“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.”
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