Who am I really?
What is my essential nature?
“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 awhile, expand your awareness, like the breath expands in your body, to include being aware of passing sounds, whatever they are - perhaps a bird or 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.
Are you now aware of simply being aware?
Your mind may still generate a few thoughts but, if you don’t invest attention in them, you can experience a gradual quietness of your being in the present moment. In the spaciousness of a quiet mind you discover that “you” are still present - if not more so, as Klein suggests. This is a conscious experience of your essential self, the source of your being which is simply awareness.
Perhaps you'd like to do the awareness exercise again. Ask yourself, who is aware of 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.
In a "spontaneous state of interior silence we can open ourselves to our true nature, the 'I Am' of pure consciousness." Jean Klein
We are born aware beings. Over time “I am” becomes identified with particular qualities, mental states and social roles. But the essential self 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.
Our Essential Self, the Source of Being
All thoughts, feelings, sensations come and go within the spacious field of unconditioned awareness. Thoughts are experienced as internal conditions. Circumstances are experienced as external conditions. But everything you have ever or will ever experience arises in the spaciousness of your awareness which is essentially unconditioned.
Notice that in the description of the awareness exercise I say “rest you attention.” Attention is not the same as awareness. Typically we direct our attention to something. But if your intention is to experience awareness, you relax your attention.
Awareness is not what we do - it is what we are. We don’t have awareness, we are awareness. Consciousness, or awareness, is not separate from the body. Our body is imbued with consciousness. Even in deep sleep, awareness knows to adjust the bed covers if the body feels cold.
Our most fundamental experience of self is simply being aware. Awareness is ever-present. But our experience of awareness is habitually overlooked because our attention is focused on experiences such as thoughts, feelings and circumstances.
The 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, sensations. Thoughts come and go. But they cannot be me because I (awareness) watch them come and go. The one who knows, our essential nature, is ever-present and can never be diminished or limited.
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 of thoughts and feeling states such as “I am discouraged” or “I am anxious." Instead of identifying with thoughts and feelings, ask yourself, who is experiencing this? I am. I am "the one who knows.” Allow yourself to simply be present as "the one who knows" rather than a story about yourself.
You can awaken from the trance of every day life in the midst of any circumstance and realize you are the one who is aware of experience. This realization that your essential self is unconditioned awareness has tremendous therapeutic value if 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 for hours. 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.
When you know the source of being you'll discover your potential to live as a conscious creator. Our multidimensional self is created by consciousness every day while we're awake and when asleep dreaming.
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 your being.
Although the surface of this vast ocean of consciousness may seem turbulent at times 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 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 we can abide in our essential nature 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 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
Our essential nature 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 physics theorists 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