The Process of Self-inquiry: The Process

Ananya Sri Ram Rajan – USA

Theosophy AR 2 120 Ananya

The author at the Adyar Theatre, Chennai-India 


Until there is a measure of order, harmony, and tranquility in oneself, it is not possible to live in a satisfactory or beautiful manner.

N. Sri Ram

Inevitably, at some time in a person’s life, the question of our own existence arises. The question may take many forms depending on the situation that determines it, and may come in the form of such questions as: Who am I? Why am I here? and What is my purpose in life? The human beings’ ability for self-inquiry is quite fascinating. We are the only species, so far as known, that can investigate into its own beingness. Self-awareness, in the literal sense, i.e. self-recognition, belongs not only to humans but to chimpanzees, dolphins, and other mammals. Recent scientific discoveries have shown that such mammals have been found to recognize themselves in a mirror. But with regard to pondering who one is and the meaning of one’s existence, at present, humans seem to be the only species with such a gift. (The question remains, if certain mammals can recognize themselves, what other capacities do their minds possess?)

This gift of self-inquiry has today created quite a market. Searching for the term online generates several websites and books. There are an innumerable amount of people professing that they have the answers to finding the self, or that “their” way is “the” way to finding out who one is. People spend thousands of dollars every year trying to find the answer to the question of who they are or what their purpose is in life. Sadly, such people seem to be missing the point of self-inquiry. It is, after all, called self-inquiry for a reason. Those pointing the way can provide possible tools to help one’s process, but in the end the discovery must be taken alone and from within. This is what deters many who start enthusiastically from continuing the journey.

Inquiry is defined as the “art of asking for information,” “to question,” “to investigate.”

J. Krishnamurti used the word investigate and often said it means “to trace out” or to track. Etymologically, he was correct. (Perhaps this is why he loved detective novels.) However, inquiry into oneself can be tricky. If investigation means to track, what is it we are tracking and can we be objective when the subject of our investigation is our self?

Historical, biographical, or mythical material about the lives of those who wander into the field of self-inquiry, often state that something draws them into such a place: a crisis of conscience, the death of a loved one, an illness, a sudden shift in perception, and so on. A mark is made on the individual’s being and very rarely are they able to return to the person they were before. It is difficult to understand every event in one’s life that leads to a desire to know more. But it is the desire to know. Sadly, some get lost in the chaos of details during this process and that is where they remain. This is one of the reasons why HP Blavatsky describes the road as “steep and thorny.” We can get hooked on a detail of the past, unable to stay in the present and unable to move forward.

For the average person (those neither born enlightened nor born to be the vehicle of a higher consciousness), the process, if taken seriously, eventually brings to the surface some of our unpleasant traits. This is not to say those born enlightened or with the potential do not face the same turmoil. However, if we look at this process from a wider karmic lens, we can see that some who incarnate to play the role of selfless guide have already sloughed away the dross of the self. But the sloughing away tends to be what many of us have to face in the process. The key is not to get hooked, but to give grace and space to that which wants to draw us in so desperately. By looking at things from a wider lens, we can see the whole picture.

Perhaps we could say that the process of self-inquiry is not so much about asking for information, but about observing one’s thoughts, actions, and words while remaining receptive and open to what one observes. Observation, the action of watching or monitoring something closely, is normally so one can obtain information. But is it possible to both openly receive such information and not become unsettled by it? In other words, can one observe what comes without getting emotionally involved with what one sees? (Remember the thorns?)

In counseling, when working with clients who are struggling with impulsive anger issues, the exercise STOPP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Plan, Proceed) is often encouraged. The greatest difficulty clients have is to stop what they are doing when they start feeling angry. In self-inquiry, such an exercise may be helpful. There are times when observing one’s thoughts, the mind will start in, “why are you thinking about that?” and then one is stuck in the blame and shame game. The minute such a thought arises, the door opens for more to arrive. It may help to just stop, be present, and breathe before the emotions come into play.

If we desire to know more about ourselves, perhaps one aspect we need to continually be aware of is the desire itself. Is it the desire (the wanting of something) that drives our journey, or is it the journey itself? The desire tends to create illusions of grandeur. We have an idea in our mind about what the process will bring to us instead of what we can bring to the process. If we are truly serious, teachings have shown we must dispose of every expectation, approach the process with humility, allow our emotions to ebb and flow through us, and take it as a journey of curiosity rather than one of conquering. After all, the journey is not to conquer the self, but to know it—whatever that may be.

Happy travels.

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