Nearly every person, at one point or another, engages in some form of inquiry about who and why they are. It essentially amounts to the age old question about the meaning of life. Inquiry in this manner may also be a form of spiritualism.
Renowned Indian spiritualist Ramana Maharshi developed something called self-enquiry — inquiry spelled in European English as enquiry — that he believed would ultimately lead to spiritual enlightenment. The Maharshi method essentially questions the principles of identity that most people consider to be fundamental.
For instance, ask the typical person to describe themselves and they will list their physical and / or personality attributes. Their gender, their age, their relationships to other people, their occupation, their belief system. This sort of response is indicative of identification with the body and thought. In other words, the body and thinking are believed to comprise the self.
Who am I? My body and my mind.
Maharshi, and other spiritualists over the course of time, disputed this notion of the body and the mind making up the self. The body and mind, according to Maharshi and others, are actually stand-ins: they amount to a persona and are a pseudo self. The genuine self is the awareness of the mind, the body, the life experience.
This is a difficult notion to intellectually comprehend, mostly because people typically are lost in thought and so don’t spend much time genuinely witnessing what is happening. Take a moment and observe, however, and see that before, during, and after every thought there is awareness. Awareness before the thought, awareness as the thought comes up, awareness as the thought fades.
This awareness is sometimes referred to as consciousness, which may be an easier term to grasp. We are conscious when thinking is taking place and when thinking is not active. We are conscious during wakefulness and conscious during sleep. This consciousness, or awareness if that is the preferred term, is called the genuine self by Maharshi and other spiritualists: not a combination of the body and output from the mind.
Some would argue that awareness or consciousness is in fact a function of the mind: specifically that it is controlled by brain activity. A loss of awareness when there is brain injury can be seen as a validation of this. It is also so however that people who have been declared dead, that is having no sustaining bodily function and therefore by definition unable to be conscious, were ultimately revived and described external events that occurred during their unconscious state.
These events are often called near death experiences or NDEs and have been documented many times, including by credible medical professionals who could not offer an explanation for how consciousness happened during an unconscious state. One answer is that consciousness is not a function of the body at all, and so does not rely upon the body to occur.
What’s the right answer? Does consciousness come from the body or beyond it? Rather than try to intellectualize or debate this within the mind, try for an experience of it. This can be achieved through inner silence and an end to resistance. When there is this internal stillness awareness can be clearly observed and felt.
Then come to your own conclusions about where it originates from.