This is part of the Compassion in Action series. If you just found this and are wondering what’s going on, click here for chapter 1.
CHAPTER 6 – WHO AM I?
“Our own self-realization is the greatest service we can render the world.” – Ramana Maharshi
When I was in my late teens, I was browsing through a metaphysical bookstore and was stopped in my tracks by a book with a really interesting looking man on the front. It was his expression, and something special about his eyes that had attracted me, and I realized that what had stopped me what that I could actually see the enlightenment on this person. He was wearing his realization like the rest of us wear clothes. I had never had an experience like that just looking at someone’s picture, and was very interested to learn more about who this old man was with the love in his eyes.
His name was Ramana Maharshi, and you may have heard of him, as he’s very famous in India. He was born in 1879 and led a relatively normal childhood. Really, the only thing that was unusual about him was that he could be extremely difficult to wake from sleep. On one occasion, some other boys who were angry with him and knew about how hard he slept snuck into his room at night to drag him off his bed and beat him, knowing that he wouldn’t wake up for any of it. You can imagine the young Ramana’s surprise when he woke up the next morning on the floor covered in bruises!
A turning point in Ramana Maharshi’s life happened at the age of sixteen, which set him firmly on the spiritual path. As he was sitting alone in a room at his uncle’s house, he suddenly felt an overwhelming fear of death descend upon him. We’ve all thought about our own demise, but the usual approach is to file it away as something to worry about later, as there is nothing to do about it. In Ramana’s case, this wasn’t an existential fear, but a fear that he was going to die right then, at that very moment. And so he went through a sort of role playing of his own death. He lied down on the floor, stretched his limbs out as if rigor mortis had set in, and held his breath. His thoughts went something along the lines of, “Death has come, but what is dying? This body is dead. It will be carried to the charnel grounds where it will be burnt and turned to ash. But with the death of the body, am ‘I’ dead? Am ‘I’ and the body the same thing? No, I transcend the body, because I am the eternal Spirit. This body can be destroyed, but I am deathless.” And so Ramana suddenly realized his Self, spontaneously, lying on the floor and practicing watching his body die.
At that point, Ramana’s outlook on life completely changed, and he stopped caring about anything outside of spirituality. This is not the kind of mindset that one is able to complete very many homework assignments with, and it wasn’t long before he decided to completely abandon his worldly life. He wrote a note to tell his family not to come looking for him, and left home to travel to Arunachala, which is the name of a holy hill in South India.
He arrived with nothing, only a heart burning for realization, and spent a few weeks meditating in the great temple to Shiva there. Unfortunately, local street urchins created a game of throwing stones at him, and he was forced to move deeper to an underground chamber where the Sun never shone to avoid them.
His meditations became so deep that he was completely unaware of his surroundings. Insects would crawl over him, and he would get stung by scorpions, but nothing could bring him out of his meditation. A local holy man came upon him and began to protect his body, chasing off the street urchins and insects, and stuffed food into Ramana’s mouth so he would have some sustenance. A group of devotees began to form around Ramana, and they lifted his body out of the location it was at and brought him to a nearby shrine, where they continued to take care of him. This was the start of his ashram, and eventually, after completely establishing himself in Truth, he came out of his intense practice and began to teach others.
His primary teaching was based on Self-inquiry, in the same vein as what he himself had gone through when he was a teenager faced with his own imminent death. It is not that one attains anything new with realization, but more that one remembers what has been obscured by illusion and delusion.
We have already seen how the ego, with its propensity to make lists and labels, can create a false sense of identity. Through Self-inquiry, we slowly start to peel those layers off, like removing layers of an onion, trying to reach the core.
To give an example of these many layers, consider how you would respond to someone asking you the simple question, “Who are you?”
The most common response to a question like that would undoubtedly be something like, “I’m Earik”, or whatever your name is. But that’s not really who you are. That’s your name. You were given that name by someone else, and many people change their names in their lifetime. You didn’t pop into existence at the time you were named, and you won’t pop out of it should that name be taken away. It’s just a label.
So let’s try again. On the next attempt, we might tell this person what we do. “I am an engineer”, for example. But again, that’s not who you are. That’s your profession. Professions change, and you were still “you” before you had a profession.
And so the exercise continues, and it’s clear a lot of the things we hold to be “us”, are actually more like clothes. We wear them, and that’s what the world sees when we walk around, but they are just a costume that we’ve put upon ourselves.
What about the response, “I am a human being.” That’s a more clever answer, as your entire memory of existence is most likely limited to the period starting from when you were born. The atheists and materialists would say that this is the true “you” that answers the question. They would contend that this is as deep as we can peel that onion.
Let’s get back to that idea in a minute. First I want to tell you a story.
My father is a retired geologist, and he used to go on many field trips to different parts of the country and the world for scientific research. I think that’s probably the thing that most attracted him to the job – he got paid to go wander around in the wilderness and dig in the dirt. Although it’s a larger profession than just a simple description like that, I think a lot of his colleagues got involved for similar reasons.
One colleague of his in particular comes to mind, given the context our discussion. I heard this story when I was pretty little, so I don’t remember a lot of the specific details, but the gist of the whole thing definitely made an impression on me. This guy was out in the woods, far away from any sort of civilization. He was all alone, but had set up a nice campsite for himself, with a tent, fire pit, and even a wood splitting area, where he used a hatchet to trim down unruly branches into more manageable ones for the fire. His plan was to stay there for some time in order to complete whatever project he was working on.
Anyway, one day, this guy was sitting there quietly, and reached to grab another piece of wood to throw on the fire. Unfortunately, a very poisonous snake had slithered right up to his wood pile without alerting him, and before his brain could register what was happening, he found himself reaching right for the snake as if it were a piece of wood. With lightning speed, it bit him right on the end of his finger. He recognized the kind of snake it was, knew that there was poison in his body, and realized with horror that there was a good chance he might die because of this bite. Then he thought of the hatchet.
Imagine yourself in that situation. You have poison in your finger, and there’s a hatchet across from where you are sitting. If the poison gets into your bloodstream, odds are you will probably die. There’s no one around for miles, and no way to get help. If you spend more than 2 seconds thinking, the poison will have already made its way past your hand and into your bloodstream, and you’ll lose any chance for decision making. Act or die. Go!
So in an instant, the guy grabbed the hatchet, put his hand down on a piece of wood, and –whack! – cut his own finger clean off. It hurt like hell, and he lost a finger, but no poison made it into his body, and he lived to tell the story.
Imagine if the same thing happened to you, a long time ago, and now you are sitting for meditation. You close your eyes and go into yourself, merging into that inner sanctuary of your being. Is that you, the real you, diminished by having only nine fingers instead of ten? Are you any less a Child of God now that you are missing a finger?
The finger is part of your body, which is the instrument that you use in order to get around in the world. Losing a finger might make your body less efficient, but it doesn’t change who you are. That’s because your finger isn’t You. It can be chopped off, and the part that is actually you survives its loss.
If you went blind, would you be any less “you” than you are now? You wouldn’t be able to see, and that would be a bummer. Your experience of life would be very different than it had been before, but underneath all that, would that divine spark that is you change? The real you would survive going blind. That is because the real you is beyond the body.
The same is true for all your body parts. To a greater or lesser degree, losing them will impact how you are able to interact with the world, but you still survive them, because they aren’t the real you.
I’m saying the “real you” because this discussion highlights the biggest delusion that we carry, which is that we and our bodies are the same thing. If I am my body, and my body gets hurt, that means I also am hurt. Is the real you really hurt, or is it just experiencing pain through the instrument of a hurt body? If I am my body, and my body gets sick, that means I also am sick. Can the real you get sick, or does it just have the experience of sickness through the perceptions of the body it inhabits? If am my body, and my body loses a finger, it follows that I have also lost a finger, and am less than what I was before. Is that true?
This is a strong delusion, and is not something that can be solved through intellectual arguments. It can only be solved by turning your attention inward and meditating on your Self, and realizing that the Self and the body are two different things. Just like Ramana Maharshi did on his uncle’s floor with he was sixteen.
There’s a meditation that we can practice called Neti Neti, which can be translated as “not this, not that”. It is a contemplative meditation, where you ask the intellect to take part and help.
Neti Neti Meditation
Sit quietly, with your eyes closed and your spine straight. Begin to calm your mind with a few deep breaths. When ready, ask yourself “Who am I?”, and allow any possible answer to appear.
When the answer arrives, consider it, and determine if that is really who you are. What would happen if that thing were lost? Would you also be lost with it, or do you extend beyond that description? Neti Neti means not this, and not that. Once you have discarded an answer, you ask again.
Although your intellect is involved in this meditation, you are trying to realize the answer, not solve the question by being clever. That is why you can do it over and over. Is the process of inquiring that will get you to the right answer, not the intellectual process of eliminating all possibilities.
I have also seen this practiced as a partner meditation, where two people sit right in front of each other, staring into each other’s eyes. You specifically look at the left eye, so you can’t flit your gaze back and forth and are forced to engage fully. Then one partner asks the question, and the other responds. You don’t get to comment on your partner’s statement, but can only say, “Thank you.” Then you change roles, and the person who asked gets to answer, and you keep repeating over and over, back and forth, forcing yourself to dig deeper each time.
Doing it with a partner is very intense, as you also get to work with your own squeamishness, which gets you amped up in a good way that makes it easy to have some interesting “aha!” moments. If you’ve got someone you feel comfortable practicing with in this way and are looking for something different than the usual solitary work that meditation entails, I’d definitely recommend trying this variation out.
The idea behind Neti Neti is through repeated inquiry, you will have eventually discarded all possible solutions. That which remains, after you have gone through all possibilities is the answer you seek. There actually is no response that can be given in words to properly answer this question. That’s the trick. You let the intellect exhaust itself on trying to answer an unanswerable question, and through that exhaustion, the Self appears.
Back in high school, I had a friend named Abbas, who sat with me at the back of math class. Usually, I liked math classes and was good at them, but this particular one was the exception, and I was hopelessly bored pretty much every day. Abbas was bored too, so we tried to entertain each other without drawing too much attention to ourselves. I had a fancy (for the time) graphing calculator, and for whatever reason, almost all of my memories of that math class involve Abbas playing on that calculator rather than taking notes.
One day, Abbas asked me about religion, and what my conception of God was. I can’t remember my answer, but I remember his very well. He told me that you actually couldn’t define Allah. (Abbas was Muslim, and had been born in Tanzania.) He said that as soon as you try to put a definition on Allah, you are automatically incorrect, because Allah is greater than any definition you could concoct using imperfect language. The way I’d phrase that today is by saying that God is beyond duality, and can’t be described using any tools that are based in a dualistic world.
One of the phrases in the Bible that used to bother me was from Exodus, when Moses spoke with the burning bush, and asked God by what name he should refer to him. Rather than giving a name, God replied “I AM THAT I AM.”
When I first read this, as a young boy, I wondered why God was playing games and not giving Moses a straight answer. Why not say, “I’m God”, or “I’m Jehovah”, or something? Not “I am that I am”. That didn’t make any sense. What did that even mean?
If God responded to that question with a name, the name would automatically put a limiting label on God. If God is “Jehovah”, that means God is specific, and can’t also be all the other Gods. But God, speaking from a place of Oneness and not duality, is all names, and also none of them. It’s the totality of all possibilities, and also their opposite, all wrapped into one huge being. How can a label be applied to that infinite consciousness without introducing falsehood?
Even the statement “I am God” is not correct. Because if you call yourself God, that means you are cutting out all the things that fall into the not-God category. And, coming from that place of Oneness, that would be introducing a falsehood.
In fact, pretty much the only answer to a question like that is, “I am that I am.” It’s not a hard label, but more of a circular definition. The thing that I am is what I am. There is no limit to it, and it can grow as large as it needs to be or as small as it needs to be without bringing forth an opposite. It allows God to be everything and nothing, and yet to still give an accurate answer within the rules of the dualistic framework of the material Universe.
This state of Oneness that can’t be named is your true nature. That’s the “you” at the core of the onion that you are peeling. It is so deep and vast that is defies definition. The Yogis would say, “I am That,” which is very similar to what we saw in the Bible.
This is the answer that you are seeking when you go through your process of Self-inquiry. This is the treasure hidden at the bottom of the well, beneath all those delusions. Ramana Maharshi caught a glimpse of it on his uncle’s floor, when he realized that he was not the body. You can call the body any name you like, can cut off its parts, and can watch it die, but none of that impacts the Truth found in the vast Oneness that can’t even be named. That Truth is your true nature. That truth is You.