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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes
  • Ancient and Enduring Spiritual Traditions
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Who Are You?

from chapter 8 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 60 minutes


This process in pairs serves to move us beyond constricted notions of who we are and what can happen through us. Of a metaphysical bent, it was originally inspired by followers of the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi. In their enlightenment intensives, persistent inquiry helps participants to free themselves from socially constructed self-definitions and attain a realization of the inherently unlimited nature of consciousness. In our workshop the process is condensed and less ambitious. We use it to remind ourselves that we are not our social roles or skin-encapsulated egos so much as participants in an eternal awareness—or the awakening consciousness of Earth. 



Each pair sits close enough together and far enough from the others to avoid distraction. The partners take turns querying each other, for thirty minutes each way, without comment. 

This is a strenuous mental exercise. It can produce extraordinary insights, sometimes with bursts of laughter, but it feels relentless. It must be undertaken gently and with respect. 

Here are the instructions to Partner A, which are repeated to B later.

Partner A, you begin by asking B, “Who are you?” You listen. You ask again, “Who are you?” Again you listen, then repeat the question, “Who are you?” Rest assured that the answers will be different. You can vary the question, if you wish, with “What are you?” but you say nothing else. This continues for about ten minutes, until I ring the bell.

Remember, you are not badgering your partner. You’re not suggesting that his responses are wrong; you’re helping him go deeper. You are in service to your partner. The tempo and tonality of your questions will vary; you’ll know intuitively when to ask again quickly and when to pause in silence. Now before you begin, bow to your partner – and to the essential mystery at the core of this being.

After the first ten minute bell, give the next instruction:

Now shift to a second question, “What do you do?” For the next ten minutes, you listen to those answers and keep repeating the query, “What do you do?” You can also phrase it, “What happens through you?”  

After ringing the bell, give the third instruction:

Please revert now to the first question, “Who (or what) are you?”

Partner A bows to B once more when the cycle of questions is over. As the partners change roles, let them stand and stretch, without talking. Then repeat the process with B querying A. 

At the end of the entire practice, which takes an hour, allow plenty of time for people to digest what has happened for them. They may want to journal or talk quietly with their partners. Then, if there is time, bring them back together in the large group so that they reflect on the process.

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown