Who am I?
This question, above all others, synopsizes the spiritual path. This is the question spiritual teachers encourage their students to ask. From the aspirant’s point of view, it feels like a big important question—the key to unlocking the door to enlightenment.
But, on its face, when I first started investigating, it felt silly. Why do I need to ask who I am? I know who I am, right?
I am a collection of thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, and opinions. I am an agglomeration of my experiences and memories. I am a mother, daughter, wife, businesswoman, and writer. I am dedicated, cheerful, sensitive—a free spirit at heart.
But the spiritual teachers would say to go deeper. That is only surface content.
So I would endeavor to look deeper.
I would think about bigger, deeper answers: I am all that is? I am awareness? I am consciousness itself?
The answers felt more like questions that my mind could not grasp.
So, always the question remained in the background of seeking.
Who am I?
Meanwhile, I kept going on silent retreats and practicing the self-inquiry techniques put before me. Every so often a flash of insight revealed itself.
Many of the most common techniques are methods to develop the capacity to witness thoughts—to step back and see that thoughts themselves are just a phenomenon that comes and goes.
There are many different practices that encourage a kind of distancing from our thoughts. Often we are simply embroiled in a thought stream, such that we can’t even see the discreet thoughts. We lose sight of everything else except what we are thinking.
Some practices draw attention back to the senses, the breath or mantra to interrupt thinking. These are helpful for stabilizing attention. Eventually, though, we must investigate the nature of thought itself. We must ask, can I watch a thought appear and self-liberate?
I’ve always found thoughts to be kind of clingy. The idea that a thought might “self-liberate” seemed unlikely. Thoughts felt like they belonged to me—like they were me. Plus, thoughts didn’t seem to come in one at a time but more like a whole string, inextricably linked together—hence the term “train of thought.” These thought streams seemed out of my control—more like a runaway train—and often well nigh impossible to stop.
But, I trusted the process and kept practicing. During Center for Sacred Sciences’ retreats, we listened to the teachings of mystics from all the great religions: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sufi, and Jewish. And all of those mystics said pay attention! Look between the thoughts. Find the gap. They all agreed that the true nature of our being is something more than thoughts, opinions, memories and personality—something that might be called the Source, or the underlying substrate of all, or God.
But, those sticky thoughts! They sure felt like me.
Gradually, during deep meditation as happens on extended silent retreat, I became more adept at watching my thoughts. I began to appreciate that there were gaps between the thoughts—though barely noticeable. And I discovered for myself that in those little gaps, there was a brightening and an expansion—a compelling momentary no-thought, in-breath of potential marked also by a sense of completeness and satisfaction—an alive vibrant still point.
Is that where thoughts come from and where they go?
I became very curious as to the nature of the “stickiness” of my thoughts so that I could rest in the gap more often. I began to realize that when I went in to look at thoughts I was subconsciously re-affirming them. Yep—there’s that thought. It’s real. It’s mine. It’s not going away. Slowly, however, I began to cotton on to the fact that by “checking-in,” I was actually keeping the thought from self-liberating. I was perpetually, though unconsciously, reifying it.
You know how you can ring a gong and listen as the sound slowly fades to nothing. Well, with thoughts it was as if every time I endeavored to watch that thought drift into nothing, I instead kept lightly hitting the thought gong—starting the thought up again giving the impression it was all one perpetual and unstoppable thought train.
One day, while on silent retreat an unexpected image came to mind from a TV show called Ghost Whisperer. In the TV show, at the end of each episode, the main character, Melinda Gordon (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt), helps earthbound “stuck” (often persistent and menacing) spirits to cross over into the light. Melinda sees the ghosts for what they are—ephemeral spirits—and does not fear them, instead confidently guiding them to leave this earthbound existence, to find their way into the light and back to the Source.
For whatever reason, a mental trick dawned on me. Perhaps, instead of using my brain to beat myself up for continually inadvertently re-pinging the sticky thoughts, I could imagine instead that I had the capacity to help usher those thoughts along to liberation.
I could be a Thought Whisperer.
When I first started this practice, it helped my brain to relax. It liked the idea. It had a little job—which thankfully was no longer tied to endlessly investigating (and thus re-pinging) a particular thought—but rather a compassionate selfless act of ushering the thought along to liberation.
It sounds a bit cumbersome, but it quickly became joy-filled.
With each session during that retreat, I looked forward to noticing the thoughts that came.
There you are. I see you. Let’s go into the light.
I felt as if I were holding the thought in my upraised open palms and gently encouraging them to fly away. It was such a different experience—more relaxing, less tense.
More and more thoughts came during the sessions. And each was offered back to the source. The meditation sessions became marked by the little brightening expansive silent gaps I had noticed naturally occur between thoughts. The thoughts, with the Thought Whisperer’s help did self-liberate, and as they did, awareness brightened.
As a Thought Whisperer, I no longer needed to fear that particularly menacing thoughts might take me away. Instead I welcomed them—each and every one.
One day, it dawned on me that the biggest question of all, who am I? —the one that I had separated out and put into a special “how to get enlightened” category of its own—was no different from any other thought.
Shockingly, I suddenly saw that asking even the mother of all spiritual questions, who am I? was not about finding an answer at all!
It was simply another opportunity to following even that question to its Source.
So I still from time to time ask the question when I am deep in meditation, who am I?
But instead of looking for an answer I let the Thought Whisperer invite me to fearlessly and selflessly usher that question, as well as any related thoughts about it, back to the Source.
For there is the peace and fulfillment I am seeking. And in it, there are no questions.