(The following is an excerpt from the book, Nothing Personal, Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self by Nirmala. You can download a PDF of the entire book for free by signing up for our monthly newsletter here.)
Self-inquiry is the practice that’s offered in the tradition I come from. Inquiry is a way of exploring our experience and our Being. There are many possible questions. The granddaddy of them all is the question Who am I? One thing that has always bothered me about that question is the presupposition that I am a who—I am a somebody. The question What am I? is a little more open to other possibilities, but there’s still a presupposition that I am some thing.
So, lately, I’ve been playing with stripping that question down to the question Am I? and noticing what that’s like, what discovery that allows. This question not only eliminates presuppositions but brings the questioning down to something very fundamental, which is the simple fact of our existence. And yet in exploring this, it turns out that this is not such a simple fact; our existence is a profound mystery. The question also could be rephrased as Do I exist? If the question is kept this simple, then the answer is always in the affirmative—there is existence here. I am. But it gets dicey if you start adding anything to it.
This question Am I? points to the simple fact that you are, regardless of what you are experiencing. Beneath everything that’s going on, is a sense of existing. This question points to a dimension other than experience.
Once that sense of existence is in your field of awareness, then it’s possible to find out what’s true about your existence, to explore that. What’s it like right now to just be? Is it enough right now to just exist? Or is there a sense that it’s not enough? All our lives we’ve been told it’s not enough: You have to be smarter, richer, prettier, more enlightened, more compassionate, more loving, and on and on. You have to be some thing.
We have the sense that if we could just be what we’re supposed to be, then we could just be. Take a fantasy about being richer, for instance: What’s great about being richer is that you think it will finally allow you to just be because you no longer have to become richer. We think that being richer or smarter will finally allow just being to be enough. Wherever this inquiry takes you, it’s amazing to discover both the extent to which our existence is enough and the extent to which we think it isn’t.
For most, this sense of existing is associated with the body. Existing seems to happen there. However, does your sense of existence stop where your body stops? Discover for yourself where your experience of I am is right now. Is it in the body or is the body in it? Would it be more accurate to say “I exist in the body” or “the body exists in me”? Be willing to hold the possibility that who you are goes beyond the body even if you aren’t experiencing that directly right now. The experience of the body never goes away, but the link between the me and the body can soften or dissolve when “I am the body” is seen as only part of the truth. If you experience the me outside the body even a little, then the body can’t be the whole truth of who you are.
Where does your sense of me stop? Right now, for instance, allow more of your experience of the room in. When you include in your awareness the energy and information that’s flowing in and out of the body, is there a greater or lesser sense of me? What is more true, to say, “I exist in this room” or “this room exists in me”? When you include the totality of the room and beyond, are you more in contact with your me or less in contact with it? Most people find that the more they include in their experience, the larger their sense of me. When you ask these questions, you discover there’s not such a clear-cut boundary to me.
Of course, this exploration doesn’t have to stop with your body or with this room. Try sensing the reality of the surrounding city. Is there a greater or lesser sense of me when you do this? You can also ask the question: Do I exist in space or does all of space exist in me? Which feels truer?