Who am I really?
What is my essential nature?
Over time “I am” becomes identified with various qualities, mental states and social roles. But your essential nature, unconditioned awareness, never changes and is always present. Your essential self is like your heartbeat - always sustaining you at the core of your being throughout everything you experience.
“You are primal awareness. You know moments in your life when a thought completely disappears into silence, but still you are.” Jean Klein, non-dual teacher
To experience Jean Klein’s understanding, perhaps you’d like to try this very simple awareness exercise:
For a few moments, focus attention on something other than your thoughts. Initially it may be challenging to interrupt the habit of identifying with your thoughts. But most people find that after several attempts they are able to consciously experience a few moments enjoying a quieter mind.
An easy way to do this is to close your eyes and, for a few moments, rest your attention, with no strain, on experiencing the gentle flow of breath in your body in whatever way you most easily experience it. If you don't easily experience the breath, rest a hand on your belly area and notice its gentle rise and fall as you breathe.
After a while, notice the expansive quality of awareness. Like the breath expands in your body, the experience of awareness can expand to include being aware of passing sounds, whatever they are - perhaps a bird or a ticking clock. Now simply be present listening without labeling the sounds. If there are no discernible sounds just enjoy silence. When you open your eyes, spontaneously rest your gaze on the first thing you see, just this one thing - a cloud in the sky or sunlight on curtains, for example.
In this moment, are you now aware of simply being aware?
The mind may still generate a few thoughts. But, if you don’t invest attention in them, you will experience a gradual quietness of your being in the present moment. With a quiet mind you can rest in the spaciousness of awareness. Then you will discover that “you” are still present - if not more so, as Klein suggests. This is a conscious experience of the source of your being which is simply awareness.
Perhaps you'd like to do the awareness exercise again. This time ask yourself who is aware of this body breathing? Who is aware of the sunlit curtains or the cloud in the sky?
Who is aware of simply being aware? The answer is always “I am.”
Who am I?
Especially in moments when the mind is quiet we have an opportunity to recognize the source of our being. The source or essence of “I am” is unconditioned awareness.
Our Essential Self, the Source of Being
In a "spontaneous state of interior silence, we can open ourselves to our true nature, the 'I Am' of pure consciousness." Jean Klein
Awareness is fundamental to who we are. We are born aware beings and awareness is ever-present. Even in the absence of thought during deep sleep, our fundamental awareness is present and knows to adjust the bed covers when cold is experienced.
We don’t have awareness and it isn't something we do. The essential nature of the self is simply being aware. Similar to our breath, our essential awareness is so constant and intimate it is habitually overlooked in favor of the stream of our experiences like our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and circumstances.
This stream of experience arises from your fundamental awareness. Everything you have ever or will ever experience arises in the spaciousness of fundamental awareness which is essentially unconditioned. All thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions come and go within the spacious field of unconditioned awareness. We experience thoughts as internal conditions. Circumstances are experienced as external conditions.
This spacious field of our awareness is the "original mind" that gives birth to all our thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. Unconditioned awareness was described as “the one who knows” by Ajahn Chah, who was very influential in spreading Buddhism to the West.
In the midst of any experience, internal or external, rather than identifying with the experience, ask yourself “who is aware of this experience?”
“I am.” I am “the one who knows.”
It is a case of mistaken identity to identify the self with the stream of our experiences - thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations. Thoughts, for example, come and go. But thoughts do not constitute who I am because I (awareness) watch them come and go.
Thoughts and feelings are like clouds that appear and disappear in the spaciousness of the sky. The sky is not limited by cloudy conditions and our ever-present unconditioned awareness is not diminished or limited by the temporary conditions of the mind.
Allow that to sink in. Our essential nature is ever-present and can never be diminished or limited. Once you’ve recognized that you are the one who is aware of experience you’re less likely to automatically identify with your experience. This can be true whether the experience is physical pain or thoughts and feeling states such as “I am discouraged” or “I am anxious."
Instead of continually identifying with your experience of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and circumstances, practice asking yourself, who is experiencing this? I am. I am "the one who knows” this experience.
You can awaken from the trance of everyday life in the midst of any circumstance to realize you are the one who is aware of experience. This realization that your essential self is unconditioned awareness has tremendous therapeutic value if it is known experientially rather than only philosophically.
Throughout your day give yourself such moments to quiet the mind and experience a glimpse of unconditioned awareness. Such a glimpse is like a refreshing drink of water that nourishes every cell in your body all day.
Once you've known the source of your being you'll discover the potential to live as a conscious creator. Our multidimensional self is created by consciousness every day while we're awake and when asleep dreaming. Over time this nascent knowing of the source of being will transform your life into an abidance in awareness as your true home that offers equanimity, freedom and stability.
Consciousness is like a vast ocean that creates and sustains life. An ocean is independent of any beings who live there just as awareness is independent of its contents - thoughts, feelings, etc. From time to time rest in the quiet depths of the ocean of unconditioned awareness, the source of all being.
The surface of this vast ocean of consciousness may seem turbulent at times. But we can always find refuge in the depths where we discover a quiet peace. Remember the words of Jean Klein,
"You know moments in your life when a thought completely disappears into silence, but still you are.”
When you tried the simple awareness exercise did you notice the qualities of your experience? Generally when people are asked about their experience they say very similar things. They associate an experience of the source of their being with feeling more content, peaceful, present, spacious, light, free. These are qualities of our essential nature, the source of our being. We find peace and freedom in our true home when we recognize that our essential self is the ever-present awareness we were born with.
Our essential nature is like the sun. Where does the sun go when we experience a cloudy day or the dark of night? Even when we don’t experience the light and warmth of the sun, it is still present and its radiance is unchanging. Even in the midst of challenging circumstances and a storm of burdensome thoughts and feelings our essential nature is still present as our source of creativity and freedom from illusion.
Our most fundamental experience of self is simply being aware. Everyone has access to the experience of simply being aware in this very moment. The one you experience as “I am,” is the same being that is alive in everyone as the knowing “I am.”
Our essential nature is the most intimate experience of our being but it is also shared with everyone. Despite all apparent differences between us, our essential nature is the same for everyone and always has been. It is our shared being.
“The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.” Thich Nhat Hanh
of all that is alive.” Thich Nhat Hanh
The experience of shared being is freely accessible to everyone no matter who they are or whatever beliefs they hold. This perennial, non-dual understanding can be discovered on any spiritual path. But spiritual traditions evolve over centuries through the interpretations of many people and become fossilized through institutions often obscuring the most essential and profound truths.
“The meaning of life is found in openness to being and in being present in full awareness.” Christian philosopher Thomas Merton
Contemporary theoretical physicists suggest that everything is energy and more space than solid which supports this understanding of shared being. But for many centuries the foundations of society have been structured based upon the ideology of separation. Our extreme investment in the belief of separation underlies and fuels our current global crises. But we can make a difference. Humanity is now waking up from the illusion that we are fundamentally separate and we are ready to invest in the realization of our shared being.
A few words from the beautiful Heart Sutra seem especially relevant: "...finding no obstacles in our minds, we overcome fear and liberate ourselves forever from illusion.”
The Awakened Life™ by Hollye Hurst. All Rights Reserved
photo by Hollye Hurst artwork by Sarolta Ban