As thoughtful and conscientious people, we want to live our lives well. Today I’d like to introduce a very simple technique that you can use every day. It doesn’t take any time. You can do it while driving to work, taking a shower, or washing dishes. Practicing this technique will guide you from within.
The Practice of Self-Inquiry
Self-inquiry is a mental practice of turning our attention within and asking, “Who am I?”
Before we can answer this question, however, we need to discard some wrong ideas. Any meaningful answer to the question “who am I?” can never change. It must be the same at all times and for all circumstances. And ultimately the answer must be the same for everyone.
For example, today I might answer the question with a name—Mary Jones. Next year, after my wedding, I might call myself Mary Smith. Therefore, I am not my name. The same goes for my job. I might be a computer programmer today, but perhaps I’ll get tired of that work, change careers, and become a personnel manager. But I will still be the same person. I am not my occupation.
Our personalities and preferences change over time. I once enjoyed country music, but now I like classical. I used to love chocolate, but now it gives me headaches. And of course, the body changes constantly—I used to have blonde hair, but now it’s mostly gray. My face is wrinkled where once it was smooth. Obviously I am not my personality or my body.
If I truly want to find out who I am, I need to practice self-inquiry and discard the answers that don’t fit.
Self-Inquiry: Practice or Path?
Yoga masters and scriptures emphasize the importance of inquiry. The Yoga Vāsishtha says that inquiry is one of the four gatekeepers to liberation. The others are self-control, contentment, and good company. It states these benefits of practicing inquiry:
“Knowledge of truth arises from inquiry; from such knowledge there follows tranquility in oneself; and then there arises the supreme peace that passes understanding and the ending of all sorrow.”
The Yoga Vāsishtha states that inquiry is one of several spiritual practices leading to happiness and, finally, enlightenment itself. One notable master, Ramana Maharshi of India, emphasized inquiry as a distinct path. He taught that inquiry is the primary practice on the spiritual path.
Who Am I? (aff link) is a compilation of questions and answers. At less than twenty pages long, it’s easy to read and rich with spiritual wisdom—one of those books worth returning to along one’s journey. I recommend it as a helpful guide to this practice. You may decide for yourself whether to include self-inquiry in your daily contemplation or to adopt Ramana Maharshi’s path of focused self-inquiry.
Putting Self-Inquiry into Practice
Spiritual knowledge must dawn from within. Saints, sages, and books might give us clues and even outright answers to our questions. However, they also tell us that true knowledge must be experienced.
When you meditate each day, start with a quiet moment of contemplation of the question “who am I?” Don’t try to answer the question. Just ask. Then continue with your meditation practice, being solely a witness to any passing thoughts.
Persistence is needed to make progress in any worthwhile endeavor. Over time, by practicing self-inquiry, you will realize the answer to the question “who am I?”
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.