At first, self-inquiry is just that: IN-quiry. It is a turning of attention and curiosity inwards towards yourself and towards the truth of your nature. It is a practice of redirecting attention away from outward objects, events, and experiences and towards the experiences within your body and being, including subtle experiences within awareness itself. Eventually this inward focus can lead to an experience of your ultimate true nature and even beyond experience itself to a dimension that is empty of any experience or sense of self. Even that is just another level that can open up into deeper and deeper realities that are beyond description.
The practice can be quite simple. You begin by asking, "Who am I?" or "What am I?" or "What is here right now?" You can also use any other question that directs your attention to your sense of "me" or to your direct experience of your existence and/or experience in this moment. If your attention is flowing to an outer sensation or experience, then you can ask, "To whom is this sensation or experience happening?" The obvious answer is that it is happening to "me." And so then you ask again, "Who or what is this me?" Repeating these questions as each new experience or sense of me arises takes the experience more and more deeply into the inner aspects of your being.
When we focus inward on the sense of self or the "me," we can immediately notice that there are a wide range of possible discoveries. There is a classic story about a group of blind men encountering an elephant. One of the blind men gets a hold of the trunk and reports that an elephant is like a thick snake. Another man gets a hold of the tail and reports that no, an elephant is more like a rope. A third blind man gets a hold of one of the elephant's legs and reports that the other two are wrong, and an elephant is like a tree trunk. Of course all of the blind men were somewhat correct.
Similarly, when we look within—when we explore what is here that we call "me"—we can find a lot of different aspects and even levels of experience that all seem to be "me" to some extent. There is a complex physical body and a very wide range of physical sensations present here and now. There are thoughts, feelings, impulses, desires, and intuitions, and subtler experiences happening all the time, and all of these can seem like they are "me" or at least part of "me."
There are lots of maps of the different aspects and levels of being, including all of the subtler aspects and levels of consciousness. In many of them the "self" or the "me" has many layers, kind of like an avocado. An avocado has a thick outer skin and then a fleshy inner layer, and then a hard core or pit. And there are many subtler aspects of an avocado including the chemical makeup of the various layers and its inherent potential to be the seed for another avocado plant.
The "self" is much more complex than an avocado, and so it has lots of layers and aspects and potentials. Naturally, when we first ask, "Who or what am I?" we may first notice our body. So the answer is simply, "I am this body." Or we might notice a particular aspect of the body, and so the answer might be, "I am a woman or man" or "I am 5 foot 8 inches tall" or "I am blond." Although these are fairly obvious and superficial answers, they are all correct and true. One bit of good news is that in doing inquiry, there are no wrong answers! Anything you can experience or notice about yourself is part of the truth of yourself. These superficial answers are like simply noticing the thick skin of the avocado which is the most obvious layer.
If we notice the body or any aspect of the body, then we can inquire more deeply to discover more. One way to do this is to ask, "If I am more than this body (or a particular aspect of my body), then who or what am I?" Without making the first answer wrong or denying its truth, we simply ask what else is true, what else is here besides what was noticed first. Whatever answer comes next, we can ask again, "If I am more than that, who or what am I?"
We may find another answer that is a different aspect of our physical body or, instead, we may find an answer that is more subtle and that points to a different level of our experience of self. For example, we may say "I am a plumber" or "I am a spiritual seeker." These are not fixed qualities of our physical bodies but rather potential actions or functions of our whole being. Or we may notice an identity, capacity, emotion, belief, thought, or desire, and if we are identified with it, we will say, "I am depressed," "I am a success," "I am a funny guy," or "I am free." Again, there are no wrong answers, but you can then ask, "If I am more than that, what am I?"
Deeper and More Subtle Levels
Asking in this way seems to naturally uncover deeper and more subtle levels of our being. While at first, you might find that the answers relate a lot to your physical nature and the bundle of thoughts, identities, capacities, actions, feelings, desires, habits, and conditioning that make up what we call the individual, after a while, you might find that the answers that come relate to more essential aspects of your nature. You may have a sense in that moment that you are the peace, joy, love, compassion, or any of the more essential qualities that underlie our superficial nature. And yet, even when you uncover a deeper truth, you can always still ask, "If I am even more than infinite peace, then who or what am I?" And by the way, you might find that one form of the question or another just seems to work better for you, so you can simply ask, "Who am I?" or "What am I?" or "What else is here?"
As the process unfolds and you move in and out of different answers and different levels of answers, you may move even more deeply into the truth of your being. You might experience a very fundamental quality of all Being such as awareness, empty spaciousness, or oneness. These are qualities of everything throughout eternity. Everywhere you go, there is more space. Everything that exists has some consciousness or awareness. And ultimately everything is connected or, more simply, everything is actually one thing or one Being. When your inquiry uncovers a fundamental quality of existence, that is just another dimension to be discovered, and you can still inquire further: "If I am more than pure awareness, what am I?"
The deeper and more subtle layers that get uncovered have more reality and impact on your being, especially when you first uncover them, than the more superficial layers of the body, mind, and personality. So even though they are not physical or solid in the usual sense, they are more real and substantial. This becomes obvious any time you experience your essence or the fundamental qualities of existence itself. The impact of the experience is beyond anything that you can experience in the more relative levels of your existence.
These more fundamental levels are also simply bigger. True peace and joy are infinite. Space has no limits. Pure awareness or consciousness is eternal. As a result, when your inquiry uncovers such a vast dimension of your true nature, it no longer really makes sense to call it "me." The words "I" and "me" just do not compute when you experience yourself as all space and all time. It can help at these points in the process to allow the questions to become more open-ended and undefined. For instance, it might make more sense to ask questions such as, "What boundaries are there to peace?" "What is here right now?" "What is happening now?" "What is true about awareness in this moment?" or to just hold an open questioning attention that takes in as much of what is present as possible with no words needed. Obviously, an indefinable wordless experience of limitless true nature is a very valid discovery when doing inquiry!
Ultimately, inquiry can lead to moments where all of our usual concepts and experiences are no longer relevant and the world and our entire sense of self can dissolve completely. There is no way to really describe this kind of non-experience in words, but it is a possible result of going deeper and deeper with more and more open-ended inquiry. It is something like diving into the avocado so completely that we penetrate the subatomic quantum reality beyond the realm of appearances and observable experiences.
Maps of Reality and the Purpose of Inquiry
The examples I am using imply a certain map of reality and of the truth of our nature. There are many such maps, including highly detailed and complex maps, such as the map provided by the Diamond Approach as developed by Hameed Ali (aka A.H. Almaas). Students of the Diamond Approach can spend years exploring the many qualities of essence and different dimensions of Being that have been mapped out in the body of knowledge about true nature within that particular school or teaching.
In contrast, there are very simple maps such as the ones offered by some of the more purist Advaita or non-dual teachings. In some of those maps, there are only two "locations": all appearances and experiences, which are seen as illusory and unimportant, and the ultimate reality of one pure consciousness in which everything else appears and disappears. This kind of map can be helpful at times in cutting through all the layers to the deepest reality. However, it can also be limiting if inquiry lands someone in one of the more relative levels and there is a rejection of or denial of the more relative truth. Again, there are no wrong answers, so it can be helpful to have a more complete map at times when you arrive in some unfamiliar dimension of your being that nonetheless is a powerful and liberating experience, even if it is not the ultimate truth.
This raises the question of what is the purpose of inquiry. In some traditions, the sole purpose of inquiry is to take someone to the deepest realization of no-self or emptiness that is possible. And in other traditions, the purpose of inquiry is to become familiar with and explore all the different dimensions of reality, including the deepest reality. In this broader view of the journey of inquiry, the ultimate is not any particular experience or non-experience. The ultimate is complete and total flexibility to experience and even function within all of reality's many expressions. Again this complete flexibility is only complete if it includes the deepest realizations of emptiness and beyond. But it would seem that a complete perspective would not create a new more subtle duality between ultimate true nature and the many levels of existence, including ordinary everyday identity as a particular individual. Everything and every possible experience is part of the totality of existence and is therefore a potential discovery as a result of inquiry.
Perhaps just as there are no wrong answers to the inquiry questions themselves, there is no right or wrong overall purpose to inquiry. Whatever results you pursue or stumble upon in doing inquiry are there to be discovered, and since nothing is ever finished within eternity, who knows where life and inquiry and awareness will take you next!
Finally, here are a few more practical pointers for doing inquiry:
1. As mentioned briefly, there is another form of the questions that can be used as the process unfolds. Whatever answer or experience or even distraction comes in response to the question, "Who am I?" is then further explored with a question such as: "To whom or to what does this experience or answer arise?" or "Who or what is having this experience?” or “Who or what arrived at this answer?" The obvious answer is "me." “I am having this experience” or “I came up with this answer.” So then you can return to the original question, "Who or what am I?" This cycle of alternating questions can take you deeper and deeper into your direct present moment experience of being, just as when using the follow up question of "If I am more than that, who or what am I?"
2. As the process unfolds, you can get very creative with the questions, since the questions are not the important thing (see the list of even more potential questions to use at the end of this article). The important thing is directing awareness or attention to aspects of your own experience that have not been consciously realized yet. For most people, this initially means directing attention inward to more subtle aspects of your individual experience. But as you reach the more universal dimensions of being that are also found within your individual experience, you may notice that it no longer matters what direction your inquiry is directed. It is just as rich and mysterious to inquire deeply into any object, experience, activity, or phenomenon as it is to inquire within. At that point, really any question will serve. Or you can just explore with a completely open curiosity using words when it seems appropriate in the moment and dropping all words when they are not really needed to direct attention to the mysteries all around you and everywhere within you. For example, it can be fun to strip the question down to "Am I?" or even more to "Am?" which in essence is asking "Does anything exist?" Here is an article about this particular direction for inquiry.
3. As the inquiry moves deeper, a common experience is emptiness. This can be a kind of relative emptiness, where the relative absence of something is experienced. For example, there may be a flatness or lack of joy or meaning. Or you may feel a mental emptiness that seems like confusion or blankness in the mind. Often, underneath our more superficial experiences of emotions or desires, there is an inner sense of something lacking or missing. When we are sad or hurting there may be an underlying sense of a lack of compassion or tenderness. When we are angry, there may be an underlying sense of weakness or lack of strength.
These relative experiences of emptiness or lack are often interpreted by the mind as mistakes or a sign that our inquiry is going in the wrong direction, like when you’re looking for your car keys and you open a drawer that’s empty and you immediately conclude that’s the wrong place to look, and so you open a different drawer. However, the inner experiences of emptiness or lack that we encounter during inquiry are actually tremendous opportunities to take the inquiry deeper. The experience of emptiness or lack is often the most open doorway to the next level or layer of our being. Paradoxically, the place where we feel a lack of love is often the place where a deeper truer experience of essential love will most easily be uncovered. The place where we feel the weakest is where true strength can be uncovered, and so on.
So when your inquiry brings you to a dry, empty, lacking place with no juice or excitement, instead of turning away, that is an opportunity to sense more deeply into that experience to find out what is present in the empty space.
This principle of emptiness being an open doorway applies at every level of inquiry. When a profoundly empty experience of no-self is uncovered, you can savor that pure spacious emptiness, and yet you can also become curious as to what lies beyond even that utter blankness of no-self or no-experience. What is present even when there is no self? Perhaps whatever we might conceive of as the ultimate truth is itself just another doorway into even greater mysteries.
4. Some more perspectives on the process of inquiry are in this other article, including an invitation to dive deeply into the process with your whole heart.
5. It is possible to do this inquiry alone by asking yourself the questions, or in a dyad where one person asks a question and another person answers, then the first person asks a question again, and so on. After a while you can switch roles. This way of doing inquiry is especially powerful as it keeps you focused on the process and does not allow your mind to wander.
If you are doing it alone, and it is appropriate to do so, it can also help to speak the questions and answers out loud. Doing inquiry out loud involves your entire brain. The words go out your mouth and then go back in both ears, which engages both hemispheres of the brain.
6. I will leave you again with the most important pointer of all: there are no wrong answers or wrong experiences when doing inquiry. We are not in control of what arises when we do inquiry, but there is an infinite intelligence unfolding everything in life, and it knows exactly what experience, insight, or understanding is needed in this and every moment. When you practice formal inquiry or anytime you are simply curious about life and awareness and existence, wherever that process takes you in the moment is exactly where you need to be. Inquiry will sometimes lead us to dive deeply into the ultimate mysteries and then, in the very next breath, uncover an intensely contracted piece of our conditioning, and we will have instantly re-identified with our ego and all of its suffering. What an opportunity that is to see the truth of that experience! Who knows what new and unexpected doorway into essence and what new undiscovered dimensions of Being are hiding in the place where our deepest wounding is stored!
This journey of inquiry is the ultimate rollercoaster ride, which includes the highest highs and the lowest lows. It is all part of the elephant of infinite reality, and it is all worthy of your fullest curiosity and ultimately of your fullest devotion and love.
Suggestions for Some More Questions to Use in Self-Inquiry
• Who are you? What are you? If you are more than that, then who or what are you? Who or what are you right now, in this moment? If you are more than that, who or what are you? Keep repeating.
• Who or what is experiencing that thought, feeling, sensation, spaciousness etc.? Who or what is experiencing that feeling? Who or what is experiencing that sensation? Who or what is seeing? Who or what is hearing? Who or what is noticing that?
• Who or what is this I? (If the answer is “I” am experiencing the sensation).
• What am I aware of right now? You may answer with an “I” statement, stating something you are aware of: “I’m aware of x. I’m aware of y.” Who or what is the “I” that is aware? (pause) Is there an I that is aware?
• Experiment with replacing “I” with “Awareness" in your answers as described here. Example: “Awareness is hearing the bird singing.” “Awareness is noticing the plant.” “Awareness is sitting in the chair.”
• Notice what is noticing (What is aware? What is experiencing?). What is that? What is that like?
• Are you aware right now? What’s that like?
• Who or what is aware? Can you find what is aware? Where is it located? Who or what is experiencing Awareness? (Answer: me, your name) Where is (your name)? Is Awareness in you or are you in Awareness? Can you find yourself in Awareness?
• Can you find a boundary between you and Awareness? Where does (your name) leave off and Awareness begin?
• What is the source of Awareness? To discover the source of Awareness: Notice the plant or something else in your environment. Now notice where you noticed that from. Where do you notice the source of noticing from? Then where did you notice that noticing from?
• What else is here right now besides a thought, feeling, sensation, space, etc.? What is prior to that?
• What is speaking these words in this moment?
• What is listening? What is seeing? What is sensing, What is thinking?
• What knows that?
• What else are you experiencing now?
• Where’s the boundary between x and y? For example, between a thought and the space it’s occurring in, or between words and the space they’re appearing in, or between the sense of yourself and the Silence?
General instructions for doing inquiry as a dyad of two people: Take turns asking the questions and answering them. It is best if one person just asks for a while and then you switch roles so that the person answering can go deeply into the process of answering. There is no right or wrong answer to the questions posed by the questioner. The question is a pointer, pointing the person to true nature. The person asking the questions should allow the person to take as much time as they need to formulate an answer and then follow up everything the answerer says with a related question. If someone does not have an answer or cannot speak the answer, they can simply say "pass" and then the questioner can follow up with a new question. The questions ideally keep pointing deeper and deeper and ultimately to the source of awareness itself. Relax and have fun with the process!
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