Spiritual practice can be seen as a deep inquiry into our life. The Buddha once stated that of the 7 factors of awakening (comprising: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration and equanimity,) the most proximate cause for awakening is investigation. The spiritual journey we embark upon is to understand the truth of our life, and can be understood as the inquiry into the question “who or what am I?”
Insight meditation practise invites us to connect with our actual experience here and now, rather than dwell in the past or future, in order to cut through our concepts and images of ourselves, and of our world, and thus meet things as they actually are, face to face. From a grounded connection to where we are in the present moment, we can look more deeply and begin to see beyond surface appearances to the underlying truth.
The way we tend to conceive of ourselves, is born out of an often unexamined patchwork of memories from our past experiences, our present circumstances, our habits and preferences, feelings and thoughts and a sense of being the owner or the subject of all this experience. We conceive of ourselves in different ways: – I am like this: e.g. successful, lazy, kind, assertive etc, or I am not like that… These concepts of self, are based in past experiences, identified with in the present and projected into future. They can seem very solid and substantial when we invest in them, through believing them, repeating them, making them important. Through cultivating attention to the present moment, being here and now, we start to be able to look beyond that familiar appearance, and can engage in an authentic inner exploration of what it means to be alive.
Being present and holding the question “what is this?” or “who am I?” within a focused connected space, not intellectualising the question, but suspending our habitual believing that we know the answer, can be at first unsettling, and yet ultimately very revealing. What is the truth of own existence? If we do not accept the familiar religious or scientific “answers” and explanations, (which are merely concepts), but look into our own experience… what is revealed?
What we actually experience is sights, sounds, smells, tastes, body sensations and thoughts and the mind that is conscious of them. We tend to unquestioningly believe that this defines who or what we are. If we investigate what is happening however, we see that we cannot control our experience. We are exposed to sights and sounds and sensations from the “outer world” which arise and pass. Our inner experience, our moods and reactions are not always what we wish for: sadness, anger, frustration, agitation, fear, pain, loneliness, despair and more. All these come and go, determined by the changing circumstances we find ourselves immersed in, usually not in accord with what we wish to experience. When desired experiences do arise: joy, happiness, excitement, serenity, pleasure, they often pass away all too soon. In meditation, trying to stay present with the breath, in the face of our myriad thoughts and bodily sensory experiences, perhaps the first lesson we learn is that we cannot actually control our experience.
Not being able to control it, does it make sense to assume that these experiences are truly what/who we are? Wisdom would suggest it does not. Nonetheless we tend to use our experience to create and define ourselves, to inflate or deflate our sense of self: who we believe we are. Accordingly experiences become attractive or threatening according to whether they support or solidify a preferred or a disliked self-image. We then feel we must have certain experiences and avoid others, according to whether we see them as threatening to, or as enhancing of our “self.” For instance, in meditation we can turn the simple instructions to cultivate mind-full presence into a search for signposts that allow us to feel we are succeeding, such as our degree of focus or continuity of attention, and trying to prevent experiences that lead us to believe we are failing, eg agitation or restlessness. Because we define ourselves by them, these experiences assume a great significance, and we become entangled in them. This process if unexamined, underlies much of our experience of life.
There is of course a place for recognising our patterns and tendencies, our strengths and limitations, and for cultivating wise and skilful qualities and actions. This does not however, come from identification with our experience, but from simply recognising what is conducive to well being and what is not, free from the pressure to create or negate self-images.
It is very useful to become aware of the process when one is engaged in the attempt to create, reinforce or protect our self-image. Notice when you define yourself by your experiences, past and present, our roles tendencies and preferences. See how this leads to the conclusion that I am the person who was/ is/ has/does not… Although these definitions are limiting and often painful to us, we feel compelled to continue to define ourselves in this way because at least it is familiar and safe, in the face of a changing and uncontrollable world. We feel we need to know who we are, or else how will we function, and how will we protect ourselves from the dangerous unpredictability of life? This leads to an ongoing struggle to maintain a story, or to become someone better or other than what we are. We can spend our life forever working on sustaining, building up, repairing or changing our image or sense of self. “I am too emotional…” “I am to cut off from my emotions…,” “I must fix my greediness…, change my fearfulness…, increase my compassion… improve my concentration…,” and there is no end to it. This process keeps us so busy and pre-occupied, we often do not have time or space to confront how deeply unsatisfying it is to live in this way.
We can be so busy building or maintaining our identity that we do not stop to question what we are protecting. We hold on to our identity in an attempt to protect ourselves from the world, but what do we find inside its structures. The walls of identity enclose the very fears, cravings and the sense of separation that drove us to build them and we find we are imprisoned within that which we built to protect ourselves. The sense of initial unease that engaging the question “Who am I?” or “What is this experience?” may evoke, has less capacity to discourage us from the inquiry as we realise just how uncomfortable and limiting it is to be defined.
What if we were to discover that we are not what we have believed? Our experiences, past, present and future are not our possessions, nor do they define us. Asking deeply the question “ who am I?” or “what is this?” – not seeking answers, but open to knowing the truth, our mind may be humbled into silence by the vastness, the impact, the significance of that question. If we are wholeheartedly present, free from preconceptions and open to discovery, we may find that our mind lets go into the mystery of life, and our heart responds, speaking to us without words. Life is a movement, from birth and growing, through ageing and death, every moment different. Your body that was a baby and was a child, will one day be aged, and yet where is the body you had as a child, where is the body you will have when aged? Where is the mind you had as a child, the thoughts, the experiences you had in the past, those you will have in the future? They are not here: past and the future cannot be found. Memories arise, thoughts of future too, but these are experiences happening here and now. The sense of ownership or being the subject of the experience is simply another experience, arising, changing and passing like all others.
Life reveals to us the experiences that we easily call our own, the experiences we define ourselves by, but equally reveals that the truth lies deeper than this appearance. Our sense that we are moving through life, from birth to death, is based on identifying with the changing uncontrollable experiences of body, heart and mind that arise like waves, moving restlessly on the vast ocean. This identification is the basis of a bondage that we are not compelled to subject ourselves to. If you simply meet the experiences, as they come and go, without taking them as a definition of who you are, what happens? Rather than believing that it is you moving through life, you may discover that life is moving through you. When we rest in awareness, meeting each wave, but not identifying with them, we may sense the stillness, the space through which all of life is moving. That dimension of being, which is not defined by, nor yet separate from the waves that come and go: the very vastness of the ocean itself. This discovery reveals that we are not separate from each other, and out of this understanding a deep compassion arises for all beings. May all beings be free from suffering.