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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Self-enquiry

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

The Indian teacher Ramana Maharshi recommended the technique of self-enquiry to discover the unreality or illusory nature of the proxy-i, or the apparent self masquerading as I. Attention is on the experiencer. We can train our attention on inner awareness by inquiring, "Who am I?" This brings attention into the present moment. The seeming self dissolves into awareness itself.


Typing, I inquire, "Who am I?" "What is this I that is typing?" The you you think you are can experiment as you read along. Who is the "I am" that reads? Who is beyond the you you think you are? Who is inquiring? Very quickly we begin to slough off false identifications.


Who am I?

Well... uh, me obviously!

Who is this obvious me? Am I the name given to me at birth by my parents? Am I a string of sounds articulated in this or that language? Well, I am more than that clearly. Am I my nationality? Would I cease to exist if my nation ceased to exist? Am I my race? Are the atoms that make up me Black atoms or White atoms or Asiatic atoms? Am I my gender? Is the power dancing within me NOW a male or female power? Am I my ethnicity? My job? My title? Who is asking? Who is inquiring? Who plays the game of self-enquiry?


"In order to be able to say 'I am not this' or I am That', there must be the 'I' to say it. This 'I' is only the ego, or the I-thought. After the arising of this I-thought, all other thoughts arise. The I-thought is therefore the root thought. If the root is pulled out, all the rest is uprooted at the same time. Therefore seek the root-I. Then all these problems will vanish and the pure Self alone will remain... You need not eliminate any false 'I'. How can 'I' eliminate itself? All that you need do is to find out its origin and stay there. Your effort can extend only so far. Then the Beyond will take care of itself. You are helpless there. No effort can reach it."


This is the path of destruction. The false begins to unravel; the illusions come undone. Who is this "I" we keep circling back to? Is it not presumptuous on the part of the proxy self to sit in judgment over that from which it derives its beingness? The proxy i begins to doubt. Where is this proxy i? Is there more than one self? If so, who are we?


Recently, neuroscientists using brain modeling have identified circuits implicated in consciousness (Panda et al., 2023). But what is this to the proxy i? The thalamo-frontotemporal region broadcasts signals and the posterior cortical region receives them. In another study, researchers identified a small structure in the brain, the anterior precuneus or aPCu, as a crucial component in establishing our physical self or “I”.

The aPCu is part of a network of brain regions that integrate information regarding our location, motion, and bodily sensations to form our self-awareness. When electrical activity in the aPCu is disrupted, people experience altered perceptions of their position in the world.


So what? What is this to the seeming self that is conscious here and now? The latest neuroscience does not awaken the seeming self from self-delusion. If anything, this knowledge merely distracts and puffs up ego- "I'm smart. I have identified the brain circuits implicated in consciousness! Would you like to follow my smart ass down this rabbit hole?" We can review the scientific literature for a lifetime and get no closer to knowing who we truly are. I remain as ignorant to who I am as before, but maybe now I have a pHD (a poor consolation prize).


Investigation can lead to more rumination and entanglement. One can spend a lifetime investigating thought forms. But if you seek transcendence and liberation, divestment (not continued investment) is necessary.


Prefacing observations with: "I am having the thought that..." or "I recognize that I am having the thought that..." can be useful. This simple technique affirms thoughts in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental way that creates space between the thought and the witness of the thought.


For example, to say "Life sucks!" is different than to recognize "I am having the thought that life sucks." The first is a declaration which the mind will affirm if the self accepts it. The heart will constrict and the emotions will confirm, with feeling, the thought such that it sticks and feels to be so. The thinker will embody this thought in posture and carriage. The mind will gate the perceptual data it gathers through this filter of thought, constructing for the thinker a reality in accordance with the thought. If investment in the thought is deep (i.e. it is a familiar trope or the dominant narrative one has accepted for years) actions which threaten the thought will be minimized or dismissed.


To recognize "I am having the thought that life sucks" is more objective and one step removed. The statement: " I recognize I am having the thought that..." is 2 steps removed. Dissolution of "I" altogether takes us beyong the semantics of language and closer to pure experiencing- thoughts simply arise in the pure field of awareness, the seeming "i" is also present.


The more removed/detached/decoupled/disengaged/unaffiliated the mind is from the machinations of thinking, the more equanimous this life. Mind secretes thought moment by moment- some pleasant, some unpleasant; some wholesome, some unwholesome; some virtuous, some vile. Most are memes- discrete units of thought that spread from person to person within a culture. Richard Dawkins, who coined the phrase, writes that memes are to culture what genes are to to life. Accepting that the thought occurred is merely an observation. Noting is the practice. That is all. We do not question the mind's outputs; we do not censor them or entertain them. The liver produces bile and proteins, the kidneys remove waste and extra fluid from the body, the lungs exchange gases, the heart circulates blood... and the mind extrudes thoughts moment by moment. This is simply a function of mind. Sometimes the mind is busy, sometimes the mind is quiet. We simply observe, allow, watch.


Teacher Chogyam Trungpa explained it this way:

"The thoughts that occur during sitting practice are regarded as natural events, but at the same time, they don't carry any credentials. The basic definition of meditation is 'having a steady mind.' In meditation, when your thoughts go up, you don't go up, and you don't go down when your thoughts come down; you just watch as your thoughts go up and down. Whether your thoughts are good or bad, exciting or boring, blissful or miserable, you let them be. You don't accept some and reject others. You have a greater space that encompasses any thought that may arise."


Another technique is to label the activities of the entity called me with detachment using phrases such as "the entity," "the being," or "the construct" instead of "I" which few truly know. "The entity" sits. "The being" feels ___________ [Fill in the blank: clear-headed, stressed, restless, calm, rushed, settled, confused, bored, frustrated, etc]. "The construct" imagines it is ___________ [Fill in the blank: oppressed, accomplished, ugly, sad, powerful, unlovable, stuck, invincible, wise, foolish, etc]. A symbol like x can serve as a placeholder for the unknowable Self.


The entity called me thinks. x experiences the givens in present tense awareness: a motorcycle passing, the rumble of a plane flying overhead, the hum of an air-conditioner, the press of the keys on the fingertips. The subject remains a mystery. At most, we can say the being seems to feel solid, seems to have an identity, but this is illusory- compliments of a beautiful mind. The I am is that which perceives and, like this, we watch its comings and goings as events unfold moment by moment. We laugh at its conditioned responses, empathize with its travails and self-induced sufferings, its dramas, and the roles it assumes with such sincerity. The ego is the most accomplished method actor and director of the play of life it has co-written.


Sometimes, we can address this being in the third person. Third person self talk allows us to reflect in a less emotional way. Decades of research suggest that addressing ourselves in the third person- also called "distanced self-talk"- can help foster psychological distance which leads to better emotional regulation, self control, and insight.


Beyond ego is the witness, the light by which all else emanates- these ideas, this movement of the fingers typing or the eyes moving across the screen, reading, reflecting, etc.- all come courtesy of beingness. Beingness is just a word, a symbol, a marker pointing one to that which gives the mind and the thoughts we take to be "me" their meaning, the seeming continuity of past into present into future. The entity called me cannot guide you any further with words. The being defers to silence. Return unto thy rest, O my Soul.


This is not the path for the timid. Again, says who? The proxy i grows weary of self-enquiry. It feels threatened. If the egoic structure collapses, who am I? If the i thought disappears, who am I? If the root-I does not arise, who remains? Fear comes only after the I-thought arises. To whom does fear come? So long as there is identification with the I-thought, fear arises and clings to it.


Whatever I can perceive cannot be the self.


In front of me, is a bowl of fruit. I am not a tangerine. The tangerine is outside of the separated, individuated self called me. With the mind's eye, I can perceive a seeming entity called me. So, I cannot be the object I perceive with the mind's eye- i.e. this proxy i my parents named Jonathan. In self-enquiry, there is only subject, no object.


Well, then, who is the subject called I?

The experiencer.

Mere words.

Frustration intensifies. In defense of the illusion of a whole, rational, integrated, separate and self-created identity, the proxy i redoubles it's hold... on what? Who redoubles? Who is dissatisfied?


Irritation arises. Who experiences this? To whom does irritation arise? The entity called me can label and externalize the irritation as irritation. The entity called me can give it a valence (strong or weak). It can locate where in the body irritation expresses as a sensation- tightness in the shoulder, pursed lips, a tightening jaw. That I can externalize or objectify the emotions arising means I am not embedded at that level. I am not the irritation arising or the tightness in the shoulder, the pursed lips or the tightening jaw. Who is this I that feels frustrated or angry or anxious or curious or any color of human emotion? Enquiry persists.


Who am I? Am I my thoughts? Thoughts are mere wisps of nothingness. The more we seek, the more elusive this seeming I.


To say, 'I am the experiencer' is pretense- one pretends to have attained that which is beyond grasping. Words emerge from thoughts. Thoughts emerge from ego. From whence does the ego derive its light? To say that one is separate from That which gives light to the mind and animates it is self-delusion.


Who is the I behind this investigation? Who is this I that asks Who am I? The seer and seen can only exist only if supported by the Mystery.


I don't know. "All I know is that I know nothing," to quote Plato.

Clever. The little self still resists and plays coy. It does not want to dissolve into the Unknowable. Hence, the long, interminable searching- a seemingly sincere seeker on a seemingly long path to nowhere. All illusion. Truth is NOW.


Says who?


A new breath comes; a new moment touches you. A new breath, a new beginning; new choices, new possibilities. Like the breath, we make choices moment by moment. We choose how we interpret a gesture, a sound, a remark; we choose to judge or to forgive; we choose to engage a thought that comes or to disengage from a thought that comes; we choose how we appraise events, circumstances, conditions; we choose our perceptions; we choose how we see the world. We are often too tolerant of mind wandering to notice, however. We often interpret the torrent of unexamined thoughts to be truth, to be reflective of reality- not subjective constructs of the brain. As such, we are playthings of thought, many of which are not original or native with us, but conditioned by our parents, our culture, our religion, our society. Many of these thoughts are not reflective of our truest values, aspirations, or ideals. Some contribute to our suffering. Over thinking, excessive worrying, chronic anger or fear, self-doubt, self-hatred, depression, perfectionism, are just some of the ways our neural wiring can undermine our sense of well-being. 


In his book You Are Not Your Mind, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz calls those thoughts that cause us mental distress "deceptive brain messages." We cannot control these, but we can choose whether to engage or disengage from the thoughts that pop into consciousness. The 4 steps he suggests are familiar to those who practice mindfulness.


Step 1: Relabel. We identify the deceptive brain messages as such, very matter-of-factly. Labeling the thoughts and emotions that arise moment by moment, in formal meditation practice, shines a light on the workings of the ego, the apparent self we identify as "I."

Step 2: Reframe. We perceive these deceptive brain messages as just thoughts. Thoughts are epiphenomena of the conditioned mind. Sitting in meditation, we see thoughts as thoughts, not as truth, not as reality. We analyze, plan, investigate, recall; we have worrisome thoughts, scenario-spinning thoughts, fantasies, self-recriminating thoughts, etc. There are mood tones and emotional states. The mind may be colored happy or sad. We simply observe the weather of the mind as it changes. 

Step 3: Refocus. We spoke often of observing (if the mind is restless and wandering, we label it as "restless" or "wandering"), we disengage and we REORIENT or REFOCUS our attention. In the book, Dr. Schwartz suggests wholesome or productive activities, but meditation does not require any diversion. We sit with whatever arises, no matter how unpleasant the accompanying sensations. If, for example, I'm entertaining worrisome thoughts, I can label them as "worrying, worrying," then disengage and return to the object of focus- whether the breath, a mantra, bodily sensation, etc. I remain with the unpleasant physical sensations. If I am worrying, I sit with the shallow breathing, the accelerated heart rate- whatever the symptoms. In this way, equanimity comes. I do not react to these unpleasant sensations. In so doing, a kind of innoculation to stressors develops. 

Step 4: Revaluing. In this step, we clearly see the thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that are not true and that have little to no value.

The thinking process can be creative when thinking is required. As I type, for example, I'm dressing ideas with words and arranging the ideas in a somewhat logic order. As you read, your thinking mind translates the symbols into words and gives them meaning. This powerful and creative faculty is a blessing. It can be a curse, however, when that same power of imagination induces a state of panic as it conjures up frightful scenarios that never come to pass or imagines past grievances that arouse anger, hatred, or ill will, thus disturbing our peace. 


With practice, we can rewire the mind, training to let go or to be with. There are many moments throughout the day to celebrate simply being, or to be fully present and engaged in the moment regardless of what one is doing. Gradually, (although sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly) the intensity of the thoughts subsides, the seemingly solid ego begins to dissolve, fading into the Self as we return to the natural state of being. 


As you took form in your mother's womb, there was no ego. When you were born, there was no identification with thought. While you sleep, the ego is quiescent. As you dissolve back into formlessness, the ego, again, comes undone. From birth to death, you may have glimpses of the egoless state. Getting in touch with your life essence, while conscious, requires the intensity of full presence- the present moment being the entryway to peace. There is a stillness, a presence, an awareness that can be experienced now but not articulated. The din of thought, deafens us to that silence. Our blind allegiance to ego prevents us from seeing our light. In this state, we become disconnected from our true Self. We are more than our thoughts. As you sit reading, there is something animating you. It is not thought. Your thoughts are not regulating your body temperature, your heartbeat, your breath, or your hormone levels. Your thoughts are not digesting your food. Your thoughts are not maintaining your body's pH balance or glucose levels. Your thoughts are not dividing cells, fighting off infections, or healing wounds. What is that force? What is that which allows you to think, to feel, to be? 


With meditative insight, we practice observing our own minds at the level of thought beyond egoic thought.










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