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. The truth of “no self” means you do not exist as you believe you do. Not being a separate person now also means there never was a “you.” So, who and what is your history about—really? You could think of what follows as a tale of a journey I took with another person—“me.” At first, I got absorbed in his antics and dramas as if they were mine. But at some point, I began to have flashes of remembering that I was someone else, not him. Eventually, it became completely clear that I was never this other person, this character. During the events of his life, I was present—aware of his thoughts, feelings and actions—but always actually just observing the whole thing. However, for the enjoyment of story telling, let’s just start as if I and the character of this story are one. 


My childhood began with some unusual events and more than a fair share of family dysfunction. As the story goes, my mother left my father while pregnant with me because, to her surprise, he was already married and had a family. A year after my birth, my mother and I were in a car accident in which she was killed. I somehow survived the accident, being thrown from the car into a nearby field. While this might seem “miraculous,” there was nothing particularly mystical about my childhood. Raised by an aunt and uncle who resented having me in their care, I was frequently fearful and anxious. As I grew older, it became clear I was not welcome. Most likely, my grandmother had “guilted” my guardians to take me in. 


While not a particularly remarkable child, I did possess an adequate degree of intelligence, as well as an abundant supply of curiosity and willingness to explore life. And then there was this persistent pull toward the spiritual. All these factors came in handy later during years of spiritual searching and practice. My aunt and uncle and I parted ways at the beginning of my last year in high school. So from about age 17, I was on my own. It was sink or swim time, and I managed to exercise some basic survival skills and make my way forward in life.


From my late teens into my early twenties, I increasingly searched for the answers to what seemed like the most important questions. Is there more to life than society tells me? What is the meaning of this existence, and how do I live a fulfilling life? Who and what am I? This last question would become the prime mover in my spiritual explorations. 


Although it felt like starting over, I rejected everything I had learned from others unless I could verify it through my own direct experience. I didn’t consciously decide to take this approach; it just seemed the best way to develop understanding. At the same time that I was seeking answers to these serious questions, I struggled with a great deal of insecurity, fear, and anxiety. I was often desperate for (and yet confused and awkward in) relationships with women. I avoided responsibility, fearing I would be discovered as completely incompetent, and had panic attacks when alone and away from home. Though I fumbled through many failed relationships, jobs, and other life experiences, I intuitively knew it was critical to keep placing myself in challenging situations in order to learn and grow. 


During the years leading up to awakening, although I often took time to withdraw alone and reflect on the nature of reality, the spiritual search never excluded participating to some degree in family and society. I had several long-term relationships; I obtained a graduate degree and found work. Still, I never really wanted the conventional life of career, family, and possessions. Yet within that lifestyle, I found a way to preserve some measure of my time—and more importantly, 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 increasingly clear that every experience could be used to feed that fire. I took many wrong turns and made mistakes, yet satisfaction, happiness, and understanding seemed to increase slowly in a jagged upward slope. 


My early studies in college focused on medicine, psychology, and religion. Contemplation, meditation and the teachings of Eastern spirituality gave me a glimpse of something beyond conventional beliefs about the nature of existence. During my third year of college, a significant shift occurred when I was experimenting with LSD—I began to notice the greater dimensions of perception and conscious experience. During these LSD sessions, insights seemed to restructure my beliefs about the assumed limitations of the body and mind. I also experienced several terrifying episodes involving the dissolution of self, with some very uncomfortable emotional and physical reactions. Therefore, I became more cautious when experimenting with spiritual medicines beyond their usefulness, and soon I stopped looking for the truth there. 


I continued to explore and investigate. This took me deeper into spiritual studies, meditation, and contemplative practices. I was fortunate enough to take an excellent class in undergraduate psychology, “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 the speaker had just returned from travels in Tibet where he worked with Buddhist monks. I found it all fascinating. What impacted me most were contemplative and concentration-driven mind states that caused 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, out-of-body experience. I was fascinated by her firsthand account of viewing her car accident as she floated high above a street corner. She described feelings of extreme happiness, unusual energetic forces, and the ability to sense the emotions of others around her. I wanted to know more about how such experiences were possible.


For a number of months, I read about and practiced techniques to induce an out-of-body experience. While nothing happened during the exercises, the work did seem to result in some curious experiences later, during the night. Sometimes I would wake, and with eyes closed before moving, sense the possibility of separating from the body. The intention to do so would result in metallic grinding sounds, and what felt like a movement away from where my body seem to be, like sliding my hand out of a cloth glove. But unlike the travel to astral realms that I had hoped for, in these “out of body” conditions my vision was quite poor, it was difficult to navigate, and I seemed limited to short distances in or around my room. 


On other occasions, I would wake—with eyes still closed—to “see” dramatic visions of objects with incredible clarity. Once, this turned out to be precognition. A vision appeared—an ancient wall of brick and mortar with a torch in a holder on the wall. The detail in these visions was far beyond anything I’ve experienced in “real" life. This time, I could even see the grains of sand in the mortar between bricks. As usual, the next morning I wrote about the experience and drew a picture of the vision. While doing so, I looked up at the TV to see a picture of that same old brick wall with a torch burning in a rack. While I was not able to find a purpose or meaning to these experiences, they added to the understanding I could experience alternative dimensions or states and that I was not restricted by the skin of the body or limitations of thought. I moved on to other spiritual explorations.


After college, a particular question came to the forefront. What am I, really, if the conventional view of the self is wrong? After studying books by Western mystics and Eastern Buddhists that questioned the existence of the separate self, I began to wonder about the assumption that I, or anyone, was a coherent, substantial individual self.


One day, I read 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! Somehow the impact of this was driven deep into my understanding. Awestruck is not too strong a word for the amazed, baffled, and elated feelings that flooded “me” at that moment. Looking around, aware of this inner space of “no-self," it was clear that the world was singular and ALIVE, an interconnected network of complex energies 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. 


A rainstorm was brewing outside, and looking through the window, I felt intimately at one with the leaves blowing in the air, the rain, and the trees bending against the moving atmosphere. My body drifted through the door and moved in the rain, and the senses were channeling information about the environment to some newly-aware part of what I was. Joyfulness was everywhere, and overflowed into laughter. 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 knowing that it was of the highest importance—stayed with me on some level. I deeply felt I needed to return, to see things clearly again… I have to get it back! My life was locked in an irreversible direction. No matter how far I wandered into worldly activities, my primary course was 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 1879 to 1950. Still, nothing I read and no one I asked could adequately explain the specifics of the practice. It involved investigating the “I," but how did this work exactly? Do I just keep asking, Who am 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 an extended period without attention being drawn away from the practice, to being lost in thought, or imagining, etc.? How would I know if I’m on or off track, doing it correctly, or not?


Many years followed while I worked with different versions of self-inquiry: testing, rejecting, and refining the process. I should add here that I tried many spiritual practices, in the belief that I needed to calm the mind and emotions or develop some special abilities I did not yet have. But the core of my spiritual work increasingly centered around methods of investigating the sense of “I” that I believed I was. 


In time, the practice became more refined and began 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 self-less aware condition only lasted seconds or perhaps a few minutes, with some residual effect over the following hours. After such events came the thought, I lost it!, and a disappointing belief that I had returned to being a separate person. 


Many times, filled with doubt and discouragement, I tried to give up self-investigation, thinking I would never reach any permanent awakening. Despite this belief, 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 whatever clarity I achieved at various stages might be as good as it gets.


I began to notice that after many years of investigating—scanning the body and mind and looking for this “me”—my perception changed. The conventional idea of being a body with a mind and a life story was becoming radically different. For a number of years, leading up to awakening and a sense of “no-self,” there was often a clear sense of “I” as some form of observer or witness, or a small point of subjective perspective. It gradually became most comfortable to accept this “alien” form of self, rather than revert to the common view of being a person. This knowledge did not necessarily make me feel special or better, just more like an outsider. And I could accept that.


No one really knows when a major shift in identity will occur. One chilly California day in September, 2012, I was sitting in my parked car. Often, when alone, I would begin questioning, Who is having this present experience? Attention bounced a bit between random thoughts and immediate perceptions. As focus and concentration increased, attention moved between the distant Salinas hills and the area where I felt the sense of “I.” 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.” It cycled repeatedly in the mind. Out of habit, “attention” scanned direct experience for evidence or 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 experience that followed was an emptiness, a hollow existence, which lacked any personal vestige. The words “I,” “me,” “mine” were 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 existence now seemed meaningless. Outwardly, all appeared as before: work and family life continued, sensations and feelings came and went, but the understanding persisted 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 have been that of someone else. This was no longer my life—just a body, thoughts, and feelings—something like a movie, some character’s life, playing in an empty theater. Existing unanchored, adrift, neither happy nor unhappy. 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 that 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; what I am is indeed not a body, mind, or separate person, yet there is still an existing experiencing awareness. This realization was like a floodlight, gradually turning up in intensity over a period of time—perhaps days or weeks. 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 framework of conventional thought.


Recognizing the presence of awareness opened the door to a whole new dimension of life, and even now more is being revealed all the time. There was nothing personal about this being awareness, only the clear recognition that it is, and that “being” can be nothing else but existing as this awareness.


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 the awakening, I became increasingly familiar with this condition, defined by aware presence. With the imagined sense of a separate “me” now gone, I began to see the world very differently. Leading up to awakening, life felt flat, two dimensional, and insubstantial, like a movie set. Soon after awakening, reality began to appear more three-dimensional but dreamlike, with all apparent boundaries experienced as pliable and fuzzy. The childlike curiosity present throughout my life expanded, with attention freed up to move beyond habitual patterns and physical dimensions. Awareness was now out front, and obvious—the basis of being and experience. 


Also, a new way of knowing life became clear. The heavy reliance on thinking and analysis was reduced to a very limited, specialized role. At the same time, modes of understanding previously believed to be questionable—intuition and the importance of synchronous events—were now recognized as highly accurate and immediate.


With these alternate ways of knowing, 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” became more obvious. 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 “Dan” character level, a fearlessness emerged around 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 came 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.” At one point, she stated that this change in me brought up potential changes she wished to experience herself. My willingness to work together with her and communicate openly and honestly about my new perspectives helped decrease her anxiety. This led her to feel excited about the future. 


Soon, I decided to leave a secure position at Apple Inc., and chose early retirement. I needed to be free from any unnecessary restraints on attention. Our lifestyle changed significantly, and I eventually moved away from friends and family and discovered a new independence from various worldly constraints. The possibility of a “sustainable” lifestyle elsewhere in the country seemed the obvious next step. I also began to write and teach about the awakened perspective and work with those looking to discover for themselves what I 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 continues to be guided by a childlike curiosity, exploration, discovery and an ever-expanding appreciation for life. 


In the years since awakening, the recognition that awareness is the foundation of all experience has not changed. While thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations 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".

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