The great indian mystic Ramana Maharshi once wrote:
“Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”
In large part, the difficulties you face have less to do with the situations you’re placed in, and more to do with your mind – from anger at the workplace, to stress with in-laws, to frustration during rush hour traffic. Mental components like beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, memories, and expectations paint the window through which you look at the world. As a result, you see people and things not as they are, but as you are.
So before you look to change the world, change yourself first. As Rumi famously said:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Yet in order to change anything, it first needs to be understood. Throughout history, some of the wisest individuals have stated that the understanding of one’s true nature was the key to a life of happiness and freedom. From Laozi to Ramana Maharshi to Socrates – they’ve all pointed towards self-inquiry as the vehicle this understanding can come about.
This is a task surprisingly few people have undertaken. Us human have a wealth of knowledge – we learned to fly, journeyed to the moon, cured diseases. Yet ironically, few of us have an understanding of our own nature. Buddha said this ignorance was the root cause of human suffering.
If this was the case, wouldn’t it make sense to start thinking about this more? In this article, we’re going to dive into this very topic. We’re going to peel back the layers of reality by answering the question “Who are you?” In doing so, you’ll discover profound depths of your inner self you might have never have known before. Let’s dive in…
Answering The Question – “Who Are You?”
In his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, the writer David Foster Wallace tells a story of two young fish swimming along a lake. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish looks at them and says “Morning, how’s the water?” Looking puzzled, the two young fish continue swimming. Eventually one of the fish looks over to the other… “What the hell is water?”
This story is a great way to look at the inquiry of the Self. It’s been sitting in front of us our entire lives, so deceptively clear we’re simply unaware of it. One way to uncover it is through elimination. So to discover who you are, let’s first define who you are not.
Are you your name? As much as you might identify with your name, it’s essentially a label for others to identify you by, akin to a license plate on a car. This label can be changed a number of times throughout your life, yet the self the name points towards stays intact. You are not your name.
Are you your roles? Many deeply identify with their career, their citizenship, their role as a husband/wife, etc. Like your name, these roles can change frequently throughout the span of your life. At any point you can switch careers, change nationalities, get married, have kids, become a widow, and on and on. I’m sure you’ve already experienced a number of role changes already. Amidst it all, your true self remained unchanged. You are not your roles.
Are you your body? They say cells inside the body are constantly dying and being replaced. Even as you read this article it’s occurring. Within a decade, not a single cell in your body was there just 10 years before. Yet throughout this time, something within you was untouched.
Say you were a soldier in war whose legs were amputated after a bomb attack. Are you any less of a person without your legs? Absolutely not. As terrible as it was, you’d eventually move on and live your life perfectly fine without them. Same is true with hearing, seeing, or any of your physical senses. You are not your body.
Are you your feelings? If you’ve ever been through a trying period such as a divorce, job loss, or even death of a loved one, the pain felt endless at the time. Yet as the months and years went by, it inevitably fell away. It may not feel like it at the time, but emotions are always fleeting. They come into your life, stay for a bit of time, and always fall away. There is something within that experiences feeling, but never is the feeling itself. You are not your feelings.
Are you your thoughts? Just like feelings, thoughts are temporary blips in your awareness. The majority of the time, these blips are simply knee-jerk reactions to your environment. If someone at work comes to your desk and compliments you on a recent project, you’ll immediately think highly of them. The next day, that same person can tell you they were lying and say you work was crap. Suddenly you think they’re an asshole.
Illustrated by this example, thoughts are simply byproducts of your environment – from the people you surround yourself with, to the media you consume. They are shaped by the people and things around you, but are not a part of your inherent self. You are not your thoughts.
Everything we’ve gone over is what most consider the makeup of their identity. Yet as we’ve shown, you’re none of it. So if you aren’t your name, body, feelings or thoughts, then who are you?
The best way we can explore this question is through a visualization Ram Dass created years ago.
Think of an overhead projector. This device works by a source of light passing through glass. When a transparent sheet of film with writing is placed on the glass, light shines straight through the sheet, passing its writing on the wall. You can place a number of sheets of film on top of another, constructing a single image.
Let’s use this as a model of how your mind assembles your reality. Think of your name, roles, sense perceptions, feelings, and thoughts all as separate sheets of film sitting on the projector. The reality you experience is a projection of all these separate elements coming together as a single image on the wall.
More sheets can be added, existing sheets can be switched around, or you can even remove the sheets altogether. Whatever the case may be, the light continues to shine through independent of it all. The sheets are not an intrinsic part of the light, they’re simply filters. If you want to see the light unobstructed on the wall, you’d need to remove each of the veils filtering the light out.
In the same way, in order to understand your true nature, you must remove your own veils. Remove the layers of your ego blocking the light within. What is this light?
Really think about this. Since you were born, your went through a myriad of changes. From your physical body, to your roles, to all the thoughts and feelings that came in and our of your life. Your awareness was always sitting unobstructed in the background of your life simply viewing it all.
Jobs can change. Names can change. Your body can even change. But awareness is always intact.
Let’s dive deeper into what awareness is. I’ll try my best to describe it, but understand the description is not the thing itself. As the say, it’s the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. So as we describe awareness, go beyond the words and find the place within yourself we’re pointing towards.
Characteristic of Awareness
Awareness Is Constant
A basic law of nature is reality is in constant flux. From your thoughts, to your feelings, to even your body – life is constantly changing. However, awareness goes beyond that law. It’s the one thing you can reliably say has been unchanged throughout your life.
Look back at your past, was there any point you didn’t have awareness? To some degree it’s always been there. It was there when you born, when you aged into an adult, it’s here now, and will be with you when you’re older. It’s sat in the background of your life, never leaving your side. Awareness is constant, perpetual, non-fragmentary.
Compare this with all the temporary blips in your life you’ve been absorbed in, thinking they’d last forever. Thoughts are blips. Fears are blips. The asshole you had to deal with sitting in line at Starbucks is a blip. Everything you’ve assembled your reality around are simply blips. Yet throughout this change, awareness has remained constant. It’s the foundation which all this fragmentary phenomena have occurred.
Awareness Is Directionless
It’s important to note the difference between awareness and concentration. Concentration means moving towards a single point of focus, and blocking everything else out as a result. Concentration involves exclusion and directionality. If you were concentrating on studying for a test, you put up mental fences around the area of of focus, and move towards that point.
Yet awareness is something entirely different. Awareness doesn’t exclude. It’s simply a detached viewer, open and wide as the sky. It doesn’t cling. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t have preference. It simply is aware. When you’re aware, you don’t focus on one thing in the exclusion of another. Awareness is directionless.
Awareness Is Indestructible
In order to destroy something, there has to be something to be destroyed. Yet you can’t touch awareness. You can’t smell awareness. You can’t hear awareness. You can’t taste awareness. You can’t see awareness. You can’t capture awareness and chain it in a box. You can’t get rid of it even if you wanted to.
Think back at a challenging time in your life. You might have thought the experience broke you in some way. Yet as painful as the experiences was, did it taint your awareness in any way? Was your awareness diminished? Was it even altered? Absolutely not.
There’s something inside you words will never touch. Bullets will never destroy. Your deepest pains will never contact. During every period of your life, your awareness has remained untouched, pure, indestructible.
Awareness Is Love
When you learn to become more aware of awareness itself, some incredible things will happen in your life. In awareness, nothing has power over you like it once did. No situation, no person, not even yourself can affect your life when you understand your true nature.
You also will begin to naturally experience a power quality of love the ancient Greeks called Agape. Agape, in it’s root form, means “wide open”, in a state of wonder.
When you connect with awareness, this is the exact state of mind you’re in: completely open, not focused on any one thing, constantly letting go, in a state of wonder. When this occurs you naturally feel Agape, a love generated from within that isn’t directed towards any one person or thing, but towards everything and everyone. This is a very distinct, more profound form of love the Greeks noted different from eros (romantic) love, philia (friendship) love, and storge (family) love.
In the book The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho describes Agape Love:
“Agape is total love, the love that devours those that experience it. Whoever knows and experiences Agape sees that nothing else in this world is of any importance, only loving. This was the love that Jesus felt for humanity, and it was so great that it shook the stars and changed the course of man’s history.”
“Agape is total love. It is the love that consumes the person who experiences it. Whoever knows and experiences agape learns that nothing else in the world is important – just love.”
How To Develop Awareness
Awareness Creates Its Own Discipline
The incredible thing with awareness is how effortless it is. It doesn’t involve intellect, creativity, or using your brain in the traditional sense. You don’t have to be a monk, a hippie, or change anything about yourself. It’s something you inherently have at all times. In the same way, your heart beats effortlessly, so too your awareness requires nothing to keep running.
Some people have more awareness than others, but even still, we all have it. For most, it’s just a tiny flicker, barely shining through to the surface. Yet over time, as you become more aware of awareness itself, this flicker naturally grows into a larger flame. In his book Awareness, Anthony DeMello writes:
“Look at a river as it moves toward the sea. It creates its own banks that contain it. When there’s something within you that moves in the right direction, it creates its own discipline. The moment you get bitten by the bug of awareness. Oh, it’s so delightful! It’s the most delightful thing in the world; the most important, the most delightful. There’s nothing so important in the world as awakening. Nothing! And, of course, it also discipline in its own way.”
As DeMello points out, awareness creates its own positive reinforcement loop. As awareness grows, this leads to gaining greater freedom in your life, which leads to gaining even more awareness:
AWARENESS → FREEDOM→ AWARENESS
The more aware you become, the more you’re able to catch the knee-jerk workings of your mind and gain control over it. Say rush hour traffic predictably triggers impatience and anger inside you every morning. When you develop your awareness, you’re able to catch these triggers of your mind, and view the process from a detached, 3rd party viewpoint. You realize you’re not the anger, which inevitably removes its power over you. As this freedom grows, awareness grows and you become even more aware of the processes of your mind.
Psychedelics To Develop Awareness
Again, we all have a certain degree of awareness, yet most people are so swept away in the storyline of their minds they hardly realize it’s there. One of the most powerful ways to discover and develop awareness is through the responsible use of psychedelics.
Remember the light projector example we illustrated earlier? Most are under the illusion of being the sheets of film on the projector, opposed to the light shining through the sheets. With the proper set and setting, psychedelics are able to wake you out of this illusion.
Psychedelics such psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, ibogaine, LSD, ayahuasca, or even marijuana can temporarily swap out old sheets of film with new ones you’ve never experienced before. These new sheets can be both beautiful or terrifying, yet regardless they allow the user to see the sheets of film for what they are – relatively real, not absolutely real.
In other cases, psychedelics can remove the sheets of film entirely, allowing you to experience the light unobstructed. Subject (i.e. you) merges with object (i.e. the outside world), allowing you to come into direct contact with what we’ve outlined throughout this article. You start to realize…
AWARENESS = CONSTANT = DIRECTIONLESS = EFFORTLESS = LOVE
The hindus refer to this as becoming the Brahman. Richard Maurice Bucke referred to it as Cosmic Consciousness. Whatever you call it, it is a profound experience. And although it is temporary, you walk away with a reference point to move towards when you’ve come back down. As the weeks, and months pass by, you’re able to work with this reference point to develop a greater degree of awareness in your life.
Meditation To Develop Awareness
Once you’ve received adequate reference points from the psychedelic experience, look towards meditation as the next step to develop awareness. Alan Watts once said:
“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen…”
One of the most powerful forms of meditations to develop awareness is through neti-neti meditation. It encompasses everything we’ve covered throughout this article. Neti-neti is a sanskrit term that literally means “not this, not this”. In this meditation, one sits down and answers the question “who are you?” in your mind, and dis-identifying with anything and everything that doesn’t accurately answer that question.
Neti-neti becomes the blade in which you slice all previous forms you once identified with. If a thought pop ups – neti, neti. If a feeling arises – neti, neti. If a memory comes to the surface – neti, neti. Even neti-neti, your neti-neti’s. As each swipe of the blade occurs, you get closer towards swiping what the great Indian saint Ramana Maharshi called the I-Thought. He once wrote:
“Trace every thought back to its origin which is the ‘I-thought’; never allow thought to go on. If it does it will be unending. If you take it back to the source, thoughts will die of inaction, for the mind exists by thought; take away though and there is no mind. As each doubt and depression arises ask yourself, ‘Who is that doubts? Who is depressed?’ Tear everything away until there is nothing but the source left.”
As you uproot the I-thought, pure awareness begins emerging from the surface. Initially, this glimpse could be last just a fraction of a second. As you continue working with this meditation, glimpses turn into sustained stretches of time and both awareness and freedom begins to develop in your life.
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Understanding your true nature is arguably the most important task you could undertake in life. Any degree of suffering you’ve ever faced has been inevitably tied to a lack of understanding who you truly are. By answering the question “Who are you?”, long held illusions begins to fall, allowing awareness to shine through the surface. When it does, it will inevitably bring a quality of happiness and freedom unaffected by the outside world.
Photo by Seam Less