What does Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj mean when he says “I am”?

One of the more interesting things about the teachings of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj is that he says we should focus on “I am,” but from what I have read so far, he does not specifically describe what he means by this.

Therefore, I have taken to researching this myself through his own quotes, internet searches, and the use of A.I. tools. This is what I have found so far.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj quotes

In an effort to understand “I am,” here are some direct quotes from his book, I Am That:

  • To myself, I am the infinite expanse of consciousness, in which innumerable persons emerge and disappear in endless succession.
  • To my own surprise, I remain as I am — pure awareness, alert to all that happens.
  • I am detached and see the passing show as a passing show.
  • I am not a person in your sense of the word, though I may appear a person to you. I am that infinite ocean of consciousness in which all happens.
  • Go beyond the “I am the body” idea and you will find that space and time are in you, and not you in space and time. Once you understand this, the main obstacle to realization is removed.

Of course, in addition to those “I am” quotes he has also said things like this:

  • Just remember that you are the witness only ... even for a moment, do not think that you are the body.

So far, those uses of “I am” only describe him, so we press on ...

What does “I am” mean?

One thing I have seen consistently in the research is that by concentrating on “I am,” we are practicing a form of self-enquiry, essentially aimed at realizing one's true nature. You can think of this in various ways:

  1. Core Sense of Existence: “I am” represents the fundamental sense of being or existence, without attaching any labels, attributes, or identities to it. It represents the pure awareness of existence itself.

  2. Self-Inquiry: Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj encourages practitioners to focus on the feeling of “I am” to peel away the layers of identification with the body, mind, and other transient phenomena. This is a process of self-inquiry that aims to lead the practitioner to their true, unchanging self.

  3. Detachment from Ego: By meditating on “I am,” one learns to detach from the ego and the personal sense of self. The ego is seen as a construct of the mind, whereas the “I am” is the direct experience of being.

  4. Beyond Concepts: “I am” is not meant to be analyzed intellectually. It is a pointer to an experiential understanding that goes beyond concepts and mental constructs. The practice is about resting in the sense of pure being. (IMHO, “I am” is very similar to Zen Master Seung Sahn’s statement that we should always ask, “What am I?”, or when we are doing something, we should ask, “Who is doing this?”)

  5. Non-Dual Awareness: The ultimate goal of meditating on “I am” is to realize non-dual awareness, where the distinction between the self and the other dissolves. It is the recognition that the true self is beyond all dualities and is one with the universal consciousness.

Although I can’t find it at the moment, I remember that in at least one place he suggested discarding “I am” once the underlying awareness is directly recognized. That is, once you have gotten to a certain stage of progress, focusing on “I am” would not be needed anymore.

How to practice “I am”

In practice, this means sitting quietly and bringing attention to the sense of “I am” ... letting go of all thoughts, judgments, and identifications, and abiding in that pure sense of being.

In my own practice, when I first sit down I say things to myself like:

  • Put it all down
  • Let it all go
  • Just be

In some ways the thought “Just be” is similar to “I am,” though I suspect that “I am” is more similar to Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “What am I?”

There are sometimes when I “try” to do something during meditation, but in general, you should not “try” to do anything ... but if you are focusing on “I am” or the question, “What am I?”, all of your concentration should be on that.

More descriptions of “I am”

As I continued to research whether Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj ever clearly describes what he meant by “I am,” I came up with this additional research:

  1. Pure Being: Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj described “I am” as the pure sense of existence or being, without any attributes or identifications. It is the fundamental awareness of one’s own existence.

  2. The First Step: It’s important to know that he referred to the recognition of “I am” as the first step in spiritual practice.

  3. Unconditioned Awareness: “I am” is an unconditioned, non-personal sense of being. It is not tied to the body, mind, or any particular identity. Nisargadatta emphasized that this sense of being exists prior to any personal identifications.

  4. Gateway to the Absolute: As “I am” is the first step in spiritual practice, it is also a gateway to realizing the Absolute --- the ultimate reality beyond all forms and concepts.

  5. Here and Now: Nisargadatta often equated “I am” with being present in the current moment, or the immediate experience of The Now. “I am” is the direct, ever-present awareness that is always there, regardless of what is happening in the mind or external world.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj also stressed that “I am” ultimately goes beyond words and concepts. The true understanding of “I am” comes from direct experience, not intellectual analysis. (Again, this is a very similar teaching to Zen Master Seung Sahn.)

Therefore, because he consistently encouraged his students to directly experience “I am” rather than to try to understand it intellectually, this is part of what makes this “intellectual” research difficult.

Final notes

For today I need to wrap this up, so here are some final miscellaneous notes about Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s “I am”:

  • Assuming that he used “I am” to point to our underlying essence or being, this awareness is called “The Self” or Atman in Advaita Vedanta, the philosophical school he belonged to.
  • In Advaita Vedanta, the ultimate reality is Brahman, the oneness of all existence.
  • As with other forms of meditation, focusing on “I am” can serve as an anchor to draw one’s attention away from distracting thoughts and emotions and to one specific thing.

“I am” and Neil Diamond

An interesting/funny thing to me about the phrase “I Am” is that it reminds me of the Neil Diamond song, “I Am, I Said,” specifically the reprise version of the song, starting at about 1:39. My mom forced us to listen to Neil Diamond growing up, and as I try to learn more about what the heck Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj meant about the phrase “I am,” it reminded me of that song.


In summary, for the time being, these are my research notes on what Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj meant by the term “I am.”