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Chapter 5 — What Are You Not?

There are three core aspects of a stable awakening. Recognising who you are. Recognising what you’re not. And seeing that those apparent two are essentially one: nondual. This piece is taken from The Complete Book of Awakening and is at the beginning of the second step of that awakening process. Reproduced with permission.


“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Arthur Conan Doyle

In Part One we’ve explored who you are. You may be beginning to notice that there is something constant in your experience, which we are suggesting is who you essentially are. The recognition, and deepening of this recognition, is awakening.

But it’s not actually a ‘thing’, this ‘something’ you’ve begun to notice. It’s not something of form that you can point at, look at, handle, manipulate. It’s something that you can do your best to describe with words like peace, contentment, open, spacious, free…but having ‘no words’ is perfectly OK too.

Now, in Part Two, we’re going to see what you are not. In traditional teachings of this understanding this is called the ‘neti neti’ process, which means, ‘not this, not this’. This describes a process of eliminating all the things that are not our essential self. This more tangible approach is helpful, given the ineffable qualities of who you essentially are that we looked at in Part One. What can’t be removed once everything removable has been taken out is, by definition, who you are.

Of course, nothing is actually ‘taken out’ — that would be impossible. Nothing is being thrown away or discarded. A healthy awakening exploration includes all of experience — but in order to untangle what has become tangled in our minds, it is helpful to work through this apparent elimination process.

In Part Three we will return to the integration of everything that we called ‘not this’.

This is a very modern exploration. We’ve turned classic spiritual schooling on its head, by beginning with ‘who you are’, rather than ‘what you are not’. The reason for this is we’re no longer looking at life-long paths of religious devotion and withdrawal from society. Awakening is not reserved for the elite few. So, awakening is immediately available, but the fact remains that as we grew up to have a stable sense of self in the world, alongside that we picked up a lot of extra baggage. Now it’s time to address that baggage.

A bit like doing an evaporation experiment in the chemistry lab, we’re now evaporating off everything that isn’t essential to us, evaporating all the extra baggage, which inevitably leaves only the essential. Only that which cannot be removed.

We referred to this extra baggage in Chapter Two when we described what we mean by the term ‘suffering’. Suffering is happening wherever something looks like a problem, like it should be different than how it is, like it requires a lot of effort, or like it’s overwhelming or impossible.

These responses to life are the signal that we have become identified with something that is not essential to who we are. And so, Part Two is all about recognising the areas of experience where we have become identified or collected baggage.

You may well find that suffering arises during your exploration of Part Two because the narrative mind resists what it deems to be dangerous, on behalf of an imagined separate self. And, to the narrative mind, this process seems dangerous.

We can assure you that this is a safe exploration, that nothing is actually being taken away, removed or discarded. All we are doing is disentangling who we really are from what we are not.

Given this context, our growing sense of who we are is foundational as we explore what we’re not. It makes it far easier to begin to recognise and put down the baggage. There will still be challenges — but knowing who we are gives us a touchstone to retreat to and a direction to head. This sense of self supports us in re-understanding a lot of what we thought we were.

In practice this means you may well find an urge to go back to Part One at times, as each step of our ‘not this’ process will bring the question of who you are into increasing focus. What follows now is a movement back and forth between who we are and what we are not — becoming ever clearer with each iteration.

A word on how we are approaching this.

As before, we invite you to come into Part Two open, with your curious explorer’s hat on. We will be offering explorations as we did in Part One. If you want to remind yourself about how to get the most from them, you can pop back to Exploration 1.1.

Here we are looking at the many things we’ve been taught and taken to be the truth, or which we hold as conceptual ideas, but which don’t in fact align with our experience of life. These kinds of confusions clutter up the system, as we wrangle between what’s actually happening and what has been believed.

Given this backdrop, again we’re inviting you to be a scientist. Not the kind that does double-blind control studies, or creates new conceptual models of reality. We’re starting with the simple science of individual exploration. Arguably the closest to reality we can get.

Although there are now many scientific concepts that point to the same understanding that we’re talking about, we want to keep this very much in the actual experience you have in everyday life. Things get so much easier from there as we put the horse rightfully back in front of the cart.

As we walk through this section, notice any times when fear arises. It is very normal for the self-preservation thought mechanism to don its security guard’s cap and for us to experience that as suffering. The security guard tries to keep this conversation at bay. It does this with the intention of keeping us safe.

Indeed, the security guard mind could be right, if we truly were the things this book suggests we are not. If these things were essential to our being. In reality, the only ‘thing’ being threatened is a belief. An idea of who we are. How many new ideas have you had, over the years? How many beliefs have changed or fallen away? How many times have you changed your mind? Do your daytime thoughts, ideas and beliefs disappear every night when you fall asleep? And still, you are here, fundamentally undamaged and unchanged by ideas and beliefs.

This idea of who we are (who we think ourselves to be and what we think is essential to us) is a closer-in belief, a more well-rehearsed one, but a belief all the same. Made of the same stuff as all ideas and beliefs.

Do you remember in Exploration 3.3, in Part One, where you noticed a time of flow and how good that flow felt? Ironically, the learned safety mechanisms creating fear are keeping us away from that very positive experience of flow. Does it seem scary or dangerous to feel more in flow? Or, in flow were you actually more yourself? This point can help us counter the fearful thoughts with real experience, instead of the imagined danger.

We can acknowledge the thought, “This is dangerous,” but we don’t have to follow it or believe it.

And know that whatever happens, you’re OK. If who we are is essentially stable and secure, we can be OK in everything life brings to us. We have a foundation for the OK-ness of who we are in Part One, so we are safe to begin to explore what we are not. Which means we can ask the security guard to step aside and allow this exploration to continue.

Awakening is a beautifully reliable process. At any point you feel you need to, you can put the book to the side for a while. There’s no shame in taking time to do other things, and for moving at your own pace.

Our experience with clients shows us that sustainable awakening comes when we follow the process. When we explore through the layers of who we are and what we are not, then bring it all back together again — as we do in this book. But, more than that, we know to honour your timing and how the process shows up for you.

As a reminder, throughout this book each exploration we offer you has:

  • a question (these are sometimes referred to as “self-enquiry”)
  • a suggestion of what you might find, which is some logic that bridges from inner knowing to outer expression
  • an experiment so you can test it out
  • a working conclusion — something you can challenge, evolve and develop in life.

All four are vital in an honest exploration: question, suggestion, experiment, conclusion. And all reflect the approach of good science: self-enquiry, logic and testing it out in life.

To aid the exploration process in Part Two we are now bringing in raw experience, to add to the direct experience we’ve been using to explore in Part One. You might remember from the Introduction that in raw experience we are aware of bodily sensations and the information of the five senses in their simplest form — absent of labels, comparisons or judgements.

If that feels unfamiliar to you just now, don’t worry, we’ll guide you through it in each exploration so that you’ll become increasingly familiar with it as we go along.

Wherever you see the headphones symbol, you can access a free audio recording of that experiment at thoughtfulraven.co.uk

And the download symbol indicates we have a free download available on the website.

Let’s begin with an exploration to demonstrate this neti neti, or evaporation, process that we’re about to embark on.

Exploration 5.1 — The ‘neti neti’ process.

Question: What is essential to scrambled eggs?

Suggestion: Using this simple example, we want to demonstrate again what we mean by ‘essential’ and to highlight the intention behind the ‘neti neti’ process we’re exploring in Part Two.

Experiment: Have you ever had scrambled eggs?

Have you ever had scrambled eggs with black pepper?

…with cheese?

…with smoked salmon?

…with spring onions, or scallions?

In order to keep the scrambled eggs as scrambled eggs:

  • Which of these ingredients can be taken away?
  • Which ingredients can’t be taken away?

Another way of asking what can’t be taken away is this: What is essential to the scrambled eggs?

In knowing that eggs are essential to scrambled eggs, does that put you in a better position to make scrambled eggs well?

In knowing that eggs are essential to scrambled eggs, does that mean you can’t add black pepper, cheese, smoked salmon or spring onions?

In knowing what’s not essential to scrambled eggs, does that put you in a better position to experiment with what you add in to the eggs?

Conclusion: Just like with our scrambled eggs, we have already explored what is essential to who we are.

Now we know that who we essentially are is awareness, this already puts us in a better position to have a good go at life!

Next, we’ll get clear on what all the extra ingredients are. They are things we might previously have taken as essential, so there is a change of perspective required. This shift allows us to return to playful and ongoing experimentation with which ingredients get mixed into our lives, and which we leave out.

Summary: What Are You Not?

In Part One we explored your essential nature as awareness. In Part Two we will be exploring all the things you are not, using this neti neti process.

There is a difference to the feel of Part Two, compared to Part One. As we explored awareness as our essential nature, you could say we’ve been hanging out in the realm of the heart — which most people report as feeling really good. Now, as we begin to look at what we’re not, we are moving into the headier world of concepts — ideas and beliefs.

You might therefore feel a discomfort with this transition. What we’d like you to remember as you travel through these chapters is that we are examining our concepts so as to see them for what they are. In seeing the nature of our concepts, they lose their apparent power. Illusions collapse, and we find we can live with concepts, rather than suffering them. We suffer our concepts either in identification with them, or in resistance to them.

Where the heart leads, the head will follow, which brings a necessary coherence and integrity to our exploration.

Without more ado, let’s dive into all the things you are not.


If you’ve enjoyed this chapter, buy the book: The Complete Book of Awakening.

Much love, Helen

The Complete Book of Awakening - International Best Seller in Spiritual Books

Copyright © 2022 Helen Amery & Sara Priestley. All rights reserved.
A THOUGHTFUL RAVEN Book www.thoughtfulraven.co.uk
For permissions or enquiries contact: hello@thoughtfulraven.co.uk

  • Helen Amery
    My work involves exploring with people who are on the awakening and enlightenment journey. They’ve already seen a lot but they can also feel that their understanding is more conceptual than felt, and lived. They can feel that there is more to be seen and understood and yet they also don’t know how to ‘get at’ that. I focus on this shift from conceptual into the deeper, felt understanding of it.

    You can find me at wildfigsolutions.co.uk

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