For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
Like most meditators, I began my spiritual journey with a single, time-honored technique: counting my breaths. After six months, bored with counting, I took up following the sensations of the breath and, a few years later, “just sitting”—the relaxed, focused, all-inclusive awareness considered by many Zen masters to be the complete expression of enlightenment itself.
Just sitting succeeded in relaxing my body and calming my mind, but it never brought the deep insights I longed to experience. Sure, I could concentrate for extended periods of time and bend spoons with my laserlike focus (just kidding!). But after five years of intensive retreats, I hadn’t yet achieved kensho, the profound awakening that Zen folks herald as the pinnacle of the spiritual path.
So I changed teachers and took up the study of koans, those ancient teaching riddles (like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) that aim to baffle the mind, force it to let go of its limited perspective, and open it to a radically new way of perceiving reality. With the help of my teachers—who offered “encouraging” words like “Die on your cushion”—I succeeded over the years in producing satisfactory responses to several hundred koans. Yet I still hadn’t experienced a breakthrough glimpse of my Buddha-nature. I returned to “just sitting” and eventually drifted away from Zen entirely.
After meditating sporadically for several years, I came upon Jean Klein, a teacher of the Hindu Advaita (“non-dual”) Vedanta tradition; his wisdom and presence reminded me of the great Zen masters I’d read about in books. From Jean, I learned a simple question that immediately captured my imagination: “Who am I?” Several months later, as I gently inquired, the answer I had been seeking for so many years was revealed. For some reason, the clarity and directness of the question, along with the relaxed receptivity of the inquiry, allowed it to penetrate deep inside and expose the secret that lay hidden there.
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. Called kleshas by Buddhists and vasanas or samskaras by Hindus and yogis, these obscurations are the familiar stories, emotions, self-images, beliefs, and reactive patterns that keep us identified with our limited, ego-based personality and seem to prevent us from opening to the nondual immensity of who we really are: the timeless, silent, ever-present place of being, which Hindus and yogis call Self and Zen masters call true nature.
Most basic meditation techniques, such as following the breath or reciting a mantra, aim to relax the body, quiet the mind, and cultivate mindful awareness of the present moment. But these techniques don’t encourage “the backward step” described by the celebrated Zen teacher Master Dogen, the one “that turns your light inwardly to illuminate” your true nature. In terms of a traditional metaphor, they calm the pool of the mind and allow the sediment to settle, but they don’t take us to the bottom where the dragon of truth resides. For this we need what the great 20th-century Advaita sage Ramana Maharshi called atma vichara, or “self-inquiry,” whether in the form of probing questions like “Who am I?” or provocative Zen koans that plumb the depths of our being.
Admittedly, self-inquiry is only for the spiritually adventurous, those who are obsessed with finding the answers to life’s deepest questions—people like the Buddha, who sat down after years of asceticism and vowed not to get up until he knew who he was, or Ramana Maharshi, who, when overtaken by the fear of death at age 16, fervently inquired into who he was if not his physical body and spontaneously awakened to his identity as the deathless, eternal Self. Not everyone has profound and transformative experiences like these renowned spiritual masters, but each of us in our own way has the potential to catch a life-altering glimpse of the radiant sun of true nature. In fact, only such glimpses have the potential to free us from suffering once and for all.
Traditionally, self-inquiry is an advanced practice often reserved for the spiritually mature. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, practitioners may spend years developing concentrated presence, known as shamatha, or “calm abiding,” before proceeding to the penetrating practice of vipassana, or “insight.”
In my experience, the twin practices of abiding (or resting) and inquiring work together like the left and right foot in walking. First we rest in the calmness and clarity of our basic sitting practice, whatever it may be. Then, when the waters are relatively still, we inquire, and the inquiry may reveal a new level of insight into the silence and stillness of our essential nature that allows us to rest even more deeply. And from this deeper resting, we have the capacity to inquire even further.
Ask and Receive
To begin the practice of self-inquiry, sit for meditation as usual. If you don’t already have a regular practice, just sit quietly and allow the mind to settle naturally. Don’t attempt to focus your mind or manipulate your experience, just rest as awareness itself. (Your mind won’t know what I’m talking about, but your being will.) After 10 or 15 minutes, when the mind is relatively open and present, introduce the question “Who am I?” The point of this question is not to engage the mind, because the mind inevitably gnaws on questions endlessly like a dog on a bone, with little nutritional benefit. Instead, drop the question into the stillness of your being like a pebble into a still forest pool. Let it send ripples through your meditation, but don’t attempt to figure it out!
When the pond is tranquil again, drop in another pebble and see what happens. Set aside any conceptual answers, such as “I am a child of God” or “I am consciousness” or “I am a spiritual being of light,” and come back to the question. Though true at a certain level, these answers will not satisfy your hunger for spiritual sustenance. As you continue your self-inquiry, you may notice that the question begins to permeate your consciousness—you may find yourself asking it not only during meditation but at unexpected times throughout the day.
Instead of “Who am I?” you may prefer asking, “Who is thinking this thought? Who is seeing through these eyes right now?” These questions direct your awareness inward, away from the external world and toward the source from which all experiences arise. Indeed, anything you can perceive, no matter how intimate—including the cluster of images, memories, feelings, and beliefs you take to be you—is merely an object of perception. But who is the experiencer, the perceiver, the ultimate subject of all of those objects? This is the real question at the heart of “Who am I?”
For the practice of self-inquiry to work its magic, you must already recognize at some level that the word I, though superficially referring to the body and mind, actually points to something much deeper. When we say, “I feel,” “I see,” or “I walk,” we’re talking about the experiencer or doer we imagine to be inside. But what does this “I” look like, and where is it located? Sure, your mind thinks, feels, and perceives, but do you really believe you reside in the brain? If not, then who are you really? Let your inquiry be earnest but effortless, without tension or anxiety. Here’s a hint: You definitely won’t find the answer in the file folders of spiritual beliefs you’ve amassed over the years, so look elsewhere, in your actual, present experience. Ask yourself, “Where is this ‘I’ right here and now?”
Awake to the Present
Eventually, the question “Who am I?” reveals the answer, not as a thought or a particular experience but as a vibrant, timeless presence that underlies and infuses every experience. When you awaken to this presence, you may be surprised to discover that it has been there all along, as the unacknowledged context and space in which life unfolds.
Both Zen and Advaita masters teach that this awake, aware presence gazing out through your eyes and my eyes right now is the very same awareness that peered through the eyes of the sages and roshis of old. Though your realization may not be as clear or as stable as theirs was, this timeless presence is actually the Buddha-nature, or authentic Self, to which the great scriptures point.
Once you know who you really are, you can never forget it, though the mind will do its best to obscure this truth with its urgent demands for your attention. As you keep returning to rest in the silent presence you know yourself to be, your habitual identification with the body-mind will gradually release, and you will begin to taste the peace and joy of true spiritual freedom. In the words of another great Indian sage, Nisargadatta Maharaj, “You merely need to find out your source and take up your headquarters there.”