In the episode titled “The Big Meditation Myth” I already told you that meditation alone will almost never take you to full enlightenment, self-inquiry is also needed. But I haven’t yet spoken specifically about how to do self-inquiry, so in this episode I will do just that. I will show you the theory behind it, and give you a very specific practice.
The goal of self-inquiry is to actualize the self by asking questions about it from yourself. Questions like “Who am I?” or “What am I?” or “What is my essence?”. Now there are already two possibly confusing and misleading things that can come out from what I’ve just said. Doing self-inquiry is very tricky, you can easily get stuck in it, you may easily feel it’s going nowhere.
The first wrong idea you might have is about this self I’m talking about. This self is not that self you probably have in mind. When you think about your self, you think about your ego 100% of the time. It cannot be otherwise, because whatever you think about yourself is the ego, even if you have such lofty thoughts that you are pure consciousness, or whatever else you may have read in spiritual books.
Your real self, the one I’m talking about, has nothing to do with your thoughts, you simply cannot come in contact with it when you’re thinking. It is not a thought, not a belief and not even an experience. It is the one behind all your thoughts, beliefs and experiences. It can exist without thoughts, but thoughts cannot exist without it, because then to whom would thoughts appear?
That’s why meditation is such a good practice to prepare you for deep self-inquiry. It helps you clear your consciousness from all thoughts, so you may glimpse this self that’s normally clouded by your mind. But for enlightenment, it’s not enough to glimpse it, you need to penetrate it to become one with it, and that’s where these existential questions prove to be really useful.
When you start practicing self-inquiry, you will inevitably just scratch the surface, you are bound to confuse the false self with the real self. But don’t worry, this is natural, and as you practice more, you will get better at it. It’s not surprising actually that your ego and your true self gets mixed together, as this has been the case all your life. It’s not easy to separate the two, but it’s possible.
At first when you ask yourself who you are, you will inevitably say that you are your body, or your brain, or your mind, or your perceptions, or your life story, or your soul, or your personality, or a mix of these things. But let me tell you straight: these are all just part of the ego, this is not the self you have to find. The true self is already there inside you, but it’s hidden by all these identifications.
The second possibly confusing thing with self-inquiry is that it’s not as straightforward as giving an answer to a question. You may think that the goal is to finally answer the question of “Who Am I?”. But in fact if you find any answer, you failed. You can find your self, but even then you won’t be able to answer this question.
Your true self is indescribable, undefinable, untouchable. It is without any properties, without any form, without any name. It’s not a thing, not an object, not a theory, not a feeling, not an experience, not really anything, and yet it is everything. It is a complete mystery, and yet the only reality. So, the goal of self-inquiry is not to give an intellectual answer but to come in contact with an existential reality.
In practice, you will come up with many answers, but you will soon realize that all your answers are false. Just keep pushing your mind harder and harder, keep going deeper and deeper, keep asking yourself over and over, and there will come a point when your mind will simply give up. It will surrender, it will admit that it’s useless in the realm of spirituality, and you will simply say: “I don’t know who I am”. And with this, you arrive to the first successful milestone of self-inquiry.
It’s much better to admit that you don’t know than to pretend that you know like the rest of the people. You have to be brutally honest with yourself, you have to become open and vulnerable. You are starting to gain back your long-lost innocence, and getting rid of your false knowledgeability.
With this you will realize that what you’re really looking for is not a conceptual answer but something else entirely. You are then ready to move on to the second phase of enquiry, to the existential level. So, how can you know the self existentially? By becoming it. But how can you become it when you are already it? By realizing it.
By realizing that you are, that you’ve always been, and that you will always be this self. Just try to feel into it, bring your attention inwards and calm your mind. You literally have to bring your attention to your attention to become aware of awareness itself. I know it sounds impossible, so let me give you a two-step practice to achieve this.
The first step is the classical candle staring exercise widely known in spirituality. You take a candle, put it on a table in front of you, you light it and stare into the flame for 10 minutes. Sit comfortably with your spine erect, choose a secluded place where nobody can disturb you, and take three deep breaths before starting.
Keep your glance on the flame at all times, don’t let your eyes wander away. Stop your mind from wandering away as well, don’t think about the candle, don’t think about yourself staring at the candle, don’t think about what others may think about you staring at the candle. Don’t start to analyze the candle in your mind, don’t comment on it, don’t judge it. Just look at it as if nothing else existed in the whole wide world.
Just observe it, look at the flame moving, look at the different colors, look at all the details. If you can just look, it means you are in the here and now, and you are able to perceive the flame as it is, without any distortions, in its pure reality. Only then can you really say that you perceive the candle totally.
But perception is not a one-dimensional phenomenon, it always happens between the perceived and the perceiver. In this case, the perceived is the candle, and you have all your attention on it. You totally forgot about the perceiver, that it’s you who is perceiving the candle. It’s no surprise that you did this, it’s a hardwired habit that you bring from everyday life, and this is the cause that you don’t know yourself: you never pay any attention to the perceiver.
So in the next step of this exercise, the goal is to move your attention from the perceived to the perceiver. Keep looking at the flame, but now try to become conscious of the one looking at it. Say in yourself: “I am looking at the flame.”, and then ask yourself: “Who’s looking at the flame?”. Again, don’t search for an answer, just observe the perceiver totally like you observed the candle.
When your mind becomes totally silent, when you start to feel peacefulness, spaciousness and emptiness, you are on the right track. Your true self is this perceiver, but you shouldn’t take my word for it, because this is just another word. Experience it for yourself, become one with it, and you will finally find yourself.
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