What Is The Neti-Neti Process?


Let’s go back to the day you were born. 


For a while, you had no way to distinguish yourself from your surroundings. You laid on your caretaker’s chest without understanding that you were different from them. You had no sense of future or past. Instead, your attention was merged with experience, with whatever was happening right now. You didn’t have names for anything--for mom or dad or fingers or toes. Everything was a mystery in which you participated in but could not understand. You were a little blob of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling, without knowing the names of any of those things. 


As you grew up, you gradually learned to distinguish yourself from your environment. Pretty early on, you learned that you and your caretaker were different from each other. When your caretaker left the room, you had no reliable means of feeding or changing yourself, and it was only when your caretaker arrived that those needs of yours were met.


Likewise, you learned that you were different from your crib. In the morning when you wake up, you leave the room but your crib stays put. This is how you learned that you were different from the physical objects around you and the people that you encountered, including your toys, friends, family and so on. 


The Neti-Neti Process


This is the neti-neti process at work. Neti-neti is a Sanskrit expression which means, “not this, not this”. It refers to the process by which we come to understand who we are as we move through life. It suggests that the method we use as humans to understand our mortal experience is a process of elimination--that we can never know definitively what we are, we can only know what we are not.


For our first few years of life, this process is quite natural and parallels the development of our burgeoning brain. It’s very important for us to individualize ourselves and to exert our sense of will in order that we may participate in life, and the neti neti process is the means by which we are able to do this. 


By the time we’re 8 or 9 years old, we have a pretty solid understanding of what we are not: I am not my teacher, my school, my toys, my sister, my dog, my pantry. Around this time, we are able to draw some pretty convincing conclusions about who we are. Because of this, as we grow up and become teenagers and adults, most of us abandon the inquisitive nature of the neti-neti process, having assumed that we already understand who we are and we need not waste valuable resources pondering this question anymore. This shift in adolescence is what I call the big leap


The Big Leap


About the time we’re 8 or 9 years old, we are confident in our ability to distinguish ourselves from our surroundings, and we receive frequent kudos from our fellow humans as we learn to agree on a common belief of reality. 


What happens for most of us around this time is that we make a giant leap. We look at the evidence in front of us--I am not this, I am not that, I am not the other thing--and we determine that what we essentially are is our body


At first, this makes perfect sense. Our body seems to be the natural boundary between ourselves and our environment. After all, my body goes with me everywhere I go and seems to be the boundary between what I am and what I’m not. my body is where all my thoughts, bodily sensations and external sense perceptions appear. No one else is privy to the experience of my body, and I am not privy to anyone else’s experience of theirs. Therefor, it makes sense that we might naturally conclude, after 8 or 9 years of this investigation, that we have finally figured out what we are: We are a human body.


For most people, this is where the case is closed. There is no more further investigation after this point because the conclusion seems so obviously correct. And being that our entire culture is predicated on this very same assumption, we look at our role models around us and see that they, too, have come to the same conclusion, which makes us feel like we’re on the right track. People around us--our teachers our parents our friends--communicate with us as if we are a human body, and we interact with others as if they are one too. This is how most of us conduct our lives. And this is where the neti-neti process ends for most people. 


Neti-Neti in Our Adult Years


Engaging in the neti-neti process for the first few years of life is part of our survival process--we need to be able to differentiate ourselves from our surroundings if we don’t want to be an easy target for something’s dinner. But neti-neti in our adult years is more of a luxury. It is not necessary for our survival to contemplate the nature of who we are through the neti-neti process. It is necessary for our happiness and for our ability to experience life beyond fear and lack, but we can survive just fine without it. 


Why do I say that the neti-neti process is necessary for our happiness? Because at some point down the line, some of us realize that something’s missing about our understanding of life. This may be sparked by an intuition that what we are is beyond a human body, or a deeply inquisitive nature that leaves us aching to understand the nature of how life is put together, or an existential dread that has us craving finding our purpose in life, or even psychological suffering that’s accompanied by a deep knowing that the only way out is through. 


And this is where we might pick up the neti-neti process again. Whether the process is facilitated through conversation with a therapist or solitary contemplation or spiritual practice or going to church or journaling or a yoga practice or almost whatever--we are compelled to ask ourselves once again: What am I? And to follow the logical steps that result: I am not this, I am not this. The language of the contemplation may be quite different from person to person--we are each entitled to use the tools that make the most sense to us--but the conclusion will lead us through and out of the assumption we made so many years ago.


Neti-Neti Next Steps 


Do you remember what we agreed to so many years ago? It was this: I am a human body


To apply the neti-neti process to this belief is to ask ourselves: Is this true--am I a human body? 


We can explore this together if you’d like. 


First, we must tap into our experience of I am, which is the benchmark we use to determine what we are and what we are not. By I am, I mean the very ordinary sense of being alive, whatever renders your experience knowable, whatever has remained constant throughout all the changes of your life. Try to tap into the experience of I am before it is colored with your name, your gender, your age, your preferences, your hobbies, your occupation, your relationships.  


Now: Am I a human body? To answer this question, we need to look at the physical building blocks of our bodies, which are cells. Well, it’s pretty obvious to me that I am not a cell. Nor am I a collection of cells. Furthermore, I have remained constant as all the cells in body regenerated over time. In fact, the cells in my body today are 100% different than the cells in my body when I was 8, which were different from my cells at 16, which were different than my cells at 24. This is true of every cell in my heart and every cell in my brain, which are often the organs we experience the most intimately. Based on this evidence, I can not with confidence conclude that I am my body. 


But we might also say that a body is not just comprised of physical building blocks, but also of something non-physical: Our mind. Surely our identity is a more stable component than our cells. In the same fashion, we now look at the building blocks of the mind. These are thoughts, images, bodily sensations and external sense perceptions, and they constitute the entirety of our experience. Again, using my experience of I am as benchmark, it’s pretty obvious to me that I am not a thought. Nor am I collection of thoughts. This means that I am also not an image, bodily sensation or external sense perception, or a collection of any of those things. Like cells, all of those elements start and stop in time and space, yet I exist prior to the thought (image, bodily sensation, …) and I exist afterwards. 


When I look closely at the facts of my experience, the most I can say is: I am experiencing a human body, but I have no evidence that I am a human body. 


Neti-Neti & Happiness


So what is the connection between the neti-neti process and happiness? 


First, it debunks the assumption we made as a kid that what we essentially are--at the core of our being--is a human body. When we’re able to debunk this for ourselves, the result is relief. Why? Because as long as we believe to be a human body, we believe to be something that is limited in time and space. When we believe to be something limited in time, we are afraid of death. When we believe to be limited in space, we have a deep sense of lack. These become our operating system for life, the foundation upon which we decide where to work, what to eat, who to marry and how we spend our time. 


Second, it restores to us our birthright of not knowing. For many of us, not knowing something can be quite uncomfortable. We do everything we can to ensure that we know the weather before we go outside, the route to the event prior to getting in the car, the right thing to say before the meeting even begins. This gives us a sort of fake security about the future, which we use to placate our anxiety into a more manageable level and this is how our lives generally play out. Anyone who has experienced this for any period of time can attest: This scenario is not ideal. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t use our predictability tools--it’s quite helpful to know the weather and the route and the pitch. I am suggesting that the neti-neti process restores to us that which we can never know and helps us become comfortable with it. Because the truth is: We actually don’t know. We have no idea who we are. We have no idea where we came from. We have no idea what system we’re a part of. We are sweet little clueless babies bumping around like we know what we’re talking about. Most of the things we “know” are based on partially explored ideas that don’t hold up as true when properly looked at. 


Third, as we complete the understanding that the neti-neti process reveals to us, we experience our lives more like we did when we were a small baby. When who we are is no longer automatically defined as something human, we become open to the possibility that what we are does not share the limits or the destiny of the body. What we are is potentially much bigger than that. We register the differences between our body and someone else’s, but we no longer distance ourselves from their existence--from their experience of I am. This allows us to engage with life the way we did when we were a baby--when everything was one inter-connected seamlessly flowing experience. The difference now is that our brain has developed the intelligence necessary to feed and clothe ourselves, and to independently engage in activities in the world.




When we’re children, the neti-neti process happens automatically in order for us to differentiate our mind and body from other minds and bodies. This has huge benefits for us, most notably that it allows us to be self-sufficient in our pursuits as we move forward in life. But around this time, we draw a conclusion that our very beingness--whatever it is we call I am within ourselves--is limited to our mind and body. To continue the neti-neti process into adulthood means to question this belief rigorously and to live our lives according to the truth this line of questioning reveals.  


It is not enough to simply know the concept of neti-neti. We must put it into practice. We must practice the process whenever we’re interested, and deconstruct the assumptions we’ve made about who we are in any given moment. Because what we find is that we are never what we think we are. 


We are actually so much more and so much bigger than we give ourselves credit for. To assume that we are fundamentally a human body is something that does not hold up scientifically or experientially. And yet, most of us spend our lives convinced that we are a human body separate from other people and the world around us. Only when we feel separate from something can we enact violence on it. Only when we feel separate from something can we act against the common interest. Only when we feel separate from something can we compare ourselves to it. Do you see how our belief in separation creates drama in our lives? 


Take stock of your own drama and you’ll see--every bit of psychological discomfort that we go through is due to a deep belief in our limitation as human beings. Wouldn’t it be so much better to know ourselves as something beyond that? 


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