or getting swept away by floods of emotion we can peer into the center of your most perilous and precious concerns.
“Like standing in the eye of a storm, with perception everything quiets. It is here that we will find the mystery of who you are, and who you have taken yourself to be.”
4) Letting go of mental noise and analysis
If you were to ask students in a philosophy class about what being means or how we can know if we exist, they’d likely start talking about Descartes, Hegel and Plato.
These are all interesting thinkers who have plenty to say about what existence may or may not be, and why we’re here or what real knowledge is.
I’m not denigrating anyone’s study of philosophy, but it’s much different than spirituality and spiritual self-inquiry.
It’s head-based. Spiritual self-inquiry is experience-based.
Spiritual self-inquiry, especially the method as taught by Ramana Maharshi, isn’t about intellectual analysis or mental speculation.
It’s really about quieting the mind’s answers of who we are in order to allow the experience of who we are to begin emerging and resonating.
The answer isn’t in words, it’s in a kind of cosmic assurance that you are part of more than just yourself and that your spiritual being exists in a very real and lasting way.
“We give up the usual approaches to knowledge, because we realize that the mind cannot contain the mystery of the answer.
“Therefore, the emphasis shifts from a preoccupation with finding out who we are (which, when first starting Self-Inquiry, is done following our usual mentality, with the rational mind) to the Pure Presence of the Spiritual Heart.”
5) Busting down the egocentric myth
Our ego wants to feel safe, and one of the main ways it does that is through dividing and conquering.
It tells us that as long as we get what we want, screw everyone else.
It tells us that life is more or less everyone for themselves and that we are who we think we are.
It feeds us labels and categories that make us feel well-respected, admired and successful.
We bask in these various thoughts, feeling wonderful about who we are.
Alternately, we may feel miserable but be convinced that that one job, person or opportunity will finally fulfill us and let us achieve our destiny.
I could be who I’m meant to be if only other people would give me the chance and life would stop holding me back…
But spiritual self-inquiry asks us to stop believing the myths and just be open. It asks us to hold space for something new – and true – to arrive.
“We believe we are individuals living in a world. We are not. We are actually the awareness within which these thoughts appear,” observes Akilesh Ayyar.
“If we look deeply into our own mind — and in particular the sense of ‘I’ — we can find this truth for ourselves, and it is a truth that goes beyond words.
“This investigation will yield a freedom that is not supernatural but is not ordinary either.
“It will not give you magical and mystical powers, but will give you something better: it will reveal a liberation and a peace beyond words.”
Sounds pretty good to me.
6) Spiritual self-inquiry can bypass unnecessary suffering
Spiritual self-inquiry is also about letting go of unnecessary suffering.
Who we are can often be deeply linked to pain, and each of us has many struggles. But by going past the superficial into our true self, we often come up against a rib-rocked strength we never knew we had.
Temporary happiness comes and goes, but spiritual self-inquiry is aimed at finding a lasting kind of inner peace and fulfillment by which we realize our own sufficiency.
To be fair, our own modern culture also directly feeds into feelings that we’re not good enough, convincing us that we’re worms in order to keep selling us shitty products.
But spiritual self-inquiry is an effective antidote to the consumerist maze.
The feelings of not being enough, being alone or being unworthy, begin to fade as we come into contact with our essence and our being.
Adam Miceli has a nice video on this about how asking who you are is “trying to find our deepest self, our true self. The one who is aware of every present moment.”
When we see that fulfillment is inside our own nature and not “out there,” the world becomes a much less threatening place.
Suddenly getting what we want externally ceases to be the main focus of our lives.
7) Shifting perspective
Spiritual self-inquiry is all about shifting perspectives.
You start with a simple question, but the real point isn’t the question, it’s the mystery and experience that the question allows to open before you.
We begin to see the clouds clear away as we realize our thoughts, feelings and temporary sensations come and go.
They aren’t us, per se, because they happen to us.
So what are we?
If we’re not what we feel, think or experience then who’s the I behind the curtain?
As perspective begins to shift, we may find that our preconceptions about who we are and what drives us were just distractions and illusions.
The real identity we hold is far simpler and more profound.
8) The impasse is the destination
Spiritual self-inquiry is about realizing that you are what you seek. It’s about realizing that the method of finding the treasure (your consciousness) is the treasure (your consciousness).
It’s common to feel like nothing is really happening and you’re just in a holding pattern when doing a spiritual self-inquiry meditative technique.
You may feel like you feel “nothing” or there’s no real point…
That’s because, as I said, it’s a subtle process that needs time to accrue and build up.
Sometimes that point of frustration or being frozen can be where the breakthrough is happening.
Not in any grand dramatic finale or destination, but in a quiet struggle and anti-climactic grounding.
You settle into a comfortable and easy sense of being and without even realizing it at first the illusions about who you are or needing some grand epiphany to happen start to fade away…
You are enough, and this situation is enough…
9) Finding the ‘real’ I
Spiritual self-inquiry is really a subtle process, like allowing a pot of tea to steep fully.
The “eureka” moment is really just the slow and dawning awareness that all the external labels and ideas we’ve attached to ourselves aren’t ultimately as meaningful as we thought.
We come down to the real roots of ourselves and see that our awareness and consciousness itself is what is always present.
“Where is this ‘I’ that is aware?
“It is at this precise moment—the moment when we realize that we cannot find an entity called ‘me’ who owns or possesses awareness—that it starts to dawn on us that maybe we ourselves are awareness itself.”
10) Let it be
Spiritual self-inquiry isn’t so much about doing something as it is about not doing what we usually do and falling into laziness and mental chaos.
It’s a process of subtraction (called “neti, neti” in Hinduism) where we take away and subtract all the things we are not.
You let the judgments, ideas and categories slide away and settle into whatever’s still left.
Our thoughts and feelings come and go, so we’re not them.
But our awareness is always there.
That relation between you and the universe, the secret of your existence, is what you’re trying to allow to flourish and grow.
This sense of being is what sustains you, and the more aware you are of it, the more you can move through life with clarity, empowerment and purpose.
“In such a meditation, we remain lucid, without interpreting, without judging—merely following the intimate feeling of existence,” writes Hridaya Yoga.
“This feeling is not unknown but is usually ignored because of our identifications with the body, mind, etc.”
Discovering the treasure within
There’s a story from Hasidic Judaism that I feel is really apt for the point of this article.
It’s about how we often go to search for some great answers or enlightenment only to find that it’s not what we thought.
This parable comes from the renowned 19th Century Hasidic Rabbi Nachman and is about the benefits of spiritual self-inquiry.
In this story, Rabbi Nachman tells about a small-town man who spends all his money to travel to the big city and find a fabled treasure under the bridge.
The reason he feels called to do this is because he saw the bridge in a dream and had a vision of himself digging up an amazing treasure under it.
The villager follows his dream, gets to the bridge and starts digging, only to be told off by a guard nearby. The soldier tells him there’s no treasure there and he should go home and look there instead.
He does so, and then finds the treasure in his own home in the hearth (a symbol of the heart).
As Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum explains:
“You’ve got to dig inside yourself, because all of your powers and your abilities to succeed, it all comes from the soul that God has given you.”
This is what spiritual self-inquiry is all about. You go searching everywhere outside yourself for answers, but in the end, you discover the richest treasure is buried right in your backyard.
In fact, it’s inside your own heart. It’s who you are.