Self-Inquiry and “Who Am I?” – Quotes and Resources

This is a companion article to [KendoNotes_Awareness] on “awareness.”  It is a compilation of quotes and resources on an approach to awakening, heijoushin (平常心), enlightenment or self-realization referred to as Self-Inquiry (or Self-Enquiry).  It is based on a continual re-direction of our attention to “Who is thinking these thoughts?”  “Who is the ‘I’ thinking these thoughts?” or more simply “Who am I?” whenever a thought arises [Endless_Self-Inquiry] [Sharpe_Self-Inquiry].

Self-inquiry  is the constant attention to the inner awareness of “I” or “I am” recommended by Ramana Maharshi as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the “I”-thought. [Wiki_Self-Inquiry]

In my limited experience with Self-Inquiry, it seems to lead to the realization that the “I” is a construction of thoughts, beliefs and programs.  To a sense of spaciousness, awareness and calmness in which thoughts may arise and be experienced.  To a place of less judging of others, oneself or the thoughts and to that of more acceptance of others, oneself and the thoughts.  To a condition of less tension, anxiety, worry or fear from the clinging on to of thoughts.  To that of being more present, aware and available to the thoughts, sights, sounds, sensations, the person in front of “me” or the environment.

In the context of kendo, this approach seems to be a way to realize the calm mirror in our hearts (as described by master swordsmen and renowned kendo teachers [KendoNotes_Mirror]) and the Blown Feather Sword to cut away our attachments and sources of shikai (the four sicknesses in kendo) [KendoNotes BlownFeatherSword].  I experience glimpses of a whole sense of, awareness of and lack of separation with the “other” – which seems to facilitate really seeing the other [KendoNotes_”O” Sensei].

More generally, Self-Inquiry may be helpful for those seeking calmness, peace and relief from setbacks and suffering.  I came across this while searching for ways for such relief – a topic addressed in the section “On Handling Suffering” in [KendoNotes_Suffering].  When “I” apply this approach, the thoughts seem to lose their stickiness, heaviness and influence.  And a sense of letting go, lightness and liberation arises.

The quotes are organized by teachers as follows:

  • Janice Sharpe
  • Nirmala
  • Michael James
  • Sri Sadhu Om on Ramana Maharshi
  • Michael Langford
  • Walt Walker
  • Jon Bernie
  • David Godman on Ramana Maharshi’s Teachings
  • Robert Adams
  • Ramana Maharshi
  • T.M.P. Mahadevan from the Introduction in [Maharshi_WhoAmI]

Resources consist of those cited in the References section and the following:

May we all re-discover who we really are!

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace

Note:  These quotes were moved here from [KendoNotes_Awareness] to highlight this approach to awareness.


Janice Sharpe [Sharpe_Self-Inquiry]

  • With self-inquiry, you’re not clearing thought, but your focus is elsewhere. So even if thoughts come and go, your focus is inward so you’re not paying attention to them.
    • It’s like being at a very busy restaurant, and you hear the din of all the conversations around you, but you don’t pay attention to them; you stay focused on the people in your conversation.
  • There is a complete surrendering of your conditioning to be open in each moment to newness.
  • Self-inquiry is not what is commonly described as meditation, because it does not imply sitting in a lotus position and working on the mind to be quiet. Instead, it is an inquiry into one’s own sense of self, attempting to know yourself, and to realize that the psychological self is a construct that only exists as a collection of thoughts.
  • To begin, many people start sitting somewhere quiet and practice asking the question “Who am I?” and learning how to let the thoughts go by. In my experience,  I did this every time I thought of it, no matter what I was doing — eating, driving, meditating, walking to appointments. Every waking moment that I thought of it, I did it.
  • In my own life I have observed that the outcome of doing this is that I have no attachment, other than a passing one, to the identity of who I am. So in terms of practicality of life, living in this world, there is still a concern in the moment for health or safety, but there is not a worry, per se. I can’t hold a worry for long.

Nirmala

  • From [Endless_Self-Inquiry]
    • In self-inquiry, we simply ask, Who am I? or What am I? or a variation on that, Who is having this experience?
    • When you look to see who is having this experience, you don’t find anyone. There’s nothing there.  The Experiencer can’t be experienced, just as the eye can’t see itself. You don’t find any thing, nothing you can touch or see or hear.
    • Another way to ask the self enquiry question is with your whole Heart. You ask it with everything you’ve got, as if your life depended on it. … When you ask it with your whole Heart and you don’t find an answer, you just stay there, not knowing. You just let yourself not know. There’s nothing but that space, and you just stay present to that space, to that sense of there being nothing behind your eyes, nothing behind your thoughts, nothing behind your feelings.
  • From [Endless_Self-InquiryPractice]
    • [S]elf-inquiry … 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… Eventually this inward focus can lead to an experience of your ultimate true nature…
    • 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?”

Michael James [James_About]

  • Sri Sadhu Om clearly explained that ‘self-enquiry’ is simply the practice of self-attention, that is, the practice of turning our attention or power of knowing away from all thoughts and objects, towards our fundamental consciousness of our own being, which we always experience as ‘I am’.

Sri Sadhu Om on Ramana Maharshi [Sadhu_RamanaPart1]

  • “Always keeping the mind (the attention) fixed In Self (in the feeling ‘I’) alone is called Self enquiry’… Remaining firmly in Self-abidance, without giving even the least room to the rising of any thought other than the thought of Self (that is, without giving even the least attention to any second or third person, but only to Self), is surrendering oneself to God. – Ramana Maharashi, PDF  p. 158
  • The enquiry ‘Who am I ?’ (the path of knowledge or jnana marga) and self-surrender (the path of love or bhakti marga) are the two great royal paths found out by Bhagavan Sri Ramana from His own experience. PDF p. 159

Michael Langford

  • [Langford_Awareness]
    • I tried this practice:  Awareness watching awareness while ignoring thought.
      • … to turn the attention that normally goes out to the world around 180 degrees and to look inward.  However, it also means to ignore thought.
      • If I noticed that some thought had started, I just ignored the thought, and brought the attention back to awareness watching awareness. Awareness paying attention to awareness, to the exclusion of all else.
    • The results were instant!  From the very first moment one tries this practice, one is abiding as awareness! There is no waiting! It is so easy.
    • I do not mean to imply that from the beginning the ego is dead. It might take years of continuous practice before the ego is dead, and thought and the world are gone forever, never to reappear.
      • However, from the moment one tries this simple, easy to understand practice, one is abiding as awareness!

Walt Walker

For a nice overview of Self-Inquiry and “Who am I?”, I’d recommend reading Walt Walker’s three-part series [Walker_Self-Inquiry].

  • From [Walker_Self-Inquiry].
    • As we experience this truth, the notion of ‘I’ literally dissolves. We can see this. We can sense it. Feel it. It’s an actual, livable experience.  …. Something infinite, and eternal.
    • It’s something you can realize for yourself. It is available to you as a direct, experiential knowing.
    • Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

Jon Bernie

  • From [Bernie_Seeking] who briefly overviews the stages of development.
    • Usually at the beginning of so-called spiritual practice, people have to maintain a kind of vigilance, a kind of diligence. … to develop concentration and mindfulness.  … to stay with awareness (0:25)
      • Because the natural tendency is to pull away into separation, into projection, into mental worlds,…, into compulsive behavior.  So, the natural tendency is to be unconscious.  And it takes effort to be conscious. … a tremendous amount…
    • And once one discovers awareness, same thing, it often takes a certain kind of diligence to maintain a kind of awareness you might say.
    • But then there comes a point in which there is a shift. … And at at that point, awareness is effortless.  It’s sort of the default setting. (1:25)
      • And what takes effort is to be reactive, identified and struggling with what is.  (1:44)

David Godman on Ramana Maharshi’s Teachings

  • From [Godman_Self-Enquiry]:
    • He (Ramana Maharshi) said that this subject ‘I’ that you never look at, is in fact a fiction.  … 
      • It arises from an idea that ‘I am a person.  I have a mind.’ ‘I live inside a particular body.’ ‘I do things, I remember things.’ 
      • He said that idea is absolutely wrong.  And he said it’s what causes you suffering.  It’s what makes you have wrong ideas about yourself, about the world.
    • And he said that this sense of personal identity, which he called the ‘I’ thought, needs to be challenged. … repeatedly, regularly, on a moment to moment basis.
      • You’re actually looking at the entity within you which thinks your thoughts and which perceives your perceptions.
    • What I would suggest to people they do, is to look at themselves and be continuously aware what it is inside yourself that thinks your thoughts when you have a thought.
    • This is the other analogy which Bhagavan (Maharshi) used to use a lot. 
      • He said that in a big wedding feast there are two parties.  There is the bride’s party and bridegroom’s party.
      • And it’s quite possible for somebody to be there pretend to be an important person, and one person will think he’s with the bride’s party.  The other person will think he’s with the bridegroom’s party. 
      • And he can get away with(out) causing trouble so long as nobody takes the trouble to pin him down and say, “Who exactly are you?”  “Which party do you belong to?”
    • So, he (Maharshi) is saying that the ‘I’, …, causes you endless trouble because you never take the trouble to check up on it, see what it is, and see where it comes from.
      • He said if you isolate it, watch it, hold on to it, and let it be distracted by anything whatsoever, it can’t exist any longer.

Robert Adams [Adams_Works]

  • p. 21
    • When thoughts come to you, you simply ask yourself, “To whom do these thoughts come?  From whence cometh these thoughts,” follow the thoughts to their source.  Find out the source of your thoughts. You will find that the source of your thoughts is I.  Follow the I-thread to its source by asking, “Who am I?” or “What is the source of I?
    • Where did this I come from?”  You will realize that the pronoun I, is the first word that was ever spoken and everything else is attached to I. Every other word. Every other thought, every other feeling, every other emotion, they’re all attached to the I.  I feel happy.  I feel sad. I feel sick.  I feel well.  I feel poor, I feel rich.  Everything is attached to I.  If the I becomes dis-solved, so does everything else and you become free.
    • Find out for whom there is an I and you will discover something amazing. You will discover that I never existed. There never was an I. You will discover that you never existed. There’s no such thing as you. You will discover that you are the imperishable Self. That you are never born and you can never die. You will discover that you’re omnipresence, omniscient, omnipotent. That there are no others. There is no world. There is no universe. There is no God. There is only the Self.  All this is the Self. All that you behold is the Self and “I-am” is that. This will give you a feeling of freedom, of bliss, of happiness. You will not lose your awareness.
  • p. 124
    • I get a few phone calls from different people all over the world. … How do I solve my problems and how do I become self-realized? And that’s a funny question to me. It’s like a person standing in the middle of the ocean, asking for water. Self-realization is your very nature.
    • You are already that, but because we are attached to maya, we are earthbound. We use discrimination and we believe everything we see is real.  Because of this, because we believe the body is real, the mind is real, it becomes like the clouds hiding the sun. You do not say there is no sun, you wait for the clouds to dissipate and the sun shines again in all its glory and splendor.

Ramana Maharshi

  • From an eight-page booklet [Maharshi_WhoAmI]:
    • Q10 How will the mind become quiescent?
      • By the inquiry ‘Who am I?’.  The thought ‘who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed.  Then, there will arise Self-realization.
    • Q11. What is the means for constantly holding on to the thought ‘Who am I?’
      • When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: ‘To whom do theyarise?’
      • It does not matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, “To whom has this thought arisen?”.
      • The answer that would emerge would be “To me”.  Thereupon if one inquires “Who am I?”, the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose will become quiescent.
      • With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.
      • When the mind that is subtle goes out through the brain and the sense-organs, the gross names and forms appear;  when it stays in the heart, the names and forms disappear.
      • Not letting the mind go out, but retaining it in the Heart is what is called “inwardness” (antar-mukha). Letting the mind go out of the Heart is known as “externalisation” (bahir-mukha). Thus, when the mind stays in the Heart, the ‘I’ which is the source of all thoughts will go, and the Self which ever exists will shine.

T.M.P. Mahadevan from the Introduction in [Maharshi_WhoAmI]

  • As one enquires ‘Who am I?’, other thoughts will arise;  but as these arise, one should not yield to them by following them , on the contrary, one should ask ‘To whom do they arise?’
    • In order to do this, one has to be extremely vigilant. Through constant enquiry one should make the mind stay in its source, without allowing it to wander away and get lost in the mazes of thought created by itself.
    • All other disciplines such as breath-control and meditation on the forms of God should be regarded as auxiliary practices. They are useful in so far as they help the mind to become quiescent and one-pointed.
  • For the mind that has gained skill in concentration, Self-enquiry becomes comparatively easy.
    • It is by ceaseless enquiry that the thoughts are destroyed and the Self realized – the plenary Reality in which there is not even the ‘I’ thought, the experience which is referred to as “Silence”

References

[Adams_Works] Robert Adams Satsangs:  The Collected Works eBook version, Edited by Ed Muzika, 2012 (PDF, 2,355 pages).

[Bernie_Seeking] Jon Bernie, “The End of Seeking – awareness becoming aware of itself | nondual teacher Jon Bernie, YouTube.com, Sept 1, 2010 (3:54 mins).

[Endless_Self-Inquiry] Nirmala, “Self Inquiry or Self Enquiry:  Who am I?” Endless-Satsang.com.

[Endless_Self-InquiryPractice] Nirmala, “The Practice and Purpose of Self Inquiry”, EndlessSatsang.com.

[Godman_Self-Enquiry] David Godman, “Talks on Sri Ramana Maharshi: Narrated by David Godman – Self-Enquiry,” (Sept 12, 2015 (42:07 mins).

[James_About] Michael James, The About page of “Happiness of Being – Ramana Maharshi,” HappinessOfBeing.com.

[KendoNotes_Awareness] Young, “Awareness and Who am I?” KendoNotes.com, April 14, 2019.

[KendoNotes_BlownFeatherSword] “The Blown Feather Sword (吹毛剣) – To Cut Away Our Attachments and Shikai,” KendoNotes.com, Nov 5, 2018.

[KendoNotes_Mirror] “The Mirror in the Heart of Master Swordsman (and Jedi Masters),” KendoNotes.com, April 16, 2019,

[KendoNotes_”O” Sensei] Young, “Really Seeing the Opponent and Opportunities to Strike, – Part 1: “O” Sensei,” KendoNotes.com, Mar 3, 2019.

[KendoNotes_Suffering] “Setbacks and the Pain of Suffering – Quotes and Resources,” KendoNotes.com, March 18, 2019.

[Langford_Awareness] Michael Langford, “Awareness Watching Awareness,” SearchingWithin.org, 2001 (PDF, 7 pages).

[Levine] Stephen Levine, Who Dies? – An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, Anchor Books, 1982.

[Maharj_Pointers] Ramesh S. Balsekar, “Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharj,” 1982 (PDF, 145 pages).

[Maharshi_Teachings] Ramana Maharshi, The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharashi, Century Paperback, 1962.

[Maharshi_WhoAmI] Ramana Maharshi, Who am I? (PDF, 8 pages)

[Sadhu_RamanaPart1] Sadhu Om, The Path of Sri Ramana – Part One, 6th ed.,” 2005 (PDF, 233 pages).

[Sharpe_Self-Inquiry] Vic Shayne and Janice Shayne’s Nov 14, 2018 response to “How do I do “I am” self-enquiry meditation?”, Quora.

[Walker_Self-Inquiry] Walt Walker, “Who Am I? Self-Inquiry, Part 1” (a Three Part Series), DiscoveringNonduality.com, Feb 5, 2019.

[Wiki_Self-Inquiry] Wikipedia on Self-enquiry (Ramana Maharshi).

Keywords: Heijoshin, Suffering

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