By Adam J. Pearson
Introduction: Experiencing Presence
In previous articles, I have presented a few ways to directly ‘taste’ nonduality or being “One without a second” as The Upanishads put it.
- One way involves seeing through the cognitive construction of separation to see that prior to concepts, no such separation appears.
- A second way uses total forgiveness to reveal not-twoness by lovingly releasing the grievances that keep us believing in separation.
- A third way involves practicing the “four phrases” of the Hawaiian system of ho’oponopono as a way of clearing perceptions of illusions of separation.
- A fourth way, which is taught in Theravada and Zen Buddhism, involves cultivating mindfulness in order to directly realize the nature of all phenomena. Great teachers such as the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teach this approach in great detail.
- A fifth way involves practicing yoga and meditation, such as Swami J’s elegantly clear approach.
In this article, I’d like to introduce yet another way, perhaps the most direct of all, to immediately taste the reality of not-twoness here and now. This way involves consciously resting in the pure sense of beingness or presence, “I Am.”
The Sense “I Am”
In I Am That, an inspiring collection of dialogues with the great Advaita Vedanta sage Nisargadatta Maharaj, Nisargadatta talks about how he got his start on the spiritual path. He says:
When I met my Guru, he told me: “You are not what you take yourself
to be. Find out what you are. Watch the sense ‘I am’, find your real
Self.” I obeyed him, because I trusted him. I did as he told me. All
my spare time I would spend looking at myself in silence. And what a
difference it made, and how soon!
My teacher told me to hold on to the sense ‘I am’ tenaciously and not
to swerve from it even for a moment. I did my best to follow his
advice and in a comparatively short time I realized within myself the
truth of his teaching. All I did was to remember his teaching, his
face, his words constantly. This brought an end to the mind; in the
stillness of the mind I saw myself as I am — unbound.
I simply followed (my teacher’s) instruction which was to focus the mind on pure being ‘I am’, and stay in it. I used to sit for hours together, with nothing but the ‘I am’ in my mind and soon peace and joy and a deep all-embracing love became my normal state. In it all disappeared — myself, my Guru, the life I lived, the world around me. Only peace remained and unfathomable silence.
I’d like to invite you to directly taste this sense of “I Am,” here and now.
At this very moment, you are aware of many things:
- You can feel your breath rising and falling in your chest.
- You are aware of the phone or computer or tablet on which you are reading these words and the environment that surrounds it.
- You are aware of the position of your body and the sensations in it, the flavours in your mouth, the smells entering your nose, the sounds you hear in the background.
- You are aware of thoughts and images flowing through your mind and feelings stirring within you.
- You see that all of these forms are constantly shifting and changing like a play of images projected on a movie screen.
- As all of this is going on, you are also aware that you are aware. You are aware of the pristinely awake, spacious, vibrantly empty awareness in which all of these sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings appear.
- And most fundamentally of all, you are aware of the pure and simple sense of being. When you think the words “I Am,” you can zoom straight into that pure feeling of being present here and now. And rest there.
I Am. Try feeling that directly. Really let it sink in. Feel what it feels like simply to be. Not “I am someone” or “I am something,” but simply I Am. “I Am” takes us directly into the feeling of presence, beingness, or I-Amness. Feel that and let awareness rest there. That’s it.
As you allow attention to rest in I-Amness, you may soon begin to realize that there is something about this I-Amness that distinguishes it from every other changing form of which you have ever been aware. From the time you appeared to be a small baby until now, you have seen a variety of incredible changes in your environment, body, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, and every other realm of form of which you’ve been aware.
And yet, there has been one unifying constant amid all the perceptions of change: the sense I Am. This sense of pure, present being, I Am, was the same 10 minutes ago as it is now. It was the same 10 months ago. It was the same 10 years ago. And it was the same 10,000 years ago. Only our mindfulness of it can wax and wane like waves washing in and out over a constant shore.
What we are, we can doubt. That we are, we cannot.
There is a famous koan in the Zen Master Hui-Neng’s Platform Sutra that asks “What was the appearance of your Original Face before your ancestors were born?” This question wasn’t suggesting that we have some kind of spiritual ghosty face. It was rather attempting to point us to the radiant presence of awareness itself. The I Am both includes and transcends all notions of subject and object and, thus, reveals not-twoness. As the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus put the matter in his Enneads, resting in the sense I Am takes us on a “journey from the alone to the Alone,” or from feeling lonely and separated to being utterly free from any sense of separation and seeing all beings as your own Self.
This beautiful insight and very simple practice were not not the exclusive province of Buddhism and Hinduism, either. We also find a suggestion of this idea in Christianity. In Chapter 8, verse 58 of the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “Before Abraham was born, I Am.” In the Greek, the words are “ego eimi.” This literally means “I am,” not “I was,” but “I am,” present tense. People have long interpreted this verse to mean that Jesus was saying he was an eternal separate being, but that’s not how I read this beautiful line. As I see it, he was pointing to the constant, formless nature of the pure and simple sense of beingness, I Am, the same I Amness to which Nisargadatta points. He was speaking from the point of view, not of a particular human being, but of Being itself. However, the Pharisees misunderstood him and, thus, tried to stone him to death in the following verse (8:59) of that chapter.
In both Christian mysticism and the modern spiritual classic, A Course in Miracles, the experience of resting in the sense I Am, or staying with the pure and simple sense of being, is akin to resting “at Home in the presence of God” or “in the Kingdom of Heaven.” I Amness is ever-present and unchanging. It is shared by all beings; more precisely, it is the Being of all beings. When we rest in the I Am, therefore, we rest in presence, and we are directly aware that we are. We are at home in the simple sense of presence, the simple feeling of Being…
The Experience of Resting in I-Amness
What does it mean to ‘rest in the I Am’? It means to do exactly what Nisargadatta did, namely, to tenaciously remain aware of the I Am, or more specifically, the sense of beingness or presence that lies behind the words ‘I Am’. Instead of just focusing on the words, use them to lead your awareness directly into the feeling ‘I Am’. In other words, use the thought “I Am” as a pointer to take you directly into the sense of presence here and now. Let your attention rest there. Simply to be aware takes no effort and no time; it is our very nature.
What does I Amness feel like? I invite you to try feeling it right now. Think “I Am” and trace the thought back to the pure and simple feeling that I Am, the pure and simple feeling of formless presence or Being. You might start to become aware of it around your chest area and find that the more you rest your attention on it, the more it begins to feel completely boundless. Somehow, the feeling spreads throughout the body and then even beyond it, until it encompasses the entire scene appearing now…
Resting in the sense I Am produces a tremendous sense of wonder and presence. Instead of flittering about in thoughts about the past or future, attention rests and wholly centers in the feeling of being present now. There is a sense of vastness, of being infinitely expansive, of including everything that was, is, and ever will be, and excluding nothing.
Adam’s body-mind is part of it, but this I Am includes far more than that; it includes the entire universe of form itself; every transient form that arises is like a wave arising from the ocean of its presence. Thus, there is a sense of intimacy with all forms consciousness rests in the beingness of all beings. This shared beingness takes us beyond the perception of separateness into the direct feeling of presence. As we really rest in it, we feel that this simple beingness is totally without borders and boundaries; it both transcends and includes all of the limitations of the forms that we see.
There is also a sense of tremendous peace here in the sense I Am. It includes all and thus nothing can disturb it. There is a sense of serenity here, of equanimity, of intimacy and even unconditional love of all of the forms that we include in the sense I Am. There is also a sense of great, unconditional joy and fulfillment here as we rest in our own nature. This sense that I Am brings us home to my constant and unchanging beingness, about which Nisargadatta writes:
The love of the Self in you is for the Self in all. The two are one. The consciousness in you and the consciousness in me, apparently two, really one, seek unity and that is love.
Self-Inquiry: Returning from “I am this” and “I am not that” to I Am
As Nisargadatta’s experience points out, stabilizing our awareness of the I Am doesn’t tend to happen immediately. We tend to forget the vastness of all being that the I Amness includes and identify instead with a small part of that vastness. We take the belief that “I am just a separate “me” in a separate body-mind” to be an absolute truth. We zoom in on, and come to only identify with, one particular form and see it as cut off and separate from all other forms.
It’s as if we put a tiny bit of water in a bowl, isolated it from the rest of the ocean, and then said “I am this water in the bowl and the rest of the ocean, I am not.” For every form we see is a wave in the ocean of presence here and now.
This is how the illusion of separateness is born. When we identify with a transient form–which is really only a part or wave of our boundless I Amness–and say “I am this” and “I am not that,” then we begin to perceive the illusion of separateness. We feel cut off, isolated, separate, and alone. We develop a sense of egoic identity that feels threatened by the forms it sees as separate from itself and resigns itself to guilt and fear. We begin to think that we are just this ego, just this body, and that we are in danger, at stake. In this way, we come to believe that we are a separate self and totally forget our true nature as the Self of all and thus, to suffer. From this seeming separateness, fear and anxiety arise, and the past and future seem to loom over the present even though they are not happening and the present moment is…
Thankfully, however, our situation is not hopeless. In Talks with Ramana Maharshi, another great Advaita Vedanta sage offers us a way of using these forgetful statements, in which we limit our identity to part of the vastness of being that we are, to remember our true nature. This is the practice of atma-vicharya or Self-inquiry. For example, when we consider the thoughts “I am fat,” “I am stupid,”I am Canadian,””I am a man,” and every other thought that expresses our identification with form, we notice that, in each one of these statements, we can find the “I Am,” perfectly constant and untouched, as it always was.
Ramana thus invites us to use these statements to return our awareness to the pure feeling or sense I Am. For example, if I feel that “I am in danger” or “I am threatened,” Ramana invites us to ask: “Who’s in danger?”
“My sense of self is,” we might answer.
“To whom does that sense of self appear?” Ramana asks.
“To me,” we answer.
“Without referring to a single form, who are you?” Ramana asks.
I Am. Woosh. The mind is immediately zoomed back into I Amness. Our awareness returns to the pure and simple sense of beingness or presence and rests there in silence and wonder. Even the words “I Am” fade out and only the intense and boundless beingness remains. In samadhi, even this can dissolve and the unknowable awakeness of awareness itself can be all that remains as even being and nonbeing are observed from what is beyond both…
Here’s another example of self-inquiry in practice:
If I feel that “I am not good enough,” then I ask: “Who’s not good enough?” To this, I have to answer “I Am.” Then I ask myself “Without referring to a single form, what am I?” And then we follow the “I Am” thought back into the felt sense of I Amness. In this way, I once again become directly aware of the feeling of presence. Thus, this simple practice can be a useful tool for what Brene Brown calls, in her fantastic book Daring Greatly, “shame-resilience.”
In short, the questions “Who is aware of ______?” or “What is aware of _____?” or “to whom does this thought arise?” help us to remember to be aware of I Amness. We simply plug into the blank whatever form we feel identified with or whatever disrupting feeling is coming up. Then we answer the question silently by following our attention home to our I Amness. In this way, we use the disruptive thought to return our awareness to our true nature, which includes all and excludes nothing. As we rest there, we gain direct access to the deep intimate love, peacefulness, and joy that naturally arise as our attention rests in beingness.
It is as if we were to pour our bowl of water back into the ocean and thus remember that we are the ocean and not limited to the water in the bowl. We become presently centered in our presence, aware of our beingness once again. And we are rejuvenated by the ever-fresh experience of it, which never gets old as it is not chained to the past, but always grounded in the Now.
Conclusion: The Direct Gateway into Presence
In conclusion, if you want to directly taste presence here and now, simply allow awareness to rest in the feeling of being, the sense “I Am.” Use the words to take you to the direct feeling or beingness and rest your awareness there. Not being this or that, but simply being. Then drop the words and enjoy the tremendous peacefulness that you find where, as Nisargadatta says, “only peace remains and unfathomable silence.”
For a discussion of giving and relating from the perspective of nonduality, see “Giving in Two Directions: On the Meaning of Action in Oneness.”
Technical Note For My Advaita Vedantin friends: Nisargadatta claimed that the “I Am” or beingness is not the ultimate, but rather that what he calls “the Absolute” is beyond beingness. In the Absolute, he taught, we do not even know that we are, since it is prior to consciousness, the universe that appears in consciousness, and even I Amness itself. However, Nisargadatta specified, to realize the Absolute, and thus attain complete moksha (liberation), we must totally and tenaciously rest awareness in the sense I Am until it “dissolves” and only the Absolute remains. The purpose of this article is only to explain and illustrate this practice of resting in the I Am as a gateway to what is beyond even it…