Am I dreaming or awake, right now?

Whatever we come up with, we may find it difficult to justify the answer. We cannot come up with any watertight argument.

We cannot know for certain. And for a very good and important reason.

To us, dreams and waking life happens within and as consciousness.

They happen within and as what we are. To us, there is no difference between the nature of the two.

This doesn’t say anything about the nature of waking life or existence itself. It also doesn’t say that we shouldn’t take waking life seriously or not be good stewards of our life. It just says something about how this particular question appears to us when we look into it.

And it says something about what our more fundamental nature is, in our own first-person experience. Which, I assume, is why the question was created in the first place.

Cartoon: Drawing by Schulz, text attributed to Stephen LaBerge.

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Byron Katie: If the voice in your head is you, who is the one listening to it?

If the voice in your head is you, who is the one listening to it?

— Byron Katie

This is a very good question, and it can be difficult to explore without some guidance.

Most people would answer “me” without examining very closely what that actually means.

If we explore it, we may find that we refer to an image of ourselves, and often a set of different images, and often images connected with certain words and sentences and that these images and words are associated with sensations in the body.

What the question points to is what all of this is already happening within and as. It refers to what the world to us – any content of experience – happens within and as. To ourselves, that’s what we more fundamentally are. That’s our nature.

And to find that, we typically need more guided pointers and explorations.

Byron Katie, of course, gives people these pointers in the form of The Work.

We can also do other forms of guided and structured inquiry like the Kiloby (Living) Inquiries, based on traditional Buddhist inquiry.

We can use Headless experiments or the Big Mind process.

We can explore Basic Meditation regularly over time, and find that any content of experience – including the images, words, and sensations we may take ourselves to be – come and go. And we may eventually find ourselves as what it all happens within and as.

And so on.

And here, when it’s noticed, there is an invitation to keep noticing and explore how it is to live from this noticing. And also keep exploring any hints of our mind continuing taking itself as images, words, and sensations in new and more “spiritual” or “awake” ways. (As “emptiness”, “consciousness”, “love”, “oneness” and so on.)

I don’t know the context for Byron Katie’s words, but they were probably said to someone ready to hear them and make use of them. Someone ripe for noticing.

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Finding what seems most as an I or me

Since my teens, my most common practice has been to find what seems the most as an I or me. I scan my field of experience, find something where there is a bit of identification, and see what it is.

Early on, I mostly noticed it as something within the content of my experience. Something that comes and goes. Something that’s not what I more fundamentally am. Something happening within and as what I am.

This practice came naturally and almost inevitably (?) out of the initial awakening shift when I was sixteen, and some years before I had knowledge of more traditional practices or what teachers or traditions said about this.

Later on, as I learned more structured forms of inquiry, I also started examining how these identifications appear in my sense fields. I notice the mental images that are part of my experience of it. I notice the sensations the mind associates with these images. And I see that these are mental images and sensations. I see they come and go within the content of experience. I see they happen within and as what I am.

These identities with some identification attached to them are all essentially the same. They are created by the mind associating certain mental images and words with certain sensations. They happen within the content of experience. They come and go as any other content of experience. At most, they have a limited practical function in helping me orient and function in the world. They are not what I more fundamentally am. They happen within and as what I am.

And they take a wide range of forms. They may appear as an I or me. As a human. A man. A therapist. A victim. A victimizer. Someone who is smart or stupid. Someone who did something right or wrong. A doer. An observer. Something observed. Big Mind. Consciousness. Awareness. Awakeness. Oneness. Love. Capacity. And so on. It takes the form of anything the mind takes itself to be, whether explicitly and consciously or more as an underlying assumption.

This is a very simple exploration. It can be done here and now. And it goes to the essence of what this is about.

In my late teens and early twenties, I got into Daoism, Buddhism, and Christian mysticism. And I did set aside this simple practice to the benefit of the ones that were presented to me as more important, even if these practices seemed more peripheral and less to the point. And after a while, I returned to the simplicity of this one.

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Looking for what we are

If we set out to look for what we are, a couple of things may happen.

We look for something. We may look within content of experience, and what we are is not a thing.

Also, we may look for something apart from us, and what we are is not apart from us.

So how can we go about it?

One answer is to notice what all our experiences are to us. We are capacity for the world, and all our experiences happen within and as what we are.

Here, we don’t directly look for what we are, because that often leads us to get stuck in looking for something within the content of our experience. We instead look at what all our experiences are to us.

That may be a good pointer, but we still need to explore it for ourselves. How can we practically go about exploring it? As I often mention, the two most effective approaches I have found are the Headless experiments and the Big Mind process.

Who am I?

Some recommend who am I? as an inquiry question.

I can see the abstract reasoning for this. If there is awakening here, you may suggest this to someone where there isn’t the same awakening. But without the how it seems a bit pointless.

How do I explore this question? Just repeating the words who am I? won’t do much, and it’s not inquiry. Looking around in an unstructured way won’t do much either, most likely.

So we need some sort of structure. Fortunately, several structures for inquiry are available.

Using the Living Inquiries, I can explore whatever looks the most like who I am. This body. This name. The mind. Selves, whether they are inflated or deficient. Thorough looking may reveal both what I am not, and what’s here independent of all this shifting content.

I can also use The Work, the Big Mind process, or any other form of inquiry. These provide structure for looking, and that’s invaluable, whether we are early in this exploration or more familiar with it.

The dandy in the photo is Ramana Maharshi, who neo-nondualists often attribute the who am I? inquiry question to. I am sure it’s much older, and must traditionally have been accompanied with some pointers for how to explore it. (Although I don’t know whether that’s the case or not.)

Mindfulness, including of doer and observer

Something simple about mindfulness….

In mindfulness practice, I can notice what is happening in the different sense fields. Sensations. Sights. Sounds. Smell. Taste. Mental field activity. 

And included here is noticing the doer and observer. What is it that appears to be doing this practice? What is it that appears to be observing? For me, I find a set of sensations in the head area, and a set of images in the mental field. The doer and observer too is content of awareness, just as any other content of awareness. 

In this way, mindfulness practice shifts into and includes atma vichara, self-inquiry, and becomes even more inclusive and helpful. 

If the doer and observer is left out, mindfulness practice may only reinforce an unconcious (pre-conscious) identification with the doer/observer gestalts. When the doer and observer is included in what is noticed, they may be found to be content of awareness just as anything else, and identification may release out of them. 

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Talking about Atma Vichara

… and said that after Self-realisation there is no thinker of thoughts, no performer of actions and no awareness of individual existence.
– from the current Wikipedia entry on Self-Inquiry (Atma Vichara)

I haven’t studied Ramana Maharshi much, but I suspect this is an inaccurate translation.

There is no thinker or doer, or at least no identification as the gestalt (sensation-image) of a thinker or doer. The gestalts may still be there, or not, but they are no longer taken as what we are.

And there is no awareness of individual existence either, yet that phrasing may be a little misleading, possibly fitting into ideas of meditation as a way of zoning out: There is an individual existence, but no awareness of it, as if we had successfully banished it from awareness through sophisticated practices of denial.

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What am I koan & tools for exploration

When I was at the zen center, my teacher gave me the “what am I” koan. I worked on it the usual Rinzai way, repeating it to myself with great intensity and otherwise not knowing what to do with it. It does fuel motivation and intention, which is very helpful, but it was also an exercise in spinning my wheels.

Along with giving someone the “what am I” koan, it is helpful to offer a few tools and pointers on how to use them…! After all, that is how we do it in any other area of life.

If I ask someone to dig a ditch, I show him or her the tool shed and where the shovels are, I’ll point out where the ditch is going, and if needed, I’ll give enough instructions to get the person started.

In the case of the “what am I” koan, there are – at least – two focal points for inquiry.

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A moving cardboard cutout and a sense of I

It seems that practices do themselves in me, more than the other way around. Both are of course important and there is an interplay between the two, but now, the practices that do themselves in me are definitely in the foreground.

One of the practices that do themselves is an exploration of what is taken as an “I”. I notice sensations, thoughts, and so on, and then also the idea of “I” which is placed on a particular sensation, one that is more stable and typically in the neck/head area (which one seems to change over time.)

It is as if there is a cardboard cut-out there representing “I”, a subject, the seer and doer, and it is anchored onto a relatively stable sensation. Most of the time it is in the background, just giving a reassuring sense of having an anchor for a point of view, a perspective, and giving a familiar sense of “I” here.

When attention is brought to it, it is clearly revealed as just this cardboard cut-out placed on a sensation. And then I notice how another cardboard cutout is placed further up and back in space, creating the sense of an observer of this. Pretty interesting.

It seems that there wants to be a sense of “I” here, and even when it is noticed, it recreates itself in a slightly different form, placing itself even a little further into the background, hidden among the stage props further back on the stage.

So even when it seems obvious that there is no “I” here, when it is seen that the idea of I is just as a cardboard cutout placed on top of sensations, and these sensations are finite in time and space, arising within wakeful emptiness, even then, there is a vague sense of I here floating around. Seen, then recreating itself somewhere else. Anything for a sense of an anchor, stability, a point of view, a perspective, I guess, even if it is not really there.


The Byron Katie inquiries overlaps in many ways with approaches I have used in the past, and also many other approaches out there.

A brief overview of how the Byron Katie inquiries seem to correspond with other approaches.

Question number…

  1. Is it true?
    Awareness of the discrepancy between opinions and reality.

  2. Can you absolutely know it is true?
    Awareness of how abstractions are always only relative truth, unable to touch any absolute truth. Awareness of the limits of knowledge.

  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
    Psychotherapy (exploring how we are apparently screwed up).

  4. Who would you be without the thought?
    Shikantaza. Big Mind process (Big Mind/Heart, nonseeking mind). Headlessness. Atma Vichara. Mindfulness based psychotherapy.

  5. Turnarounds
    Projections. Shadow work. Everything and everybody are mirrors for myself. Awareness of abstractions as only relative truth, unable to touch any absolute truth.

Study the Self

This is probably the most often quoted phrase from the Zen tradition:

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

Dogen Zenji


The first that comes up for me is the simplicity and clarity in it.

First, we study the apparent self – or rather our sense of self. And we can do this through for instance sitting practice, allowing the mind to bring itself into awareness, and/or inquiry – such as Big Mind, Byron Katie’s inquiries, Headlessness or Atma Vichara.

Then, we realize that the whole sense of self comes from something as simple as a belief in the idea of I. We have glimpses of selflessness, and then emerge more stably into a realization of selflessness. We forget the self by seeing what is really true in our own immediate experience, and this allows the belief in the idea of I to fall away.

The whole world is now revealed as the play of God. Everywhere and nowhere is I. It is Big Mind awakening to itself, while functionally connected with a human self.

And in this, there is no I and Other. No barriers.

Diving into self-centeredness

To do this, we need to fully dive into self-centeredness.

As long as there is a belief in the idea of I, there is a natural and unavoidable self-centeredness.

There is a belief in the idea of I, this is out of alignment with our own (unnoticed) immediate experience, so attention naturally goes to this sense of I. Whenever something is out of alignment, attention goes there to allow it into awareness and resolution.

Typically, this process takes the form of self-protection and functioning with a limited circle of care and concern.

If we dive into it more fully, with intention and some skills, it can unfold into realization of selflessness.

Studying the self

Studying the self can be seen in two ways in this context.

One is studying the sense of I, wherever it is applied. The belief in the idea of I, which creates the whole I – Other dynamic and the identification with a segment of what is. This is the one that leads to a realization of selflessness.

The other is the more conventional study of the self, in this case meaning our human self. How does it function? What are the processes? How can we allow it to heal and mature? How can we fine tune this instrument in the world of form? This is an exploration that takes place before and after realization of selflessness. Nothing changes except the context – first within the context of a sense of self, then within the context of realized selflessness.

Some approaches focus mainly on one of these. For instance, Headlessness and Atma Vichara emphasize mainly the exploration of selflessness.

And other approaches include both. For instance the Big Mind process and Byron Katie’s inquiry process. Both of these allow us to study in finely tuned detail how our human self function, allowing knots to unravel and the human self to mature and function more effectively. And they also bring us to a realization of selflessness. Elegantly, through the same process. Two birds killed with one stone.

If we only focus on realizing selflessness, we may have Big Mind awakened to itself, but functioning through a relatively undeveloped and unhealthy human self.

If we only focus on the human self, we may have a relatively healthy and mature human self, but there is still the inherent dissatisfaction from a sense of separation.

With both, we can function within a context of selflessness, also also allow our human self to continue to mature, develop, heal and explore news ways of functioning in the world of form.