They heard the voice of God walking in the garden, like a day-breeze.
Adam and Eve hid themselves from God among the trees of the garden.
God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you? [Ayekah?]”
— Genesis 3:8‒9
The vast majority of our thoughts contain an unexamined premise. And we have strong defense mechanisms devoted to making sure we don’t examine it.
Throughout our lives, we attend to our emotions and thoughts in one way or another. We may repress them or indulge them, but our thoughts and emotions are usually at the center of our existence. “I want … I feel … I think … I like … I don’t like … ”
Even when these exact words aren’t said, they are often assumed.
Although “I” is the subject around which most of our thoughts and emotions revolve, we remain a mystery to ourselves. Quizzes and surveys that hold out the promise of penetrating this mystery are Internet clickbait.
Which Disney character, Harry Potter character, famous artist, etc., are you?
There are three types of leaders. Which type are you?
There are five body types — which is yours?
These quizzes and surveys take advantage of our desire to know more about this thing we call “I.”
The fundamental question is: “What am I?”
This question, when asked correctly, can be a powerful gateway to seeing things as they are instead of as we imagine them to be.
What are you?
Before rushing to answer, notice your internal response to the question.
Do you take the question seriously? Do you want to provide a quick answer? Perhaps you didn’t pause long enough to give the question close consideration.
We are fascinated with quizzes and surveys that claim to tell us about ourselves. Yet when we are asked the fundamental question, “What am I?” many of us want to move on as quickly as possible. We often prefer to assume we know the answer and therefore can jump to learning about this “I.” What are its likes, moods and motivations? How is my “I” different from, or similar to, other people’s “I”?
But what if your understanding of “I” is not as clear as it could be? What if your understanding is fundamentally flawed, as mine was for the majority of my life?
Given the frequency with which “I” shows up in your life, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to develop a crystal-clear understanding of what you mean by “I”?
Without this clarity, when you say “I think … ” or “I feel … ,” what is going on? If what you mean by “I” isn’t clear, then even if your thoughts and feelings seem obvious to you, you can’t possibly understand what you are saying.
Trivilies are feeling happy today.
Without a clear understanding of what is meant by “trivilies” it is impossible to understand this sentence.
And without a clear understanding of “I,” it is impossible to understand the sentence “I am feeling happy today.”
For many years, I had thoughts, emotions, beliefs and opinions without inquiring too deeply into the nature of this thing I identified as “me.” I assumed I knew enough about what “I” was.
In retrospect, not examining what I meant by “I” led to many misunderstandings. And it caused a great deal of misery.
Instead of dismissing the question, allow yourself to approach it with a sense of curiosity. What, exactly, is this thing called “I”?
My body, my thoughts and the way I experience emotions are all very different from what they were when I was 3 years old. But I was “me” at age 3. What is it that accounts for the consistency of “me” throughout my entire life?
In our first few years of life, we made rapid and remarkable transitions. We learned to recognize ourselves in a mirror. We sat, then crawled, then walked. We acquired language.
As we went through these transitions, we developed confidence that there is an entity known as “me” that provides an unbreakable connection to the earlier versions of ourselves. But if we are asked to locate this “me,” we don’t always know where to look.
In the Garden of Eden story, the search for this “me” begins after Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree.
God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
In the Bible, the very first question that God asks human beings is “Ayekah? Where are you?”
When God asks, “Where are you?” What, exactly, is God asking?
Is this a game of hide-and-seek, with God playing the role of seeker and giving up after being unable to locate the hiders?
If that were the case, we might expect Adam to respond: “I’m over here, under the fig tree!”
If we assume that, from the point of view of the narrator, God already knows where Adam and Eve are located, then the question isn’t about “where.” It’s about “you.” The question isn’t intended to provide God with additional information. The question is intended to benefit Adam and Eve.
“Where are you?” is another version of the question “What are you?”
According to the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950), this question is so central that “When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: ‘To whom do they arise?’”
Try this brief experiment: Ask yourself, “Where am I?” and attempt to answer without reference to physical space. For the sake of the experiment, don’t interpret “where” as asking about where you are on your life’s journey. Instead, ask, “Where is my ‘me’? Can I locate that which has always been and will always be ‘me’?”
Where are you?
Before leaving this question, take a moment to feel the uncertainty the question raises. Watch how your mind responds to this uncertainty.
What did you notice?
When I try this experiment, my attention moves inward. And when I try to locate this “me,” it’s elusive.
My left hand has a clear location. And I know where my heart is, as I can often feel it beating inside my chest. But where is “me”?
What is this thing called “me?” Is it an entity living inside me? A core person to whom all other aspects of my person must bow? Is it a process of cells interacting — neurons firing up other neurons to create a mental image I call “me”? Is it the sum total of all my thoughts, emotions and experiences? Or something else entirely?
If I can’t identify, clearly and without ambiguity, what this thing called me is, and I can’t quite find this me when I look within myself, then who am I?
“I think … I feel … I want … ”
What is this thing called “I” that supposedly has these thoughts, feelings and desires?
When I think a thought, am I the thinker of the thought or the entity to which the thought occurs? Clearly both, but is either of these the same as the “me” who was there when I was 3 years old?
When I feel a feeling, did the feeling arise from my “I,” or did it arise elsewhere? And is it my “I” that interprets the feeling?
When I want something, does my desire stem from the experiences I have had over the course of a lifetime? Or are these desires an expression of who I am irrespective of these experiences?
THE NEGATIVE PATH
It’s difficult to discover who you are if you think you already know.
Without fully realizing it, I assumed I was my thoughts, emotions and my physical body.
Famous theologians, such as Maimonides and Aquinas, adopted what became known as the “negative path.” Rather than say what God was, they preferred to say what God was not. In their view, the biggest obstacle to understanding God was misunderstanding.
The same is true for people. The biggest obstacle to understanding who you are is getting past the misunderstandings. To understand who you are, it is helpful to understand who you are not.
To understand who you are, it is helpful to understand who you are not.
Are You Your Emotions?
If we have an accelerated heart rate, we might interpret this as nervousness, excitement, fear or falling in love. These interpretations exert influence on our bodies, which, in turn, influence our minds. Our bodies reinforce our interpretations, creating an internal loop. Moreover, cultures have learned to give different interpretations to physical states. These interpretations affect the body, leading to cultural variation of emotional experiences. For example, Tahitians don’t have a word for “sadness.” In a situation where you might feel sadness, a Tahitian is more likely to feel ill. Russians don’t have words for “excited” or “awkward.” And there are plenty of examples of emotional states that exist in other cultures for which there are no English words.
If you want to shift your emotions, you can put on a beloved piece of music. Or you can read the news of the day. These emotional shifts can take place while sitting in a kitchen chair, with no substantive change in your external environment. In this way, emotions are a physical manifestation of our thoughts (e.g., reading the news) and experiences (e.g., listening to music).
Emotions are unreliable interpretations, which vary from culture to culture, of physical symptoms. They are manifestations in the body of thoughts and experiences and can be easily manipulated.
Emotions are something we have, not what we are.
Are You Your Thoughts?
Schools socialize us to identify ourselves with our thoughts. Good students are those capable of good thinking. The world of school tells us that thinking abilities determine worth and value. If you went to school during the first decades of your life, you received this kind of early socialization, and it may still be exerting a powerful influence on you.
Thoughts are more like other biological systems than we often realize. The mind secretes thoughts the way glands secrete hormones. If you believe you control your thoughts, try to stop thinking. Put on a timer and think no thoughts for 60 seconds. If you’re like most people, you won’t last even a few moments before a thought shows up.
Some of your thoughts are probably unhelpful and unwanted. If you were able to eliminate those thoughts, you would have done so a long time ago.
True, with practice, we can exert some control over our thoughts. But we can also do this with our heart rate, respiration rate and the body’s other systems. Complete control is far out of reach.
You are not in control of your thoughts. And whatever society may say, your value is not based on your IQ, your ability to perform well on exams or any other measure of your thinking prowess.
The nature of thought itself encourages us to conclude that our true identity can be found within thought. Thought thinks that everything else functions in the service of thought.
Imagine the stomach trying to figure out the meaning of the other bodily systems. To accomplish its tasks, the stomach needs the circulatory system to pump blood. From the perspective of the stomach, the heart exists to enable the digestive system to function.
Now imagine the stomach trying to figure out the meaning of thinking. When the stomach becomes too empty, it sends signals that it should be refilled. These signals are translated into the thought “I am hungry.” Thought can now take over and accomplish the important task of finding and eating food. From the perspective of the stomach, thought exists to enable the digestive system to function.
From the perspective of the stomach, everything that goes on within you serves digestion. Indeed, from the perspective of each part of your body, everything else exists to serve that particular part.
Our thoughts and emotions play a similar game with us. Our thoughts and emotions tell us that all other aspects of our existence occur for the sake of enabling our thoughts and emotions.
Thought tells us that thought is paramount.
It is difficult for us to ignore this message. To do so, we would need to be in touch with a conscious aspect of ourselves that exists independently of our thoughts. If we try to locate this aspect of our being by thinking, thought will immediately reassert its imagined role as the pinnacle of our existence. It will insist that the purpose of whatever else exists is to serve thought.
Once we recognize that we don’t control our thoughts, the question of who or what is in control remains.
Are You Your Body?
A close examination of your body will reveal many component parts. Many of these parts are necessary for your survival, but none of these component parts suggest that the body carries your identity. Your identity can’t be found in your hair, feet, hands or kidneys. Thought — and a poor understanding of biology — might want to claim that your identity can be found in your brain. But this is just another example of thought thinking that you are your thoughts.
You may have the thought that you are the sum total of your biological systems, thoughts and emotions. But this is yet another thought. It is a theory of being, not an experience of being. Getting caught up in the web of thought stops you from discovering who you really are.
Your emotions, thoughts and body appear to be connected to this thing called “you,” but none of them are equivalent to it. Your body, thoughts and emotions change drastically during your lifetime. Thoughts and emotions can shift over the course of a few moments. Yet regardless of the body’s changes, or the particular thoughts and emotions you have at any moment, you are always you.
If you can’t be defined by your thoughts and emotions, then who, or what, are you?
And if you can’t be defined by your body, it is fair to ask “where,” or on what plane, your existence is taking place. At first glance, it seems that our essential identity is intrinsically tied to our physical selves. But can we be absolutely certain that this is the case?
THREE PATHS TO DISCOVERY
The Path of Inquiry
You are not your thoughts. But your thoughts have the potential to lead you to who you are.
Sit quietly for a moment with your eyes closed and attempt to locate the place within you from which your thoughts arise.
Do this now, for as long or short a period as you like. What did you experience?
Many people report that when they look for the place where thought arises, thought itself becomes quiet. It’s as if thoughts get shy when they know they are being examined.
Another common experience is the inability to find the place from which thoughts arise. It seems to be beyond our grasp, just out of reach. This can be experienced as a failure to succeed in the task.
But being unable to locate the place from which thoughts arise may actually be a success. The place where thought arises can’t be found with a thought; it precedes thought. We are used to assuming that correct answers must be framed within the realm of thought. This assumption can lead us to discount the experience of quiet invisibility.
If you looked and found “nothing,” consider yourself lucky. It is entirely possible that the quiet invisibility you encountered is the essence of your being. This “nothing” that you experienced might just be the place from which thoughts arise and the place they go as they fade away.
It is entirely possible that the quiet invisibility you encounter is the essence of your being.
Take another moment to try to locate the place within you from which thought arises. This time, if you are lucky enough to find nothing, become curious about this nothing.
What does it feel like? What is the nature of this nothing? Is it young? Old? Timeless? Male? Female? Is it Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, agnostic or some other religion? Is it happy? Sad? Equanimous? Something else? Spend as much time as you are comfortable exploring the experience of this nothing. Eventually, you will return to the routines of your life. But you can always return to explore again.
The Path of Listening
You are not your emotions. But your emotions have the potential to lead you to who you are.
One of the pillars of the Jewish prayer service is a biblical verse that is directed not to God but to people.
שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
Listen (shema) Israel, our God, YHWH, is one.
Israel here refers not to a geographic location but to the people Israel who say these words to one another. “Listen Israel” is an instruction from person to person.
To truly listen requires a quality of attention that is uncompromised by internal commentary. Most of us start formulating our response before someone is done speaking instead of being fully dedicated to listening. Deep listening implies total openness and receptivity. It is done with the entirety of one’s being, not just with the ears. In particular, listen with the heart.
Wherever you are, give yourself a moment to fall into the quiet attention of deep listening. The moment can last for as short, or as long, as you like.
שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
This verse is often written with two enlarged letters — the last letter of the first word and the last letter of the last word. These two letters form the word witness.
Witness consciousness is a phrase sometimes used to describe what lies at the center of our being. Witness consciousness is awareness itself. It notices, witnesses, everything that happens. This witness consciousness is always in the background, observing life even as it participates in living life.
When we engage in deep listening, we access witness consciousness. We become aware of awareness. Listening in this manner is a type of meditation. It can be done with eyes open or closed, alone or with others.
The Hebrew word shema, “listen,” also carries the meaning “obey.” Deep listening will elicit a response. It may be a response of the heart, a verbal response or a response that requires action by the hands or feet.
The response to deep listening may or may not be what another person wants or expects. Listening with a quality of total openness and receptivity is not an invitation to be passive. Deep listening will lead to taking appropriate action. But the listening precedes the action. Listening with total openness means allowing oneself to be changed, to be called to a response.
The Path of the Body
You are not your body. But your body has the potential to lead you to who you are.
If you ask yourself, “What am I?” thoughts may rush in and create concepts. If you want an experience of what you are, rather than a concept, the body is an excellent teacher.
- Rub your hands together for a few moments and then separate them. Feel the energy in your hands. Rub them together again. Draw your hands closer together, though never touching, and then farther apart. Can you feel the energy in your hands?
- Now attempt to feel the energy in your hands without first rubbing them together. If you aren’t able to do this, don’t worry. Continue to place your attention on your hands, and perhaps eventually you will be able to feel their energy.
- If you are able to feel the energy in your hands, bring your attention to your feet. Just as there is energy in your hands, there is energy in your feet. Place your attention on your feet, attempting to feel their energy.
- If you were able to feel the energy in both your hands and feet, place your attention on the energy of your hands and feet simultaneously. If it helps, you may want to close your eyes.
- If you are able to feel the energy in your hands and feet, keep your attention there and also bring your attention to the energy around your heart. Keep your focus on these three different areas of energy in the body. How is the energy similar or different in each area? How does the energy shift and change as you watch it? Stay with this exercise for as long or short a time as you are comfortable.
- If you had success with this last exercise, attempt to re-create that success. Keeping yourself grounded with the energies of the hands, feet and heart; allow yourself to feel the energy of your entire body. Notice the differences and similarities between the energies of the feet, legs, hands, arms, pelvis, stomach, chest, back, neck and head. Notice how the energy of the body changes as you watch it. Stay with this exercise for as long or short a time as you are comfortable.
With practice, you can become more familiar with the energy of your body. Thoughts provide concepts. The body provides a lived experience of the life within you.
What is the nature of this life energy within you? Is it similar or different to the energy of a battery or electricity? Does it contain a sort of wisdom? Is there a type of awareness at play within the energy of the body? Is this awareness always present? Or is it only present when you place your attention upon it?
When I ask myself these questions, I sense that this awareness is always present. Placing my attention upon it gives me the sense of awareness becoming aware of itself. But don’t take my word for it. Use experience as your guide. Your experience is your true teacher.
As you experimented with these paths, did you sense an awake, alive awareness within you move from the background to the foreground? Even if only for a moment? If so, then you had a taste of enlightenment. If you are like most people, you touched this experience of enlightenment and then returned to your normal way of existing in the world. But enlightened consciousness can develop deeper roots and become a regular way of experiencing life.
Your thoughts and emotions arise from a quiet, alive, nothingness. And it is this quiet, alive, nothingness to which your thoughts and emotions occur.
The words used to describe this aspect of your being all fall short. Life force; nothingness; quiet stillness; spirit; witness consciousness; awareness; Tao; Brahman; God; Christ-consciousness; Buddha-nature; YHWH; pure being. None of the words are adequate. Choose whichever words you prefer and ignore the rest.
Enlightened consciousness can develop deeper roots and become a regular way of experiencing life.
You may or may not be aware of it, but you are the life force itself.
I sense that the life force that is me is the same as the life force that is you. This same life force animates the trees, grasses, birds and everything else that exists. This life force takes on different forms, but it is unified; it is one.
If you want to know yourself, make it your mission to become on ever more intimate terms with this awesome, quiet awareness. When your old identity is no longer capable of pretending to be the sole truth of who you are, the spiritual fun can truly begin.
This article is an edited excerpt from Ehrenkrantz’s book “Where Are You? A Beginner’s Guide to Advanced Spirituality.”