The Art of Self-Inquiry
How the heart-centered questions of spiritual inquiry can lead you on the path of awakening.
When it comes to awakening, I have found two elements to be the most helpful and most powerful. The first is developing a meditative attitude, in which we let go of control on a very deep level and allow everything to be as it is. The second is a serious engagement with our own inherent curiosity and intelligence through meditative self-inquiry. Either one of these two separated can be incomplete: Inquiry separated from meditation can become intellectual and abstract; meditation separated from inquiry can result in our getting lost in various different spiritual states. Combined, they provide the necessary energy, the necessary impetus, to produce a flash of recognition of your true nature. And in the end, that is what spirituality is all about.
What Is a Spiritually Powerful Question?
Meditative self-inquiry is the art of asking a spiritually powerful question. And a question that is spiritually powerful always points us back to ourselves. Because the most important thing that leads to spiritual awakening is to discover who and what we are—to wake up from this dream state, this trance state of identification with ego. And for this awakening to occur, there needs to be some transformative energy that can flash into consciousness. It needs to be an energy that is actually powerful enough to awaken consciousness out of its trance of separateness into the truth of our being. Inquiry is an active engagement with our own experience that can cultivate this flash of spiritual insight.
And for this awakening to occur, there needs to be some transformative energy that can flash into consciousness. It needs to be an energy that is actually powerful enough to awaken consciousness out of its trance of separateness into the truth of our being.
The most important thing in spiritual inquiry is to ask the right question. The right question is a question that genuinely has energy for you. In spirituality, the most important thing initially is to ask yourself, What is the most important thing? What is spirituality about for you? What is the question that’s in your deepest heart? Not the question that some- one tells you should be there, not what you’ve learned it should be. But what is the question for you? If you meditate, why are you doing it? What question are you trying to answer?
The most intimate question we can ask, and the one that has the most spiritual power, is this: What or who am I? Before I wonder why I am here, maybe I should find out who this “I” is who is asking the question. Before I ask “What is God?” maybe I should ask who I am, this “I” who is seeking God. Who am I, who is actually living this life? Who is right here, right now? Who is on the spiritual path? Who is it that is meditating? Who am I really? It is this question which begins the journey of spiritual self- inquiry, finding out, for your own self, who and what you truly are.
So step number one of self-inquiry is having a spiritually powerful question, such as “Who or what am l?” Step number two is knowing how to ask that question.
The Way of Subtraction
Before we actually find out what we are, we must first find out what we are not. Otherwise our assumptions will continue to contaminate the whole investigation. We could call this the way of subtraction. In the Christian tradition, they call this the Via Negativa, the negative path. In the Hindu tradition of Vedanta, they call this neti neti, which means “not this, not that.” These are all paths of subtraction, ways of finding out what we are by finding out what we are not.
We start by looking at the assumptions we have about who we are. For example, we look at our minds and we notice that there are thoughts. Clearly there is something or someone that is noticing the thoughts. You may not know what it is, but you know it’s there. Thoughts come and go, but that which is witnessing the thoughts remains.
If thoughts come and go, then they aren't really what you are. Starting to realize that you are not your thoughts is very significant, since most people assume they are what they think.
If thoughts come and go, then they aren’t really what you are. Starting to realize that you are not your thoughts is very significant, since most people assume they are what they think. Yet a simple look into your own experience reveals that you are the witness of your thoughts. Whatever thoughts you have about yourself aren’t who and what you are. There is something more primary that is watching the thoughts.
In the same way, there are feelings—happiness, sadness, anxiety, joy, peace—and then there is the witness of those feelings. Feelings come and go, but the awareness of feelings remains.
The same is true for beliefs. We have many beliefs, and we have the awareness of those beliefs. They may be spiritual beliefs, beliefs about your neighbor, beliefs about your parents, beliefs about yourself (which are usually the most damaging), beliefs about a whole variety of things. Beliefs are thoughts that we assume to be true. We can all see that our beliefs have changed as we’ve grown, as we move through a lifetime. Beliefs come and go, but they do not tell us who the watcher is. The watcher or the witness stands before the beliefs.
The same thing goes for our ego personality. We tend to think that we are our egos, that we are our personalities. And yet, just as with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, we can come to see that there is a witness to our ego personality. There’s an ego personality called “you,” and then there is a watching of the ego personality. The awareness of the ego personality stands before the personality; it is noticing it, without judging, without condemning.
Here we’ve started to move into something more intimate. Your essential, deepest nature cannot be your personality. Your ego personality is being watched by something more primary; it is being witnessed by awareness.
With that, we arrive at awareness itself. We notice that there is awareness. You are aware of what you think. You are aware of how you feel. So awareness is clearly present. It is not something that needs to be cultivated or manufactured. Awareness simply is. It is that which makes it possible to know, to experience what is happening.
Who Is Aware?
No sooner do we get back to awareness itself than we encounter the primary assumption that “I am the one who is aware.” So we investigate that assumption, and discover time and time again that we cannot find out who it is that is aware. 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.
This self-recognition can’t be understood in the mind. It’s a leap that the mind can’t make. Thought cannot comprehend what is beyond thought. That’s why we call this a transcendent recognition. It’s actually our identity waking up from the prison of separation to its true state. This is both simple and extraordinarily profound. It is a flash of revelation.
One of the simplest pointers I can give here is to remember that this process of inquiry and investigation really takes place from the neck down. An example of this is when you ask yourself, “What am l?” The first thing most people realize is that they don’t know. So most people will go into their minds to try to figure it out. But the first thing that your mind knows is that you don’t know. In spiritual inquiry that’s very useful information. “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know who I am.”
Once you recognize that, you can either think about it or you can actually feel it. What’s it like when you look inside to find out who you are and you don’t find an entity called “you”? What does that open space feel like? Feel it in your body; let it register in the cells of your being. This is real spiritual inquiry. This transforms what might have been just an abstract thought in the mind into something that is very visceral, very kinesthetic, and very spiritually powerful.
Once we recognize ourselves as awareness itself, our identity can begin to rest in its essence. Who we are is no longer found in our body, mind, personality, thoughts, and beliefs. Who we are rests in its source. When we rest in our source, our body and mind and personality and thoughts and feelings come into harmony.
We start to see that everything in existence is simply a manifestation or expression of spirit, whether it’s the chair, or the floor, or your shoes, or the trees outside, the sky, the body that you call “you,” the mind, the ego, the personality, everything—all are expressions of spirit.
The Great Inclusion
After the Way of Subtraction comes what I call the Great Inclusion. When we start to let go into awareness or spirit, we start to recognize that that is who and what we are. We start to see that everything in existence is simply a manifestation or expression of spirit, whether it’s the chair, or the floor, or your shoes, or the trees outside, the sky, the body that you call “you,” the mind, the ego, the personality, everything—all are expressions of spirit.
When our identification is caught in these various forms, the result is suffering. But when, through inquiry and meditation, our identity starts to come back to its home ground of awareness, then everything is included. You discover that your humanness is in no way separate from the divinity within you, which is what you actually are.
Now please don’t try to understand this with your mind. This is really not understandable in the mind. This knowing resides at a deeper point, at a deeper place within ourselves. Something else understands; something else knows.
That Which Remains the Same
Nobody can force this flash of recognition into being. It happens spontaneously. It happens by itself. But what we can do is cultivate the ground and create the conditions under which this flash of recognition happens. We can open our minds to deeper possibilities and start to investigate for ourselves what we really and truly are.
When this awakening to our true nature happens, it may happen for a moment, or it may happen for a longer period of time, or it may happen permanently. Whichever way it occurs, it is perfectly okay. Who you are is who you are. You cannot lose who you are, no matter what your experience is. Even if you have a certain opening and you realize your true nature, and then later you think you’ve forgotten it, you haven’t lost anything.
Therefore the invitation is always to rest more and more deeply, to not grasp at an insight or an experience, to not try and hold on to it, but to recognize the underlying reality, that which never changes. The great 20th-century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi had a saying, “Let what comes come; let what goes go. Find out what remains.”