Working with the “I” in Meditation

Typically, I stick with Vipassana meditation, essentially working with the 4 foundations of mindfulness.  But I have also been exposed to a few other types of meditation that I’ll do from time to time, including Advaita Vedanta teachings. These teachings have reached me through Nisargaddatta Maharaj and Alon Geva. Nisargaddatta is a fascinating character with some powerfully inspirational writings (transcripts of interviews with seekers) and Alon is a teacher I had the good fortune to meet and sit with in the Berkeley hills some years ago.

My understanding of these teachings is fairly simple, and relates directly to the meditation practice centered on the “I” or “I am”. This may or may not be called a mantra practice. I wouldn’t consider it a mantra, actually, because it’s not the sound of the word that counts -it is the direction it takes you when you work with it, that is, inward.

Sitting in posture, you can repeatedly bring to mind: “I am that I am”, “I am’ or simply “I”.  The important thing to do is to focus solely on the “felt sense of I am” as Nisargadatta would say. Working with this meditation makes the mind seek itself, in a way. It is looking for it’s own foundation. It’s seeking itself.  We all use the word “I” a zillion times a day.  What does it really mean?  In zen, there is a koan, “Who am I?” This is the same exercise as far as I can tell. Probing deeply into exactly who is doing this meditation leads you quickly to a sort of paradox. You can never see “something” that is adequately answering the question, “Who am I” — because anything you can experience is automatically being experienced BY the I and cannot therefore BE the I.  Yet you persist.

I’ve worked with this many times. At first it can feel uninteresting. It is more about repeating a word than anything else. Until it gets beyond the “word” stage, it’s not very enlightening.

I find that next comes the “cramped” stage, where my mind is trying to ‘turn around’ on itself and look backwards or something. This has a very contractive feeling. It can cause a headache, literally. Everything that comes to mind is rejected and the focus returns to “I am”. This makes it much like the Neti-Neti practice (but that’s another meditation and another post). This may very well be what the whole meditation experience feels like for a long time – or over many periods of meditation. It is a kind of brick wall.  It may help develop concentration, though, so long as the drive is strong to stay with the basic instruction and keep rejecting content and holding the “I am” as the only focus.

The point of this is that in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy (as I understand it), the individual self is born out of the universal self and is indeed identical with it, but it’s become lost or separated from the universal. The very first movement from the universal to the individual is the “I” thought.  The “I” becomes “Me” and “Mine” and “Other” and the whole of the phenomenal world is born. The way to get back to the universal is traveling back through the “I”, which when examined closely, with more and more subtle awareness and more and more concentration becomes a portal which plunges back into the Absolute.

So.. how’s that going?  Well, it’s going ok, actually.  I’ve explored this type of meditation when my concentration is already quite good.  Like on retreat after establishing present moment awareness, it can be quite interesting to shift into the “I am” meditation and get absorbed into the depths of mind for a while. It sounds funny, but it’s really quite “dark” in there. If the focus is good, this type of meditation is very good at driving out competing thoughts. It can leave you feeling quite empty (in a good way!) when you’re done.

Have I poked back into the Absolute?? No.. I’d say, “not yet”. But I did have an interesting shift this past Monday while sitting like this for a longer (50minute) sit.  I finally got past the “cramped mind” stage. I realized that in looking for the “I”.. and the root of the “I” that I wasn’t able to manage it by looking “for” something. I had a real breakthrough when I realized that it was the old “that which you are seeking is causing you to seek” situation.  I began experiencing the “I” as the experience of looking itself. I was able to settle back into that which was already ALWAYS there. It was an experience of being with the core of my being in some way.. very relaxing, very very quiet and very familiar!  And talk about having a clear and empty mind once I left the cushion!!

I’ll keep going back there and hanging out in that space – in that pure witness.

As Nisargadatta says,

“The witness is the door through which you pass beyond. “

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