Who Am I?

La Petite Concierge painting by Francis Smith

La Petite Concierge (1915) / painting by Francis Smith / photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

This is one of life’s big questions. Most people identify with things like their name, work, background, nationality, skin colour, tastes, and so forth. But these are stories about ourselves or roles we’ve adopted. They have little to do with who we actually are.

New Age approaches usually focus on upgrading the filters and stories we tell ourselves. A better story for a better life. Eastern paths can take this further with self-inquiry: who are we behind the stories?

But as I’ve mentioned before, if there isn’t a practice that takes us beyond the mind into source, what is culturing presence? Without a presence or observing consciousness, self-inquiry and mindfulness can just be mind querying itself. This may have philosophical use but how can that evolve us spiritually?

With a transcending practice in place, it can then be useful to look at our habitual ways of seeing ourselves. It may surprise you to discover that you developed your default sense of self when you were quite young. We then built ourselves up on those early impressions.

The first step in exploring who we are is to recognize the difference between the content of our experiences and who is experiencing that. If it’s an object in our experience, then it’s not who we are (at least not early on). If it’s mine, it is not me.

Put another way, when we watch a good movie, we may get caught up in it. But if we stop for a moment, we can see we’re not in the movie and it’s not who we are. It’s just content we’re experiencing.

We experience this body of ours, it’s sensations, and needs. While we may experience ourselves as being in this body, the body is still an object in our experience. We have a body; it is not who we are. “My body is sick” is more true than “I am sick.”

In the same way, we experience emotions rising up and passing. They may sometimes overwhelm or overshadow but they come and go in our experience. We have emotions but they are not who we are. Am I sad or am I experiencing sadness?

We also have thoughts come and go, seemingly endlessly. We may get absorbed in thinking. But once we stop, those thoughts fade out and the next chain of thoughts come along. We have thoughts but they are not who we are. And they don’t have to define us.

Various events can trigger memories and old stories we tell about ourselves. Or we may find ourselves telling everyone a new story about “what happened to me.” That story can be laden with added meaning to confirm our sense of self and world view. It’s surprising how much we say about ourselves if we look past the narrative. Is it a story of our limitations or insufficiencies? How hard done by we are? Or Big Fish stories that try to cover those up? How upset do we get if someone doesn’t care or doesn’t believe us? This can tell us how invested we are in this narrative.

These stories come and go in our experience. We have stories but they are not who we are. They don’t define us unless we believe in them.

The container of thoughts and stories is the mind. We might call it the field in which thoughts arise and move. We can notice the mind by its behaviour, like when it’s babbling away or day-dreaming. We may say “I am dreaming” and yet dreams just come and go without our volition. There can be a vivid lucid dream where we are a great warrior or lover. But then the dream ends. Yet we continue.

When the body falls into deep sleep, the mind goes to sleep too. Yet we don’t cease to exist when we’re sleeping. We may have found ourselves awake to the body sleeping or the mind dreaming. This tells us the mind too is an object in our experience. We have a mind but it is not who we are.

More subtle still, the intellect discriminates right or wrong and yes or no. We may notice it rating our experiences or those around us. That’s a good person, there’s a bad idea, and so on. We may call this my values or opinions, but they are mine. They are not who we are. Again, they don’t define us unless we chose them to.

One of the key discriminations is distinguishing self from other. We see these in our personal identification and the stories about “who I am.” For example, “I am a nurse named Nancy who is American and has 3 kids” (in this example). We might call these the core ideas of a me. But it’s just an idea-form or self-concept. It’s less “I am a nurse” and more “I work as a nurse.” We can say our self-story is a way of distinguishing self and what is mine and not mine. But we can observe the story so it is not who we are. It was just a story about our roles. We can observe the self-concept so we are not that either.

So who are we?

Another Perspective
Trillions of individual cells make up our body, each with their own life experience. Some cells live for a few days, some for many years. But we don’t usually experience being this cell or that cell. We experience the wholeness of a body. The laws of nature that run the organism and give us our characteristics and talents also have a wholeness we might call a person. But these are not personal.

This body-mind is a set of functions that is our vehicle for experiencing. It is not who we are. When we confuse this with who we are and claim the actions of the body and laws of nature as mine, we obscure who we are, behind all these things.

This ignorance results from consciousness losing clarity and forgetting its own nature. In that more limited perception, we grasp at what we can recognize and build a sense of self out of what is in our experience: the mind and body.

Yet if we can go beyond the mind, we can discover who we are, under all these layers of objects in our experience. What remains when we go beyond? That which is observing all these things.

This is the observer or witness, presence or pure consciousness. This deeper value of self is our doorway into spiritual awakening, the remembering of who we are.

Soon, we discover this observer is also what enables the mind to think, the emotions to feel, and the body to breathe. Without consciousness, there is nothing to experience. Without experience, there is no life-force driving the bus. When consciousness pulls out of the body, we call this death.

But when consciousness becomes awake in the body, we call this enlightenment. This brings a fuller, richer vantage point and opens access to the full range of our vehicle of experience. But that takes discovering who we are.
Davidya

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47 Responses to Who Am I?

  1. Aaron says:

    Thanks David. Wonderful writing.

  2. Lewis Oakwood says:

    ‘But when consciousness becomes awake in the body, we call this enlightenment. This brings a fuller, richer vantage point and opens access to the full range of our vehicle of experience. But that takes discovering who we are.’

    *

    Hi David,

    Are you saying we are Consciousness and not anything other or beyond that?

    • Davidya says:

      That’s one perspective, Lewis. And one stage of the process.
      This article is about recognizing who we are, beyond the content of our experience – which is consciousness.
      .
      But later we discover the content of our experience is also consciousness. And later still, what is beyond that. But first we wake up to simply being.

      • Lewis Oakwood says:

        Thank you, David.

        *

        So, ‘the content of our experience is also consciousness.’ And within that, the knowledge is of it being just so. But it feels as though there is something outside even that as though a reality/layer/presence quite separate from the world of experience,-a sparkling-happy-cosmic-childlike quality.

        • Davidya says:

          Yes, presence itself is separate from the world of experience in the context you describe.

          Your question had 2 answers, depending on the stage. But you can’t apply the reality of one stage to another. Awakening and the world of experience are separate in one stage and merge in another.

    • Anne says:

      Impeccable Divine Wisdom expressed in such exquisite words. Thank you David

  3. Ron Whitaker says:

    David’s

    “ This is the observer or witness, presence or pure consciousness. This deeper value of self is our doorway into spiritual awakening, the remembering of who we are. “

    This deeper value of self has a sense of location. This sense of location probably created by the senses perceiving out and body moving about. This deeper value of self is located by this nebulous experience if I.

    Has the next paragraph any validity?

    I is this deeper value of self. Thus Raman Maharishi’s I-I.

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Ron
      When we first touch into it, the witness does have a sense of location. But as we deepen, it becomes boundless and the sense of location disappears.
      .
      That said, this body-mind is still the default point of experience. We mainly experience from here through these senses, less so from over there or that cat in Siberia.
      .
      In the recognition of the larger boundless Self as who I am, the I-sense can shift from being a local me to that limitless I. When it’s established, it’s not nebulous. But it’s a shared I, the I of all.
      .
      Later, when we step beyond consciousness into Brahman, the I as the Self falls away too. In that sense, the sense of I is always just a reference point.
      .
      Similarly with the sense of mine. When the local ego lets go, we do tend to settle into the sense of this body-mind as mine. Not possessively but more as the rental vehicle.
      .
      That can be quite layered. Like experiencing the comic body concurrent with the local body doing different things.
      .
      I’m not familiar with Ramana’s I-I so I can’t address that directly. Perhaps the above does.

      • Ron Whitaker says:

        These words bring much clarity to my experience and I am very appreciative.

        Please can you put words similar to the above to an experience becoming more prominent in my practice.

        Although I have many and varied experiences over my many years of practice from extreme bliss to various Kundalini symptoms. All this is becoming ancient history. There is mainly just simply quiet and comfort.

        There is a quiet entering frequently now. It’s a purity of simple isness, there is no I or me. There is no body or world. My chair is gone – there is only. I really am at a loss for words.

        • Davidya says:

          Hi Ron-ness
          Yes, the mind likes content. It can name it. When processing settles more and we reach a place of simplicity and settledness, there is less to name or remember. There is just quiet and a sense of being or isness.
          .
          Everything else pales in comparison. The world can lose importance and seem to fade away, yet the body continues to do what needs to be done like breathing and eating.
          .
          As we deepen into that peace, that sense of can fade away too. At some point, there can be a shift from observing the peace to being the peace.
          .
          That deepens further, then the peace starts to move into the experience of the world…
          .
          Of course, everyone’s process is a little different. But this is one way it can unfold.

  4. Eric says:

    Hi Davidya,

    This one really connects with your writings, so clear and concise. This one lives in a very rural setting and has been has been slogging along on it’s own for a decade or more predominantly through books about Buddhism and quite recently Non-dualism and has experienced glimpses of the witness/observer but then gets pulled (almost like being attached to a strong elastic) back to the surface of experience, albeit less and less as the understanding grows.
    This one really doesn’t mind anything that happens but would be grateful to remain witness/observer throughout. All the great texts say: one must have a guru. What say you?

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Eric
      There are times when a guru can be helpful but I wouldn’t say it’s required. We have been rising out of a time when the mud was thick and guidance was more important. That’s less so now when core understanding is much more widely available. Some say we’re in a time where the collective is the guru.
      .
      Some teachers now avoid the traditional guru role and act more like guides.
      .
      That said, the majority of people I know that have woken have done so with someone awake as a catalyst. They’ve also usually engaged in spiritual practices for awhile.
      .
      I would say go with the flow and take opportunities that arise to go deeper. If life wants you awake, it will find a way. 🙂

      • Eric says:

        Thanks Davidya, much appreciated. The Flow has led me here; pretty good so far. Is there a spiritual practice you would recommend for one such as myself or should I just be content to let that Flow into being as Life would have it?

        • Davidya says:

          My background is Vedic, so for approach, I recommend Yoga. Not the common yoga studio exercise bit but an effortless mantra meditation that brings regular samadhi – the key of Yoga.
          .
          What that does is deepen the experience and cultures presence, supporting everything else. I have an article coming up on the topic but have other articles here, if you search meditation.

  5. Lynette says:

    Hi David Thank you for your post. I have been listening to the Swami Sarvipriyananda, and what you wrote here made it clearer for me. However I have a question when you wrote”But when consciousness becomes awake in the body, we call this enlightenment.”—> I am writing to you and I am in my body, I am conscious, do you mean I am enlightened? What do you mean by this statement? I thought enlightenment is not a goal but a platform from which you act. Thank you so much.

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Lynette
      🙂 No, that’s not what that means. The sentence was in counter-point to death. Yes, we’re all conscious but only some live consciousness that is awake to itself, embodied.
      .
      Some do say we’re all already enlightened – some just don’t know it yet. There is some truth to that but if you have not actually recognized it, it’s not a valid perspective for your current experience. It’s not what is real for you now.
      .
      Also, I do not become enlightened. Enlightenment is waking up From the I and recognizing our cosmic nature. In that sense, it’s meaningless to make it a goal. And yet many people, including myself, have had such a goal for years. It is the nature of being a seeker to have something we seek.
      .
      In many ways, I can talk until I’m blue in the face describing what it is to wake up. But all the words can ever do is point in the general direction. Minds will each hear the words differently. But none of that will be it. We’re talking about the map, not the road. We must travel the road for it to be known.
      .
      Swami Sarvipriyananda speaks mainly on Vedanta. This is mostly about the Unity stage, post Self Realization.

      • Lynette says:

        Hi David, as I was reading all the comments, it reminded a question I always had. When someone has Alzheimer’s or dementia, it appears they are no longer in this world, so do you consider that enlightenment? What is the difference? When the mind is gone and only the body functions, so the person has left and that is consciousness? Thank you.

        • Davidya says:

          Hi Lynette
          No, not at all enlightenment. Basic enlightenment is sometimes referred to as “in the world but not of it.” It’s living infinite consciousness in the life. It’s not divided from the life.
          .
          With dementia and such, the physiology can no longer support the same range of consciousness. We can say the mental body goes off-line. The life-force is still present in the body but consciousness isn’t able to experience properly.
          .
          A friends mother died in a coma. She didn’t even realize she’d died. But once she knew, she could turn to the light and transition.
          .
          Different conditions create different effects but this points to why the human body is very valuable. We can refine it, allowing a much greater range of experience. Conditions like you describe are going the other way. Not out of choice, of course.

  6. Carey says:

    I love this! So thought provoking! So in the end, we are all the same thing? Then doesn’t our experiences differentiate us from one another? Isn’t that what makes life wonderful regardless of what those experiences are and our ability to change and form and mould them? Wow my mind is blown right now lol not sure what to make of it but I’m super happy!

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Carey
      It’s kind of both. Underneath all the multiplicity, we are all the same thing. In consciousness, and then later, in the cosmic values of mind, body, etc.
      .
      And yet on the surface, we remain distinct expressions. And between the cosmic and the surface, there are layers of shared reality and interconnectedness.
      .
      Our apparent individual experiences are happening in the one consciousness, filling out the details in wholeness. Our unique body-minds each designed to add another perspective to the whole.
      .
      Distinct but together, even on the differentiated surface.
      .
      Happy is good. 🙂

  7. Tomek says:

    David, is there a free and open transcending practice, that can be recommended?:) Can such practice be developed from scratch?

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Tomek
      I have run into a few sources that offer a free practice. However, the challenge is the effortless part. Most Western minds are unfamiliar with effortless. When they read instructions, they automatically apply effort. Then it doesn’t work effectively.
      .
      I tested this with a few people but none “go it”. This is why I recommend personal instruction. Guided through the experience and emphasizing the simplicity, correct practice can be established.
      .
      Considering it’s long-term value, it’s more than worth it.
      .
      I don’t recommend roll-your-own. Even if one can develop a correct practice, the proper vehicle is also important. A mantra, for example, used long-term will have long-term consequences. You want that to be suitable and appropriate.
      .
      There are also subtle but significant benefits from traditional instruction. I’ve written an article exploring all this that should be up soon…

  8. Koomkarran Dinalal says:

    Thank you very much and it is an amazing experience to comprehend.

  9. albert says:

    Howdy David. Thanks for the walk-back, in words, from all manifestation, including thoughts, identifications, sensations and feelings. Regarding the cells in the human frame, I also believe these are independent units of awareness, limited of course to their programmed function and sphere of conscious experience. Many cells continue to live after death of the body for a time. Where does the “life” of these cells go after they “die”? The same question can be applied to the conscious experiencer (self-soul) that was within the human body/mind instrument, which left the body at death. Thanks!

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Albert
      Everything that has life has some value of consciousness because life is, in essence, movement of consciousness. Even inanimate objects arise in consciousness so have a value of it, but lack means of experiencing. But if you bring the means to them, you can experience what it is to be anything.
      .
      You can search Death for my commentary on the topic but in essence, the soul or Jiva pulls back out of the physical body then hangs around for a few days or weeks to transition, then pulls back out of the energy body and lower mind. Where they then go varies some. Some take on a guide role or get some training, some take a break, and so on. It depends a lot on what is unresolved.
      .
      For cells themselves, I’ve not explored that before but it feels like they cycle through into the next life pretty quickly.

  10. Daniel says:

    Hi Davidya!
    how does the concept of an individual soul fit into this?
    Is there something like this?
    Blessings

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Daniel
      The soul is similar in idea to the jiva. There are several ways to look at it but broadly, consciousness is aware of itself globally and at every point. One of those points expresses forward as the jiva which enters the body and gives it life. Turns on the chakras, as it were.
      .
      The sense of being an individual is ahamkara. Identification with this is what gets in the way of waking up. When that softens, the jiva can wake up.

      When consciousness wakes up through this form, it’s basically the jiva waking up as consciousness, as that point. We call that the witness. Some people skip this step.
      .
      When the jiva recognizes it is Atman, aka consciousness wakes up to itself, we call that Self Realization.

  11. Jose says:

    Hi David

    You said: ”When the jiva recognizes it is Atman, aka consciousness wakes up to itself, we call that Self Realization.”

    Once this realization happens, is it common for have a transition phase when there are old habits of individual identification present, then followed by the remembrance of the “switch in perspective” that the realization brings?

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Jose
      Not quite. If there has to be a coming back to it or remembrance then it’s not yet an established shift. I explored that here:
      https://davidya.ca/2016/08/09/the-three-ups/
      Sometimes, people make the shift but it’s not yet abiding. There’s still a little too much clearing to do. In such a case, remembering is good. But also, people can have tastes but not yet make the shift – ego remains identified but Self becomes very familiar. In both cases, unpacking helps prepare or stabilize.
      .
      The example i use is the latter because he’d been remembering for years.
      .
      But yes, it is common for a lot of old habits to be seen in a new light after the shift. Simply through living life, we see the old stories arise, reactivity, feelings of must, and so forth. From a place of broader awareness, those are seen through and resolved.

  12. Jose says:

    Hi David,
    The awareness seems to always be there but it does disappear with tasks and situations. The remembering is more like being back in the awareness and seeing the ego, emotions and situations as taking place inside the awareness, That’s the best way I can describe it.
    Should it also stay present at all times during sleep?

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Jose
      Does it disappear or just shift to the background? If our attention is focused on a task, it’s not on infinite consciousness. Depending on many factors, that background can be louder or more silent.
      .
      But if attention is shifted, is it just there? Or does it need to be found or remembered again?
      .
      On sleep, no. If there noticing during sleep then the mind is awake. Thats not really deep sleep. But there is a sense of continuity of awareness. One doesn’t come and go but remains, silent in deep sleep.
      .
      There is often a back and forth but at some point, there should be a distinctive shift from me to boundless. That remains clear to greater or lesser degree but the actual shift is permanent.
      .
      It’s much easier after that’s clear and established.

  13. Jose says:

    Hi David
    If attention is shifted the awareness is there but the intensity varies. Which leads me to conclude there is still integration taking place and that the full self realization is not there. Doing meditation, yin yoga, shadow and energy work is helping in clearing the stuff. The best way to describe it is that everything is happening inside of the awareness/totality. Ego, emotions, situations and other people etc…and that I am that awareness where everything takes place but during periods of emotional release, the awareness is very faint and the ego seems to go as if on automatic mode with old tendencies coming to the surface. During periods where the awareness is louder the ego feels like a very small part of this totality.

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Jose
      Well – I wouldn’t second-guess it too much. In time, it will become clear and a clarity and certainty arises.
      .
      Yes, we have a lot of programming – much of it from a young age. Some of it is needed, like riding a bike or using a fork. But there can be lots of ego-justification, control, fear, and so on in there. Life has a kind of schedule to bring different things forward. 🙂

  14. Ron Krumpos says:

    The ego became your personal identity, even if you did frequently suspect that it was shallow, corrupt and manipulative. It had often provided you with good feelings of confidence, direction and worth. Unfortunately, it had sometimes showed its insecurities, confusion and ineffectiveness, too. You cannot live life fully with it and you cannot live without it; you can discard it, occasionally. Let go of the ego to win with the soul.

    • Davidya says:

      Hi Ron
      Identification with the ego is a natural process. However, it’s also natural to outgrow that and discover our deeper nature – if we understand and culture our growth.
      .
      Yes, that is a letting go rather than a discarding. We need the function but it makes a poor master. 🙂

  15. Jose says:

    Thank you David! I find your writings and insight invaluable and vital. I’m grateful for all that you do. I will keep clearing up the stuff as it comes forward.

  16. Davidya says:

    This article brought a huge spike in traffic, confirming those SEO specialists who talk about the importance of the title. But as usual, most of them were skimmers zipping on to the next big thing…

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