Photo credit: Alex Harvey
This audio recording was created at our April 30, 2019 group meditation. The talk starts at 34:00. Have fun listening!
This video recording was created at our April 23, 2019 group meditation. Enjoy!
Who Am I? Using Inquiry to Understand Selflessness
Enjoy a 30-minute bare awareness meditation followed by some guided inquiry to help you experience directly the selfless nature of the self. This class is part of our Creating the Beloved Community free training series. Read these tips to get the most out of this video: https://www.boundlessloveproject.org/news/2019/3/14/tips-for-watching-a-live-stream-or-recorded-video Check out other classes in this series here: https://www.boundlessloveproject.org/creating-the-beloved-community Read and print your own copy of the Beloved Community Pledge here: https://www.boundlessloveproject.org/news/2019/2/26/the-beloved-community-pledge This video was recorded April 30, 2019 at the Boundless Love Project's Group Meditation.Posted by Boundless Love Project on Tuesday, April 30, 2019
VIDEO OPTION: The content of this article was shared and video-recorded at a recent group meditation. The video starts with a guided meditation, but if you wish to only hear the talk, scroll to minute 36:40. Please click the icon to turn on the sound and push play. Then sit or lie down in a comfortable, energizing position; close your eyes; and listen with an open heart and mind. Enjoy!
The following is a transcript of the talk.
Who am I? Using Inquiry to Understand Selflessness
Who am I? Take out a piece of paper and write an answer this question to the best of your ability. We will not be sharing these answers with anyone else, so please be as honest and sincere as possible with yourself when you answer: Who am I? (Please do this before you consider reading.)
Today, we are going to use mindful inquiry to investigate who we are. To do this, use your senses to answer the questions. Don't look to your thoughts to answer the questions. Put your awareness in your senses and use your direct experience of reality to answer the questions.
Thankfully the questions we will be asking will lend themselves to this sort of direct, sense-based inquiry.
For those of you reading this, please answer the question before reading on. Otherwise, you will not be doing the mindful inquiry that can give you the benefits of mindful inquiry.
The questions I will be asking come from a variety of sources. I am going to acknowledge them all here so they do not get in the way of the flow of the questioning. These questions and lines of reasoning come from many Buddhist sutras documenting the words of Vajira, Sariputta, Khemaka, and Gotama Buddha; from Michael Singer's book The Untethered Soul; from Fred Davis' books The Book of Undoingand The Book of Unknowing; as well as questions by Ramana Maharshi.
Are We in Reality?
To start our questioning, ask yourself: Can you ever shift outside of reality? Can you ever not be in reality?
Reality is happening and we are in it. However, if we filter reality through our false stories of the mind, then we are still in reality, but not able to accurately recognize that reality. Thus, in an effort to see the truth, we are not talking about discovering anything new. Our investigation is simply about seeing things more clearly, so we can see reality as it is.
All we need to do is see clearly what is happening to recognize the reality we live in. Waking up is just about seeing things clearly. This involves challenging our stories and seeing how they are untrue or unhelpful.
When forced to write who we are, we often define ourselves by our names. I am Freeman. But our names are just letters on a piece of paper or sounds emitted from our voices. We are clearly not either of those things.
Sometimes we define ourselves by our accomplishments or our history, but that is what we have experienced. Our experiences are not us. Weare whatexperienced them. Thus, what we have done or achieved still doesn't address the question of who we are.
We also talk about how we are the roles we play, the possessions we own, the body, our beliefs, our emotions, or our sensations, or our consciousness. Today, we are going to investigate each of these stories to see if we really are these things.
If any question is not clear. Please ask for clarification. We have been practicing non-conceptual viewing by "seeing like a mobile phone." Today, we use this non-conceptual seeing to use our senses to answer these questions. We don't want to answer them by thinking. We want to answer them through direct experience. Have no fear if you do it wrong, as you can't do it wrong. Just do your best.
Are We Our Roles?
Think of a role you have led, either presently or in the past. Spouse, parent, adult, teacher, doctor, and so on. Pick one role that you most identify with and ask yourself these questions of it.
Have you always served in this role? Will you always be able to fulfil this role? Will this role always be needed?
Given your previous answers, is this role static and permanent or dynamic and changing?
Do you have full control over this role?
When things that you cannot control change, is that stressful or easeful?
Then, does it make sense to regard this role which is inconstant, subject to change, stressful, and not under your full control to be "me" or "mine"? Does it makes sense to say I am this role? This role is who I am?
You are not the roles you play. They are important and serve a function, but they are not who you are in your essence. If we are a teacher, did we not exist before we became a teacher? Or will we wink out of existence when we retire? That's absurd. Being a teacher is just an experience that we have had. But who is the "me" that is experiencing these roles? That's what we are looking to find out: who am I?
For now, though, we see at least that we are not the roles we play. When our egos mistake the roles we play to be who we are, we invite in suffering because those roles will begin, transform, change, and possibly end over the course of our lifetime. When we realize that the roles we play are not who we are, then those roles are free to change and transform freely without causing us any suffering.
Are We Our Possessions?
Bu what about our possessions? Are we the house we own, the clothes and jewelry we wear, the food we eat, the transportation we use?
I am giving all of you a penny. It is now yours. This penny will stand in to represent your possessions. Take the penny and lay it heads up.
Given your ability to flip the penny to be heads up, can you influence the penny?
Is this penny permanent or changing?
With your mind, can you prevent this penny from ever rusting, getting run over by a train, or being melting?
Do you have full control over this penny?
When things that you cannot control change, is that stressful or easeful?
Then, does it make sense to regard this penny which is inconstant, subject to change, stressful, and not under your full control to be "me" or "mine"?
If you think of this penny as being "mine" or of having great sentimental value -- maybe because it was given to you by your teacher -- and the penny gets lost or stolen, will you experience suffering?
If you don't think of the penny as "mine" and see the penny as just a part of nature that lives according to the laws of nature, and the penny gets lost or stolen, will you suffer?
Which one of these options would you prefer: to view the penny as "mine" and suffer, or to view the penny as "not mine" and not suffer?
What's true for this penny, is true for all of the forms in our lives: our homes, our clothes, our transportation, our electronics, and so on. None of them are "mine" in reality. They are all nature, operating according to the impersonal laws of nature.
As a linguistic convention, we will say "my" clothes, "my" bike, "my" house, and so forth to show we have a special relationship with these objects, but they are not actually "ours" because we do not have full control over these changing, impersonal objects. If we don't want to suffer when the forms around us change, we need to remember that they are "not me, not mine."
Ok, so we are not our possessions. Let's continue into our inquiry of who we are...
Are We The Body?
What about our bodies? Are we are bodies? let's investigate this.
Raise your arms up.
Given your ability to raise your arms up, can you influence the body?
Is this body permanent or changing?
Can you prevent this body from getting old, getting sick, or dying?
Given your previous answer, do you have full control over this body?
When the inconstant body that you cannot fully control changes, is that stressful or easeful?
To summarize: the body is inconstant, subject to change, stressful, and not under your full control. Given all this, does it make sense to regard this changing, stressful, uncontrollable body to be "me" or "mine"?
If you think of the body as "me" or "mine" and the body get sick, will you suffer mentally? Most certainly, yes.
But what if you don't think of the body as "me" or "mine," but simply as nature unfolding according to impersonal natural laws and conditioning? If you understand the body in this way, then when it gets sick, will you experience less mental suffering?
Certainly, you will still feel the physical pain and weakness of the illness. That is unavoidable. Yet, when you don't mistake the body to be who you are, are you more or less likely to add to that physical pain needless mental suffering?
Thus, would you rather take your body to be who you are and suffer more, or would you rather see the body as impersonal nature unfolding according to natural law and suffer less?
This body is not who we are. The body is impersonal nature. The more we mindfully watch how the body works, the more we realize we lack full control over it and it does what it does based on impersonal laws and conditioning that we also had no control over.
Yes, just like the penny, we have some influence over the body, but we lack full control over it. Paradoxically, the more we mindfully see that we are not our bodies, the more control we have over our bodies. But the more we mistake our bodies to be who we are, the more our egoic conditioning runs the body and the less control we have over it.
Thus, we are not our bodies. The body is simply another object of our awareness to be aware of. The search to know who we are continues...
Are We Our Thoughts?
What about our thoughts? Are we are thoughts? This includes our beliefs, opinions, stories, memories of the past, and dreams of the future. This includes our self-views: the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about our feelings, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. Let's examine now if we are our thoughts.
Think the thought: "Mindfulness."
Were you able to do it?
Given your ability to generate a thought, can you influence your thoughts?
Are your thoughts permanent or changing?
Can you successfully tell your thoughts to stop thinking?
Can you successfully tell your thoughts to only think loving, skillful, and true thoughts from now on?
Given your previous answers, do you have full control over your thoughts?
When your try to control your changing, uncontrollable thoughts, is that stressful or easeful?
To summarize: your thoughts are changing, not under your full control, and stressful. Given all this, does it make sense to regard these changing, stressful, uncontrollable thoughts to be "me" or "mine"?
If the thought, "I hate myself" arises, and you think of this thought as "me" or "mine," will you be more or less likely to assume it is a valid thought?
If the thought "I hate myself" arises, and you think of this thought as "me" or "mine," will that thought cause you to suffer?
But what if you don't think of your thoughts as "me" or "mine," but simply as nature unfolding according to impersonal natural laws and conditioning? If you understand the thoughts in this way, then when unskillful thoughts arise, will you be more or less willing to allow those unskillful thoughts to arise?
If you are more willing, this helps you let go of aversion towards your unskillful thoughts and allows you to live more peacefully. Rather than fighting these thoughts by judging, hating, or fearing them, you can peacefully allow them to arise and pass through the mind until they dissolve back into the nothingness from which they came. Seeing the impersonal nature of thoughts, means you can relate to them calmly, free of negative reactions. Thoughts that arise are just the mind churning out what the mind will churn out due to its past conditioning. No big deal.
If you understand arising thoughts to be impersonal nature, when unskillful thought arise will you be less likely to believe them?
If so, this helps you be more mindful, skillful, and less entangled in your thoughts. When you see the impersonal nature of thoughts, you also realize that the true you has a choice as to whether believe these impersonal thoughts or not. The true you can choose to mindfully and peacefully ignore all of the unskillful junk thoughts that arise. This too will bring more peace and ease into your life.
Thus, would you rather take your beliefs, opinions, and stories to be who you are and suffer more, or would you rather see these thoughts as impersonal nature unfolding according to natural law and suffer less?
Our thoughts are not who we are. Our thoughts operate according to impersonal natural laws that we did not create and that we do not control. The more we mindfully watch how our thoughts work, the more we realize this. Thus, thoughts are simply another impersonal object for us to be aware of.
The more we mindfully see that we are not our thoughts, the more peacefully we can allow all thoughts to arise without trying to control or argue with them, and the more skillful we become. Conversely, the more we mistake our thoughts to be who we are, the more likely those thoughts are to take us over, and cause us to behave unskillfully in a way that harms ourselves and others.
OK. We are not our thoughts. What about the sensations we feel? Let's investigate them now.
Are We Our Sensations?
What about our sensations? Are we our sensations? This includes the sensations of physical pain, emotional feelings, and the sensations of mental states. Let's consider these sensations.
Gently stroke your arm. Can you feel the sensations of touch?
Given your ability to do that, can you influence the sensations?
Are sensations permanent or changing?
Can you avoid or stop unpleasant sensations?
Can you keep or maintain pleasant sensations indefinitely?
Can you successfully tell all sensations to only be pleasant?
Given your previous answers, do you have full control over your sensations?
When you try to control your changing, uncontrollable sensations, is that stressful or easeful?
To summarize: sensations are changing, not under your full control, and stressful. Given all this, does it make sense to regard these changing, stressful, uncontrollable sensations to be "me" or "mine"?
If unpleasant sensations arises, and you assume them to be "me" or "mine," does this story create, prolong, and intensify mental, emotional, and physical suffering?
If pleasant feelings go away, and you assume them to be "me" or "mine," does this story create, prolong, and intensify mental and emotional suffering?
Now what if you don't think of sensations as "me" or "mine," but simply as nature unfolding according to impersonal natural laws and conditioning? If you understand sensations in this way, then does that open the door for you to feel unpleasant sensations compassionately with less or no mental, emotional, and physical suffering?
Thus, would you rather mistake mental, emotional, and bodily sensations to be who you are and suffer more, or would you rather see them as impersonal nature unfolding according to natural laws and suffer less?
Through this inquiry we see that it doesn't make sense to view our sensations as being "me" or "mine." Sensations operate according to impersonal natural laws that we did not create and that we do not control. The more we mindfully watch how sensations work, the more we realize this. Thus, sensations are simply another impersonal object for us to be objectively aware of.
The more we mindfully see that we are not our sensations, the more peacefully we can allow all sensations to arise without trying to control or resist them, and the more skillful we become. Conversely, the more we mistake our sensations to be personal and durable, the more likely those sensations will take us over, cause us to react with aversion and craving, and cause us to behave unskillfully in a way that harms ourselves and others.
What about our consciousness? Could that be who we are?
Let's turn our investigation towards consciousness. Consciousness allows us to be mindful and aware.
Rest your consciousness on the sensations of breathing. Now move your consciousness to hear all the sounds you can hear.
Given your ability to move and rest your awareness on different objects, can you influence your consciousness?
Are you conscious during deep, dreamless sleep?
Can your conscious awareness show up in a wide or narrow focus?
Given your answers to these past few questions, is your conscious awareness permanent or changing?
Can you successfully tell your consciousness to always be mindful?
Given your previous answer, do you have full control over your conscious awareness?
When you try to control your changing, uncontrollable consciousness, is that stressful or easeful?
To summarize: conscious awareness changes, is not under your full control, and is stressful. Given all this, does it make sense to regard the changing, stressful, uncontrollable consciousness to be "me" or "mine"?
If you think of consciousness as nature unfolding according to impersonal natural laws and conditioning, can you relate more peacefully and compassionately with your conscious awareness regardless of how it shows up?
Through this inquiry we see that it doesn't make sense to view consciousness as being "me" or "mine." Consciousness operates according to impersonal natural laws that we did not create and that we do not control. The more we mindfully watch how our consciousness works, the more we realize this. Thus, conscious awareness is yet another impersonal object for us to be peacefully aware of.
Conscious awareness is not something we do, it is simply something that happens to us. We are always already aware.
To summarize, we are not our names, roles, possessions, bodies, thoughts, or the physical, mental, or emotional sensations we feel; or the consciousness that we know the world with. Still the questions persists: who are we?
More Investigations of What’s Behind Consciousness
Here are some more questions about consciousness for you to explore with your senses.
Are you alive?
How do you know?
Would you know you were alive if you couldn't see? If so, how?
Would you know you were alive if you couldn't hear? If so, how?
Would you know you were alive if you couldn't smell? If so, how?
Would you know you were alive if you couldn't taste? If so, how?
Would you know you were alive if you couldn't feel? If so, how?
When you are in deep, dreamless sleep, at that moment, do you know you are alive? If not, why not?
Consciousness Can Be Absorbed or Mindful
Even though consciousness is not who we are, and attempting to control what is uncontrollable is stressful, consciousness is the key to living a peaceful, easeful, joyful life. We set the intention to live mindfully, and we do our best to be mindful in all situations. Through our intentions and kind, gentle, skillful efforts, our mindfulness grows. More and more we are able to live from the seat of our conscious awareness.
Consciousness has the ability to move, flow, and even merge with the objects of its awareness. When consciousness merges with the object, subject and object become one. Moreover, consciousness tends to move towards that which is most exciting, interesting, and sensational. Pain is an object that is all three of these things. When we feel pain, our consciousness merges with the pain. When our awareness is absorbed in this way, the pain feels very personal, durable, and unpleasant.
Mindfulness is about remembering that all objects are only impermanent, impersonal, unsatisfying objects of awareness. When we are mindful and we feel pain, we are the one who knows there is pain and pain is the object of our awareness. When mindful in this way, we relate to the pain with more objectivity, distance, dispassion, peace, and ease. It may even feel like there is a lot of peaceful, pleasant space around the pain. With mindfulness, there is physical pain, but the mind does not suffer. This feels very liberating and possibly joyful.
This ability for the consciousness to be absorbed into an object, can also be used skillfully. Great athletes, artists, and people from all fields often get so absorbed into their work that they experience a flow state, where the work feels effortless, inspiring, and joyful. During these flow states, there is little to no mental activity and the consciousness is not absorbed into these thoughts. Instead, the consciousness is totally focused on doing the work to the best of one's abilities, and may be absorbed into the bodily senses or the physical objects that are being manipulated.
During very high meditations states, your consciousness can also absorb into your anchor, such as the sensations of breath. In these absorbed meditative states, all other objects fall away from your consciousness. You may be meditating in a very loud environment, but you will not hear any of it. You may be experiencing a lot of pain, but you will not feel any of it.
Although there are skillful ways for our consciousness to be absorbed into objects of our awareness, most of the time, our consciousness is absorbed by our thoughts. Thoughts contain a lot of exciting, interesting, and sensational content, which is what the consciousness normally gravitates too. Unfortunately, in the realm of our thoughts is where falsehood and delusion lies. To be absorbed in our thoughts is to create lots of stress, emotional upset, and mental anguish. Thus, we set the kind, loving intention to relate to our thoughts with mindful objectivity, seeing them as impersonal, impermanent, unsatisfying. We see this about our thoughts over and over until we train our mind to be both mindfully aware and dispassionate towards our thoughts. They are only one object that we can be aware of, and given their ability to cause us immense suffering, they are not worth being absorbed into.
For most of us, our consciousness is primarily absorbed in our thoughts and unpleasant sensations of emotional and physical pain. This leads to a very stressful, unfulfilling life. Using loving, gentle intentions, we start to train our mind to live from mindful awareness. Rather than constantly be absorbed into our juicy, yet false thoughts, and sensational yet painful emotions, we live in the seat of our consciousness as the knowing awareness. From the seat of consciousness, we can experience all of life with peace, ease, and joy, regardless of our circumstances. And this gets us closer to who we are.
Awareness Can Not Directly Know Its True Self
Who are we? We are the subject who sees the object. Just as an eyeball cannot see itself, our awareness cannot directly know itself as an object of awareness. Thus, you are not any of the objects that your awareness is knowing. You are not your experiences. You are the one experiencing them.
Fred Davis likens our body -- complete with its thoughts, feelings, sensations, and consciousness -- to a pair of glasses. Glasses allow us to see in the same way that the body allows the one who sees to see. Yet as he points out, glasses never mistake themselves to be the one who sees, but our thinking mind mistakes our body to be the one who sees all the time. Yet as we have seen, we are not our bodies. We cannot be any of the objects that we know. All objects are just nature, unfolding according to natural laws.
Thus, if you take away all of your experiences, what is left? Who is the you that is experiencing those experiences?
Can you directly know yourself through your senses? You cannot. Not when all of your experiences are not you.
Who Am I?
Who are you? Don't answer this with a story. Try to feel and experience the answer to it directly.
Who am I?
Who sees when I see?
Who hears when I hear?
Who knows that I am aware?
We are the subject. Everything we experience is an object of our awareness and those objects are not us.
Who are you? Explore the answer to this non-conceptually. The mind always wants to give you a story to answer this. But if you can't fall back on a story, and are simply using your direct experience to answer the question, who or what are you?
If we can't know ourselves directly through our own experience, why are we so sure that our stories of who we are, are correct? Our stories of who we are, don't hold up to the evidence that we have experienced today.
Spend some time with each of these next questions. Explore the answer experientially and let the full impact of them sink into the marrow of the bones:
If we can't know ourselves directly using our senses, and we can't trust our stories to define us, then is it possible that we are nothing?
If we can't know ourselves directly using our senses, and we can't trust our stories to define us, then is it equally possible that we are everything?
If we can't know ourselves directly using our senses, and we can't trust our stories to define us, then is it possible that we are both nothing and everything at the same time?
Feel the full impact of these questions. Let them fill you with wisdom, truth, peace, and joy.
It is from this creative, loving, formless, nothingness that is the source of all life, love, peace, joy, courage, energy, and forms. Nothingness is the true self of all forms, including ourselves. This one, eternal, never-changing, Nothingness goes by many different names, but in this paraphrased, closing benediction by Peace Pilgrim, it goes by the name of love. [If you haven't already, please read, watch, or listen to The Story of Nothing (and Everything!) to help make more sense of this talk of Nothingness.]
Benevolent love surrounds and protects us. Know your true nature to be love. You are love's beautiful child, always in love's hands. Accept love's protection and there really is nothing to fear.
Know that you are not the clay garment of your body. Know that you are not the self-centered egoic nature which needlessly governs your life. Know that you are the life-centered, loving nature. You are unconditional love. You are awareness. You are spacious nothingness. Eternal and indestructible. Identify with the real you.
Now, with the knowledge that we are love's perfect children, eternal and indestructible, let us go our separate ways in love, but always remain together in spirit.