For the thought-and-feeling-made self, some experiences are intimate, others not. For the true and only Self of pure Awareness, all experience is equally intimate.

Which Self Is Being Enquired Into? Part 1

Which self is being enquired into here? It seems to me that there are layers of self, the fake self and real self and as the enquiry goes deeper into the one, it dissolves, allowing the other one, reality, to come into the light.

Dear Rupert,

Not very long ago, I came across the Nisargadatta material in ‘I Am That’, in which his suggestion to ask “Who am I?” as the premier approach to really getting that question answered crossed my radar.  (Earlier than Nisargadatta, Ramana recommended the same method of self-enquiry, although I’m not familiar with much of Ramana’s teaching.)

The first question I’ve got is: “Which self is being enquired into here?” It seems to me that there are layers of self - simplistically, fake self and real self, for instance - and it also seems to me that the enquiry encounters both.  Or rather, as the enquiry goes deeper into the one, it dissolves, allowing the other one, reality, to come into the light.



Dear Paul,

The ‘self’ or ‘I’ that is being enquired into is the self that one thinks and feels oneself to be at any moment.

For instance, in this current situation, ‘I’ is the name we give to whatever it is that is knowing or experiencing these words and whatever else is being experienced, such as the sound of traffic, bodily sensations etc. It is the knowing or experiencing element in every experience and it is, by definition, present.

These two ‘elements,’ Knowing and Presence (Being) are inherent in the sense of ‘I.’ For this reason it is sometimes referred to as Knowing Presence or Consciousness (that is, the presence of that which is conscious or the knowing of our own being).

I am and I know that I am.

Self enquiry is an investigation into the nature of this ‘I.’ What can we say about it from experience other than that it is knowing and present?

It is taken for granted by most people that this Knowing Presence is located as an entity inside the body and, at the same time, is the body.

However, here, we take nothing for granted….the only way to find out for ourselves what can truly be said about this ‘I’ that we intimately know ourselves to be, is to look at it.

So, right now, turn around, as it were, and give your attention to whatever it is that is aware of these words, your thoughts, your bodily sensations etc.

Try to find it and look at it.

A strange thing happens when we try to do this. Whilst this Knowing Presence is undeniably present, we cannot find it as an object when we look for it. In fact we do not even know in which direction to turn in order to see it.

Right there in that experience, the belief that Knowing Presence or ‘I’ is an entity, located in or as the body is undermined.

As we enquire more and more into our experience we find that there is in fact absolutely no experiential evidence for the belief that ‘I,’ Consciousness or Knowing Presence, is located or limited. Although this is being rationalised here, this conviction comes from the experience that what we are has no limits or location.

And what is it that experiences this? Our own self of course. It is our self that knows or experiences its own unlimited, unlocated Presence.

In other words, the self that is being enquired into is the only self there is. This self seems, for a time, to be limited but this very same self is later discovered to be unlimited.

During the enquiry the apparent limitations of this self drop away naturally and effortless, leaving only the very same self, naked as it were, unmodified by any of the apparent superimpositions of mind or body.

So your comment, “..... as the enquiry goes deeper into the one, it dissolves, allowing the other one, reality, to come into the light…” is very close.

I would amend it slightly by saying that as the enquiry goes deeper into the sense of ‘I,’ all those qualities that were superimposed upon it by the mind and the body, are seen clearly to have no real limiting power over it. As a result (seemingly) that same ‘I’ shines forth as it is, unlimited and unlocated, knowing its own being with its own light.

Why do I say ‘seemingly?’

Because the above description is written for one who believes and feels him or herself to be a limited entity and as a result, sets out on a process of self enquiry to ascertain the truth of the matter.

When Consciousness is realised as being entirely independent of all the superimpositions of mind and body that seemed to limit it, we realise at the same time that the entity we thought and felt ourselves to be was always non-existent, as such.

In other words, this apparent separate entity did not undertake a process of self enquiry and discover itself to be unlimited, unlocated Consciousness. Rather there is always only this unlimited, unlocated Consciousness, whose knowing of its own being SEEMS sometimes to be veiled by the belief in and feeling of a separate self.

So we can now reformulate what self enquiry is from this deeper perspective, although this formulation is also inevitably limited: we could say that Consciousness takes the shape of a thought that seems to limit it to and locate it in a body. Consciousness, ‘I,’ seems as a result to know itself as an entity, a body. As it withdraws this projection it comes to know itself again as it is, unlimited and unlocated.

In other words, it is only for the apparent entity that self enquiry is a considered to be a process in the mind.  When it is seen that this entity is non-existent and cannot therefore enquire into its own nature or indeed do anything else, it becomes obvious that there is always only Consciousness and that self enquiry simply means to abide knowing as this Consciousness.
That is, self enquiry is simply to abide knowingly in and as our own being.

We could say that self enquiry is like an image on a screen slowly fading. What seemed to be an object or entity (the image) is revealed to be only screen. That is, the apparent ‘I’ is revealed to be made and always to have been made of the real and only ‘I,’ Consciousness.

There is always only Consciousness, at times seeming to be limited and local, but in fact always only ever being and knowing its own unlimited self.


Many contemporary explanations of self enquiry have reduced it to a simplistic mental exercise involving a repetition of the question ‘Who am I?’  

However, by far the larger part of the apparent separate self, is present in the form of a feeling not just a belief, and this feeling lingers, in most cases, long after the belief in a separate entity has been undermined.

And for this reason self enquiry also involves an exploration of the sense of ‘I’ at the level of feelings, that is, at the level of the body. This aspect of self enquiry is implicit in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, Atmananda Krishnamenon and others, although often not elaborated.

Many such teachers sat for periods of time in silence with their students during which this apparent process of investigation at the level of the mind was taken much deeper into a silent and contemplative exploration of the more hidden layers of the separate self sense in the body. It is, in many cases, this deeper exploration of experience, that distinguishes intellectual understanding from real experience.

Amongst the many benefits of the internet for expressing and sharing the advaita teachings, there are inevitable drawbacks. One of them is that this deeper experiential aspect of the teaching is often omitted (because words are the exclusive form of the teaching in such a format) and the teaching is sometimes reduced as a result to verbal exchange, often getting lost in semantics and intellectual argument.

With kind regards,