How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
– Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four.
I’ve been digging all my life. One of my first loves was archaeology and I would spend hours in the hedgerows next to our house, trowel in hand, digging down through the turf into farm middens, bringing pieces of old pottery and rusted metal from the darkness of the dirt, into the clear light of day.
As I grew older and became more interested in how to manage the stress, anxiety and helplessness I was feeling, I discovered that Mindfulness too involves a kind of digging.
It’s a mental archaeology where the trowel is replaced with silent attention and the midden becomes our own inner-strata of thoughts, emotions and feelings.
Through this practice I began to unearth some exquisite treasures but also cumbersome fossils, the parts of myself which had become frozen in time.
I became able to drop myself into a state of alert-calm, feeling completely at ease with each moment of life. This was not only an important escape from my emotional chaos and suffering, but also an important escape from being Mike.
But I wasn’t just digging for calm, I was digging for reality. I craved genuine knowledge about who and what I was, beyond the story in my head.
Yet after years of serious practice, my search for reality still seemed elusive. Yes, I was calm, alert, alive, but where were the experiences of cosmic depth, satori and self-realisation I longed for?
How much sitting calmly would produce the enlightenment of the Buddha?
The discovery of self-enquiry as a meditative approach was revolutionary to me because I suddenly found what seemed like a more direct, immediate and invigorating way to dig into myself. Rather than just cruising in a state of calm hoping for something to happen, I could turn my attention back into myself, and attempt to apprehend the owner of my thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Now, I could excavate the meditator.
Although this approach exists in Zen it wasn’t until I came across Ramana Maharshi’s classic “Who Am I?” that I began to explore this method seriously. It seemed so simple and yet so complicated. I recall treating the question “Who am I?” as a kind of mystical mantra which held the power to explode my illusory dream-world.
It wasn’t until I discovered Ramana’s American pupil, Robert Adams (via Shankara and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj) that the method finally clicked. I realised that the point was not to throw my attention back into myself to create an experience of enlightenment, but rather to understand that there is no self “back there” at all.
During formal meditation and living my daily life, I would ask myself: To whomdoes this occur? Who is this happening to? Who is thinking? Who is aware right now?
Could I find and grasp this enigmatic who? This self which was the primary cause of all of my pain, suffering and confusion? Could I catch the one who wanted to meditate in order to be enlightened? To live a certain way in order to secure happiness? The one who was small and afraid?
Each time dropped these questions into myself, the mind was always quick to answer like an eager schoolboy. “Who am I? – I’m you, I am what you are, it’s me!”
But through repeated digging I came to see that every possible claimant of this enigmatic “who” was just another object I was aware of. I was not thought, I wasaware of thoughts, I was not emotion, I was aware of emotion, I was not even experience, I was aware of experience.
Everything I had spent a lifetime identifying with as “Me” was just a fleeting object in awareness. I was – and had always been – one step removed from body, mind and world. As Jean Klein the French teacher of Advaita Vedanta observed, “If you can see it, then you cannot be it.”
And everything is seen. The whole world of people, places, experiences, thoughts, sensations, moods, imagination, causes and effects, are just the shifting foreground.
They are precisely what we are not.
So I had been living back-to-front, grasping at and identifying with the very things I was not and could not be. No wonder I had suffered and felt trapped.
What then am I? If I discount all that I can experience, sense, know or perceive, who or what remains?
Again, that vital question: Who am I?
Well, I am nothing, and here’s why: If I were to dig back into myself and actually find a “who” or a “what” it would just be another object I was aware of.
So what I am is always beyond experience and therefore beyond description. If I were to find what I was, then it would have to be an experience and therefore something I was separate from. I would be apart from myself. How could I be apart from my own being?
This direct investigation into what we are is vital because it has an incredible bearing on our spiritual seeking and craving for enlightenment. If we believe that through our meditation practice we will come to an experience of what we truly are, then we are confusing passing content for absolute ground.
We are often told on our spiritual journey that we are the True Self, Higher Self, Energy, Space, Love, Peace, Stillness, Infinity or Source. But the very experience of these states would prove that you were not them, that you are beyond them. Even these come and go and are known as they come and go. They are expressions of what we are, but not what we are.
So what are we? We cannot know.
And realising that we are unfindable, ungraspable, unborn, absent, is the end of the obsession with being a findable, graspable, flesh, stress and bone person, who must practice to become free, who must seek to be enlightened, who must strive for liberation.
The truth is, no such person has ever existed and never will.
This is what the sages of self-enquiry discovered for themselves, that we are fundamentally free, if we would only turn our attention inwards and dig into this false self we take ourselves to be, breaking through into the sheer freedom of being nothing whatsoever.
“Be as you are” Ramana Maharshi advised, not somehow become what you are.