I remember walking past the library of my school one day when I was about 15, wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my life – what A-levels to choose, what degree courses to apply for. I was asking myself, “What am I really interested in?” There was pressure to make decisions that would determine the course of my life, and it was painful that I didn’t really know how I was supposed to imagine my future.
And then something unexpected happened. I was literally stopped in my tracks by a sheer and simple realisation that fundamentally I didn’t know what I was. My mind was stunned into an amazed silence as I stood at the library steps. Who was this person that was supposed to be deciding what their life was about? How am I supposed to decide what I’m going to pour my life into when I don’t even know what I am? Behind all these thoughts of possible futures and important decisions – could I really say anything was me? I was captivated by the realisation that I did not know this most basic thing about my life and myself. I knew that this was something that I was very interested in – even though I still had no idea what A-levels to choose.
Despite life’s many changing situations, at the heart of it for me is a quiet and seductive not-knowing. Each of us is born, inexplicably and seemingly without choice, and we are propelled towards our mortal end at an unknown point in the future. What an utter mystery. Can we begin to investigate our situation here? Who is it that is born and dies? What can we learn about how the self happens?
Self inquiry is a subjective investigation into the nature of ourselves. We can observe our experience directly, giving our inquisitive attention to the sense of self as it arises and passes. With curiosity we inquire: Just who is it that smells the coffee in the morning? Who is it that recognises the smell and likes it? Who is the one that makes the intention to walk towards the coffee pot? Who drinks it? Are you the same person after a cup of coffee? After six cups are you still someone who likes coffee?
With awareness and curiosity we begin to deconstruct the subjective experience of the self. The self starts to be revealed not as a fixed and isolated entity but rather as a flow of interrelated and transient elements. We start to conceive of ourselves as a process of selfing. It turns out the person at the centre of our life is rather like a myth, a dream, an apparition, and no matter how much we may try to capture and immortalise ourselves with an endless stream of selfies – we change.
Conscious life unfolds on this planet through the medium of seemingly separate selves. Nature favours selfing as a way to express itself – showing up as different selves like you and I. Yet the self is not ultimately a fixed and separate thing. Most deeply each of us is a process rather than a thing. Much of our stress, tension, worry and feelings of isolation are a result of wrongly believing in our separateness. With awareness and a willingness to investigate, we can unburden ourselves of this misperception and enter into a free and intimate relationship with all things. Next time you stop to take a selfie, ask yourself: Who am I?
Article also appears on Conscious 2