Who are you? You might say, I am Mary, or I am John, or whatever your name happens to be. Yet when you were first born, you didn’t have a name much less any of the other ‘stuff’ that gets attached to it. Your parents or guardians selected a name for you and then conditioned you to accept it. There isn’t any choice in that process. At first a baby does not recognize or respond to its name, but, after a time, it learns that the specific sound refers to an actual experience it has of itself. This is the sense of presence, and it is the most basic of feelings, the feeling of being alive or the feeling of life. This is what we all begin with, and then we are given a label to attach to it, and on that label all the rest of our conditioning is built.
Our name becomes the foundation of our identity, and to it we attach all sorts of characteristics. We may be considered attractive or unattractive, intelligent or dumb, clever or clueless. We may be a student or a teacher or any other practitioner of an occupation. We may be a husband, wife, brother, sister, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, boss, vagrant, politician, etc etc. By the time we are adults so much has been built into our identities that we are, in a sense, imprisoned within them because the more we identify with them, the less we can see and experience outside of the limited framework of our identity/personality. The longer we live, the more far removed we typically become from the simple innocent presence with which we come into the world.
Yet the fact is that simple presence has not gone anywhere. The sense of presence, or I AM, is always here but all the subsequent conditioning tends to obscure it. We pay attention to the phenomenal world of objects and thoughts moving almost ceaselessly from one object of attention to another while almost no attention is given to the source of attention. What is it that is doing the looking or seeing of our existence? One way of describing the spiritual path is that it’s a simplification of ourselves. It is a return of attention to the root or source of what we actually are, not what we imagine or believe ourselves to be. For this, I AM is the key and the simplest spiritual tool you will ever find, if you ask me. It is so powerful because we all know it intimately. You go to a teaching on the nature of God or some form of the Divine and it may be very beautiful, but if you are asked, you might have to say that you have no direct experience of what was discussed. Do you know God? I mean, KNOW God, beyond any doubt or concept or duration? Do you know God directly?
For myself I thought I did for a time, but when I truly looked and was totally honest with myself, I had to answer – no. I did not know God because what I thought I knew was an imagination. It was a product of my mind and changed over time while never feeling complete. This tends to be the case when we look for God because it’s usually looking outside our own heart for something we imagine. If you don’t imagine into it then what exactly is God? Well, God is not an imagination or an image or a concept or an experience. God is a discovery. God is a discovery to be made right where you are, right now. God is playfully hiding behind the idea you have of who you and is disguised as I AM.
When we bring our attention inward we release the tight grip of external phenomena. We also release the association with thoughts and feelings. I am not my possessions, my job, my money, my house or my car. I am not my relationships. I am not my thoughts, beliefs or feelings. I am not even my body. All of these things come and go, they are constantly changing, temporary. You came before these things, and you will remain after they are gone. So who are you? In my experience the most simple, most truthful response we can make to that question is simply I AM or I exist. This has to be a felt experience so we can simply sit and feel the presence in the body and ask ourselves the question: who am I? Rather than respond we sit quietly and simply observe as a witness to all that occurs. When you are able to easily feel raw presence, you can step back in any situation and be the witness. This creates a great deal of space in our lives and helps us not to take things so personally or seriously because we can see there is something beyond what is happening to us, and that something is always absolutely stable.
When we are able to remain as I AM all the time, our experience of life is completely transformed. A good exercise with this is to practice not attaching I AM to your experience. For example, if you feel angry, you don’t say I am angry because this means you are identifying with anger as being what you are. It is not what you are because it’s temporary, and even while it is present, there is something witnessing it that was present before the anger came and will be present after it goes. Instead of saying I am angry, we can say anger is arising within me or I notice anger. This is a very small difference, but it’s a major shift. Anger is then seen as a temporary state that is noticed, remains for a time and then is gone. We don’t need to make such a big deal out of it if there is no story about it or identification with it. This is very freeing. If we don’t attach I AM to these temporary states, it becomes something sacred, and we know that we are that sacred presence which witnesses everything and yet is unaffected.
In this way we recognize the very freedom we seek as the basis of what we are. There is no need to search for it anywhere, not even inside because, if we search for the Divine, the irony is we are the Divine searching for itself. All seeing, all perceiving originates from the mind of God. When searching ceases and engagement with sense objects ceases and the attention rests in the heart of presence, we are home, we are at rest, we are free. From here we can continue to engage the objects of the world but while remembering what we are at the core. It’s a much more relaxed and joyful way to express the incredibly creative expression we call life.