How to find the inner “I”

I met Richard Smoley at a Lecture at Krotona Institute in Ojai, California.  He mentioned his book, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition, (2002) and I recently read the following passage which provided the existential key to a very old problem regarding the inner realm of the psyche.  I think you will find this of interest regardless of your background.

THE WORLD AND “I”

“A simple exercise may provide another avenue of approach to this notion of the world.  It will probably come more easily to experienced meditators (indeed most meditative practice is, in one way or another, designed to cultivate this kind of consciousness), but even if you have no such experience, you should be able to realize the main point.

Sit comfortably, in a relaxed but alert position.  Have you back as straight as possible; you can prop yourself up with pillows against the back of a chair if you like.  Let your attention settle down and, to the best of your ability, allow the ordinary preoccupations of your day to subside.

Look around the room you are sitting in.  It may or may not be familiar; that does not matter.  Only be sure to cultivate a sense of presence of yourself as you sit in your chair.  This is where you are; around you, outside you, is the visible and sensible world.

Now close your eyes and bring your attention to your body.  Be aware of your sensations—the breath, perhaps, or the beating of the heart, or the feelings in your back as it presses against the chair.  If you pay attention, you can catch a glimpse of two things: an experience, a muscle sensation, say and an ”I” that is experiencing it.

Go deeper still, to the river of thoughts, images, and emotions that are probably coursing in front of your mind.  You may try to stop the flow of this stream of consciousness, as it has sometimes been called.  Probably you will fail.  The thoughts and images, memories, ideas, speculations, and plans will most likely continue whether you want them to or not.

In this realm also you can observe two things: an “I” that is experiencing and something that is experienced.  As you continue, even your most intimate feelings and desires will pass before you like images on a screen.  If you can remain both relaxed and alert (admittedly a difficult balance), you may have a sense of something very quiet and small in you.  It seems to have no power, no volition of its own, yet it is that in you which is constantly awake and experiences all that passes for your life.  In the strictest sense, you cannot even observe it, for it is actually that which observes.  If you look for it you find that it continually recedes further and further, for there is no limit to this “I” that experiences.  To use words attributed to Francis of Assisi, “What you are looking for is what is looking.”  You can follow this thread of consciousness back for as long as you like, but you may find this exercise to be of value even if you can do it for only a few seconds.

This is an extremely simple practice, but it goes to the heart on inner Christianity, for it introduces two of the primordial forces not only of an individual’s makeup but also, it is taught, of the universe itself.  These forces have been given many names in many traditions, but in esoteric Christianity the part that is experienced—whether inside ourselves or outside—is generally called the “world.” 

That which experiences, on the other hand, is known by many names: the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God,” the “light,” “Sophia” or “Wisdom,” the “Word” or “Logos,” and nous (a Greek word usually translated as “mind” but actually meaning something more like “consciousness”).  All these terms reveal different aspects of this primordial Self, or experience, but for the most part this book will refer to this principle as the “I” or the “true I,” pointing to the truth that this principle is not external to your consciousness but essential to it.  Rudolf Steiner says, “Body and soul are the vehicles of the “I”; it works in them. Just as the physical body has its center in the brain, the soul has its center in the “I”.”2  And Boris Mouravieff comments, “The consciousness of the real ”I” . . . [is] the only permanent point which exists within us, hidden behind our ever changing personality; always dragged along by the torrent of our thoughts, our feelings, our passions or sensations. . . . In modern life, contact with the real “I” is rather exceptional.”3

Understood in this way, these terms cast new light on many Gospel texts.  When Christ says, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33) he is giving a one-sentence summary of inner Christianity, for as we shall see, the “I” does need to overcome the ”world” to be freed.  And when the Gospel says of the Logos, “The world knew him not” (John1:10), this is because the world, strictly speaking, cannot know; it is what is known.  “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12) points to the truth that the “I” that perceives is what makes it possible for the world to be seen at all; without a perceiver, an experiencer, it is nothingness.” (pp. 50 & 51)

Footnotes to Smoley’s text are

2. Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy, trans. Catherine E. Creeger (Hudson,N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press, 1994) p.48.

3. Mouravieff, Gnosis: Study and Commentaries on the Esoteric Tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, 1:14-15.

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About Michael J. Melville

People describe me as a Spiritual Catalyst because their spiritual evolution speeds up when they share their process with me. Discussing dreams, addictions, sacred medicines, family histories, or personal relationships moves one closer to the core, where the inner child dwells. Once contact with her/him is made, growth resumes.
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