Identity: Who Am I? (really)


Who am I really? What am I? What is the truth of my own existence? These are the essential questions both deeply personal and universal. But where would we find the answers for ourselves? What knowledge exists that could be authoritative and self-authenticating that such knowledge would be beyond any doubt? Is it even possible for us to know as humans living in embodied existence? These are questions for the ages.

There is an additional form of yogic practice that is called “Self Enquiry” (or Self inquiry). Self-enquiry is a practice that can be added to our core central practice of daily meditation. It is taught, with variations, in most religions and mystical traditions throughout history.

In 20th Century India the revered teacher Ramana Maharshi was an advocate for this practice of Self enquiry. He said, “To achieve this, the path of knowledge, the enquiry in the form of “Who am I?” is the principle means.

Ramana lived and taught at the site of a sacred mountain Arunachala in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Thousands travelled to meet with him in his ashram and meditation caves there to speak with him and receive his wisdom. Here are some quotes from his teachings:

“Of that which arises as the thought “I” in this body is in the mind. If one enquires as to where in the body the thought of “I” first arises one discovers that it rises in the Heart. Of all thoughts that arise in the mind, the I-thought is the first. It is only after the rise of this that other thoughts arise.”

“The Self is that where there is absolutely no I-thought. This is called silence. The Self itself is the world. The Self itself is “I”. The Self itself is God. All is Śhiva: the Self.”

“The thought of “Who am I?” will destroy all other thoughts. Like a stick used for stirring a burning fire, it will itself in the end be destroyed. Then there will arise Self-realization.”

“The whole of Vedanta is contained in the two Biblical statements: “I AM that I AM.” And “Be still and know that I AM God.” The Self is not somewhere far away to be reached. You are always that. You have only to give up your habit of identifying your self with the non-self. All effort is only for that.”

 “First it is to explain that the body is not I. If one enquires: Who am I? The Heart of such a one will shine as “I”. That I Am.”

*  From “Heart is Thy Name, Oh Lord” by Ramana Maharshi, 2004. For further study “The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in His Own Words” available on

The essence of self-enquiry practice is to ask oneself “Who and what am I?” To consider this deeply and honestly (“What do I actually know to be true?”) inviting meditative insight to emerge. Again and again we challenge and discard all false and limited identifications. It is suggested to maintain a journal of one’s own personal exploration as layer after layer of false identifications, of that which is not-the-true-self are recognized and set aside.

In the non-dual Shaivite teachings of our tradition these various false-identities are called “grahas”, a Sanskrit word meaning “to grasp” or “that which grasps”. These “graspers” are the hijackers that literally take possession of our identity. They seize, lay hold of, and take possession of identity who we believe we are in life. They thus conceal knowledge of our true Self beneath inauthentic and false identities. They offer partial and limited categories of identification that are much less than the true limitless nature of Consciousness.

In the Shaivite masterwork The Tantrālokaof Abhinavagupta, there were 8 categories of grahas. This is from perspective of 9th to 10th century India:

1) Grahas of identifying with family line, inherited status or caste; 2) Identifying with social status or groupings (clubs and schools); 3) Domains of conduct and ritual observances (clergy, church or even military traditions); 4) Identification narrowed to one’s individual physical body; 5) Identification with one’s country, land, region, city etc. 6) Identification with a field of knowledge, profession or teaching tradition; 7) Identification with limited concepts of virtuousness or non-virtuousness (impurity, sin); 8) Identification with one’s wealth, material possessions and the trappings of material abundance.

These identities of belief are applicable to anything one might say in the form “I am this or that”: I am healthy or frail, strong or weak, fat or thin, smart or not; beautiful or not, youthful or old. We define ourselves in terms of our attributes and also of roles in life. With jobs and professions -I am a doctor, accountant, businessperson, a builder, a farmer. With our accomplishments and skills – I am an athlete, a musician, an artist. With groupings and roles – a husband or wife, a grandparent, a leader, a soldier, a social advocate. I am American, Canadian, Irish, German or African, etc. Yes, these are aspectsof our individuality and human life experience. But they are all temporal and relative. These all will one day pass away. They are not finally what we are. Can anything that is temporary and subject to change actually be our deepest true identity?

There is also the strong identification with the physical body, this temporary, mortal exquisitely precious instrument of our human lives. Is your body truly what you are? Or is it an instrument that you inhabit, a form and vehicle for life? What is the relationship of the true Self and the body and to the mind? The same question can be applied to the mind, to the operating intelligence and functions of the brain and nervous system. For that also is part of the body. (In the Indian viewpoint there is no essential distinction between body and mind. Rather it is a body-mind unity.) No other person can answer these questions for us. Everyone must explore them and find the answers for themselves. The answers do exist and may be known in life. We may come to know our true abiding Self.

False identities are called the “plunderers” (viluṇṭhikā) of the Heart, That which steals away the wealth of the highest consciousness. Those forces that steal-away access to our deepest true nature as imperishable beings of pure Consciousness. They might divert us into a life spent pursuing lesser activities and priorities, such as the pursuit of unnecessary wealth or power, obsession with body image or with social standing for its own sake. Pursuits that can never be ultimately fulfilling, They cannot in the end fulfill the true purpose of a life.

So this practice of self-enquiry is very interesting and can be explored by anyone who cares to undertake it. Yet having an authentic daily meditation practice should be the “engine” that empowers successful self-enquiry. This gives us the direct living connection to our own source-place of Self that actually makes Self-realization possible. In our tradition we have this additional form of practice called “Bhavana”. This is a practice of forming and taking into the space of meditation specific questions or enquiries, in order to elicit the arising of new insightful wisdom. Bhavana is the practice of accessing meditative insight, and the “birthing” of new forms of knowledge and understanding. It is a beautiful and valuable practice to develop.

Ramana Maharshi in his own teachings repeatedly stated that the only practice you need is self-enquiry, to find out directly who and what you truly are, and to give-up and abandon all false limited identifications. Just as so did many other great teachers, both ancient and modern. Yet Ramana offered this perspective only after his own years spent in daily meditation practice in his caves on the slopes of Mt. Arunachala. There seem to be very few individuals throughout history who have achieved the pinnacle of true Self-realization who did not first have the foundation of a deep meditation practice in their lives. Perhaps there is an important clue for us in that!