Deep Self Investigation

Discovering your true nature as awareness


Dan's Story


When awake you realize your story, an organized collection of memories, is actually not about you.  No self means none, ever.  Not being a separate person now means there never was one.  So what is your history about, really?  You could think of what follows here as the description of a journey I took with another person.  At first, I got absorbed in their antics and dramas; but at some point, I began to have flashes of remembering that I was someone else, not them.  Eventually, it became completely clear that I was never identical to this other person, this character.  I was present during the events of their life, aware of their thoughts, feelings and actions, but always actually just observing the whole thing.  However, for ease of story telling, let’s just start as if I and the character are one.   


My childhood was somewhat unusual, characterized by a number of odd events and plenty of family dysfunction.  Early loss of parents, a “miraculous” survival as my infant body was thrown from the car during the accident that took my mother’s life. Wild stuff.  On the other hand, there was nothing particularly mystical about my experiences as a child and teenager.  Raised by an aunt and uncle who resented having me in their care, my emotional state was frequently fearful and anxious.  As I grew older it became clear I was not welcome and that I had been “guilted” on my guardians by my grandmother.   


While not particularly remarkable as a person, I did seem to possess an abundant supply of curiosity and willingness to explore life, and this came in handy later during years of spiritual searching and practice.  For a number of reasons, my adoptive parents and I parted ways my last year in high school.  So from about age 17, I was pretty much on my own.  It was sink or swim time, and I managed to exercise some basic survival skills and make my way forward.


From my late teens into my early twenties, I was increasingly searching for the answers to what seemed like the most important questions. “Is there more to life than what society tells me?”  “What is the meaning of this existence and how do I live a fulfilling life?”  “Who am I, and what does it mean to be a person?”  (Over the next 10 years this last question would become the prime mover.)  Although it felt like starting over in my understanding, I rejected everything I had learned from others unless I could verify it through my own direct experience.  I didn’t decide to take this approach, it just seemed the only way to go.   At the same time, the desire to understand life and myself was for some time heavily burdened by a confused and deflated sense of myself, strongly conditioned fears and insecurity, and what seemed an insatiable hunger for love and validation.  


I should add here that over the years leading up to awakening, although I often took time to withdraw alone and reflect on certain understandings, the spiritual search never seemed exclusive of participating to some degree in society.  I never really wanted the conventional life of career, family, and possessions, yet I found a way to use such a lifestyle to free my attention to explore and increase my understanding.  The search to know the truth about myself was a fire I needed to fuel, and it was clear that every experience, more or less, served to feed it.  Many wrong turns and mistakes were made, yet satisfaction, happiness and mainly understanding seem to be increasing slowly in a jagged upward slope.  


Early studies in college were focused on medicine, psychology and explorations of religious experience.  Meditation and eastern spirituality teachings gave me a glimpse of something beyond conventional beliefs about the nature of existence.  A major shift occurred during my third year in college when experimenting with psychedelics, and LSD revealed to me the first glimpse of greater dimensions of experience.  Insights on occasion during these LSD sessions would restructure my beliefs about the assumed limitations of the body and mind.  There were also a number of terrifying experiences as well involving dissolution of self, with some very uncomfortable emotional and physical reactions.   These latter experiences led me to be much more cautious about using spiritual medicines for exploration.


Exploring and investigating continued, taking me deeper into spiritual studies, meditation, and contemplative practices.  I was fortunate enough to take an excellent class in undergraduate psychology called, “The Psychology of Consciousness,” which exposed me to a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and perspectives.  One week we talked to people involved with spirit guides, and the next week there was a speaker who had just returned from travels in Tibet where he was working with Buddhist monks.  It was all fascinating to me.  What impacted me most were contemplative and concentration-driven mind states causing dramatic shifts in one’s view of reality.  At one point a graduate student in the clinical psychology program visited the class and told us of her near death experience “out of her body”.  I was fascinated by her first-hand account viewing her car accident from a street corner high in the air, feelings of extreme happiness, unusual energetic forces, and sensing the feelings of others around her.     I wanted to know more about how such experiences were possible.  I began reading about and practicing techniques to induce an out-of-body experience for a period of months.  This resulted in some minor “separation” experiences and a series of what I can only call “visions” and precognitions.  This experience added to the understanding that there were alternative dimensions and/or states of perception we could experience, and that I was not restricted by the skin of the body or boundaries of the mind.  


A particular question came to the forefront during the early years after college.  “What am I if the conventional view of the self is wrong?”  I began to wonder about the assumption that I, or anyone, was a coherent, substantial individual self.  For several months I had been studying books on the illusion of the self, some western and others eastern Buddhist.   One day, I was reading a book by the British author Alan Watts suggesting that I trust my own experience and simply look to find out who I am. While sitting at my desk looking out the window, I did the simplest thing:  I just looked in to see if I could find myself where I felt the center of “me” should be.  What I found when I looked at myself was……. nothing!  Awestruck is not too strong a word for the amazed, baffled and elated feelings that flooded my experience at that moment.  Looking around, aware of this inner space of no self, it was clear that the world was an alive, interconnected network of complex energies that was conscious of itself.  I felt that I was nowhere yet everywhere, and existed as everything and nothing simultaneously. I use the term “I”, but in actuality there did not feel like there was a separate “I” during this experience.  It was all just happening to no one.   


There was a rain storm developing outside, and looking through the window I felt intimate and at one with the leaves blowing in the air, the rain, and the trees bending against the moving atmosphere.  My body drifted out the door and moved in the rain, and it seemed that the senses were channeling information about the environment to some new aware part of what I was.  Joyfulness seem be everywhere and overflowed into laughing out loud.  It was clear this discovery was HUGE, far beyond any prior experience, and quite real, not hallucination nor imagination.  There was an intuitive sense, an immediate knowing, that this was the great discovery pointed to in the enlightenment literature.  This understanding went beyond any conventional experience of how life truly is. Waves of gratefulness flowed through this sense  of being.  Finally, this life seemed to make sense!


After a time, the familiar sense of being a separate person returned.  But something significant was changed.  You cannot forget or “unsee” such an experience, even if all the details fade.   This most profound experience, and the fact that it was of the highest importance, stayed with me on some level. I still felt I needed to return, to see things clearly again. “I have to get it back!”  My life was locked in a direction that was irreversible.  No matter how far I wandered into worldly activities, this was my primary course, to see what felt like the truth again.   The search was on!


Not long after this experience I came upon a practice called “self inquiry.”  Although there were books written about self inquiry, it still wasn’t clear exactly how it was done beyond repeatedly asking the question, “Who am I?”.  I discovered that some of the best descriptions of this practice were the teachings by Ramana Maharshi, a reportedly enlightened man who lived in India from about 1880 to 1950.   Still, nothing I read and no one I asked could adequately explain the specifics of the practice.  You were supposed to be investigating the “I”, but how did this work exactly?  Do I just keep asking, “Who a I?”, until it becomes clear?   Was I looking in the body, or some combination of body and mind, or an inner sense of being an occupant in the body or mind?   It just wasn’t clear.  And how exactly do you practice this for any extended period without attention being drawn off the practice and lost in thought, imagining, etc.?  How would I know if I’m off track or not, doing it correctly or not?


What followed were many years working with different versions of self inquiry, testing, rejecting and refining exactly how this process worked.  I should add here that there were many types of spiritual practice and study that I engaged with.  But the core of my spiritual work was around methods of investigating the sense of “I”. 


One time the practice became more focused and seem to bear fruit.   There were flashes of insight, temporary awakenings to this selfless, expansive perspective or the presence of awareness.  This usually involved bringing attention back again and again to notice where the sense of “I” was, where it felt strongest, while asking specific questions to help keep attention focused there.  At times I would look and the sense of “I” in the body or mind would vanish; and alive awareness would be present and obvious.  This selfless aware condition usually only lasted seconds or perhaps a few minutes, with some residual effect over the following hours.  The thinking after such events was a belief I had “lost it”, a disappointing feeling that I had returned to being a separate person.  There were many times, filled with doubt and discouragement, when I tried to give up self investigation, believing I would never reach any kind of permanent awakening.  In spite of the belief that I would probably never succeed, these periodic awakenings were the most real and important experiences in my life. What else would be a better pursuit?  So I continued onward, and accepted that this might be as good as it gets.


Something that I began to notice was that after many years of this process of investigation, there was a change in my perception of myself.  The conventional idea of being a body with a mind and a life story was changing and becoming radically different.   For years leading up to awakening and a sense of “no self”, there was often a clear sense when scanning the body and mind, and looking for this “me”, that I experienced myself as some form of observer or witness, or a small point of subjective perspective.   And perhaps because the process happened over a number of years, it gradually became most comfortable to accept this “alien” form of self rather than the revert to the common view of being a person.   It was a secret that I and a rare few knew about.  This knowledge did not necessarily make me feel special or better, just more like an outsider.   And that was acceptable.


Perhaps no one knows when a day will occur, events with transpire, that will change everything from then on.   On a chilly day in September, 2012, it seemed like just another day.  I was sitting in my parked car and, as I often did during time alone, began questioning, “Who is having this present experience?”.  Attention bounced a bit between random thoughts and immediate perceptions.   As focus and concentration increased, attention rested between the distant Salinas hills and noticing the area where the sense of “I” was felt to be.   “What is this sense of me?” “How could ‘no self’ not always be true and seen right now?”  I recalled a statement from a dialogue between a teacher and student, “There is no you, only this,” and it cycled repeatedly in the mind.  As was the habit, attention scanned direct experience for evidence, confirmation.  In a moment, there was an acceptance that there simply was no “me”, no one here.   There was only this “impersonal” existence.   There was nothing else but this.   With this recognition, something felt complete, “done.”   There was no “me,” just this single event without a personal self. The feeling that followed was an emptiness, a hollowness to existence, which was eventually found to be a lack of any vestige of the personal.   The words, “I”, “me”, “mine”, where empty of any personal feeling or context.  They were just words.  A minute turned into an hour, and then days and weeks, without a change in this new understanding.  There truly was no me, only this.


The strangeness of this condition gradually melted away into a new normal, though meaningless, existence.  Outwardly, all appeared as before: work and family life continued, sensations and feelings came and went, but the understanding was that there was no “me” at the center of experience, or anywhere.  The face in the mirror was no longer me or mine, had no personal connection, and might as well been that of someone else.   This was no longer my life, just a body, thoughts and feelings.   Something like a movie of some actors life playing in an empty theater.  The feeling was of existing unanchored, adrift, neither happy nor unhappy. Probably due to the many years of habitual self exploration, attention scanned experience for a sense of “I”, and there were periodic thoughts.   “Is it actually gone?” ……..   “Yes.”     Or, “What now? Can it be there is just this empty, meaningless ‘all that is’?”  …..   “Apparently.”


Existence just appeared and unfolded.  The view forward was empty and meaningless, and there was nothing to retreat to and no impulse to do so.  There was an acceptance of this condition; it simply was the way it was.   There was no longer the pretense of doing things, searching or putting forth effort.    


What followed was a form of transition, maybe a month or two, leading to a new understanding.  At first it was just noticing the subtle, constant presence of awareness.   The dawning realization was something like, “It is true that what I am is not a body, mind or separate person.  Yet there is still an existing, experiencing awareness.”  This realization was like a floodlight gradually coming up in intensity over a period of time, it’s hard to remember how long it took.  The eventual realization was that awareness was here, now!  There was always this alive awareness present!  Existence was not empty or meaningless, it just was not meaningful in a way that fit any conventional thought framework.   This recognition of the presence of awareness opened the door to a whole new dimension of life that continues to reveal more all the time.  There was nothing personal about this being as awareness, only the clear recognition that it is, and that “being” can be nothing else but existing as this awareness.  What my being was, and what it is, are the same.


Unlike the “claustrophobic” condition of feeling limited as a body/minded person, being as awareness allowed for great variation in experience.  In the years that followed this awakening, I became increasingly familiar with this new condition defined by aware presence.  The imagined sense of a separate “me” now gone, I began to see the world as a different kind of place. Leading up to awakening, life was feeling “flat”, 2 dimensional and insubstantial, like a movie set.  Soon after awakening reality began to appear more 3 dimensional but dream like, with all apparent boundaries experienced as pliable and fuzzy. The childlike curiosity that had been present throughout my life expanded into a more dominant role, with attention feeling freed-up to move beyond habitual patterns and physical dimensions.   Awareness, here all along, was out front now and obvious, the primary basis of being and experience. 


A new way of knowing life became increasingly apparent, as what use to be subtle and questionable modes of understanding were more deeply recognized. There was an increasing sense of the importance and influence of intuition, and the synchronous arising of events became more apparent. At the same time, the heavy reliance on thinking and cognitive functions reduced to a very limited, specialized role.  


With these new perspectives and ways of perceiving, I saw the world with “new eyes”.  For example, the petty, childish, uncaring and destructive manipulations of  governments, corporations and other organizations that controlled the “civilized world” appeared now as obviously so.  In a relative sense, trust in these worldly institutions and systems of control rapidly decreased, while reliance on what was beyond them increased. There were much larger and truer forces at play.   On the character level, there emerged a fearlessness about facing and acting on major life choices.  What is really at risk if there is no separate self?  New doors were opening, and the only hesitation was in determining which ones had the strongest pull.  Interestingly, while my wife was initially somewhat fearful of the changes she saw in me, she soon learned to trust what appeared as a healthier attitude and ability to “walk the talk”.  She stated at one point this change in me suggested potential changes she wished to experience in herself.  My willingness to work together with her, and communicate openly and honestly about my new perspectives, helped decrease her anxiety about changes she saw in me and led her to feel excited about the future. 


Soon I decided to leave a secure position at a large corporation and chose instead early retirement.  I needed to be free from any unnecessary restraints on attention. There were a number of significant changes in lifestyle at this time, and eventually moving away from friends and family and discovering a new independence from various “worldly constraints”.  The possibility of a “sustainable” life style elsewhere in the country seemed the obvious next step.  I also began to write and teach about the awakened perspective at this time, and to work with those looking to discover for themselves what I had found.   Eventually, following what felt like the energy meridians of intuition, we found a new home in the hills of western North Carolina.   Life here has continued to be guided by a child like curiosity, exploration, discovery and expanding appreciation for life.  


In the years that have followed the awakening, nothing has changed the recognition that awareness is the fundamental basis of all experience.  And while thoughts, feelings, physical appearance, etc., appear, their presence does not prove the existence of a separate “me”.  There is no such entity. 


Deprogramming The Character

While past practice related to DSI can impact how real your experience of your self in the world seems, it’s typical that we have never really had a rigorous and consistent investigation into the appearance of a separate self.    So virtually all of your understanding about life is based on the core belief in “me”, an entity that in truth does not exist.  Your character’s conditioning is much like the programming in a computer.   Mental functions process information in relation to your identity as a separate self, and yet in reality there is no separate self.  So how accurate or helpful can any of that information be?  The programming must be rewritten to reflect the truth of existence more accurately, removing the screens that block awareness of how things actually are, and the possibilities of knowing reality as it is.  Knowing your actual nature as awareness.

DSI serves to isolate the beliefs in a separate self within the context of many different life situations.  The conditioned beliefs unique to each situation present variations on how “you” appear to exist in those situations, and also how to “value” and where to put emphasis on each situation.  For example, let’s say you are talking with someone and the conversation becomes heated.  They begin to get angry with something you are saying.   They say things that are offensive, critical, or judgmental about you.   If this feels like it is directed at you personally, the tendency of the typically identified character will be to react defensively to some degree, and perhaps to even begin a verbal offensive move.  However imagine the same scenario where there is not self referencing going on due to prior self investigation, but more a sense of selfless recognition of the whole scenario.  How might the interaction change?   

Seeing clearly that there is no self in one situation does not guarantee you will recognize this in the next one. Deep self investigation is something you must do again and again, remembering to look for the self in each new situation that arises, at different times during the day and on different days throughout the week.   On the other hand, while you may need to see again the truth of “no self”, there is carryover and a cumulative effect.   This cumulative effect has to do with seeing similarities in each new situation and more quickly recognizing the conditioned assumption about a “you”.   The cumulative effect has to do with the fact that over time with serious practice, the finite amount of self related conditioning is rewritten and becomes less and less present in your experience.   

The process of exploring yourself using DSI could take several years, but my experience with the technique suggests awakening to your true nature as awareness will be the end result.  This means however several years of very serious integration of this exploration into your daily life.   The bottom line is, you are either rewriting your conditioning around “you”, dissolving the sense of self, or reinforcing it by continuing to reference life to an imaginary "you".

Blog Archive

You are invited to visit Dan's archive of blog posts at