Self-Enquiry – Practice
This is chapter five of Be As You Are. The notes and sources for the material used can be found in the print edition. The introductory remarks are by the editor, David Godman.
Beginners in self-enquiry were advised by Sri Ramana to put their attention on the inner feeling of ‘I’ and to hold that feeling as long as possible. They would be told that if their attention was distracted by other thoughts they should revert to awareness of the ‘I’-thought whenever they became aware that their attention had wandered. He suggested various aids to assist this process – one could ask oneself ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Where does this I come from ?’ – but the ultimate aim was to be continuously aware of the ‘I’ which assumes that it is responsible for all the activities of the body and the mind.
In the early stages of practice attention to the feeling ‘I’ is a mental activity which takes the form of a thought or a perception. As the practice develops, the thought ‘I’ gives way to a subjectively experienced feeling of ‘I’, and when this feeling ceases to connect and identify with thoughts and objects it completely vanishes. What remains is an experience of being in which the sense of individuality has temporarily ceased to operate. The experience may be intermittent at first but with repeated practice it becomes easier and easier to reach and maintain. When self-enquiry reaches this level there is an effortless awareness of being in which individual effort is no longer possible since the ‘I’ who makes the effort has temporarily ceased to exist. It is not Self-realisation since the ‘I’-thought periodically reasserts itself but it is the highest level of practice. Repeated experience of this state of being weakens and destroys the vasanas (mental tendencies) which cause the ‘I’-thought to rise, and, when their hold has been sufficiently weakened, the power of the Self destroys the residual tendencies so completely that the ‘I’-thought never rises again. This is the final and irreversible state of Self-realisation.
This practice of self-attention or awareness of the ‘I’-thought is a gentle technique which bypasses the usual repressive methods of controlling the mind. It is not an exercise in concentration, nor does it aim at suppressing thoughts; it merely invokes awareness of the source from which the mind springs. The method and goal of self-enquiry is to abide in the source of the mind and to be aware of what one really is by withdrawing attention and interest from what one is not. In the early stages effort in the form of transferring attention from the thoughts to the thinker is essential, but once awareness of the ‘I’-feeling has been firmly established, further effort is counter-productive. From then on it is more a process of being than doing, of effortless being rather than an effort to be.
Being what one already is is effortless since beingness is always present and always experienced. On the other hand, pretending to be what one is not (i.e. the body and the mind) requires continuous mental effort, even though the effort is nearly always at a subconscious level. It therefore follows that in the higher stages of self-enquiry effort takes attention away from the experience of being while the cessation of mental effort reveals it. Ultimately, the Self is not discovered as a result of doing anything, but only by being. As Sri Ramana himself once remarked:
Do not meditate – be!
Do not think that you are – be!
Don’t think about being – you are! (The Secret of Arunachala, p. 73)
Self-enquiry should not be regarded as a meditation practice that takes place at certain hours and in certain positions; it should continue throughout one’s waking hours, irrespective of what one is doing. Sri Ramana saw no conflict between working and self-enquiry and he maintained that with a little practice it could be done under any circumstances. He did sometimes say that regular periods of formal practice were good for beginners, but he never advocated long periods of sitting meditation and he always showed his disapproval when any of his devotees expressed a desire to give up their mundane activities in favour of a meditative life.
Question: You say one can realise the Self by a search for it. What is the character of this search?
Bhagavan: You are the mind, or think that you are the mind. The mind is nothing but thoughts. Now behind every particular thought there is a general thought, which is the ‘I’ that is yourself. Let us call this ‘I’ the first thought. Stick to this ‘I’-thought and question it to find out what it is. When this question takes strong hold on you, you cannot think of other thoughts.
Question: When I do this and cling to my self, that is, the ‘I’-thought, other thoughts come and go, but I say to myself ‘Who am I?’ and there is no answer forthcoming. To be in this condition is the practice. Is it so?
Bhagavan: This is a mistake that people often make. What happens when you make a serious quest for the Self is that the ‘I’-thought disappears and something else from the depths takes hold of you and that is not the ‘I’ which commenced the quest.
Question: What is this something else?
Bhagavan: That is the real Self, the import of ‘I’. It is not the ego. It is the Supreme Being itself.
Question: But you have often said that one must reject other thoughts when one begins the quest, but the thoughts are endless. If one thought is rejected, another comes and there seems to be no end at all.
Bhagavan: I do not say that you must go on rejecting thoughts. Cling to yourself, that is, to the ‘I’-thought. When your interest keeps you to that single idea, other thoughts will automatically get rejected and they will vanish.
Question: And so rejection of thoughts is not necessary?
Bhagavan: No. It may be necessary for a time or for some. You fancy that there is no end if one goes on rejecting every thought when it rises. It is not true; there is an end. If you are vigilant and make a stern effort to reject every thought when it rises, you will soon find that you are going deeper and deeper into your own inner self. At that level it is not necessary to make an effort to reject thoughts.