On Self-Inquiry Meditation

Meditation usually involves focusing one’s attention on an object. Mantra meditation, for example, focuses attention on a word or phrase. In the East this might be the word “Aum,” or one of the many names of God, such as “Rama.” In Orthodox Christianity, attention is placed on the words of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, please forgive me, a sinner.”) In Catholicism, the Hail Mary and other prayers are used together with the Rosary. Other objects of meditation might include a candle flame, or a spiritual image or icon. In many types of meditation, such as Zen or Vipassana (“Insight”) meditation, attention is placed on the breath, which itself is a subtle object.

Self-Inquiry, on the other hand, is a unique style of meditation in that attention is not directed towards an object but rather towards the subject itself. That subject is the very sense of “I” that is perceiving, or rather, through which is perceived, the objects of other types of meditation. Self-Inquiry is the only type of meditation that is directed inwards rather than outwards. And here let me pause to head off a potential objection to what has just been said. Anything that is perceived in consciousness is, in Self-Inquiry, considered an object. That would include thoughts and emotions, as well as any sensations occurring in the body. So one who is in deep meditation, passively witnessing thoughts as they rise and fall, or exploring an emotion, or enthralled with a particularly operatic stomach-gurgle, is still, in terms of Self-Inquiry, focused on objects. Attention is thus considered to be turned outward rather than inward. Self-Inquiry stops this outward flow of attention entirely and turns it back towards the very source from which it rises. That source (or Source, if you prefer) is the true subject.

And just how does this work?

Well, this is where it gets complicated, although it isn’t really. What I mean is, the mechanics are not really complicated at all, but most people, myself included, have a hard time grasping this process in the beginning. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be grasped if you don’t want to grasp it. In other words, if you follow the instructions properly, it will work whether you understand it or not. The even better news is, if you want to grasp it, you can. I’m about to condense for you a couple of years of study and the teachings of multiple sages and their devotees in a simple, graspable way. This is Platinum Level content you’re about to get here, and at no charge. Here goes.

You’re not thinking

If you meditate at all, if you are reflective, or if you just pay attention to your thoughts or are simply honest with yourself about them, you will see that most of your thoughts arise on their own. It is simply not the case that we are the thinker of our thoughts. Thoughts pops into our heads all the time, they give rise to emotion, and emotion in turn gives rise to further thoughts. But this process is largely automatic. I say largely because it can seem that we ourselves are doing the thinking, but what is really happening when it seems that way is that we are, at most, interacting with our thoughts, or focusing on a particular sequence of thoughts. But the percolation, the rising and falling of thought, occurs on its own. We interact with our thoughts just as we interact with our breath. We can stop the breath, start the breath, control the pace of the breath, but only for so long as we are focused on doing so (or until the body rebels). But the moment we stop, breathing goes back on autopilot. And the same is true with thought.

This is a very important point to grasp. It’s more than a presupposition, or the foundation for a persuasive argument. It’s how the mind works. If this point is not understood, then the rest of what is said about the mechanics of Self-Inquiry might as well not be said. It’s that important.

Now, here is the next most important point. You are not your thoughts. This does follow logically from the above, but that doesn’t matter because it also happens to be true. (Intellectual arguments can be internally solid even when they are not true, or when they arrive at false conclusions, especially when they begin with a false presupposition.) I’ll say it again: You are not your thoughts. You are the witness of your thoughts. You are that which is aware of your thoughts just as you are that which is aware of your breath, your feet, the weather, or these words. If this is a stumbling block for you, then you need to come to terms with it before moving on, but I assume that if you are even reading this post, this assertion is not news to you.

So here, then, is the meat of Self-Inquiry: There are two kinds of thoughts. First, there is the “I”-thought. Second, there is every other kind of thought. In other words, there are two categories of thought, and one includes all thoughts minus one, that one being the thought that says “I,” or “I am.” Yes, that is a thought. And this idea of the sense of “I” being merely a thought that rises is a central claim of Self-Inquiry. If that is a sticking point for you, we will need a whole other post to come to terms with that (for now, maybe this one will help), or you will have to realize on your own that it is true. With that in mind, though, the “I”-thought is special enough to get its own category. Because it is unlike any other thought.

How is the “I”-thought different?

The “I”-thought depends on all other thoughts for its existence. The “I”-thought, by it’s very nature, identifies itself with other thoughts and hangs onto them very tightly. In fact, the “I”-thought functions a lot like a magnet. As thoughts arise, it attaches to the ones it likes and repels the ones it doesn’t (as if they were the wrong end of another magnet). It is this attraction/repulsion out of which rises our sense of personal identity. (For more on personal identity, see the three part series “Who Am I?” that begins here.)

I am not going to attempt to persuade you that this is true. It is in fact, true, but I am not going to attempt to persuade you of that. This is really something you have to see for yourself before you can truly know it. And I do mean know, as opposed to believe. There is no belief required here. Self-Inquiry is less a faith-based process and more a how-to. It’s a recipe, a set of instructions. It’s a replicable procedure.

The goal of Self-Inquiry, then, is to eliminate the “I”-thought. This is achieved by depriving it of the opportunity to identify itself with the other category of thoughts (which is, again, all of them). This is where the work comes in, and it’s not easy, the work, but the concept is fairly easy to understand. Here is the concept: As thoughts arise, you inquire. You ask yourself, Who is thinking this thought? The answer that naturally arises is “I am.” But there is no need to answer the question. One reason is, it’s not true. Another is that it’s the question itself that is key. Asking the question is what stops this thought, or sense of “I,” from attaching itself to other thoughts, or that results in “I” detaching from thoughts it has attached to. And really, “I am” is not even an answer, because it begs the question Who (or what) am I? The question and the answer go round and round until you realize there really is no answer to the question. That’s when the “I”-thought is eliminated. It is revealed to be unreal, just a thought itself, and it dissolves.

It’s that simple. Or not that simple. It’s simply stated, but not simply realized. But it is true. As I said, this is a replicable experiment.

It’s not supernatural

The natural flow of attention is outward. In fact, that is what attention means — the word comes from the Latin attendere, which means to stretch toward. Perhaps that is why all other meditation techniques direct attention towards objects. It just feels, and is, natural. Self-Inquiry stops this outward flow of attention — and this is also “natural,” else it wouldn’t work (which it does). It does so by preventing the “I”-thought from identifying itself with other thoughts. When this happens, the other thoughts stop rising, and as a result, the “I”-thought stops rising. It subsides. It simply doesn’t survive without other thoughts to latch onto.

In other words, the process of Self-Inquiry, of asking the question Who is thinking? or Who am I? or some other similar question, shakes loose the “I”-thought and prevents it from identifying with other thoughts. The result of this is that all thought ceases, or stops rising.

When that happens — and this is very important — when that happens, attention stops flowing outward. It stalls. It begins to turn back, to turn inward. This is not something we — you or I as the meditator — do. It just happens. It’s natural. This reverse flow of the machinery is what causes our very sense of self, a separate individual apart from others, to dissolve. And that is the very essence of love. Love, as Rupert Spira is wont to say, is the dissolution of the perceived boundary between “I” and “Other.” It is Bliss. It is true union with the Divine. It is non-duality, or not-two.

It is what it means to say I and the Father are one.

7 thoughts on “On Self-Inquiry Meditation

  1. Dear Mike,

    Thank you for this beautiful description of Self-Inquiry. “I” found it very illuminating and helpful. Two items in particular arose on my initial read (I’ll be re-reading it :-).

    First, that the sequence of thoughts arise on their own accord like breathe: “the rising and falling of thought, occurs on its own.” I had never considered that possibility and look forward to exploring and noticing that. I had thought that I had some control over the sequence of thoughts. Mind-blowing.

    Second, I found the line “When that (‘all thought ceases, or stops arising’) happens — and this is very important — when that happens, attention stops flowing outward. It stalls. It begins to turn back, to turn inward.” very helpful, like a guidepost. As I feel like one of those blind men sensing one part of the proverbial elephant and not completely sure of this very calming experience of Self-Inquiry. For me, when in that place of no thought, it seems that my attention is ready to instantaneously go to whatever sensation or thought that might arise. It seemed that my attention could move naturally and effortlessly anywhere – akin to Takuan Soho’s description in “The Unfettered Mind” of how attention in “Mushin” can flow like water and not be stuck anywhere. It was also reassuring to read this line as it seems to echo Rupert Spira’s words: “It is not a directing of the attention but rather a resting of the attention.” It seems to be a realization of no-tension and peace.

    Thank you again for writing this description of Self-Inquiry.

    Regards, Young

    1. Hello, and thank you, Kiai! Or should I call you Young? Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. This is basically a distillation of the teachings I’ve been studying, supplemented by personal experience that, I feel, confirms the teaching. Rupert Spira has been very influential, as have the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Annamalai Swami, and David Godman. The quote you refer to is appropos, This is very much a resting of the attention. The difference between the state of no-thought that you mention, insofar as I can tell, and what Self-Inquiry offers, is the very returning of attention to the source from which it rises. In other words, Self-Inquiry holds that, rather than allowing attention to lie in wait like a cat for the mouse to come out of its hole, so to speak, we (as the cat) tell the mouse to go back into its hole. As a result, we cease to identify as a cat seeing a mouse. There is no more cat and no more mouse. No I or other. At least, that’s how I see it, more or less. Would love to continue the discussion, if you’d like or if you see it differently. Namaste.

      1. Thank you for your kind reply Mike. Please call me Young which is my name. Kiai is my pen name.

        Your additional comments here are helpful for me, too. That the attention ceases “to lie in wait” like a cat for a mouse. That the attention, rather than focusing on some sensation or thought, rests. Further, that sense that the “I” or “other” disappears is something that I have experienced from time to time and it seems trippy to me 🙂

        On a side note, after re-reading your article, this inquisitive mind is wondering if and how much of Self-Inquiry is related to Open Awareness, Open Focus (Diffuse Attention) or Open Monitoring Meditation (as opposed to Focused Awareness or Narrow Focus). When in that place where attention rests with Self-Inquiry, I get the impression that the attention is nowhere and everywhere akin to what I experience with Open Awareness. The experiences seem similar to me – though the pathway there may perhaps differ. In case I’m missing something here, I’d appreciate your letting me know.

        Lastly, I think your article is beyond “Platinum-Level content.” More like “priceless” 🙂 Thank you again.

      2. Hi Young! You are too generous with your praise, but I thank you kindly. I think the key to your question is in your comment that “the experiences seems similar…though the pathway there may perhaps differ.” If I understand you correctly, I would say Self-Inquiry is not a pathway to that experience. Rather, that experience is the point at which Self-Inquiry begins. It is a new pathway going way beyond that point. Self-Inquiry asks “who (or what) is having this experience of Open Awareness? Who is thinking these thoughts? Who is experiencing these emotions (sounds, smells, etc.) When the obvious answer “I am” arises, the next question is “Who am I?” or “What is this ‘I?'” Holding this sense of “I” eventually leads to the dissolution of the “I” itself and it’s absorption in Awareness, and the shining of Pure Am-ness, with no “I.” It’s not the “trippy” sense of no I or other (which, if I understand you correctly, I think I’ve experienced too) or the sensation of no-self in the Buddhist sense (insofar as I understand it). In my experience, it’s much more profound, can be overwhelming, and is definitely life-changing.

        Hope that helps add some clarity. One of the reasons I wrote the post is that I find it very difficult to explain it orally when asked to. I thought writing it down might help me get my head around it, so I appreciate your reading and asking questions!


  2. Yes, thank you for answering my question Mike. That does help. And those questions seem like firm signs and pointers to go back to the source which “itself” cannot be an object of attention based on your comments and those of other Self-Inquiry teachers. This is a challenge for me as much the attention naturally seems to go outward during each day – to be able to function with the outer world. Alas, a work-in-progress and I am enjoying the journey. 🙂

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