Deep Self Investigation

Discovering your true nature as awareness


Dan's Story

The Story

A few things before I launch into the telling of the story.   What can be difficult to convey is how, when awake, you realize your story (or more accurately your “character’s” story) is truly not about you.   What you are has a mysterious association to your character, but you never actually are your character.   You could think of what follows here as the description of a journey I took with another person.  For a time I got absorbed in their crazy antics and dramas, but at some point I began to have flashes of remembering that I was something else, not them.   And eventually, it became completely clear 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 just observing the whole thing.   And I witness this character’s life still to this day.

However, for ease of story telling, let’s just start as if I and the character are one person.   

My childhood was somewhat unusual, filled with more than a fair share of strange events and family dysfunction.  Early loss of parents, a “miraculous” survival as my infant body was thrown from the car 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 placed in their care, my emotional state was typically fearful and anxious.  I did seem to possess an abundant supply of curiosity and desire to explore life, and this it came in handy later.   For a number of reasons, my adoptive parents and I parted ways my last year in high school.  So at about 17, I was pretty much on my own.   It was sink or swim time, and I managed to exercise some basic survival skill and make my way forward.

From my late teens into the early 20s, I was increasingly searching for the answers to the big questions.  “Is there more to life than what society tells me?”  Specifically, I needed to know, “What is the meaning of it all?”, “How do I live a fulfilling life?”    “Who am I?”  I was generally suspicious of what I was told by those in authority.   So I set out to find out the truth for myself. My self-confidence increasing, and driven to understand the way life was from my own experience, I began to challenge my conditioning around what society said was true.   Looking back now I can see my personality was heavily burdened by confused beliefs and insecurities, specifically a great deal of fear around relationships, trust and abandonment from emotional trauma in my dysfunctional childhood. However, the impulse to “understand” drove me forward, in spite of many wrong turns and setbacks.

Though I often took time to withdraw and reflect on certain understandings, the spiritual search never seemed exclusive of participating to some degree in the world.   I never did get the “career” bug, though I had a career to pay the bills.   I also had little desire to be a “consumer” or collector of things.   On the other hand, relationships fascinated, and often overwhelmed me, and seemed rich with meaningful possibilities.  I did my best to create a good life for myself and those around me, and was relatively happy.  Early studies were centered in 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 while involved in experimentation with psychedelics.  LSD revealed to me a profound sense of greater dimensions of experience.  Certain transcendental insights seem to restructure my mind, reframing my world view and loosening the boundaries and assumptions about my “self” and the world.  There were also a number of terrifying experiences, very uncomfortable physical reactions which lead me to be cautious about using spiritual medicines for personal growth.

These chemically assisted revelations led me deeper into spiritual studies, meditation, and contemplative practices.  I became very interested in all varieties of spiritual experiences.   I had a wonderful class in undergraduate psychology called “The Psychology of Consciousness”, and was exposed to a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and perspectives.   One week we talked to people involved with spirit guides, and the next week a man who traveled in Tibet talked with us about practicing Buddhism with the Llamas.  It was all fascinating to me.   What impacted me most were contemplative and concentration driven mind states causing dramatic shifts in the sense of reality.   When a visitor to the class, a grad student in the clinical psychology program, told us of her near death experience “out of her body”, I was hooked and needed to know more about how such a thing was possible.   I became fascinated with the idea of inducing an out of body experience and practiced certain techniques for months before bed.   I had minimal success with this, enough to see there were alternative dimensions and/or states of perception you could get a glimpse of, and that the body was not a box we were somehow locked within.

In the meditation/contemplation arena, the particular questions that came to the fore front during the early years after college were, “Who am I?”   What does it mean to be a person?    I began to question the assumption that I, or anyone, was a coherent, substantial individual self.  What I was seem to be more a collection of different things.

While I had a vague glimpse of the somewhat insubstantial boundaries of myself during LSD experiences, most of this period for me was a struggle with this personal identity that was so obvious and unquestioned to those around me.   We appeared to be a separate person, yet I saw there were curious gaps in the evidence for this.  I couldn’t lock in on what connected me as a body to me as a mind, or with the image I had of myself.    I was reading a book that suggested I trust my own experience and just look to find the answers.  Then, while sitting at a desk looking out the window, I did the simplest thing:  I just looked in to see if I could find my self.  I looked right where I felt the center of “me” should be.   What I found when I looked at this center where I “should” be the most present and substantial as a person, was nothing!  Awestruck is not too strong a word for the amazed, baffled and elated feelings that flooded my experience at that moment. But more, as I looked around from this inner space of no self, I simultaneously saw the world was an amazing, alive, interconnect place, full of complex energies and a living, “seeing” of it all.   I was full of wonder as I looked at existence through new eyes. I felt that I was nowhere yet everywhere, and existed as everything and nothing simultaneously.   All was alive!  The desk under “Dan’s” legs, all objects around me were alive.   Through the window, in the storm outside, I felt intimate and at one with the leaves blowing in the air, the rain and trees bending against the wind.  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 me.   I couldn’t stop laughing and was filled with joy.   I knew this was BIG, far beyond any prior experience, and REAL, not a hallucination or imagination.   Somehow it seemed I had come upon the great discovery pointed to in some of the teachings I’d read.   I knew this was a clearer understanding of how life really was than any understanding I had prior to this experience.  Waves of gratefulness flowed through my being.  Finally, this life of struggle seemed to make sense!

This most profound experience, and the fact that it was of the highest importance, stayed with me.   I couldn’t forget about it.   Yet the elation, clarity, and the actual sense of selflessness and connection with everything, faded over the days and weeks that followed. It seemed my individual self-sense closed around me again.  “I’ve lost it!” I thought about my understanding.  “I have got to get it back!”   My life was locked in a direction that was irreversible.  No matter how far I wandered into worldly distractions, I kept up the search to see and experience again this clearer, truer, most profound view of reality.   

Over time I focused in on the “Direct Approach”, and a practice called “self inquiry”.  Though there were books written about self inquiry, it still wasn’t clear exactly how it was done.  Some of the best description of this practice I discovered were the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, an “enlightened” man who lived in India from about 1880 to 1950.  But nothing I read and no one I spoke with could explain the practice well.   You were suppose to be investigating the “I”.  But which “I”?   The false “I” or the true “I”?.   And how exactly do you practice this over weeks, months, years?    The best I could gather was that I needed to start with asking “Who am I?”, and keep asking until the attention “dropped into the heart”.  What ever that meant.

So I struggled with different interpretations over many years.   Testing and refining exactly what this self investigation involved.   There were many temporary awakenings over the years to this selfless, expansive perspective.  Usually by just bringing attention back again and again to looking where the “I” sense was, where it felt strongest.    And asking specific questions to help keep me 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 lasted for hours, or even days, but always there was a sense of “losing it” and returning to being separate person.  There were many times when I gave up in discouragement, but I couldn’t let it go.   Desire to know, and curiosity, drew me back again and again.

Then, one day, there was a change in my understanding which led to a change in what I knew to be true.   Or perhaps it was the other way around, I honestly don’t know for certain.     It was a chilly day in September, 2012, and as I often did during my alone moments, I began reflecting and investigating my experience.  I was sitting in a car and looking at the far Salinas, California hills, questioning, “what is this sense of me?”, “how could no self not always be true and seen right now?”  Suddenly I saw that nothing I took to be “me”, none of these sensation or images or beliefs was actual proof.   There was really not one form of convincing piece of proof for this separate “me” at all.   I am simply not here, was never really here.   There were the hills, trees, concrete parking lot, lamp posts, but no person, “me’, at the center.   Just these loosely felt sensations and thoughts along with all other things in present experience.  There was a natural letting go, a release, and something felt “done”.   Yet somehow there was “checking”, somehow a need to confirm what was evident, emptiness, no self.   

First minutes, then hours, days, and weeks went by, the mind checking and questioning, not my mind, just “the mind”.   Looking and watching for a sense of “I” to return as always happened.  Waiting, but no one waiting.    Watching beliefs and habits mechanically winding down.  There was the body, and thoughts, all looked the same.   Even the sensations taken for so many years to be evidence of a personal location were there, coming and going.   No hint of a real person tying it all together.  There was no belief in being in the body or mind, obviously no separate “me” at the center of experience.

Interestingly, what followed this recognition were several months of what felt like relatively empty, passionless, meaningless living.  Without a sense of self, there was just a sense of “Dan” as a hollow shell, an impersonal mechanism, and the world felt two dimensional and empty.  Outwardly all appeared similar, work and family life continued, sensations and periodic feelings came and went, but the dominant sense was of detachment from it all.  Like wandering around a movie set, I knew all those walking around the set were in some kind of trance, pointlessly going about the motions of their character, zombie like.   It was a very odd time of existing unanchored, drifting, neither happy nor unhappy.  Just periodic thoughts of, “What now?   Can it be there is just empty, meaningless ‘This’ ?”

This condition continued, pointless existence just appearing, unfolding.   There was no way to go back, to forget what I knew, to be a “me” again, and there seemed no way forward.   After settling into an acceptance of it all, a point of “light” began to appear, something different, a dawning realization arose and took form in thoughts.   Something like this, “This is true, I am not a body, mind or person, there is no separate me anywhere, just this experience, and yet I still exist, somehow I am still here.  What is this that is still here, still exists, is aware?”  This was like a floodlight going on. Something was still alive and awake here.  I am here as what it is.   

This was a strange, new type of being, far from the familiar claustrophobic condition of being a person, a body and mind.   In the weeks that followed, I became increasingly familiar with this new condition defined by aware presence, the imagined sense of self, person, body/mind being fading in memory.   I suppose like any significant transition between conditions, I soon began to see the characteristics of this new condition.  Like the newly arisen vampire in the movie, “Interview With A Vampire”, I saw existence “with new eyes”.   The world began to take on a more dreamlike quality rather than the flat characteristics of a movie set.  The child like curiosity that had been with me throughout my personal life returned and expanded with all the new possibilities.   There was  freedom and space for attention/awareness to move in this world and it seemed even beyond it’s boundaries, unanchored to the character of “Dan”.

I became much more aware of a type of intuitional source of information, feeling and sensing a flow and moving with it.   There was also a fearlessness about decision making, even life decisions that I remembered as quite significant and threatening before awakening.   I began to write and teach about this new condition.   Decisions soon came to leave work, move away from friends and family start a life on the unfamiliar eastern side of the country.  All flowed together relatively smoothly and came to be part of the new experience of things.

Soon this condition became the new “normal”.    Awareness is the substantive basis of all experience.   The character “Dan” is really not of much importance, is appears to be of decreasing in substance and need for attention over time.  Awareness is sometimes in the background as I “slip into the character”, sometimes in the foreground as alive awareness, knowing.   At any time if I look to see what I am, it is this aware presence.   Nothing about the character suggests it is my identity, and it’s hard to remember what it was like to feel it was what I am.   Interacting with other characters, it is hard to understand that they (the same awareness they are) do not see how obvious the reality of this is.   You are this alive awareness, and there is just life here and now as it presents itself.

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 the cumulative effect.   The carryover 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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