A Spiritual Question: "Who Am I?"

 

Join Pandit Tejomaya on an ancient path of spirituality that begins with the question "Ko Hum?", "Who Am I?" Tejomaya will be at The Haven for Breaking The Bonds of Karma March 3–8.

I had considered myself to be on the spiritual path for many years – learning to meditate, studying the ancient texts, purifying my being in a multitude of challenging ways – when I realized that while I used the word “spirituality”, and its variations, regularly in speech and thought, I would not be able to offer a convincing answer should some ask me to define the term. So I asked my teacher of many years.

Before he answered, his face softened and his eyes seemed to say to me, “I have been waiting for you to ask this question.” Then he said, “Spirituality begins with a question, “Who am I?”

Such a simple phrase, only three words, and such a simple question, but it turned my world upside down! The onus of this question, the quest that it inspires, obliterated all of my religious upbringing and my time spent as a monk. I had been searching outside of myself for answers, as I had been trained to do for more than forty years, but with these three simple words, I turned inside. I took all that I knew about inquiry, about sanctity, reverence, devotion, and divinity, and applied that to myself. It all sounds like no big deal in hindsight, but the shift from a sincere dualistic religious view of life to an equally sincere non-dualistic spiritual view of life is astounding. I felt a bit like Neo in The Matrix when he came to see that all he thought was real was just an illusion. I did not know what question to ask next as my spiritual breath had been taken away. My teacher could sense what was happening in me and whispered to me, with that same spark in his eye, “You have no idea.”

The answer to the question “Who am I?” cannot be found in books or even through the words of a great master. It must be experienced. A skilled guide, a teacher, or a Guru, is tremendously helpful, but the process – the skilled inquiry and the associated answers – are completely personal. This is the path known by many traditions as the path to Self Realization. According to the great Master, Adi Shankaracharya (8th Century CE), there are two distinct lines of inquiry one may use to discover the Self: positive and negative. The positive inquiry runs along the lines of “I am _______”; and the negative “I am not ________”. In my lineage we use both lines of inquiry as they are both helpful and both necessary. Our daily prayers include a beautiful mantra which begins, “Lead me from the unreal (that which I am NOT) to the real (that which I AM)."

I have not finished the inquiry yet; I have not discovered the complete answer to the question “Who am I?” But I have dedicated my life to the process. This is the path of spirituality. 

Here is a taste of the process in the form of a poem from Shankaracharya himself:

I am not mind, intellect, thought, or ego;
Not hearing, taste, smelling or sight;
Not ether or earth, fire or air,
I am the soul of Knowledge and Bliss –
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

I am not that which is called prana, nor the five vital airs;
Not even the seven components of the body
Nor the five sheaths; nor the five organs of actions.
I am the soul of Knowledge and Bliss –
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

I have no aversion or clinging, greed or delusion;
No envy or pride, duty or purpose;
No desire, no freedom.
I am the soul of Knowledge and Bliss –
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

I am not virtue or vice, not pleasure or pain;
Not sacred word or pilgrimage, not Veda or sacrifice;
I am not enjoying, enjoyable, or enjoyer.
I am the soul of Knowledge and Bliss –
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

I have no death or fear, no distinction or caste;
No father, no mother, no birth;
No friend or relation, no master or disciple.
I am the soul of Knowledge and Bliss –
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

I am changeless, formless,
and through all-pervadingness omnipresent;
I am not touched by attachment of senses;
I am not freedom nor knowable.
I am the soul of Knowledge and Bliss –
I am Shiva, I am Shiva.