Seeking Answers to Life’s Big Questions

Clouds on blue sky forming words "Who am I?"

Open to the Unknown

Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here?

When we ask these questions, it is said that our search for meaning beyond ourselves has awoken. It is not the answers themselves which give meaning. When we think we have found the answers, we have stopped our growth and unfolding. The search for answers is what is important. It is standing before the mystery of my individual existence as well as existence of the whole. The answer is in the asking.

Who am I?

I can’t remember the time I first asked this question. However, I do remember when a statement arising from my subconscious awakened in me the question. Sitting on a beach, reflecting, and contemplating, at peace with myself, I spontaneously picked up a stick and wrote in the sand, “I am.” A simple statement which opened a whole new question. “I am what?” Upon contemplating this answer, I discovered there is no “what” in the answer. There is no noun associated with who I am. Yes, I was a teacher, a daughter, sister, a friend. I couldn’t say I’m not anything. There were no “nots” in the answer. Even though roles I play are not excluded, they can change. And they are not essential to my being.  

I am not the roles I play, then who am I?

I am a human being. Accepting and embracing this part of who I am is essential because this is the “am” that I am working with in life. The human experiences includes strengths and weaknesses, love and despair, joy and suffering. These I share with all humanity. But I am more than this. Working to be conscious of my human experience helps me to know my connection to the divine.

Since I am not alone and separate, I need to reveal who I am in relationship with a greater reality. For me this is a work of a lifetime. It is a process of discovery. I am wary that the answer is beyond my capacity to comprehend. But that doesn’t discourage me. Every day I am conscious of choosing who I am. My journey has had its ups and downs, its light and dark, its joys and discouragements. I keep on going, for how else can I answer the question: Who am I? Let me share my story and perhaps you can make your own journey of discovery. No one else can answer this question for you. Therefore, you are the only one who can stand before the mystery and chose who you are.

I am seeking. What am I seeking?

As soon as the statement “I am” arose in my consciousness, I began seeking for a way to complete it. With the question comes the yearning to find something meaningful. Recognizing that I am a human being, I started trying to find out what that meant. My view of humanity was limited by the circumstances of my birth. Being born with certain circumstances and conditioning, white, female, middle class, American, set my identity. It defined how I responded to life and how life responded to me. This limited me to a certain version of humanity.

A new vision of humanity

Therefore I sought to find the diversity of human existence. Since I wanted to learn from people who were different than I was, I traveled the world. This revealed to me that I had acquired my limited perspective. But I wasn’t the only one. The different cultures I visited had their own perspectives. In the Philippines, a young boy asked me in his schoolboy English, “Do you have water buffalos in your country?” “No,” I answered. He looked at me with total pity, that I was deprived by not having a water buffalo to do the heavy work in the rice paddies.

In Nepal, I stayed in Sherpa’s huts at high altitudes. I slept on the floor with the family. I shared their food prepared by the woman of the house over the fire in the middle of their one room home. The smoke went up to a smoke hole and blackened the ceiling and walls. Young children played near the open fire, often getting burned. In essence, this was a world so different from the one I knew. Yet, one morning I was awakened to music from a battery powered cassette player, “You are the Sunshine of my Life,” by Stevie Wonder. What a wonder. I was far from my culture. My culture was a song in this humble Sherpa home.

Who am I: Seeking with a Method

In India, I learned that to continue my search to discover who I am, I needed a method to do it. As I was seeking experiences with different cultures, India gave me many lessons. Since the India I experienced was a culture based on spirituality but lacking in materiality, I gained a new perspective. At this time, many people of India were devoted to their gods and religions, but they lived in poverty. I came from a culture where materiality had invaded religion, hiding the spirituality. There needed to be a balance. To be more specific, there needed to be a balance of working to live well materially and doing it spiritually.

Most importantly, I wanted to help the poor. Walking on the streets of India, I was constantly followed by a crowd of street boys with their hands slipping into my pockets in search of rupees to pay for their supper. I realized that I could give away all my money and it would hardly make a dent on the poverty in India, or the poverty hiding from my eyes in my own country. I wanted to do more.

A photo of four white fruit blossoms
Where am I going?

How can I do more?

As I experienced the simplicity of Nepal and the poverty of India and compared it to my own experience, I realized that there was enough to go around. However, some took more than their share. While some took more than they could use, others didn’t have enough. Some didn’t have enough to live in a healthy way. Some didn’t have enough to do anything other than work to have food and shelter for their family. Could I go up to the wealthiest and demand that they take less? I don’t think that would be effective.

However, the wealthy are not the only ones who are taking more than their fair share. I was conditioned to want more. I learned to compete for it and think of myself first. To do something effective I had to work on my own consciousness which was contributing to the imbalance in humanity. I needed to be more conscious of how my possessiveness was depriving other human beings of what they needed to live. I felt I was privileged to take what I wanted. To think of myself first was the way I operated. I am a human being, and this is a stage of human development. I yearned to be more loving, generous, and kind and included the Earth’s poor in my consciousness.

Finding a spiritual path

In time I found my spiritual path. Cafh is a global community of people who are searching for answers to the big questions. It has been a big help on my path of discovering who I am. It gives me a method with tools to help me be more conscious and loving and to think of the common good. The method includes meditation, reflecting on the day just lived, prayer, and teachings. Having a path and a method helps to contemplate the question, “Who am I?” and to act on it. I don’t know the answer, and I probably never will. However, since the question has arisen, I have discovered where I am going and how to continue to use my time and energy to continue the search.

I ask myself, “Who am I?”

How do my thoughts and feelings determine the experience of who I am?

Working with Thoughts and Feelings

I have learned to observe my thoughts and feelings. Pausing and stopping to observe what is going on in my mind helped me to learn about myself. Thus, I have discovered that my thoughts and feelings are not who I am, but they do color, distort, and filter how I experience life. There is a constant story going on in my head. At one point, I had to say, “Enough.” Being at the mercy of the chattering critic in my head is not how I want to live. It is not who I am. I will be in charge now.

Since I started observing my thoughts, I have identified different story tellers in my mind. One I call Eeyore, the grump, pessimist, everything-is-a catastrophe kind of guy. I sometimes throw in a little anger to spice things up. Then I am the angry Eeyore, taking everyone on. In time comes the admonitions of Jiminy Cricket, “Bad Diana.” “You can do better.” Even though these warnings help me to stop, going down this path can take me to a place of guilt and regret. I don’t want to go there. I try searching for the story of my fairy godmother with her magic wand. Bring on the sunshine, the cooperation, the thinking of others. Everything will be all right. I can do it.

Identifying my habitual thoughts

Mostly it’s the “Grey Lady”, who I tend to ignore. She is my habitual way of thinking, quick to judge and come up with an opinion. She makes sure I am always right. And she worries. Therefore I make a practice of observing my thoughts and feelings. Then, I can take control. It allows me to learn new habits of thinking and more loving thoughts.

Understanding I am not my thoughts and feelings helps me to know who I am. And understanding them helps me on my search for a more conscious life. I don’t want them to hold me back in a self-centered description of reality. By observing my thoughts and feelings, I am now aware of their effect on how I experience life. I learned that I am not at the mercy of my thoughts and feelings. Instead, I can use them to be more conscious and include more and more.

Quieting the mind

A big step in becoming freer from the stories of my mind was to realize that I didn’t have to listen to my inner critic who constantly makes judgements about the life I was experiencing. “This is wrong.” “I don’t like this.” “Why did she do that?” “It’s not my fault.” Meanwhile there is so much more. This critic was always active. It always had an opinion to voice about what was happening. Listening to its voice, I defined who I was by preferences and desires. This is not who I am.

Changing mental habits does not happen overnight. I am in training to improve my way of thinking. One practice I like is to choose an intention in the morning. For example, I think, “I am gratitude.” This opens the door to remembering to be thankful throughout the day for what life brings me. Being grateful helps me not to reject what I find unpleasant, but to be thankful for an opportunity to learn and practice. It can be an opportunity to be more loving.

As I became acquainted with my mental habits, I observed how my thoughts affected my body. I realized that answering the question, “Who am I?” with “I am my body,” was limiting. My body became my friend. We need each other. It is my responsibility to take care of my body. Nourishing it, responding to its aches and pains is my job. I try to protect it from the assault of my mind. The body, in turn, is my faithful servant. My body allows me to continue my search.

Choosing our Thoughts

While I have learned that choosing the way I think and feel has helped me to be more open to the possible responses to “Who am I?” it does not give me the answer. Creating silence within has helped me to crack some of the walls I have erected to preserve the image I have of myself. The answer is greater than the image I have created. Finding the answer to “Who am I?” will not be found in the words of my conditioned human mind. The answer lies beyond it.

With this understanding, I find that my perception is expanded by walking in nature. I am accompanied by trees, grasses, clouds, birds, wind, sun, and the still mountains. My inner stories fade away. I ignore the story tellers. And there are spaces of silence. The silence is an opening to the mystery. It is not the answer. But it is an invitation to be before the unknown and simply be silent.

Man walking alone among tall trees
Opening to the mystery in the silence

Getting a glimpse of meaning

As these moments of silence give me a glimpse of something greater, I can consciously live my human life. Every situation has a meaning I can consciously chose. Including more and more gives me a broader perspective. Therefore, the door to becoming a co-creator of my own meaning is opened.

In summary, my meaning includes the human being raised in a certain culture. Moreover, it embraces the seeker walking on a path of spiritual unfolding. I am a unique individual. At the same time, I am a part of the mystery which is the whole. Being a part of the whole does not negate any part of me. Thinking I am a conglomerate of my human qualities and experiences is limiting. The answer to “Who am I?” is open-ended. The answer is found in the asking. “Who am I?” evolves as I chose to live my life in a more conscious and loving way.

I invite you to join me and many others on this path of discovery. Asking “Who am I?” will open a bigger perspective. In other words, keep asking. The answers may include your roles and cultural conditioning. Keep asking without expecting the right or definitive answer. “Who am I?” The answer is found in the asking.

About the Author(s)

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Diana Autumn lives in a spiritual community in Southern California. She likes trees, walking and being with friends.