Who am I?
“Who am I?” is the form of enquiry that is the “principle means” for achieving “that happiness which is one’s nature” according to Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), who achieved spiritual awakening when he was only 17.
His name was “Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.” “Bhagavan” is one of the names of God, which, in the Hindu tradition is also used as title for someone who has realized identity with unity (the Absolute, Brahman). “Maharshi” (maha rishi) means “great sage” (great rishi). He came from a middle class brahmin family in South India. His name of “Venkataraman” was shortened to “Ramana.” I here follow the example of his devotees who usually spoke of him as “Bhagavan.”
Bhagavan’s chief teaching was advaita, which is the ultimate doctrine of non-duality: Being is One and is manifested throughout all beings throughout the universe.
This means that what we usually think of as “the world” is both real and unreal. It is unreal as a separate, self-subsistent entity, but it is real as a manifestation of the Absolute.
“Who am I?” is designed to help bring the ego to the point where it ceases to function, thus enabling apprehension of the resplendent yet qualityless Absolute.
Bhagavan wrote, “The enquiry ‘Who am I?’ is the principle means to the removal of all misery and the attainment of the supreme bliss” [from The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, 11th ed., p. 13. All direct quotations in this post are from that work].
When conceptualization ceases, apprehension of unity becomes possible. “When the mind, which is the cause of all cognition and of all actions, becomes quiescent, the world will disappear.”
The mind is the set of all thoughts including judgments, perceptions, emotions, imaginings, and remembrances. When there is an initial disengagement from all thoughts, a spiritual breakthrough occurs.
“Apart from thoughts, there is no such thing as mind. Therefore, thought is the nature of mind. Apart from thoughts, there is no independent entity called the world.”
In other words, “Who am I?” has the same function as a Zen koan. Indeed, when Zen students do not feel that the koan Mu resonates with them, “Who am I?” is given in some Zen sanghas as an initial koan.
It’s helpful to think of “Who am I?” as a natural koan in the sense that it is independent of the zen or even buddhist tradition.
“The thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-realization.” Here, “Self” (with a capital ‘S’) refers to unity (Brahman, the Absolute, Being), which is sometimes called the Big Self to distinguish it from the little self, which is the egoic mind.
It’s critical to realize that the answer to the “Who am I?” question is not a thought or set of thoughts. If you are using “Who am I?” to question and you answer “Who am I?” with an intelligible description, you are on the wrong path. You are thinking about “Who am I?” rather than meditating.
All that is necessary is constantly to hold on to the “Who am I?” question itself. Try exhaling “Who?” with every exhalation. The idea of using it as a spiritual practice is to bore into “Who am I?” with a questioning attitude without thinking about the answer to “Who am I?”
Suppose that you are focusing on “Who am I?” and find that some thought or other arises. What should you do? Do not get entangled in it or pursue it. Drop it and ask yourself, “To whom did that thought arise?”
These are Bhagavan’s instructions on this important point:
“As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, ‘To whom has this thought arisen?’ The answer that would emerge would be ‘To me.’ Thereupon if one inquires ‘Who am I?’, the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.”
Simple, isn’t it? It’s not even necessary to be literate or to have any formal education to understand it.
If you have ever tried it, however, you may have a sense how difficult it is to do. It’s a simple skill, but one that is not easy to master.
The idea is to have only one focus point, the “Who am I?” question. To hold on to it persistently is to develop a one-pointed mind that is not permitted to wander to other forms (objects, things). Both liking and disliking should be eschewed.
Awakening (enlightenment) occurs “when there is absolutely no ‘I’-thought. That is called ‘Silence.’”
Silence is the language of the Absolute, of Being, of God. The Absolute is the real world.
It is the achievement of non-attachment. “As thoughts arise, destroying them utterly without any residue in the very place of their origin is non-attachment.”
This is knowing the truth. The mind of one who knows the truth never leaves the Absolute. “Who am I?” is a way to transition from forms to formlessness.
Knowing the truth is happiness. “There is no happiness in any object of the world.” Gaining, identifying with, or desiring any form cannot yield happiness.
“Desirelessness is wisdom. The two are not different; they are the same.”
Desirelessness occurs when the mind is not focused on any form. It is not seeking what is other than the Absolute. Wisdom is never focusing on any form, in other words, always being detached.
In other words, we usually answer the question, “Who am I?” by identifying ourselves with some form or set of forms such as our bodies or our autobiographies. Any such identification obstructs happiness.
“Simple, changeless being is one’s true nature . . . successful meditation . . . Those who follow the path of enquiry realize that the mind which remains at the end of the enquiry is Brahman.”
This is what a modern Hindu sage says. He doesn’t say it the way, for example, a Buddhist sage would say it, but it seems to me that both are pointing in exactly the same direction.
If you have not yet followed the “Who am I?” enquiry to its end and are not even trying, why not?
It’s quite possible that the word “happiness” is misleading. A better word is “liberation”:
Asked how long should one practice focusing on “Who am I?,” Bhagavan answered, “Until the mind attains effortlessly its natural state of liberation from concepts, that is till the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ exists no longer.”
In other words, you may think that your nature is to be a separate self. It’s not. The self/nonself distinction is merely conceptual.
You are unity.
This entails that you lack nothing and that you are infinitely valuable.
“Self-realization which is permanent is the only true accomplishment.” There is nothing else to be done. Furthermore, this isn’t so much a positive accomplishment as an uncovering of what is already there.
“If one enquires, ‘Who am I?’, one will see that there is no such thing as the ‘I.’”
Happiness is the “peaceful repose” that occurs once the ego/I is uprooted: “this egoless condition is the common goal.”
To realize (not just think!) this is to be liberated and fulfill the purpose of life. It is to realize oneself as “the perfect Bliss of non-duality.”
According to advaita, this is the sole reality.
If you are not yet on the path to fulfilling your purpose, why not? Why not focus on “Who am I?”
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this post on “Who am I?,” please pass it along.
Related resource: The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi (11th ed.), particularly chapter 2, “Who am I?”