Self-enquiry simply means to enquire into yourself to find out what or who you are by placing investigative attention within. When undertaken correctly, there is direct experience of the natural state, of the Self. Self-enquiry is intellectual in the beginning, because there is a partial technique that needs to be understood. At the outset of self-enquiry, it is necessary to make an effort to abide in the Self. This results in a natural abiding in time. The unnatural state of an outward-focused mind must be brought around to being inward- focused, and this alone is where effort lies. Mind thinks it has something to do in order to realise its true nature. It only has to be quiet, not engage with thought and then it must be bypassed. Because mind is a reflection of the Self, it is entirely dependent on the Self. This must first be understood and then realised to be so.
An explanation of self-enquiry is full of paradoxes. This cannot be avoided as long as one uses language to go beyond the mind. The finite can describe the infinite but, beyond the infinite, the mind becomes redundant in the process and ceases to exist. This happens in spite of the mind, because the mind cannot go beyond existence. It seeks experiences to validate existence. Its purpose is to perpetuate existence so it will not and cannot willingly surrender to its own annihilation. Mind will want to come with you in self-enquiry and will attempt to do so initially. To this end mind is likely to set up a checklist of what to do, what to feel, how to experience and what to expect. It will assess how you are doing and compartmentalise self-enquiry as a spiritual experience, culminating findings as interesting phenomena. While enquiring within, if you see light or colours—reject them. They are concepts. If you meet angelic beings or spirit guides—reject them. The tricks of the mind are many. The Absolute contains no manifestations, no concepts or images, no “I” and no other. To have an experience of any sort is your imagination at play. This is not self-enquiry; this is mind doing what mind does. Mind perceives that which is beyond I AM as a void, blank and stagnant because mind cannot go beyond phenomena. In self-enquiry, if you think that you understand it, that you got there, that you found the holy grail, that you know how to do it, then you have not touched anything beyond mind. You have delved deeper into the creativity of your own imagination. Even the desire to realise the Self will ensure your attention stays in the realm of mind. Self-discovery and inner questioning of this ilk is interpreted by the mind as another opportunity to engage an experiencer in experiencing an experience. Self-enquiry is not and cannot be an experience. Self can only be intuited in the absence of mind. Expect mind to vehemently reject this, as it will not want to face the fact that its very presence is the greatest impediment to performing this enquiry.
Self-enquiry is so simple and easy that we can miss it. There is such praise for effort in society that to make no effort can initially be puzzling. Many schools of spiritual thought purport that humanity has a long way to go to reach a resolution or satisfactory evolution. This is rarely questioned. It is accepted as truth and is believed into existence. There is no journey and the idea that evolution can take lifetimes is untrue. If you believe you have a lot of work to do to transform yourself—that you will find your authentic self at the end of your dysfunctional marriage, your anxiety or your grief—this is not so. You are the witness of all of this. But if you want to believe that you have a distance to travel, then you will find places to go, books to read, seminars and courses to attend and a journey to take.
The “I” thought is the source of all thoughts because you cannot have a thought without a thinker. All thoughts arise in consciousness and your mind has you believing that the thoughts you entertain are actually yours. All of your thoughts are in relation to you: your opinions, your life, your hopes, your dreams, your career, your ideas and beliefs. Identification cannot happen without the sense of “me” and “mine.” In truth there is no yours and mine. Thoughts are thoughts, but you can make thoughts your own by turning on the personal and subjective perspective that is ego. This happens, for example, when you think you will be better off without thoughts.
Wanting to control thinking is itself a thought. Even in observing thoughts, if you have a preference not to be attached over being attached to thoughts, then this too is mind. One can be firmly attached to the idea of not being attached! To have a preference of any kind is mind. In order to believe the story your thoughts present, you must at some level want to own your thoughts. Thus you consolidate the idea that there is a thinker who needs these thoughts. Hence, every thought has its origin in the “I” thought. Self- enquiry directs one to the source of this “I” thought.
Be quiet, sit still, do not participate in any thoughts, leave mind activity aside for now and direct your attention to the source of the “I” thought. The “I” thought is the original personal thought and it is therefore mind itself. Placing your attention on the source of the “I” thought leads to something within you that is behind, prior to or beyond the mind. Ask the question “From where does the I thought arise?” It is the source of all thoughts and, in trying to locate the source of the most intimate thought of “I” you will find that it is no more than a concept. The source of all thought has no separate existence: a sense of nothingness leads you to Pure Self.
Ask the question “Who is having this original I thought?” In the words of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950) ask within, “Who am I?” From where did this question arise? Look within and find out from where did the “I” arise. This question turns your vision around. When you solve this for yourself and confirm your findings with absolute clarity, you have solved all other conceivable questions. There is no answer to either of these questions. To arrive at any describable answer would be a conceptual response from your mind. Stop reading and settle within right now. You are capable of this enquiry this very moment. Go within and prove it to yourself. See if you can locate the source of the thought of “I” or ask, “Who am I?” See what you find.
It takes common sense to know that you cannot point to anything, be it object or image, and claim that you are that. If you see an object, you are at a distance from it—so it is not you. Therefore, you must be more subtle than that. In this search or enquiry, find that which you refer to as “me.” For a long time, you have accepted that “me” to be real, so locate it now. Focus your attention and see if this one, whom you refer to as “me,” can be found. Do not make this complicated: it is simple. Initially, there will be resistance to this inner search, as many aspects of personality do not want to discover truth. Do not give up and do not accept a conceptual answer. If a thought arises as your thought, know that it cannot exist without the presence of your ego or personal “I.” Recognise what is at play and let thoughts pass by. Do not entertain them as real. When there is the “I” thought, you, he and she all appear as separate entities. See if the “I” thought refers to a tangible entity. Apart from a subject in thought, does this “I” exist? If this enquiry is undertaken correctly, you will see that all your ideas and beliefs about others are not tangible entities. They are nothing but concepts. All are the same in essence and different in expression, nothing more. If you let the “I” thought dissolve, then all differences must (and will) disappear.
This discovery is not an academic or intellectual exercise. If you just learn about it, all is lost to you. Discover for yourself that whatever you observe, you cannot be. So stay as witness and let all come and go. You will find that a peace arises, settling your attention in a restful way. Observing is effortless. Look to see what are you, where are you, who are you, and you will find that there is no tangible, identifiable thing of substance that is you. Neither is there a location where you can be found. You will discover that it is only your conditioning that says that this “I” is real. The “me” that resists, feels separate and has a story is a thought. Neither that “me” or mind has any more substance than any thought, all are thoughts. Personality itself is only an idea existing within you. None of these things are tangible, none of these are real. See them as a play within creation. There is no “I,” there is no “me,” and all that is “mine” is a derivation of these concepts. You are emptiness. Give no identity or label to this direct experience. There is seeing taking place, but there is no “you” engaged in the activity of seeing. Remain indefinable. There is no need to engage with anything that arises. Even fears that you will explode, combust or disappear may vie for attention. Do not engage in any thought at all now. What explodes, combusts or disappears cannot be you. A natural sense of peace and wellness arises from this discovery.
Being empty in this way is completely natural. This natural state does not need protecting. You are the peace you are searching for and there are no conditions. You will find that mind itself slips into this infinite peace naturally. Engage in this wonderful discovery for yourself right now, as all this book can do is present concepts to indicate truth—it cannot present you to you. Do not identify with mind that is full of doubts stating, “I am not there yet” or “I will just read to the end and then do the self-enquiry.” Do not reach for an experience. There is no event to take place. Ultimate understanding is present and it is empty.
Of all thoughts that can be thought, the “I” thought is the root. Mind is thus nothing other than the “I” thought, and so mind and ego are the same thing. It follows that the individual “I” is nothing but ego. Every time you speak a sentence that begins “I am… “ you endorse a belief that you exist. Identifying yourself as an individual perpetuates you as an object. But you are the subject and there is only the subject. If you believe there is an independent you who exists as a separate entity, then enquire as to what and who exactly it is that exists. Find out who is this “I” that you refer to as yourself. You will find that, in removing this primary thought, all other thoughts and concepts are loosened and can be uprooted. What remains then? Pure Self. This is not consciously experienced because no objective centre is found. No form is located, yet somehow there is intuitive emptiness. Coupled with this recognition, immense joy and peace arise. You cannot be what you can point to or experience. You are the primary, the Self. This reveals itself beautifully from stillness with absolute clarity. Prove inwardly that you are the Self, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Thoughts can arise, but significance will not be present. This is because the one who is interested in thoughts, to whom all concepts impact, is simply not here. In this natural state beyond mind, what once was a sticky relationship with thought is now broken.
In the dropping and destruction of all “I” thoughts, self-enquiry must also destroy itself. In dissolving an “I,” there is no longer one to ask this very question of self-enquiry. Hence, there cannot be an answer to the question. You are the answer to the question: not an individual, conceptual “you,” but who you really are beyond concepts, thoughts, ideas and whatever mind creates. Self-enquiry brings on the death of the personal “I.” In asking “Who am I?” there is silence with no answer. To arrive at an answer denotes mental exercise. With no mind, there is no doubt; there is profound silence. There is no you that can claim it, hold it, describe it, have an insight into it. You cannot even remember it and there is no memory to be visited within it. Memories are only needed by ego in order to play with identification. It happens in reference to a past and a future. In the Self, there is no need for such impressions or for anything to register. These are functions of mind. Thus, no one can claim to know it, for in the Self there is no one. It is impossible to register it as an experience, as mind is the necessary backdrop to experience. To make such a claim requires one. With the rise of the concept of one, separation comes into form and we are in the world of mind again. We are telling a story of one who had an experience. That is not the direct experience of Self—that is mind.
Ask the question “Who am I?” This useful signpost is effective for many. Drop the signpost once it is used. Holding onto the question is mind seeking control. Ask the question and let the rest reveal itself to you. Let the question dissolve and let the questioner dissolve. What remains is what you are. Effortless and Absolute. Self-enquiry will pull you from the drama that arises from identification with thoughts every time. If you initially self-enquire at every opportunity, asking “Who am I?” or “Who is angry?” or “Who is waiting for this bus?” or “Who is it that is annoyed by that comment?” or “Who is suffering this pain?”—this will help you step from the drama of your own conditioning to observe and then beyond, to Reality. With such intensive practice, self-enquiry becomes exhausting, but from this point on you will begin to find a way and a pace appropriate for you. Consciousness will ensure that a balance is found. Let the question “Who am I?” take a strong hold on you so that you cannot think of other thoughts. This questioning is not to be taken lightly. It requires active looking with your full attention. Check inwardly and constantly ask, “What is the sense of ‘I’ attached to now?” See the concept or the intention and observe. Do not identify. It will become obvious that what you are observing is a movement in the space of consciousness—and you are not that. Know that you cannot have spiritual knowledge without diverting and dissolving attention through self-enquiry. Mental effort is not enough. It must be directly experienced to come to the certainty of the true nature of what arises as “I.” When this is inwardly understood, the annihilation of the questioner comes. Self-enquiry will be a mental activity at first. Be aware of this and work through this phase. The certainty that you are the Absolute consolidates. Ego increasingly subsides and thoughts lose their identification potency. With self-enquiry, there occurs a natural thinning and dissipation of old habits, patterns of thinking and obsessions, and with continued enquiry you will cease to create new mental distractions. Each time you revert to Self, there is freshness to that eternal freedom and space that you are.
The idea that you are separate in any way arises only from your mind. When you seek to find the real nature of mind, you will discover that there is no mind. When you abide in Self, mind is nowhere. Therefore to be concerned about that which is only a thought is totally pointless. Once the mind accepts the fact that it has no power of its own, but is enabled to function by a higher power called Self, it will yield and dissolve in Self. All that is involved is a subtle movement of attention to examine where in you does the thought “I” originate.
There is no bridge to the Self because there is no gap between the Self and anything else that can exist. You are the Self. Believing that you are otherwise brings suffering and pain. There is no place to go and nothing to do to make you more of what you already are. How you experience yourself is up to you. To make self-enquiry another spiritual exercise creates another habit of mind. It is best to relax, stay quiet and stop engaging with thoughts. All unfolds naturally, revealing the truth by a power that takes care of all arising in consciousness, together with consciousness itself. All things come and go—let them. That within which all things come and go is unaffected. Remove your attention from all that is transient. That which remains never came from anywhere. It cannot be experienced by a second. It is Absolute Self.
With the direct experience of Self, is it viable to play small and identify with the petty stories of likes and dislikes, desires and judgements of your personal mind? Concepts are part of all that is. They are part of consciousness and entertaining them as truth creates difficulties. In the inevitable dropping of every concept you have about yourself, you will find that the most rigid of beliefs is the belief that you are your body. Drop everything and rest in what you are. Phrases such as “I am that I am” or “I am not that” can be useful, but they will not point your attention to Self. For most who undertake self-enquiry, the question “Who am I?” directs one to a wonderful treasure. Finding the source of the primary thought—the “I” thought—reveals the core. Self-enquiry is not a process or a practice. There are no steps. It cannot take you some place. It simply points you in a direction that enables you to look and see from where the question “Who am “I?” arises. Without thinking, without effort, the root of your mind is challenged.
In the absence of any concept of what you are and are not, Self is. That which says “I” in you is found to be nothing more than a thought itself. You are prior to this original thought of “I.” Find out who is watching this “I” and who is the Ultimate Seer of that? When you can observe something or point to something, it is clear that that cannot be you. So, to that end, you cannot observe the Self either. There is no recognising the Self. Experience it directly. To abide in the Self is a signpost to be used and discarded, because nobody can abide in it. You cannot stay in it. How can you stay in what you are? You are what you are. Exactly what that is awaits your discovery again and again. When there is direct experience, there is no you experiencing, only the experience is, in pure form. So you cannot stay in it, and it follows that you just have to be it. This is what the phrase “abiding in the Self” points towards. You cannot become it. It is already what you are and Self can never become more or less of what it is. So be what you are, for there is no “how” question to any of this. “How” always stems from mind. The Self cannot know Self: it is even beyond oneness, and oneness is said to be beyond separation and unity. Self can only be Self, and so be what you cannot not be. To be what you are is totally fulfilling. It is not that you, as a person, can feel fulfilled, but Absolute fulfillment arises in the transcending of all ideas of who you thought you were. It is not that you shift identity from being an individual to Absolute. Look and see for yourself. There is only Absolute and your imagination. Which are you in your essence? Satisfaction that arises from the Self is so complete that there is no interest in anything else, in anything phenomenal. There is no dependency on your body, your life events or on anything that can be experienced. This is because no individual “I” exists who needs to be fulfilled. What you are is happiness, total complete freedom beyond the concept of freedom. The physical body becomes totally relaxed, enjoying a great ease that flows as a consequence of abiding in your natural state.
If this resonates as truth for you, if these signposts lead you to that which you are, then where lies the purpose in spiritual healing or religion? If you are in the grip of believing thoughts about being broken, about needing to be healed, fixed, understood, witnessed, are these not thoughts laden with identification? Does it serve you to continue such gross identification? Any experience that life can present to you, beyond the event of experiencing, can only become a thought in a past that does not exist. Dissolving it, letting it go, cutting the ties with it, are all simply concepts within consciousness and have nothing to do with spiritual knowledge. The healing industry, angels and chakra work, churches, religions and rituals are not routes that lead to truth. They offer experiences only. All that exists is part of the play of the activity within consciousness, bringing experiences to those who seek experiences. Spiritual and therapeutic work can help in shifting limited thinking about how things work. It can only replace one set of thoughts for another. Spiritual knowledge is instantly attainable. There is no money to be spent, no place to go, no standards to reach. In spite of all these mind constructs, experiences and happenings in consciousness, the Self remains unchanged. All experiences exist solely for your enjoyment.
The traditional order of evolution of mind from spirituality to deeper questioning begins with focusing on an external object such as an image of God/guru or repeating a mantra. All the while, a dualistic perspective prevails. There is a subject and an object. Therefore a relationship between both necessitates a belief in separation. However, this is a useful methodology to train the mind to be singularly focused. When concentrating on one thought, all others disappear. As this honing down of mind takes place, simultaneously you will find yourself gradually withdrawing from external objects in all aspects of life, with the realisation that nothing external satisfies and attention stays on the subject. Finding out who the subject is, who this “I” is, becomes central. Desires are understood as the play of mind. Questioning from where does this “I” notion arise, and in the subsequent merging with what is found, it is revealed that there is only the subject. There is no second, no object, and this resonates as truth even beyond the concepts of subject and object. Thus, it becomes clear that to consider God as something external to oneself is a mental image, a mere play of mind.
As long as God is personal, that personal God must be external to oneself—a personal God is believed into existence by a personal mind. As long as you believe you are your body, you will perceive others independently exist as their presenting forms. Similarly, if God is a form for you, you must first believe that you are a form. Beyond identifying mind and thus beyond form, the essence of all is the same. Thus, an image of God is no different from God when you realise that form is not synonymous with essence. Hence, there is divinity and sacredness in every single thing, manifest and unmanifest; all is the same in essence and different in expression. Absolute Divinity is Self: it is without name and form. Do not be under the impression that the Self can be a personal God. Self is Absolute; it is nameless, formless divinity. It is the reality from which everything arises and into which all will merge again. Even a personal God, saint or guru who appears for you as real from time to time emerges in consciousness from the nameless and formless. Appearance as form is dependent on consciousness. Ultimately, all forms return to Self from whence they came and the Absolute depends on nothing.
So what will bring you to happiness? Temporary experiences of happiness may be familiar to you, but at a certain point that is not good enough. If you want to feel happy then ask, “Who is the one who wants to feel happy?” It is the mind that desires happiness, and it is the mind that wants to feel the Absolute, to rest in Absolute Peace and Joy. But how can mind feel that which is permanent? Permanent Presence can be felt directly once the mind is quiet. It is not difficult to put aside your mind once it is quietly relaxed. Once attention is available, that which is permanent will reveal itself, because there isn’t any “one” to interrupt. It is only mind that interrupts the spontaneous current of the Self. Similarly, know that peace that can be disturbed by a thought is not Absolute Peace. Mind cannot bring you to the direct knowledge of Self. The Absolute remains unaffected by all that comes and goes, and is constant and indifferent to all conditions.
If there were conclusive signposts to the Self, surely this would be well known information. Consciousness has been unfolding since the beginning of time. Its coming into existence created time and space as a context. Consciousness is not bothered by what unfolds as form or as formless. It has no concern for, or judgements about, anything: it functions to accommodate the existence of everything that can be created, everything and its opposite. Every thought that can be conceived takes place in consciousness. All the while consciousness itself is not affected. Consciousness is not in a hurry to draw creation towards a resolution. Its nature is to enquire into itself, but there is no conclusion, no answer that can satisfy in consciousness. Consciousness will never work itself out, for that is impossible. It is your option to simply get off the roundabout once you come to understand and know the truth of this game of consciousness, the leela or play of creation.
Consciousness arises from the Self and is at no time not Self. Anything that is identifiable, is an appearance in it. All that has form is a unique expression of essential essence that is Self. So how can there be a returning home, a reconnection back to source or God? All such ideas are concepts. It is only from your mind that the idea that you are separate in any way can arise. Any sense of separation is a construct emanating from the “I” thought. Any experience of separation is untrue and based on learned, conditioned beliefs. There is a natural order to the flow of consciousness at all times. Everything unfolds in its own time. Do whatever you feel inwardly drawn to do. Do nothing if you are drawn to inactivity. After all, you literally only need food, shelter and clothing. The unfolding of experience will continue: know the truth, remind yourself of it if you must and enjoy what presents. There is nothing that you can do to speed up your realisation of who you are. Life is not an obstacle to knowing truth. Thoughts that you think are yours are not yours at all. That ownership idea arises from your belief that you exist as a separate entity. Thoughts that you want to get it right and work it out and abide in the Self are just mind doing its thing—generating desires. To think that you need time, silence or any condition for spiritual knowledge to unfold within you is an attitude that does not serve. There are no thoughts that are of a higher quality than others—that too is a concept. All thoughts just pass through. Whether you make them yours or not is your play in the scheme of things. The discovery of spiritual knowledge is not a new project for your distraction. Bypass these mind games and be empty: remain quiet and stop being a thinker.
Should the response arise in you that self-enquiry is a lonely exercise, should you think that solitude is part of this unfolding, then know that the concept of solitude and the experience of solitude are created by mind. The Self has no place for solitude, nothing is separate from it. Remember that Self cannot make mistakes, but mind can. It is only when you identify yourself as someone who can be affected by experiences, as someone whose existence is dependent on how things happen, that suffering presents. Your being is Bliss. It always was. If you are still, your mind may stop seeking your attention. With a pure and quiet mind, the truth of your nature is all that remains. Through self-enquiry, in direct experience of the Self, it is as though you go back to where you never left. In seeing that you are the first and the last, prior and beyond, it is clear that the light of this direct knowledge cannot make you anything.
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Jac O’Keeffe is a spiritual teacher and author of the books Born to Be Free and How to Be a Spiritual Rebel. She is also a founding member of the Association for Spiritual Integrity (ASI)—an organization that encourages spiritual teachers and the community to support one another in a process of growth and spiritual development. It aims to develop a network of resources for those in a role of leadership and encourages continual self-reflection.
From Born to be Free, by Jac O’Keeffe. Copyright © 2011 by Jac O’Keeffe. For more information visit https://www.jac-okeeffe.com