Atma Vichar, Self Inquiry


This little article about self inquiry is a transcription from a dharmatalk given in 2005. Because of this the text is a bit less formal and it is closer to spoken language than written. In the talk Nukunu describes the process of Self Inquiry (Atma Vichar) which has its origin in the ancient Indian tradition of Advaita Vedanta. In modern times Self Inquiry has become known to people all over the world through the teachings of the great sage Ramana Maharshi. In Atma Vichar you work with questions like “Who is experiencing this?” and “Who am I”. A similar way of working can be found in the Zen Buddhist tradition of working with “koans” (questions that cannot be answered with the mind) and the question “Who am I” is also one of the original koans in the ancient Chinese and Korean Zen traditions.

The Mind

The mind is a very misunderstood concept. Most people believe it to be a little box inside the head which remembers things and can think, judge and have opinions. But the mind is actually only a fragment of consciousness which has established itself as a private, separated entity. It only exists in thinking! So ask yourself if you really have a mind when there are no thoughts or concepts. Who are you when the noise of the mind stops for a moment? Yes, then there is no mind!

All there is is consciousness. Everything we can think, feel and perceive is an appearance of consciousness – also the experience of the private mind. When the world arises it is consciousness taking forms and names as the world. Just as all the different waves in the ocean are essentially water; all our experiences are essentially pure consciousness. This pure consciousness is also often called “the Self”.

When you close your eyes and sit with the so-called personal mind, then you are attached to certain qualities of experiences. We call them private experiences, but the mind is not really private. We are everything, but we have learned that something is inside me (myself) and something else is outside (the other). We learned this distinction when we were a few years old. From that age on, we started to distinguish between that which is inside us and that which is outside. Then we split consciousness into a private mind and an outer reality, which we call matter. But that is just a dream – it isn’t so! All there is is consciousness, but that is not how we have learned to see life. We draw a demarcation line between the subjective world, which we call the “private world”, and objective world we call the “public world”. But these are just concepts and distinctions that have nothing to do with reality. It is something we project on the reality. So the first thing to understand is that there is no real private mind. There is no inside or outside of anyone because there is not “anyone” here. So how can there be an “inside” and an “outside”?

Everything you see is consciousness, that’s the first step. Everything you feel, everything you experience is a manifestation of consciousness. The experience you call “me” is also consciousness. You are consciousness! So essentially everything is you! Just feel it; here you can move – it’s all your own Self!

Just for a moment allow yourself to feel “It is all me”. It does not exist independently outside of me.” The whole world is you! In the cows you are chewing grass, in the birds you are singing, in your neighbour you are arguing with the spouse. See everything as your own consciousness! Then it will become more and more impersonal, because you will see that the idea of a “me” is also just consciousness. Here the private mind disappears and becomes consciousness.

Subjective idealists also look at it in a similar way. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant and the tradition from Germany up to modern time see everything as “my private experience.” You can also look at the phenomenalists and the modern social sciences; they see everything as “my” experience. But they are stuck with the “me”!

All subjective idealism will end up with the conclusion that there is only “me”; “I can only talk about me and my experiences. I don’t even know if the other person exist. The other is my experience. How do I know if other people exist or not? They only exist as my experience.” When the subjective idealists get to this point it is called “solipsism” – the loneliness. They end up in that loneliness; and this is the dark night of the soul. Everyone that is meditating deeply also comes to this point, and that’s why people are scared of meditating. You will end up understanding that it is all your experience. You are sitting down and meditating and all you know is “your” experience. There could, for example, be a car passing by with a man in it; but if that man exists or not, you have no idea. You can only talk about your subjective experience of the car and the man in it. That is how it ends up in philosophy – in solipsism.

But go further! If you look deeper you will suddenly see that “me” is also just an idea, like everything else. That is the movement out of isolation, solipsism. Then you suddenly realize that “me” and “mine” are also illusions. They are also experiences. Then it opens and there is a shift in your whole perspective. The ideas of “me” and “others” are gone. You saw everything from the perspective of a “me”, but now you see everything from the perspective of consciousness.

There is only the One Consciousness! Concepts such as inside and outside of this mind are distinctions that we are making. They are not real. The mind is a concept. Nobody has ever found an entity called the mind. It is only made of thoughts!

The Mind and the Heart

The moment you ask the question: “Who is experiencing this mind?” your attention moves from the content of the mind to the pure awareness itself. It moves from what you are aware of to awareness itself. You surrender the mind. You let it go. With the very question, you have to let it go; otherwise you can’t answer the question “What is aware of this?” With this question you get into a deep sense of beingness. Don’t take the mind with you here, leave the mind behind! Then you will come into a sense of just being. Keep on coming here; just being. You can come here by asking the question: “Who is aware of this?” over and over again.

I often say: “Put your attention on the awareness itself”; it is the same thing. But this is not the final destination, because you are still feeling separated. You are “experiencing” beingness. There are still two: you and beingness. It is just that the object in your meditation is more subtle now. Before it was the noisy mind, but now the object in your meditation is the sense of being, which is much more fulfilling, much nicer and much more pleasant. But you have not yet arrived at the final destination.

So go further and inquire deeper: “Where is this sense of beingness arising from? What is the source of it?” Come into your heart; feel the longing of your heart. Your mind doesn’t know what longing is. The mind only knows what curiosity is. Your mind is curious, your heart is longing.

Longing is much deeper than curiosity. As long as you live in your mind you are a student. When you start living in your heart you become a devotee. People start as students and ask “what is this about?” They are curious. But then it touches them and they slowly become devotees. This means that it starts to become a matter of the heart instead of a matter of the mind.

After some time sitting with people like me you get tired of what I say. You are not curious any longer. Instead you are sitting here for the magic, and that is the heart. You have moved from the mind to the heart. It is now you start to get really engaged in these matters. Earlier you were just curious and you could easily go away. But when it starts to get in to your heart you cannot leave so easily. It is like a relationship. When it enters your heart you cannot just leave. The Buddhists say:


In the beginning you are chasing the Buddha

You get tired and exhausted of chasing the Buddha

Then the Buddha starts chasing you

Finally you become one with the Buddha


In inquiring into the beingness you enter deeper into the heart – “where is this beingness arising from?” You enter into the silence of your heart. There are no words here. There is only a sense; you are sensing, feeling, searching from your heart. “Where is this sense of being arising from?” You are searching for “the Source”. In a certain way you let the gravitation, the longing of the heart, pull you. Just let it pull you! The heart knows the Source. The mind does not know. So you can’t reach the Source by thinking about it. Be aware of this!

You have to enter the heart, because the heart knows the Source. The heart is essentially one with the Source. The heart is much closer to who you really are than the mind. The mind is in the periphery. The heart is much closer to your center, to the Source. Just let the longing in the heart pull you back into the Source until you can’t get any further. You have left everything now. You have surrendered everything and in a way you have left the world. You have left your attachment to every form and name for a moment. You said: “I’m not interested in whatever the mind or the thoughts or the senses are representing. I’m leaving. I’m going to the Source”. “I am going to my father” (as the Bible says).

It is in this way that the “I” dissolves into the Self.

Call off the Search

When you can’t get any further stop the search and allow the Source – the Self – to look for you! Allow yourself to be lived! Allow the Truth to live you and just let go! This is a feeling that the body and the mind, which you used to call yours, are now just being lived by that reality which is the only reality that really exists. It is a feeling of a deep letting go. Just feel how your body is being lived from moment to moment and how your thoughts are being created automatically. You are not the doer! You are “That”. You are the unmoving mover! When you let go, there it is such an unmoving feeling of a reality that exists in itself; by itself and for itself. That reality is expressing itself in millions of things, and among them is the body/mind which you used to call yours. Let go into this sense, feel it and abide here. Let your eyes slowly adjust to this feeling of being free. Silently admit that you are free and that the way you used to see yourself was not true. The “me” is just another thought, what you really are is this reality. Allow it to live you, to watch you, to witness you – and be it. Take the jump from the ego-sense over to that reality. “I am That!” Just say inside: “I am That, I am the Source itself!” You have to declare it; you have to be strong enough to declare it! You have to step out of the prison of the little monkey mind. Step out of the little idea of a private mind. That is surrender. “I am That, everything is That”. Just feel it by saying it inside. If you say it with a lions roar inside, the monkey mind stops chattering. The roaring of the real is bursting through, and the mind, which you used to take to be your private mind, now becomes impersonal.

Call of the search and let the truth look for you! Let reality catch up with you and overcome you. This is the same thing as using the mind to be free of the mind.

Collecting the Mind

If you start to feel uneasy in the little meditation that we do now and if you feel that you are struggling, then just relax and watch your breath. Relax and watch your breath. Let go. Then watch your breath and feel your body. Allow every sensation that wants to arrive to come. You have a free hour now. You can just allow the mind to be whatever it is. Just have a gentle focus on the breath – the movement of the breath in the belly. Then you will not drift away. So just relax. Observing the movement of the breath will make your body/mind relax.

When you are ready ask the question again: “Who is experiencing this?” Leave the content of the mind and just switch it off. Put your attention on awareness itself. Do not let the mind come with you here. If there are any names or forms left, then you have not yet left the mind. So ask again: “Who is aware of this?” If any answers come, you are still in the mind. But when you put your attention on awareness itself, there are no answers. There is just a sense or emptiness; of beingness, silence and presence. This movement is not easy because we are only used to go in an outward direction. When we have a sensation we are going outwards. We leave ourselves and get entangled with the object. It is the same when we have a thought; we leave ourselves and get identified with it. The moment there are experiences, we have left our centre and got attached to the periphery. Then we are hanging out in the periphery feeling miserable, because we are not in touch with ourselves. This is why we, in a certain way, have to leave the world – we have to leave the sense objects behind. But there is no need to condemn the world and the objects of the senses, like some Eastern philosophers do. In that case we could easily get obsessed and fanatic because we are repressing things. We must only understand that when there is a sensory perception we have left ourselves and gone out to the periphery.

In self inquiry (Atma Vichar) we start going back to where everything comes from.

This is a new movement, and I know that it is not easy in the beginning: “How on earth do I roll the movie backwards? I am only used to rolling it forwards. I’m totally stuck with the movement forwards. I only know the gears that go forwards; I don’t know the reverse gear. I never tried it. I never used it. The reverse gear, where is it? Is it in my car at all?” So what is the car in this metaphor? The car is the body/mind. Does it really have a reverse gear? We have to find it! Then we will come back again, although it may take us many months to learn this. It took me a long time to learn, but I was so excited about this discovery of how to come back to my center.

The Masculine, the Feminine and the Non-Dual

So you leave the mind by asking the question: “Who is aware of this?” Settle into beingness and then inquire deeper: “Where is this sense of beingness arising from? Where is this pure awareness arising from?” Enter into your heart, into your longing for the truth and the courage to want to know the truth. (But I also know that there are many people who don’t even want to know it. Over the years I have met several persons who say that they are not interested in knowing it.)

Now go further and further back – sensing, expanding, reaching and opening the heart. It’s a vast sky! Continue until you feel that you cannot do anything more. Then allow the Self to embrace the Self. Allow the Source to embrace the Source. With these words I am calling something out of you. But don’t cling to my words. Let go. Let that big reality live you, let it look for you. Don’t look for it, let it look for you. Be available. You are not available when you are looking! You are not available when you are searching! Then you are full and nothing can be poured into you. When you are looking you are full to the brim with your questions and with your searching. When you are searching you are not available. So stop it! Just be available. Just be a womb for the truth and let it enter in. It is the feminine; it is the woman. Drop the man! We used the man for the search, now it is time for the woman. The masculine quality was needed for the search. Now it is the feminine receptivity that matters in the inner world.

Coming Back into the Market Place

“I am That!” – This is total surrender. Just let it overcome you! It is like a big wave of freedom and warmth taking over, filling your body with relaxation and taking all your thoughts away. “I am That!” It is a feeling of total freedom. Then, when you are firmly established as “I am That”, invite the whole world into that space! Start with the sense of your body. Stay as awareness and invite the sense of the body into awareness. When you invite the sense of the body into that space, into the Source, you are allowing the Source to permeate the sense of the body. When body and the Source take colour of each other, be that which comes out of it and let go. Then, when a feeling or a mood arises invite it immediately into the Source. Let them also take colour of each other and be what comes out of this.

“I am That. I am the living reality that lives through all things. It lives through the sense of the body, it lives through my thinking and it lives through my feelings. I am That. I am free. I am free in feelings, I am free in thoughts and I am free in the body.” Invite all experiences into this place and don’t go outwards anymore. Now you will neither go inwards nor outwards. Just merge moment to moment, because now there is no “in” or “out” anymore. You have transcended these distinctions. You are everywhere and nowhere in particular. Just live it as a mystery now. Don’t try to understand it – feel it, sense it. It is the feeling of being the one in the many and the many in the one. Let go, let go, let go! Don’t cling and it is all yours. Everything can be invited, so don’t get stuck with anything. Not even silence is holy, because the silence is also an experience. So invite the sense of the silence into the Source. Let them merge and be what comes out of it. Invite the sense of love into the Source. Let them merge and be what comes out of that. The great 15th century Indian mystic Kabir expressed it in this way:


“When awareness touches the object

Realize the Unborn.”

Realizing the Truth

In a famous Zen text with poems and pictures called “The Six Bulls of Zen” they use the bull to represent enlightenment. The text illustrates the stages of a practitioner’s progression.

The disciple first finds the footprints of the bull. This is when trust is awakened and when you sense that there is a Truth. You have not yet realised the Truth, but you sense that it exists. Many people don’t even know that. This is the first step.

The second step is that you find out that the bull exists and hides in deep valleys beyond civilization (beyond the conditioning of the mind). That is what you are doing now – you are leaving the mind. The bull exists in the big valleys and on the high plateaus far beyond civilization. This is the inquiry; letting go of the mind because the mind is conditioning and civilization. You are going deeper and deeper in. You go into the deep valleys; you crawl up to the high plateaus. That is the search. That is the inquiry: “Who am I?”

In the third step you find the bull; you get hold of the bull. You enter the Source. But there are still two: you and the Source. There is a struggle. The bull slips away, and then you get hold of it again. When you keep on going to the Source and you are letting go, the bull is there. Then, when you start thinking again, the bull is gone.

After some time you don’t even need to have a rope around the bull’s neck any longer. You rest together with the bull. This is the fourth step!

Then, when you rest together with the bull, you suddenly realize there is neither a “me” nor a bull. There are no concepts left – there is only “That”. This is the fifth!

In the sixth step, you ride into the town, into the civilization, sitting naked on the bull playing the flute. This is embracing the world again; riding the bull, being the Source. That is why I ask you to invite the world into awareness, but at the same time not leave the Source. When you start doing that you will suddenly realize that there is no inside or outside, because then you enter into the non-dual. You are coming back into the world again. Your enlightenment blooms and it is alive. It is being the Source in everything, in all experiences, and this can only happen when you are in the world. Here everything settles fully, and in this last picture in “The Six Bulls of Zen” the disciple is playing the flute because there is such a joy. He is also naked because he has nothing to defend or to protect. The clothing is a metaphor for the personality, and since there is nothing left of the private mind the disciple is naked when he rides on the bull back to the town

Abiding as the Source

When you are abiding as the Source, you no longer go outwards with the senses. Instead you invite them in! When you invite them into the Source and are letting them merge with the Source, you realize that there is neither “inside” nor “outside”. You are beyond these distinctions. Let it live you! Don’t live, be lived! When you start to feel that you are separated say: “I am That”, and be lived by That. Then, if you start to have the sense that “you” are living, the mind starts creeping in again and old habits start to come back. Cut it off right away – “I’m That” – and be lived! Abide as the source itself and it will slowly become effortless. This is when awakening turns into enlightenment. There is no ecstasy that can be compared to the feeling of being lived. It is the ultimate letting go. It is pure bliss. Just one sip of it and you are drunk!