Self Inquiry

To begin this Mindfulness Exercise on Self Inquiry, please bring kind awareness to

– why you chose this topic
– how your belly, chest, and head each feel when you reflect on this topic
– the emotions that you can associate with these visceral feelings
– the positive or negative impact of any stories you believe in regarding this topic
– the consoling/humbling/inspiring fact that many others are feeling similarly about this topic as you
– how you will feel with increased awareness around this topic
– when you can apply increased mindfulness to this topic in your day-to-day life

Who are you? What is your deepest, most intimate experience of being you? Most of our suffering comes from false identifications. We lose ourselves in the world and think we are something we are not.

Whether we take up meditative practices or go to a psychologist to relieve our suffering, what we do in both cases is ultimately similar: we sit down and look at our thoughts an identifications. If you think about it, no therapist has the power to change anything that has ever happened to you. What they can do, however, is help you see where your identity lies, and what you are interpreting and how.

Self inquiry goes a step further. Where therapy ultimately focuses on replacing a negative identity with a positive one, self inquiry is not interested in what you are identifying with – it's only interested in who is the one that is identifying.

Traditionally, self inquiry practices follow two main approaches: either contemplate the question “Who am I?”, as instructed by Ramana Maharshi, or meditate on the thought “I am”, as suggested by Nisargadatta Maharaj.

Despite the simplicity of these practices, it can take years before people can truly, experientially, see what they are pointing to. Instinctively, we feel that the answer to “Who am I?” should be obvious. And yet, do you know who you truly are? Can you point to it?

Both practices mentioned above are invaluable and we highly recommended you stay with one or the other until clarity dawns on you. We explain one in the detail in the PDF at the end of this article.

However, in this article we’d like to go through a step-by-step self inquiry practice with you, in the hope that it will make the practices mentioned above much easier. Ready?

Who are you, truly? 

The objective of this practice is to look at all the places where our identity lies and see if our conclusions regarding who we are are correct. We look in and ask “Who am I?”, and find out where the I is hiding. Then we ask whether it's true that that's what we are.

So, who am I?

Am I a thought? Well, I guess I could be a thought… However, my thoughts come and go, but I'm still here. I was thinking about the weekend earlier, and then about dinner, and then about watching a movie… All those thoughts are gone now, but I’m still here. So I’m not a thought. Thoughts come and go; I don't.

Okay, maybe I am an emotion then? But even my emotions come and go. I was angry, and then I was sad, and then I was happy… All those emotions are gone now, but I haven't gone anywhere, I’m still here. So I'm not an emotion.

Am I my desires? After all they are what moves me in life… But my desires change all the time! I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, and then I wanted to be a teacher, and an hour ago I just wanted to eat tons of ice cream… My desires come and go, but I’m still here. So I cannot be my desires.

Am I my body, then? That would make some sense, except that when I was little my body was small, and now that I've grown up my body is bigger, and it will be much different when I’m old. I could even lose an arm tomorrow, and I would still be me. So, I’m not my body.

Am I my mind? I must be. I mean, I might not be my thoughts, and might not be my body, but surely what I am is determined by my mind… However, does that mean that, if someone could monitor my mind processes and read every thought I’ve ever had, they would truly know me? Well, intuitively… no! They would only know what my mind comes up with. But my mind comes up with tons of stuff I don't even agree with! So, I cannot be my mind.

Ha!, you say. I know. I am my story. I am everything that has ever happened to me, everything I’ve ever thought and felt and desired – the full story of me.

Ok, then who is the one that sees your story?

So this is what people do. They look inside to find themselves and they don't find anything; so they think “Wait, this can hardly be possible. Let me look again”, and so they look again. But once again they cannot find anything, so they go “I must be doing this wrong! I must be stupid! Let me look again” – and so they look again. And once again, guess what? They don't find anything!

So why don’t they find anything? Because they had the right answer all along!

You cannot find yourself because there’s nothing to find. There’s no precious secret core of “me” inside… In fact, there's literally nothing!

But aren't you here asking these questions? You definitely exist! You are right here and right now! So who are you?

This is why Buddhists say, “if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”. “Buddha” would be an identification, and identifications cannot be the real thing. You are not what you are identifying with. Ever. You are always the one who keeps re-identifying.

Isn't it amazing? What you are cannot be found as an object because it's the subject looking! It's the ultimate illusion, and it keeps recreating itself. But although it's so resilient, it’s also innocuous. It's nothing but an illusion. You never lose yourself; you just somehow find yourself with another mask on and forget it’s there.

For example, after performing your self inquiry practice, you might realize: “Oh my god, I am awareness! I'm the witness! I’m the Self! I’m the No-Self!” (Or even worse: “I am enlightened!”) But once that thought is believed, you’ve just lost it again. Once you think you are something, anything, there's you and there's the identity you’ve just put on. See? That’s where the story of you starts. “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”

That's why the sages say that nobody gets enlightened. Enlightenment is enlightened, but no person can be enlightened. It cannot be, because the person is illusion, is the result of identification. You are not illusion, but the person, the character you play, is nothing but the result of identification with thoughts, body, emotions, desires, and so on. That's not who you are. You are what's not identified. You just are. You can't grasp it, but you cannot lose it either.

There’s another famous Zen koan that asks: “What is your original face, before your mother and father were born?" This is what it’s hinting at. Who are you before any identification takes place? How do you even answer such a question? Can you ever show it? Yet you are it!

So whenever re-identification arises, and you happen to notice, ask yourself: To whom is this arising to? Or even: What’s not identified here?

You are never an object in thought. You cannot be trapped anywhere. You are always the looking that’s not identified with anything. It's what Buddhists call emptiness – but it's not really empty, is it? You are it. 

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About the Author Sean Fargo

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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