“Who am I?”
Have you ever sat in meditation and asked yourself this question?
If you have, then you’re following an ancient tradition of meditative self-inquiry. Yogis throughout the ages have meditated on this profound question in a quest to know the truth of who they are on a spiritual level and ultimately, become enlightened. It was a sage by the name of Ramani Maharshi who made this act of meditative self-inquiry so popular. He taught his students that in order to be truly content, one must know thyself – at the deepest, truest, soul level.
Neti neti is a practice that means, “not this, not that”. It’s a way of finding out what we are not, in order to find out what we are. For example, I am not the mind. I am not my intellect. I am not the body I was born with. In fact, this body is always changing. I am not my personality. I am not my ego. I’m not my worldview. I’m not my life story.
And I’m not my personality. So if I’m not all these things, then who am I, really? Through a long, contemplative process of elimination, we can finally (hopefully) find out who we are, at the core of our spiritual heart.
Seeking to find this answer is a part of walking the path of the true yogi. Most of us don’t really know the true essence of who we are, which is why it’s really important to ask this question of ourselves as we sit in contemplation. Each time we ask ourselves this question, we dig deeper. We wait to see what arises. We take our time, perhaps years, asking our soul this question. It’s a question that you’ll find will probably be the most profound one of your entire life. And it’s gonna take time. So, be patient with yourself and simply allow whatever arises to arise. There are no right or wrong answers.
Yoga is all about understanding the nature of our existence. It’s both a practice and a philosophy. According to the ancient Vedic teachings, we are eternal, spiritual, souls, living temporarily in these physical bodies. And we need these teachings at this time. In this day and age, it’s far too easy to be distracted, to lose sight of our essential, spiritual nature.
Our society teaches us that we are our external world
Our modern world teaches us largely what we are not, from a spiritual and philosophical standpoint. We fill so many roles for so many people. For example, I’m a sister, a daughter, and a wife. Then there’s the media, which tells us we should be smarter, prettier, younger, skinnier, richer, more famous, etc. We need to buy all sorts of stuff to feel good, and so on and so forth.
But when we start to dig deep, we realize that it’s all a farce. We realize that beneath the many layers we are loving, spiritual beings. But first, we must peel away the physical aspects of who we think we are. We must dis-identify ourselves with our flesh and even our prana (life force energy), and the environment that surrounds us. Next, we peel away our many attachments—our house, our car, our religion, etc.
Yoga teaches us what we really are
And by devoting ourselves to the yoga practice, and to this question, “Who am I,” we get to peel back all those layers until we get to the heart of who we really are. The process can be arduous. In some ways, it can be tumultuous. But the fruits are many. Because we are left with our divine soul, our divine nature. We can then live from a state of being that’s pure and whole. There’s no more trying to be something we’re not. That’s the work of the ego. The ego feels separate. The soul is at one with the universe.
This oneness with the universe is sometimes referred to as non-dualism. I am that. Thou art that. The sense of separation is only an illusion, which in yoga is called “maya”.
The “maya” refers to all those layers that we peel back when we meditate on the question, “who am I?” The more we meditate on the question, “who am I,” the closer we get to this non-dual state of being. You can also repeat the mantra “tat tvam asi,” which means “thou art that.”
Relish the journey
When meditating and contemplating this profound question, realize that you are on a spiritual journey. Your path is a process. Every day you start over again. Establish yourself in the present moment, and then ask the question, “who am I?” The answers that arise might be different from day to day. You’re not the same person you were yesterday.
The key here is to simply keep asking the question. With time, you’ll be able to recognize your own spiritual evolution. And that is a powerful thing, indeed.