True Inquiry and the Conscious Process

“When you are infected with the ‘I-am-the-body’ virus, a whole universe springs into being. But when you have had enough of it, you cherish some fanciful ideas about liberation and pursue lines of action totally futile. You concentrate, you meditate, you torture your mind and body, you do all sorts of unnecessary things, but you miss the essential, which is the elimination of the person.”

~Nisargadatta Maharaj

In these essays, I utilize terms like “true inquiry” and “the conscious process of recognition and liberation”, so as to differentiate what is being referred to from mere introspection, psychological analysis, or self-absorbed meditation. Classically, true inquiry arises in the compelling form of “Who and what am I — prior to, behind, and beyond all names and temporary identities?” However, if it is approached intellectually, as if it were a mental riddle, it will not bear fruit, but only stir up clouds of conceptual sediment.

Small mind cannot be used to grasp “Big Mind”, any more than consciousness can account for that which is prior it — that in which it arises and dissolves. Nevertheless, if the yearning for genuine awakening is not passionate, but more like an intermittent or artificial affectation, or if the effort itself is inconsistent, little will be revealed of one’s real nature and prior identity.

As Nisargadatta Maharaj notes: “The urge to find oneself is a sign that you are getting ready. The impulse always comes from within. Unless your time has come, you will have neither the desire nor the strength to go for self-enquiry whole-heartedly.”

True Inquiry is not a strategy or scheme employed to change one’s state to a more idealistic condition, or to fabricate an enhanced sense of self. It is not a yoga of self-improvement, or a technique to calm oneself by manipulating thought forms. Along the way, certain methods may be employed as expedient means, such as the practice of non-dwelling and the discipline of silence, in order to break the bonds of memory and self-identification. However, allowing attention to turn back to that which is always already aware — the knowing of the knowing, regardless of the transient contents of what may be known — is the essence of this process.

Being aware of being aware is not an addition to or modification of consciousness, but on the contrary, involves both a clear recognition, and spontaneous letting go, of self-created obstructions and deeply-seated impediments in the form of conditioned programs that have been obscuring the fundamental presence of one’s own original awake awareness. The process of such true meditation (including the practice of non-dwelling and discipline of silence), amounts to a refusal to grant reality to the passing parade, or cling to any of the parade characters as if they represented one’s actual identity.

The late adept Urgyen Rinpoche made an eminently practical and succinct recommendation in this regard: “When a thought moves, simply recognize the thinker. The thinking then dissolves. No matter what the thought is about, the thinking and the thinker are empty. A thought in itself is not made of any concrete substance; it is simply an empty thought movement. By recognizing the empty essence in a thought, it vanishes like a bubble in water. That is how to deal with any particular present thought at hand. Once you know how to let the present thought dissolve, any subsequent thought can be dealt with in exactly the same way, as simply another present thought. But if we get involved in the thought, thinking of what is being thought of, and continue it, then there is no end.”

Once set in motion by the heart’s deepest yearning for self-awareness, coupled with the willingness to question one’s fondest beliefs and self-images, the “process” will actually take over and run itself. All the aspirant need do is to resist the temptation to interfere by claiming personal doership. In that sense, it truly is effortless. Indeed, effort itself may only serve to complicate, by reifying the illusion of being a particular someone – a “me-self” – that is climbing a stairway to heaven.

Rather, this inquiry essentially involves paying attention and observing how the mind creates the illusion of a separate and enduring self-sense out of the body/mind organism’s energies. Instead of identifying with that projection, however, these transient and non-binding perceptions are just recognized for what they are (and aren’t), and attention remains stabilized in the space between the arising and dissolving thought-forms.

The same process can also be applied to the world of phenomena that appear to be external (including the sense we have of so-called “others”). In other words, just as with the sense of self, the apparently objective “world” of time, space, and objects only has the reality which we arbitrarily grant it, based on our conditioned filters and interpretive mechanisms. Even the quantum sciences are beginning to acknowledging the role of consciousness at the root of the holographic projection that constitutes the world of appearances.

In the course of true inquiry, perseverance may ripen into an explosive revolution in consciousness after attention is turned back on itself at its root. Here, the recognition of the empty and transparent nature of all appearances, thoughts, emotions, and sense of self will spontaneously begin to arise. At such point, the “narrator” of one’s personal story is clearly exposed as a conditional mental construct, a superimposition on the boundless purity of vast and infinite being-ness. The fictional character one has heretofore taken oneself to be is directly revealed as a complex fantasy of interpretation on perception, a movement in consciousness that never could amount to a concrete and substantial person.

Even though that fanciful charade may be laid bare, however, the habit energy of ego-mind will attempt to rebound in a panic to re-assert its dominant position. Nevertheless, one cannot “un-see” what has been directly seen, nor pretend any longer that the imaginative screenplay we’ve been buying into represents a separate and enduring “me”. Moreover, the process does not stop at the revelation of the essential emptiness of the personal story, but if allowed to fully unfold, the emptiness of all we have taken to be “the world” is also directly recognized from the impersonal position of the silent and detached witness.

In the process of true inquiry into the source and motive of our own subjective storyline, previously uninspected subterranean streams of stressful programming are uncovered and brought into the light of awareness, like sunlight over the well. The insinuations accompanying every level of consciousness, including those prowling in the darker areas currently known as “the subconscious”, will continue to arise, since they have already been set in motion, but the thrill is gone. Nobody is actually implicated, nothing jumps out to claim the flotsam and jetsam that once seemed like fearful, or precious, or non-expendable elements of the persona we’ve been masquerading as. Even as the subconscious may persist in projecting some semblance of a character in search of liberation, the writing is on the wall, so to speak, and the energy required to buy into that story is no longer readily granted.

True inquiry is not a psychotherapeutic technique to resolve old ghosts. Ghosts will be ghosts — let them howl, let them wail, let them come home and rest at last, it doesn’t matter. Inquiry will not make “me” well, or better, or happier, or holier, since the very concept of a “me” is undermined in direct recognition – understood, seen through, and released.

It’s a serious blow to the ambition of the one who believed themselves in need of being saved, defended, redeemed, or elevated into some dreamy facsimile of “Illumination”. That’s the catch of liberation – the seeker who wanted to be liberated was always the very impediment to real liberation.

If we remain faithful to the inquiry, the whole romantic facade of “the seeker” is stripped away. That house of cards, built on a foundation of some independent and enduring self, is taken apart brick by brick, or sometimes there is even a rapid series of implosions when our vanities are revealed as the empty figments of imagination that they are.

Indeed, we may come to suspect that even our play at love is nothing but a strategy to support a sense of independent self in dilemma, to manipulate dream characters in order to appease the stress of embodiment itself. Again, this can be very disappointing to the one who believes they are progressing higher and higher towards some idealistic state of “Enlightenment”.

By moving contrary to the ego-mind’s desire to be confirmed and triumph, true inquiry creates a friction that rubs against the grain of the self’s momentum and presumptions, and eventually even rubs it out. If one persists with honesty and sincerity, humility and humor, “Me and Mine — the Movie”, eventually will come to a whimpering end. Surprisingly, what remains is what has been here all along, though we’ve been too blind to see, too encumbered with the eye baggage of our own projections, our own disguises dreamt up to shelter “me” from the unknown of our actual condition.

Nevertheless, as noted above, this inquiry will continue to be humbling in light of the fact that, even as our charade is plainly exposed, the efforts to recoup some semblance of a new and improved self-image are already underway. This is because the root of suffering has not been thoroughly severed. The mind will typically revert to its habitual dualistic perception in which appearances are divided up into subjects and objects that don’t actually exist separately, but only seem to, in a fantasy of interpretation on perception.

Consequently, the conscious process inevitably must include seeing through and going beyond the expedient silent witness position and into the recognition of the non-dual nature of reality. Instead of thoughts, emotions, appearances, or perceptions occurring in consciousness; consciousness is recognized to be those very thoughts, emotions, appearances, and perceptions. The knower and the known are not two. There is only awareness, rather than a separate awareness experiencing separate phenomena.

As the Sage Ramana Maharshi noted: “Talking of the `witness’ should not lead to the idea that there is a witness and something else apart from him that he is witnessing. The `witness’ really means the light that illumines the seer, the seen and the process of seeing. Before, during and after the triads of seer, seen and seeing, the illumination exists. It alone exists always.”

In other words, the ocean can’t witness its waves because the ocean is the waves, the waves are the ocean. There is no distance between them, in the same way that there is no distance between the seer and the seen. As the late Jean Klein noted: “If we consider the knower independently of the known, it reveals itself as pure witness. When knower and known are not-two, there is no place even for a witness.”

Moreover, it can also be recognized that subjects and objects exist only as conceptual fabrications, or conceptual designations, and therefore all experience of self and phenomena is actually empty of any independent or objective existence. All thoughts, images, memories, beliefs, sensations, emotions and perceptions are absent of any concrete substance or solidity, like clouds in the sky, or holograms with no inherent reality, except what the mind might grant them. Seer, seeing, and seen are mental constructs, and their very transiency is the proof of their unreality.

At a certain point, if one stays vigilant, probing deeply into the inquiry “Who is aware, what is aware?”, the aspirant may notice that something just lets go — an ancient contraction at the root of our being melts away. In the ensuing joyous recognition that there is no longer anyone or anything to defend, nor even any separate witness to stand aloof from experience, we can finally own up to the failure of our previous plans, the failure of our loving, the failure of our personal and cherished self-images, the failure of our efforts to be transformed, ascended, perfected, and immortalized. Interestingly, that very failure can be both spiritually relaxing as well as illuminating, if allowed to soak in and pervade the once-anxious heart.

Like a tightly-clenched oyster, the root contraction, by Grace, opens up and reveals the pearl of our original happiness, our primordial nature, prior to the superimposition of the search to find what we have always already been. In Zen, it is called “the original face before our parents were born”. We surrender (or rather, surrender surrenders), and in that gesture, our true freedom emerges from the shadows where it has been patiently waiting for us to awaken. The subconscious ceases projecting a “me-story”, and in that flash the self-narrative which separates knower and known collapses.

Releasing the cumulative burden of that effort is experienced invariably as a great relief, a profound exhalation. Rather than fixating identity in the little separate character we once believed ourselves to be, we begin to recognize ourselves as the limitless aware spaciousness in which all the universes appear and disappear.

It is a revolution at the core of attention itself, in which the sense of identity itself is reversed. We no longer are prone to conceive of ourselves as some entity appearing within the body-mind, but rather, we now begin to realize that the body-mind appears in us – the pure and timeless awareness in which that wobbling thought-form momentarily arose and then melted away.

As the process unfolds, all conceptual fantasies are undermined by non-conceptual wisdom, and any seeming solidity of self or world is supplanted by the transparency of awake awareness, our primordial “state”. In such recognition, anything that arises in consciousness, whether it be thought, emotion, memory, sensation, or perception, is naturally seen as it is without effort or motive to manipulate, and thus “self-liberated”.

Simultaneously, the miracle of truly unconditional loving kindness and heartfelt compassion awakens as a natural and spontaneous functioning in the midst of relations, but without the previous sense of a subject being the doer, or of an “other” being the recipient. It is Love alone which recognizes itself in all. Being nothing, having nothing to claim or cling to, no position to assert and nothing to turn away, one’s life blooms as a generous offering, a selfless radiant expression of clear light, expanding to infinity.

“To be aware is to be awake. Unaware means asleep. You are aware anyhow, you need not try to be. What you need is to be aware of being aware. Be aware deliberately and consciously, broaden and deepen the field of awareness. You are always conscious of the mind, but you are not aware of yourself as being conscious . . . Mind is interested in what happens, while awareness is interested in the mind itself. The child is after the toy, but the mother watches the child, not the toy.”

~Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

See also:

About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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17 Responses to True Inquiry and the Conscious Process

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    “The mind must come to a state of silence, completely empty of fear, longing and all images. This cannot be brought about by suppression, but by observing every feeling and thought without qualification, condemnation, judgment, or comparison. There must simply be a quiet looking at what composes the mind.

    In discovering the facts just as they are, agitation is eliminated, the movement of thoughts becomes slow and we can watch each thought, its cause and content as it occurs. We become aware of every thought in its completeness and in this totality there can be no conflict. Then only alertness remains, only silence..

    So do not force your mind. Just watch its various movements as you would look at flying birds. In this uncluttered looking all your experiences surface and unfold. For unmotivated seeing not only generates tremendous energy but frees all tension, all the various layers of inhibitions. You see the whole of yourself. Observing everything with full attention becomes a way of life, a return to your original and natural meditative being.”

    ~Jean Klein

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    “From time immemorial we have been addicted to the self. It is how we identify ourselves. It is what we love most dearly. It is also what we hate most fiercely at times. Its existence is also the thing that we work hardest to try to validate. Almost everything that we do or think or have, including our spiritual path, is a means to confirm its existence. It is the self that fears failure and longs for success, fears hell and longs for heaven. The self loathes suffering and loves the causes of suffering. It stupidly wages war in the name of peace. It wishes for enlightenment but detests the path to enlightenment. It wishes to work as a socialist but lives as a capitalist. When the self feels lonely, it desires friendship. Its possessiveness of those it loves manifests in passion that can lead to aggression. Its supposed enemies – such as spiritual paths designed to conquer the ego – are often corrupted and recruited as the self’s ally. Its skills in playing the game of deception is nearly perfect. It weaves a cocoon around itself like a silkworm; but unlike a silkworm, it doesn’t know how to find the way out.”

    ~Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

  3. Bob OHearn says:

    “At the very moment that each thought rises, if one vigilantly enquires `To whom did this rise?’, it will be known `To me’. If one then enquires `Who am I?’, the mind will turn back to its source and the thought which had risen will also subside. By repeatedly practising thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.”

    “Between two thoughts there is an interval of no thought. That interval is . . . pure Awareness only.”

    ~ Ramana Maharshi

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “Consciousness exists (whatever its relationship to the physical world happens to be), and it is the experiential basis of both the examined and the unexamined life. If you turn consciousness upon itself in this moment, you will discover that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they continually arise and pass away. If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have — “What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.

    If you repeatedly turn consciousness upon itself in this way, you will discover that the feeling of being a self disappears. There is nothing Buddhist about such inquiry, and nothing need be believed on insufficient evidence to pursue it. One need only accept the following premise: If you want to know what your mind is really like, it makes sense to pay close attention to it.”

    ~Sam Harris

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “The final stage of meditation is reached when the sense identity goes beyond the ‘ I-am-so-and-so’, beyond ‘so-I-am’, beyond ‘I-am-the-witness-only’, beyond ‘there-is’ beyond all ideas into the impersonally personal pure being. But you must be energetic when you take to meditation. it is definitely not a part-time occupation. Limit your interests and activities to what is needed for you and your dependents’ barest needs. Save all your energies and time for breaking the wall your mind has built around. you. Believe me, you will not regret it.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    The question is always asked in this respect, if it’s necessary to do sadhana in order to awaken?
    Is it necessary to spend years in yoga techniques and pranayama, breathing exercises, to sit in meditation,
    to think of certain things, to pray?
    Is all this necessary?
    What do you think?
    Who can tell me?
    It’s not necessary, but it sure is helpful.
    That’s actually a good answer.

    My question is, therefore, to whom is it helpful?
    Who is getting satisfaction from sadhana?
    Only your ego.
    It is true to an extent you’re subduing your ego, but you and I know many people who’ve been doing sadhana for a hundred years and nothing happened. As a matter of fact some of you even become worse. It’s paradoxical. For some people it causes them to move ahead. But it’s still all in relative terms, and as we all know by now, relative terms do not exist.

    So for whom is sadhana?
    Again it’s for the mind and the ego.
    If you think it’s helping, by all means continue.
    But remember I said, “If you think it’s helping”.
    If you stop thinking you do not have to do any sadhana.
    I suppose sadhana is necessary as long as you believe you are the mind and the body.
    Again, after all, who is doing the spiritual disciplines?
    Does the Self need to do that?
    Does consciousness need to do discipline?
    Does absolute reality need discipline?
    What needs discipline? The mind and the body.
    Therefore the more you are attached to the mind and body the more you have to do sadhana.
    Does that make sense?
    Sadly, yes.

    So I won’t say to you, “Stop doing it”, due to the fact that many of you have a strong connection with your body and your mind.
    As long as you do I suppose sadhana makes you sort of quiet for a while and gives you it’s own experience of a sort of peace that doesn’t last too long. It causes samadhi for some people, nirvikalpa samadhi. But if you’re an aspiring Jnani, what’s the purpose of sadhana?

    You simply ask yourself, “Who needs to do this? I do.
    What is this ‘I’?
    This personal ‘I’, where did it come from?
    How did it get here?
    Who gave it birth?”
    As you ask yourself these questions, that is your sadhana.
    That’s all you need to do.
    But you continue doing this 24 hours a day.
    That’s what it means by ‘praying without ceasing’.

    As you meet the challenges of the day you keep asking yourself, “To whom does this come? Who is feeling this condition? Who is going through this situation? Who feels emotional?” As you keep doing this all day long, you will find that you become more peaceful, you become happy and your life becomes better.
    That’s really the only sadhana you need.

    But of course if you cannot do that then you have to do whatever you have to do.
    Whatever helps you, that’s what you have to do.
    I suppose that’s why it says that Jnana Marga, atma-vichara, is for the mature soul, one who can do this regularly, without reverting back to Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, any of the Yogas.
    They all have their place, but self-inquiry is the royal way.
    It’s the short cut.
    But it’s up to you.
    It’s your choice.

    And of course self-inquiry is merely to quiet the mind.
    It’s a fast method to quiet the mind.
    For when you ask, “To whom does this come?
    It comes to me”, and you hold on to that me by inquiring,
    “Who am I?
    What is I?” and saying “I-I” to yourself, “I-I”, the mind becomes quieter and quieter.
    The deeper you go within yourself the quieter you become.
    And that’s your sadhana.
    That’s all you have to do.

    ~ Robert Adams

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    Ramana Maharshi: You have constantly to fight out and get rid of your false notion of ‘I’.

    Do that.

    Q: In doing so isn’t a Guru’s help necessary and useful?

    A: Yes, to start you on the inquiry. But you must yourself pursue your enquiry.

    Q: To what extent can I rely on the Guru’s Grace, in this? Up to what point is the enquiry itself to be carried on?

    A: You must carry on this demolition of wrong idea by enquiry, till your last wrong notion is demolished — till the Self is realized.

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “Self and other lack inherent existence. This, and all future lifetimes are empty in nature. The body is compound phenomena. Mind abides like space. The body is impermanent and will die. Mind will not. It will continue. If one understands the nature of mind in that way, it doesn’t matter which belief system you engage in. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
    It is most important to keep your eyes on the goal. – the ultimate fruition. Ultimately you must realize the nature of your mind.”

    ~ Garchen Rinpoche

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    “Before you can accept God, you must accept yourself,
    which is even more frightening.
    The first steps in self acceptance are not at all pleasant,
    for what one sees is not a happy sight.
    One needs all the courage to go further.
    What helps is silence.
    Look at yourself in total silence,
    do not describe yourself.
    Look at the being you believe you are and remember — you are
    not what you see.
    ‘This I am not — what am l?’
    is the movement of self-enquiry.
    There are no other means to liberation, all means delay.
    Resolutely reject what you are not,
    till the real Self emerges in its glorious nothingness,
    its ‘not-a-thingness.'”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    Q: Should we keep up Self inquiry constantly?

    Papaji: You need not do it constantly. Only once you need it. It needs no repetition. Only find out, “Who am I?” and you will get the answer Now. Ask, “Who am I?” and listen, don’t think about it. Simply ask once and don’t think about it and don’t make any effort to find the answer. Do you follow what I say?

    Do not keep any thought in your mind, even of this inquiry, which is also a thought, and don’t make any effort. Wanting to keep up this inquiry is arrogance! Only ask once and the answer will reveal itself. You can’t command or demand. Allow time for it to reveal itself to itself. It is not an object, nor is it the subject, so don’t keep any object in your mind. Why do you force this happening, this revelation, this Reality. Let it take care of you. You just surrender to this Reality and keep Quiet. Keep quiet and allow it to reveal itself. When you are not quiet it will not reveal its revelation. It reveals, it does not “show up.”

    Q: It is like Being.

    Papaji: Whatever it is. Being is Revalation. You can’t compel this Being to do anything. When you are Quiet this Being reveals itself. Its name is Being, not “had been,” not “would be” but Being!

    Q: I know that you say that no effort is needed but I am so lazy I need effort just to start.

    Papaji: It is always Here, there is no starting. Even while sleeping you can do it. You are not to begin it, you are to Be It 24 hours a day.

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “Presupposing the existence of a non-existent entity and then wanting to get salvation for that imaginary “I” you have to start and try to do so through various paths of yoga, redemption or self improvement.
    When your modes of redemption themselves become a means of giving life to the non-existent ego, how can they destroy it?
    To do any yoga except Self-enquiry is to be just like a thief turning himself into a policeman to catch the thief who is none but himself.”

    ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    “Sri Ramana taught that since the individual ‘I’-thought cannot exist without an object, if attention is focused on the subjective feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ with such intensity that the thoughts ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ do not arise, then the individual ‘I’ will be unable to connect with objects. If this awareness of ‘I’ is sustained, the individual ‘I’ (the ‘I’-thought) will disappear. In its place will be a direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ is called self-enquiry (atma vichara). Ramana Maharshi frequently recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the ‘I’-thought. He taught that the ‘I’-thought will finally disappear when the perception of all objects, both physical and mental, cease and only Self-awareness exists. This is not brought about by being aware of an ‘I’, but only by BEING the ‘I’. This stage of experiencing the subject rather than being aware of an object is the culminating phase of self-enquiry.
    This important distinction is what distinguishes self-enquiry from most other spiritual practices. It also explains why Ramana Maharshi consistently maintained that most other practices were ineffective. He often pointed out that traditional meditations and yoga practices were predicated on the existence of a subject who meditates on an object and he would usually add that such a relationship sustained the ‘I’-thought instead of eliminating it. In his view such practices may effectively quieten the mind, and they may even produce blissful experiences, but they will never culminate in Self-realisation because the ‘I’-thought is not being isolated and seen to have no real existence.”

    ~David Godman

  13. Bob OHearn says:

    “To become what one is, one must not have the faintest notion of what one is… The whole surface of consciousness – for consciousness is a surface – must be kept clear of all great imperatives. Beware even of every great word, every great pose! So many dangers that the instinct comes too soon to ‘understand itself.'”

    ~ Nietzsche

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