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Who You Really Are

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Okay, this post is the last thrust in our trip down the proverbial rabbit-hole, which so far has looked at what the ego is, and how the late Douglas Harding can help us answer that big, big question — who are you, really? This is part one of a two-part post.

I had no idea what I was getting into. Back in October, I arrived at an island retreat called Hollyhock, to take what I thought was a five-day course on Buddhism. I didn’t know we would spend those days in uninterrupted mindfulness, without speaking, and that we’d spend about six to eight hours a day in formal meditation.

After the initial welcome at the main hall, our teacher led my group up the path to our meditation hut in the forest. On the way there, he stopped us and told us to look up. It was a still and clear night, much darker than we city dwelling visitors were accustomed to. I had never seen stars like that.

“Please be aware,” he said, as we all stared silently, “that you are seeing.”

He repeated himself. I was transfixed on the stars, but I remember thinking, “Well, duh,” when his comment registered. Of course I’m aware I’m seeing. How can you see without being aware of it?

His comment echoed again in my head a moment later, and I realized what he meant. For the first time, I recognized that I was normally only aware of what I was seeing, and had taken for granted that I was seeing at all. My awareness had become preoccupied with the content of existence, not the fact of existence itself. Suddenly, it struck me as so peculiar that there was stuff out there to see at all, and especially peculiar that there was something present — me, evidently — to see it. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me there was anything odd, or at least curious, about this arrangement.

In that instant, the stars became more real, more imposing, though I can’t say their appearance changed. It was something like admiring a photograph of a tree, and then realizing you were looking at a real tree. This experience definitely had an effect on me, but I didn’t grasp its relevance right away.

Sitting lessons

A day later I would. Our group was sitting in a warm, circular hut in the woods, in total silence, the evening of the second day.

Sitting for hours is tough work. The idea is to simply watch what’s happening, and there is quite a bit going on. Without the regular distractions of music or traffic or television, you can’t help but notice how much the body and the mind are really up to.

Your awareness fills with the chaos of dozens of sensations happening at once: the aching of your knees, the pressure of your bum on the cushion, the rising and falling of the breath, itches, tingles, weird digestive processes you never paid much attention to.

And thoughts! They come out in full force. They’re loud and pushy, and they just won’t stop coming.

There’s so much going on it’s hard to stay aware of it. You easily lose yourself in the stuff that’s happening. Suddenly you find you’re in the midst of an imaginary argument loosely based on a real argument you had a week ago with your friend. Your mind is saying what it wishes it said then.

Then you snap out of it. Whoops. Stay aware. You return your attention to the breath. For a moment or two, you’re fully with it.

Then your knee-ache gets more demanding, so you direct your attention to the feeling to try and observe it. You’ve been sitting too long on a hard surface, and the knee is tightening up. You know it will throb later, like it did after last session. You notice the intention to adjust your position, and flinch as you almost do it automatically. But you know you should stay put. You think about getting a good meditation cushion when you get home. You also make a mental note to remember to keep the thermostat down, it’s getting hot in here…

…and like that, you’re lost again. You return the attention to the breath, vowing again to stay aware.

After not too much of this you can’t help but notice all these feelings and thoughts are constantly coming and going, and it never stops. Whatever arises seems to come into your awareness from nowhere, and it changes a bit in its texture in intensity as you watch it. Then it eventually recedes, or gets crowded out by something else, until you can’t detect it anymore. It leaves no trace, and by then there’s a new thought or a new feeling, or many, and you forget about it.

During an hour-long meditation session, a whole load of weird stuff parades across your awareness. It’s just a big, maddening show with no plot, and this insidious tendency to keep changing its form.

From my week of meditating in Hollyhock, I learned two major realities about life:

#1: Your whole experience in life is a only a constantly changing arrangement of thoughts and sensations. There are unlimited forms it can take and all forms are constantly giving way to new ones. Whatever it is at any given time is just a combination of the five senses and thought.

#2: It is incredibly easy to get lost in the details of all those things, which makes you forget #1.

All of life seems to be just a constant turnover of “stuff,” in this way. As Winston Churchill said, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”

When you sit with your eyes closed, this is very apparent. It’s like you’re watching all sorts of things happening on a blank screen: thoughts, bodily feelings, sounds, emotions, and it’s so busy you forget you’re watching it. There is so much chatter, particularly from the mind, that it’s really hard to sit and watch it at all. It really makes you want to get up and read a magazine, or grab a beer.

But now and then, you catch a space between the thoughts and sensations, even if it’s really brief. You actually see (or sense, somehow) the blank “screen” on which all of this stuff is projected. It doesn’t take too many meditation sessions to get a glimpse of it. So you know it’s there.

And it makes sense. You can’t watch a movie without a screen. You can’t have “things” without some space for them to happen in.

What is the screen?

It’s pretty clear that this combination of sense perceptions and thoughts is constantly rotating, constantly turning over, constantly giving way to other things, throughout your entire 70- or 80-year existence in life. It’s just one big moving scene, not unlike a movie, only that it’s three dimensional and it includes tastes, smells, feelings and thoughts, in addition to sights and sounds.

But the space in which all the action happens — and the fact that there is a space in which all those things happen — does not change. It’s always there. It is the only constant in life. It is the only part of your experience that is present all the way through from birth to death.

Think about it… there is no thing that stays the same throughout your life. Even if you look down at your body, can you honestly say it is really the same body you had 10, 20 or 30 years ago? We all know that the cells that make up the body are renewing themselves constantly, and you have to admit you don’t look like you did ten years ago. Sorry.

Clearly your body is a thing too, coming and going throughout your life. You can call it yours, and you are in charge of it, but it isn’t exactly you. Which is a good thing, because clearly it’s just passing by, and going downhill for most of the ride. In this sense it’s no different in any fundamental way than a car that drives by you on the street, or a loud sound that comes out of nowhere, and fades. The only real difference between them is how fast they come and go.

Thoughts are things too. They have no mass or visible features, but they arise just like other sensations. They have a form. They have details, therefore they are things. If you sit and pay attention to them, they arise in very much the same way as aches, tingles, sounds and tactile sensations do.

All things — all forms — whether we’re talking about thoughts, sensations in your body, the bark of your neighbor’s dog, or a bird flying by the window, all arise in awareness, in a boundless space. There has to be space for these things to exist. This space has no form of its own.

Think for a moment about the stars out in space again. The stars have form: they have color, they emit heat, they have size and shape and mass. They do stuff, and eventually they change into other forms, red giants, black holes, supernovas. They are contained by space, which is empty.

It seems like a paradox. Space isn’t a thing, it’s an absence of things. It’s no thing at all. But it is there. It is real. You can perceive it; you can be aware of it. But your mind can understand it only in terms of what it is not. The stars occur within that space. If there was no space for them to happen in, they could not exist.

But the space itself has no features at all. Yet it persists, and its presence is 100% necessary for the existence of all things.

Life is full of things, but it is more than things. It’s space too. Space permeates every corner of life, because no things can exist where there is no space. That means it permeates your body. As we talked about previously, if you could keep zooming in on your body, you would see cells, then molecules, then atoms, and eventually empty space.

Who you really are

So if life is just impermanent things arising and fleeting in space, what are you?

The conventional way of thinking of yourself is as a body, with a mind attached to it somehow. But experience shows us that both the body and the mind change completely, many times over throughout life.

The only constant in life is the space in which all those things happen. It’s the same emptiness from which thoughts emerge, the emptiness in which stars sit and burn, the emptiness that accommodates everything you’ve ever seen, heard, or touched. Every sensation, every perception, every thought, comes and goes. The space in which they happen is featureless, boundless, has no taste, smell, or texture of its own. It looks like nothing. Like space. It is timeless and imperishable, which you could describe (if you happen to like the word) as immortal.

So who are you, in the Big Picture?

You are the screen.

You are the empty, 3-dimensional screen on which this greatest of all shows is projected. You are the space in which all of this happens.

When you consult spiritual or religious sources about what you are, the answers are remarkably consistent. Ancient and contemporary sages seem to agree, and the answer to that question is always something like, “You are awareness,” or “You are consciousness,” or “You are emptiness.”

My experiences, both in and out of meditation, lead me to the same conclusion. Sitting there watching what happens, I can’t help but notice that only the background to all that “stuff” — the space in which that stuff exists — is constant throughout my life, so what else could I be? How could I be any of the fleeting, changing, arbitrary things I have been aware of?

It is clear to me now what is meant by “You are awareness,” though it was once just a cool-sounding concept. I’m not trying to convince you of this, only suggest that you might discover the same thing (perhaps you already have) and in the mean time you might want to look into it for yourself.

Douglas Harding’s headless method excites me so much because it is a very simple way to actually perceive and live from the empty space the sages had always talked about in such evasive, mystical terms. I know that still sounds like gibberish to a lot of people, but those who have found meaning in Harding’s method know that it shows you plainly how to keep track of that eternal, motionless, aware space that is who you really, really are. It shows you how to access it at all times, whenever you realize you’ve become lost in things again.

Not that it’s the only way. As you’ll see in the conclusion of this post, people have known this for a very, very long time.

This post is part one of a two-part article. The second part will be posted later this week.


Photo by bryangeek

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Christopher Kabamba September 6, 2010 at 5:33 am

Whatsoever you do, KEEP WRITTING. Thank you.

David September 6, 2010 at 10:21 am

Will do Christopher. That’s a promise I can always keep.

Phyllis Alesia September 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Thank you for introducing me to Douglas. I love him.

Tom K September 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

David: Just as there’re scientific explorations “out there”, there are, based on the ancient eastern traditions, equally disciplined explorations of “in here”. B. Alan Wallace is versed in both. The link below is to a talk he gave wherein he makes the comparison/analogy of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field astronomical observations to the consciousness explorations made by meditation adepts’ of, to use your phrase above, “what you really are”. The 6 links following the blurb introduction below are sequential with each of about 10 minutes duration. This post is equally applicable to your previous post “To my skeptical friends” in that it deals with the history of scientific development since Galileo and its unwarranted conflict with metaphysics.


Recorded at Unity Church, Santa Barbara, CA , Jan. 16, 2008
The Conscious Universe: Where Buddhism and Physics Converge

Physicists have long assumed that the universe is fundamentally composed of matter and energy and that life and consciousness are accidental byproducts of configurations of matter. But a growing number of distinguished physicists are now suggesting that consciousness may play a much more fundamental role in nature than scientists previously believed. In this lecture Alan Wallace will review some of the most provocative theories presented by such leading physicists as John Wheeler, Stephen Hawking, and Andre Linde that challenge many of the materialist assumptions based on outdated19th-century physics. And he will discuss how these theories may relate to Buddhist theories and practices, including those of the Theravada, Mahayana, and Dzogchen traditions.







David September 6, 2010 at 4:59 pm

This is awesome, thanks Tom!

David September 6, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Wow, I just listened to all six parts and it has completely blown my mind. We are on the verge of a revolution in understanding the mind.

Dan September 28, 2011 at 3:42 am

Hey Tom and David,

These links are no longer working – any idea where I could find some live ones? Would love to listen to this stuff. Cheers

David September 28, 2011 at 6:36 am
Drew Tkac September 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm

It is our awareness that is watching our mind’s actions, and our sensations. So we are the awareness. Once you realize this then many of the goofy zen koans and zen practices make a bit more sense. “Pay attention to the space between the breaths.” “You mind is like a crowd. When there are no people there is no crowd. When there are no thoughts there is no mind.” All refer to space and emptiness.

But after reading this article, I feel like I cheated, I feel like I was given the answer to a test, and didn’t arrive at this answer on my own. I have been reading zen stories for years and never quite made this conclusion. It is a keystone, a Rosetta stone of zen studies for me. I guess though if your not ready for it, it still does not have the meaning. So perhaps I was just ready.

A few other notes and thoughts: There is even recent studies in physics that supports this conclusion. The current laws of physics allow, do not prohibit, that something could spring up from nothing.

It is also interesting to note that our mind cannot directly conceive of nothing but only in terms of the absence of something.

Ask someone how do you feel? And they reply “good.” How do we know that we feel good. Because we do not hurt, or we are not suffering at this moment. So good is even defined as the lack of bad. Perhaps the mind cannot conceive of good in a direct sense.

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” talks about quality or what is good. It is hard to define. Perhaps good is the nothing and bad is the something. But this is the limitation of our mind.

So is there a difference in awareness among us? Or is all of our awareness the same or is it the same awareness? Another zen saying says that If we think we are special, we are not, if we think that we are not special, we are.

Where does our awareness come from? Is it a force? Is it like an akashic field? Is it like the boson Higgs field? When matter is exposed to it, it gives it mass. Are “we” exposed to “it” and “it” gives us awareness?

Though my mind wants to know the above, I’m not sure that it matters. Because that is the mind stuff. And, I bet the way to understanding/realizing/being-enlightened-by this is not through the mind!

Nice post David. Thanks!

David September 6, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Hi Drew.

I don’t think you’ll feel like you cheated for long. As you said, understanding of this isn’t going to come through the mind, so this post is not the same as giving you the answer. You can’t give the answer, because you can only give things, and this Answer isn’t a thing.

nrhatch September 6, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Excellent post. We are not our thoughts . . . we are the observer of our thoughts.

To use an analogy, we are not the TV (our mind), nor the programs (individual thoughts arising in a constant stream) . . . we are the holder of the remote.

Through meditation, we learn to change channels, and even turn the TV off entirely . . . to exist in a state of pure awareness.

Murali September 6, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Beautiful David. My life is certainly richer for reading your posts. Please keep it up.


Jason September 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Great description of the experience of meditation…very similar to what I went through at a Zen temple in Japan…but was only a one-day event as opposed to 4. I think the majority of my thoughts were on how uncomfortable/painful the sitting position was.

“You are awareness,” or “You are consciousness,” or “You are emptiness.”

It seems a leap to equate “I” with the “space” or “screen.” Why not say “I” is the jumble of arbitrary thoughts/feelings rushing around in the head. It seems to me that the lack of conscious awareness that comes at times when the mind is quiet is actually ‘not-I.” Thought will likely leap in afterward and say, “Oh look, there is something here that is unchanging – that must be me.” But just because something changes doesn’t mean it can’t be you. “I” is a feeling wrapped up in a system of thoughts and memories that reinforce each other. It can change completely and still feel the same.

What I read in the post at is an attempt to describe the distinction (or lack thereof) between the observer and the observed when the mind is quiet and there is only perception. But there seems to be confusion when we start trying to describe it and label such a state as a description of “what we truly are.”

David September 7, 2010 at 4:59 pm

“I” is a feeling wrapped up in a system of thoughts and memories that reinforce each other. It can change completely and still feel the same.

I see what you mean.

I recognize myself as the screen because there is a distinct, perceivable shift in identity when you disidentify with the jumble of thoughts. I would liken it to the sudden awareness of the rest of the room you feel after turning off the TV, or waking up from a dream.

In that state it is clear you are not the forms you can perceive. I know you know by now that I can show you no empirical evidence of that. Other than that all I can say is you know it when you see it.

To equate the jumble of thoughts with yourself is to say you are the ego, which seems to me to be at least as much of a leap as you say equating awareness with yourself would be.

I definitely recommend listening to the fantastic lecture Tom K linked in his comment. It explains the conclusion I made (and much more) much better than I have. I think you’d dig it.

nrhatch September 7, 2010 at 5:16 pm

I’m listening to Alan Wallace this afternoon. What a fabulous speaker.

Through sustained observation at the natural world, Darwin saw the truth of evolution.

Through sustained observation of the night sky, the Hubble telescope and the scientists peering through it have discovered proof of 10,000 “non existent” galaxies in one dark space.

Through sustained observation within . . . we discover the breath inside the breath.

ivan September 7, 2010 at 11:17 pm

great post david :)…you have to come to realize certain things very few people do…one of the main things to discover in meditating is to actually deeply see that the observer(ego) is the observed..the content of your consciousness is your consciousness..that the thinker is not separate from the thought…being able to “see” this if you can stay unidentified..you can simply observe something with out being lost in whats being observed…but if you can’t see these subtle movements you stay identified as the observer(ego)..you stay within the field of thought which will always separates itself from the observed… inevitably leading to conflict..like you said learning to watch is the key..if you learn to not control and remain passive you will see that almost all your thoughts are random with no rhyme or reason behind them, but the problem is that since our minds function on logic and memory we are always trying to make connections where there are no connections to be made….but if you can just see these thoughts as they are like random jumping fish in your mind..you can slowly learn to unclutch from them….the amount of thoughts come down on their own…learning to watch with out becoming identified will allow you to eventually catch glimpses of the gaps between your thoughts…once you can make these gaps “space” larger..your relationship to time completely changes.. because now psychologically by creating these gaps you become available to existence…creating these gaps (inner space) you are able to perceive things you previously could not see.. because your inner space was moving faster(thoughts) then the chronological external time..that you felt lost and life was passing you by…thats why people who think too much feel so anxious…when I go to the park I always have to set an alarm because I could be there 20 min or 3 hours and wont realize the difference because I will be in a “time less” space….you realize there really is no inner or outer, just awareness..it’s only because of the way we are hard wired that we perceive our inner world separate from the outer world…so as you mentioned we need to create more “space” with in us…you need to find out what causes you to not “remember your self” which is eternal witness..being in this space you have a deep sense of “I am”…living in this space you are able to observe your outer world and inner world simultaneously….I love the headless technique as well…I picked it up from the tantra though…also just when I meditate I practice feeling my awareness slowly expand until you feel like your touching the walls of the room..until you imagine that you are the room itself…or when I am flying on a plane I meditate and expand my awareness to feel like I am enveloping the whole plane expand out into the entire universe….sorry for my long comment :)…hope all is well…

Nea | Self Improvement Saga September 8, 2010 at 7:59 am

Wow….what an amazing post. I’ve long since stopped identifying myself as the things/circumstances in my life, but it’s still been hard to answer the question, “Who am I.” It seemed that there was no perfect answer–until now. Thanks for introducing me to Douglas Harding.

Graycard September 8, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Mignon McLaughlin said it best:
Who you are
Is the price you paid
For what you used
To want.

Tim September 10, 2010 at 3:50 am

You’re really great at expressing yourself and deep ideas effectively through writing! Keep up the inspiring work.

I first tried meditation at a martial arts retreat (Aikido). The experience was profound and changed my life. At first I came to realize that my head was so full of noise and chatter. Then I stopped engaging the thoughts as a labelled them “thought”, … “thought”,… as each one passed. Then I realized that “I” was not my thoughts. Then I wondered who was observing my thoughts. It was me!… a deeper more real me.

Sounds simple I guess, but it was a profound realization. It felt in a way that I had created a space between the ego and the deeper truer me. It didn’t feel like a screen, but something definitely deeper and more grounded. Afterward I did not give as easily into the chatter in my head, like critical or anxious voices for example. I must explore meditation, the ego and headlessness further! Who is that underneath all these layers of thoughts and emotions?

I visited Hollyhock last summer briefly. I had a great soak in the hot tub under a moonless clear night sky with zillions of stars. My friend did a great course out there where he faced a partner and simply stated what he was for hours a day. “I am ____”. It profoundly changed his life.

Dave W. February 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm

“You’re the screen”. Some might call that the soul.

When C.S. Lewis said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body”, it brought this sense of being the screen into my consciousness though I never actually gave it thought that I am the screen. It told me who I am without an explanation of what that really is.

I started thinking about these things 30 years ago when my then 3 year old daughter said to me, “I am behind my eyes.” I looked at her in astonishment and said, “Yes, you are!” Of course I knew that about myself already but her excitement in her revelation sent me on a quest to understand exactly what is meant by that.

Although I’ve never studied as extensively as you, still, it has been a 30 year awareness of that fact that helped me understand a lot of what you have been saying on this subject. It is not foreign to me. It’s hard to grasp, yet I am able to grasp it and hold it albeit fleetingly. With the help of Douglas Harding and the links provided by Tom K. I am excited to continue along this avenue of discovery.

Emily April 13, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Hi David,
I randomly stumbled onto your blog from a friend’s facebook and in the last half hour I’ve read a bunch of your entries one after the other- you are blowing me away. I just wanted to say thank you for writing, and I will surely keep reading your posts.

Juan August 2, 2011 at 12:34 am

We are all one.

peyman January 1, 2013 at 1:52 pm

felt better wise man,thanks

Nene Tamborello March 12, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Sounds like E. Tolle who I just found on YouTube, astonishing.
But this/your explanation is perhaps easier to grasp– initially at least.
I always thought I was an atheist, but I see now most spiritual teachings are leading to the same truth…which really has nothing to do with modern religion. I do believe in this no-thing, this space, this awareness where we are all the same.

Monique October 21, 2013 at 8:12 am

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issues with your RSS. I don’t know why I am unable to join it.
Is there anybody else having the same RSS issues?
Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond?

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Could it be just me or does it give the impression
like a few of these responses look like coming from brain dead people?
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Wart Removal January 1, 2014 at 3:14 am

What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable knowledge concerning unpredicted feelings.

Luna711 June 30, 2014 at 3:05 am

I found this article very eye opening and very well written. I would like to read the second part if it is still available. Do you have a link for it? Thanks.

Luna711 June 30, 2014 at 3:11 am

Nevermind, found it. :)

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