Who Am I – Practicing Self Inquiry

Who Am I

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Who am I is not a question one typically asks . It’s more of a religious query — one asked by a person in crisis . . .

Who Am I

“Who Am I” is not a question one typically asks. It’s more of a religious query — one asked by a person in crisis. It comes up in the teachings of many spiritual leaders, and it comes up, too — and powerfully — in Buddhism. It’s usually not a question that’s asked by people who are killing it in the world. It’s more likely asked by someone in prison, or in a broken relationship, or someone in a crisis or about to die. 

What Is Suffering?

Though many clients come to see me for spiritual exploration, or to thrive, or to maintain their good graces with health and well being, or to remain functional, active, and alive, most folks come to me because they are in pain. So, pain is somehow the basis of my relationship to the majority of people I see.  My feelings about this situation are always mixed because while I don’t like to see humans suffer, I understand that we all tend to be more real when we’re in pain, and such authenticity, such genuineness, is a satisfying foundation for human relations. When life is going well, most people don’t tend to question things. We tend to question when we’re suffering. But what, in fact, is suffering? 

The Buddha’s first truth says, “Life is suffering.” Therefore, to ignore suffering in our life, according to Buddha, is to ignore life itself. 

But in seeming contradiction to the basic truth of suffering, Buddha offers the eightfold path away from suffering. The three truths that follow the Buddha’s first are: (1) there are causes of suffering, (2) we can understand the causes of suffering, (3) by living according to the noble eightfold path — right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration — we can overcome the causes of suffering.

To say what the noble eightfold path is, and what’s required to practice it, is beyond the scope of this letter. According to Buddhism, one cannot escape the suffering of life without complete devotion, especially to one’s teacher. This has always been the way with Buddhism, because to practice the Noble Eightfold Path is to practice devotion. It is Purity. The way of no-self. Therefore, realization for Buddha is devotion to the way of the Buddhas: to do no evil, to do all good, and to be beneficial to all sentient beings. 

Seeking a Solution

At the age of 17, I decided to enroll at a particular university to study political philosophy with a particular professor. I thought that by studying political philosophy I could understand how to live in the world. 

In addition to philosophy I studied, Greek drama, literature, theater, and writing. It was a lovely time. Sometimes when I sat in the library it would rain  and the sound of the rain’s heavy drops against the high panes of glass were ever more friendly and gentle toward me than whatever I was reading . The concepts that  filled my mind, as well as my attitude and relationship to them — the irony of virtue in Plato’s Meno, Coleridge’s wild Biographia Literaria, or Nietzsche’s analysis of morality —didn’t help me to live as grandly as the surrounding redwoods, the nearby ocean, or the quiet, somber mist, guided me to. Indeed, lost as I was to mentation, nature’s subtle lead often eluded my conscious recognition.

To the extent that  I sought a solution to the world’s problems (as most passionate nineteen year-olds want to do) I became increasingly confused about the source of truth. I began to wonder: what should I do with my life? How should I live? 

I Think Therefore I Am

Any assertion of one proposition requires the denial of another, so every assertion has an opposite. Descartes sought to establish the certainty of truth with his cogito ergo sum — He argued that one cannot not exist while saying “I think, therefore, I am.” Because to say such a thing one must exist to say it. On the other hand, someone might counter: “You do not exist! The thing called thinking exists before you. You have proven nothing about your existence at all. Rather, the thinking mind of God has proven — linguistically — the existence of you. Can’t you see? Truth depends on the assumptions one adopts and those assumptions are arbitrary based on one’s convenience, point of view, interests, and purpose.” And on and on.

Given the impossibility of learning how to live through philosophy, I resolved to finish school as quickly as possible and, armed with my faith in truth, went in search of a teacher — after all, it had been said for ages that such teachers existed and were able to point one to truth. It was here that I first encountered “the direct path to liberation” called ‘Self Inquiry.’ 


According to the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), the enlightened proponent of this path, through the inquiry ‘Who am I?’ the mind becomes quiescent enough to realize itself as “Awareness-Consciousness-Bliss.”

He wrote: “The thought ‘Who am I? will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-realization.” 


In other words, the path to enlightenment is to concentrate intensely and uninterruptedly on the question ‘Who am I’ until the question and the questioner burn up, disappear, and resurrect as Universal consciousness. 

I tried It.  I Succeeded. But so What? 

I tried it. And according to a teacher in this tradition, I supposedly succeeded. But so what? So what if I’ve had the experience of universal consciousness? People every day have the same (or better) experience on drugs — but what of it? It doesn’t seem to change a person’s character, or the form and shape of their life, or to do much good for others. Did it make me more kind? Perhaps suffering would make me more kind. Mind blowing spiritual awe was fun but didn’t seem to have much point in itself. 

But what would it mean to live by such an insight? To base one’s life on it? To test it against the world? 

The Enlightenment of Buddha’s Dharma

It was only in Buddhism that I found answers to these questions. Citing my teacher, Zen Master Seikan Hasegawa at length, here is what Buddhism says about the so-called enlightenment experience coveted for millennia by novice spiritual seekers not unlike my then-self:

“Though I engaged for many years attempting with those who were stupidly believing they’d got the enlightenment of Buddha’s Dharma, I’ve had very few successes. With great patience and my best logic, I explained what the World Honored One preached to us, and what the [Great Buddhist Masters] left as their word, quoting each of them and with composure showing actual examples of daily life and social situations. And I reminded them of the wretched modern as well as present history of the world. But most of them hadn’t any passion, vigor, and time to learn the truth. 

“Worse, they knew their enlightenment was useless for their own life and for others. Yet they refused to publicly admit it, because it was inconvenient for maintaining the life they’d attained.” (from Comments on Jaujou lu, episode 132)

Indeed, the truth about our self and our world — far from the gross entertainment value of the so-called enlightenment experience for which many forego their families, spouses, and real worldly obligations — is often inconvenient and, therefore, sacrificed, ignored, forgotten, or forsaken.

Who Is It That Suffers?

When we say we suffer, or that we have pain — who is it that suffers, what is pain, and what do we make of it? What would it mean to live in a world where this was a sincere, concentrated, sustained concern for us all? 

Studying Dharma with my companions every morning, ‘Who am I?’

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6 Reviews on Bodhi Heart

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Joshua Levy
Joshua Levy
I have bee seeing Soken for while now. If you have some sort of lingering physcial malady go see him, don't wait. He's pretty busy and it might take some time to get in so call right now. Some of my injuries and pain that I have had for years have been greatly relieved by his rolfing work and he's also just a great human being. I would totally go see him for his other services as well. Rolfing doesn't need to be super intense though it can be. He will calibrate to what you need
Philippa Newman
Philippa Newman
I cannot recommend Soken highly enough. He will literally transform your life. I first came to meet Soken for his Rolfing services when I had been living with unbearable lower back pain for over a year. Numerous visits to doctors, various x-rays and months of physical therapy later, I was no better off and desperate to find an alternative solution. Having read about Rolfing as a technique, I discovered Soken's practice in NYC. I am now back pain free and able to do things I thought no longer possible. As I learned more about Soken during our Rolfing sessions, I became interested in his spiritual life coaching /contemplative guidance program. His carefully tailored program has given me enormous insight, and I am a better person, mother and leader as a result. Soken has a calming, peaceful and reassuring presence, and I am extremely grateful to have met him when I did.
A Rice
A Rice
Soken is an amazing coach that will get to the essence of your issues. Difficult issues seem to become easier handle talking to Soken. He is a great coach to have, especially in these times. He is clear and ensures you leave each session with an understanding and a plan of action.
Maya Kumits
Maya Kumits
I’ve been going to Soken for years for my bodywork and sending everyone I know to him too. The work he does with his hands is incredible - I cannot say enough good things. This review, however, is for life coaching. I was faced with a decision recently that I was having trouble making. I was going in circles. I kept changing my mind because I ultimately had no idea what to do. I felt lost and confused. I reached out to Soken for help and was so glad I did. After struggling for weeks trying to figure out the right thing to do, a 1-hour call with him gave me the clarity I needed. By answering a series of thoughtful questions and hearing my answers reflected back to me, I was able to untangle the signal from the noise. By the end of the call, the answer revealed itself. It’s been a few weeks since our call and I still feel great about the decision. I’m so grateful to Soken for helping me with this and won’t hesitate to reach out again for more life coaching.
Marni Gordon
Marni Gordon
I highly recommend Soken as he's a fantastic coach! Soken really helped me set clear goals and measures, helped me to get to insight, and ensures that I have a strong action plan with accountability in every session. Soken's coaching helped me overcome the fear of taking the next step. Soken is sensitive and provides compassionate support through the process.
faraz khan
faraz khan
Soken is an exceptionally intelligent person who seems to understand any multiple of bodily issues. I've been struggling with a reoccurring injury the past few years, and already after the first session I can sense a lot of good has been done. I highly recommend him to anyone 😊
Shonni Silverberg
Shonni Silverberg
I got to know Soken as a client of his Rolfing practice, where his expertise was immeasurably valuable in treating my plantar fasciitis. During the COVID crisis, Soken introduced me to meditation. Practicing under his guidance has been extremely helpful in these turbulent times. Shonni J. Silverberg, M.D., New York, NY
Anaina Mascovich
Anaina Mascovich
The meditation guidance and talk last night was phenomenal. I have had instruction on Metta meditation before, but your explanation offered so much wisdom and direct understanding. Much Gratitude to You Soken.
Lena Elkousy
Lena Elkousy
This review is long overdue, and I would give 10 stars if I could. I cannot recommend Soken's work highly enough. Rolfing is an investment in my physical and emotional health that I wish I had made long ago. To put it quite simply, Soken has changed my life. When we work together, he listens to what I say and what my body says, and works with me right where I am. He is a true healer. In our first series of sessions, he permanently relieved shoulder/neck pain and unfurled a chronic knot that no amount of years of deep tissue massage could even touch. One side of my ribcage was bound with fascia and scar tissue from physical and emotional trauma, to the point that I couldn't breathe into my lower right lung without feeling cramping in surrounding muscles. Over a few sessions, he set me free, and you can actually see the difference in the shape of my ribs. In a series other sessions, he relieved sharp cramping in my feet that I've dealt with since childhood. As a yogi and meditator myself, I find Soken's integrative approach quite profound. Do yourself a favor and an act of self love: and go see this wizard.
Stella Nyla Jules
Stella Nyla Jules
Soken has been transformational in improving and diminishing the increasing pain in my neck and shoulder that traditional physical therapies failed to resolve. His patience, caring, and intuition are top notch.


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