This article frst appeared on my blog in 2008.
The following comment appeared in a readers’ discussion about self-enquiry:
Initially, when I began vichara, I used to concentrate on the right side of the chest, expecting an answer to come from there when I questioned who I was.
This reminded me that I had promised to respond to another question: why some direct disciples of Bhagavan have written that self-enquiry is to be done by (or while) concentrating on this centre whereas others have refuted this position. Many people came to the conclusion that meditating on the right-side heart-centre was a part of self-enquiry, even though Bhagavan frequently said that it was not. This is what I wrote on this subject in the ‘Self-enquiry – Misconceptions’ chapter of Be As You Are. The quotes that follow my introduction are from later in the same chapter:
In describing the origin of the ‘I’-thought he [Bhagavan] sometimes said that it rose to the brain through a channel which started from a centre in the right-hand side of the chest. He called this centre the heart-centre and said that when the ‘I’-thought subsided into the Self it went back into the centre and disappeared. He also said that when the Self is consciously experienced, there is a tangible awareness that this centre is the source of both the mind and the world. However, these statements are not strictly true and Sri Ramana sometimes qualified them by saying that they were only schematic representations which were given to those people who persisted in identifying with their bodies. He said that the Heart is not really located in the body and that from the highest standpoint it is equally untrue to say that the ‘I’-thought arises and subsides into this centre on the right of the chest.
Because Sri Ramana often said ‘Find the place where the “I” arises’ or ‘Find the source of the mind’, many people interpreted these statements to mean that they should concentrate on this particular centre while doing self-enquiry. Sri Ramana rejected this interpretation many times by saying that the source of the mind or the ‘I’ could only be discovered through attention to the ‘I’-thought and not through concentration on a particular part of the body. He did sometimes say that putting attention on this centre is a good concentration practice, but he never associated it with self-enquiry. He also occasionally said that meditation on the Heart was an effective way of reaching the Self, but again, he never said that this should be done by concentrating on the heart-centre. Instead he said that one should meditate on the Heart ‘as it is’. The Heart ‘as it is’ is not a location, it is the immanent Self and one can only be aware of its real nature by being it. It cannot be reached by concentration. Although there are several potentially ambiguous comments of this kind about the Heart and the heart-centre, in all his writings and recorded conversations there is not a single statement to support the contention that self-enquiry is to be practised by concentrating on this centre. In fact, by closely examining his statements on the subject one can only conclude that while the experience of the Self contains an awareness of this centre, concentration on this centre will not result in the experience of the Self.
Question: You have said that the Heart is the centre of the Self.
Bhagavan: Yes, it is the one supreme centre of the Self. You need have no doubt about it. The real Self is there in the Heart behind the jiva or ego-self.
Question: Now be pleased to tell me where it is in the body.
Bhagavan: You cannot know it with your mind. You cannot realise it by imagination when I tell you here is the centre [pointing to the right side of the chest]. The only direct way to realise it is to cease to fantasise and try to be yourself. When you realise, you automatically feel that the centre is there. This is the centre, the Heart, spoken of in the scriptures as hrit-guhaarul [grace], ullam [the Heart].
Question: In no book have I found it stated that it is there.
Bhagavan: Long after I came here I chanced upon a verse in the Malayalam version of Ashtangahridayam, the standard work on ayurveda [Hindu medicine], wherein the ojas sthana [source of bodily vitality or place of light] is mentioned as being located in the right side of the chest and called the seat of consciousness [samvit]. But I know of no other work which refers to it as being located there.
Question: Can I be sure that the ancients meant this centre by the term ‘Heart’?
Bhagavan: Yes, that is so. But you should try to have rather than to locate the experience. A man need not find out where his eyes are situated when he wants to see. The Heart is there ever open to you if you care to enter it, ever supporting all your movements even when you are unaware. It is perhaps more proper to say that the Self is the Heart itself than to say that it is in the Heart. Really, the Self is the centre itself. It is everywhere, aware of itself as ‘Heart’, the Self-awareness.
Question: In that case, how can it be localised in any part of the body? Fixing a place for the Heart would imply setting physiological limitations to that which is beyond space and time.
Bhagavan: That is right. But the person who puts the question about the position of the Heart considers himself as existing with or in the body. While putting the question now, would you say that your body alone is here but you are speaking from somewhere else? No, you accept your bodily existence.
It is from this point of view that any reference to a physical body comes to be made. Truly speaking, pure consciousness is indivisible, it is without parts. It has no form and shape, no ‘within’ and ‘without’. There is no ‘right’ or ‘left’ for it. Pure consciousness, which is the Heart, includes all, and nothing is outside or apart from it. That is the ultimate truth. From this absolute standpoint, the Heart, Self or consciousness can have no particular place assigned to it in the physical body. What is the reason? The body is itself a mere projection of the mind, and the mind is but a poor reflection of the radiant Heart. How can that, in which everything is contained, be itself confined as a tiny part within the physical body which is but an infinitesimal, phenomenal manifestation of the one reality? But people do not understand this. They cannot help thinking in terms of the physical body and the world.
For instance, you say, ‘I have come to this ashram all the way from my country beyond the Himalayas’. But that is not the truth. Where is ‘coming’ or ‘going’ or any movement whatever, for the one, all-pervading spirit which you really are? You are where you have always been. It is your body that moved or was conveyed from place to place till it reached this ashram. This is the simple truth, but to a person who considers himself a subject living in an objective world, it appears as something altogether visionary! It is by coming down to the level of ordinary understanding that a place is assigned to the Heart in the physical body.
Question: How then shall I understand Sri Bhagavan’s statement that the experience of the heart-centre is at the particular place in the chest?
Bhagavan: Once you accept that from the true and absolute standpoint the Heart as pure consciousness is beyond space and time, it will be easy for you to understand the rest in its correct perspective.
Question: The Heart is said to be on the right, on the left, or in the centre. With such differences of opinion how are we to meditate on it?
Bhagavan: You are and it is a fact. Dhyana [meditation] is by you, of you, and in you. It must go on where you are. It cannot be outside you. So you are the centre of dhyana and that is the Heart. Doubts arise only when you identify it with something tangible and physical. Heart is no conception, no object for meditation. But it is the seat of meditation. The Self remains all alone. You see the body in the Heart, the world is also in it. There is nothing separate from it. So all kinds of effort are located there only.
Question: You say the ‘I’-thought rises from the Heart-centre. Should we seek its source there?
Bhagavan: I ask you to see where the ‘I’ arises in your body, but it is really not quite correct to say that the ‘I’ rises from and merges in the Heart in the right side of the chest. The Heart is another name for the reality and it is neither inside nor outside the body. There can be no in or out for it, since it alone is.
Question: Should I meditate on the right chest in order to meditate on the Heart?
Bhagavan: The Heart is not physical. Meditation should not be on the right or the left. Meditation should be on the Self. Everyone knows ‘I am’. Who is the ‘I’? It will be neither within nor without, neither on the right nor on the left. ‘I am’ – that is all. Leave alone the idea of right and left. They pertain to the body. The Heart is the Self. Realise it and then you will see for yourself. There is no need to know where and what the Heart is. It will do its work if you engage in the quest for the Self.
Question: In Upadesa Saram it is said, ‘Abiding in the Heart is the best karma, yoga, bhakti and jnana.’
Bhagavan: That which is the source of all, that in which all live, and that into which all finally merge, is the Heart referred to.
Question: How can we conceive of such a Heart?
Bhagavan: Why should you conceive of anything? You have only to see from where the ‘I’ springs. That from which all thoughts of embodied beings issue forth is called the Heart. All descriptions of it are only mental concepts.
Question: There are said to be six organs of different colours in the chest, of which the Heart is said to be two finger-breadths to the right of the middle line. But the Heart is also formless. Should we then imagine it to have a shape and meditate on it?
Bhagavan: No. Only the quest ‘Who am I?’ is necessary. What remains all through deep sleep and waking is the same. But in waking there is unhappiness and the effort to remove it. Asked who wakes up from sleep you say ‘I’. Now you are told to hold fast to this ‘I’. If it is done the eternal being will reveal itself. Investigation of ‘I’ is the point and not meditation on the heart-centre. There is nothing like within or without. Both mean either the same thing or nothing. Of course there is also the practice of meditation on the heart-centre. It is only a practice and not investigation. Only the one who meditates on the Heart can remain aware when the mind ceases to be active and remains still, whereas those who meditate on other centres cannot be so aware but infer that the mind was still only after it becomes again active. In whatever place in the body one thinks Self to be residing, due to the power of that thinking it will appear to the one who thinks thus as if Self is residing in that place. However, the beloved Heart alone is the refuge for the rising and subsiding of that ‘I’. Know that though it is said that the Heart exists both inside and outside, in absolute truth it does not exist both inside and outside, because the body, which appears as the base of the differences ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, is an imagination of the thinking mind. Heart, the source, is the beginning, the middle and the end of all. Heart, the supreme space, is never a form. It is the light of truth.
The following incident, narrated by Annamalai Swami in Living by the Words of Bhagavan, also has Bhagavan giving out similar advice:
In the beginning, when I first came to Bhagavan, I had asked him for a mantra. In response he told me to repeat ‘Siva Siva’ continuously. Later, Bhagavan advised me to keep my attention in the Heart while I was working. I had read that Bhagavan had spoken of a place called ‘the heart-centre’, which he located on the right side of the chest. I had assumed that Bhagavan wanted me to concentrate on this particular centre. However, when I started to practise in this way, Bhagavan stopped me and corrected me.
‘This right-side Heart-centre is not the true Heart,’ he said. ‘The real Heart is not located anywhere. It is all-pervasive.’ ‘Stop meditating on the heart-centre,’ he continued. ‘Find the source. That is the true Heart. Just as electricity comes not from the individual meter boxes in people’s houses but from a single source, so too the whole world has a single source, which is the Self or the Heart. Seek and enquire into this source of limitless energy. If the centre of the Self were really located in the body, the Self would die when the body dies.’
I understood from these remarks that just as one cannot experience the nature and source of electricity by staring at the meter box in one’s house, one cannot gain a direct experience of the current of the Self by concentrating on the heart-centre. I gave up concentrating on this centre and tried to follow Bhagavan’s advice.
Faced with this comprehensive array of citations from Bhagavan it would be hard to conclude that Bhagavan associated self-enquiry with the practice of concentrating on the heart-centre, but still some writers did manage to make the connection and advocate this. For example, Arthur Osborne on page 151 of The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in his own Words wrote:
In a number of passages already quoted Bhagavan does not only tell the questioner to investigate the ‘I’-thought but to find out where it arises. This connects self-enquiry with concentration on the Heart at the right side.
And in ‘The Direct Path’, an article from The Mountain Path that was reprinted in For Those with Little Dust, he wrote:
Bhagavan’s instruction was, while meditating, to concentrate the consciousness on the Heart – not the physical heart on the left, but the spiritual Heart on the right side of the chest.
Other writers have come to the same conclusion. When I wrote the ‘Who are you Ramana?’ post I quoted Bhagavan saying that all the stories about himself being Subrahmanya and Kumarila Bhatta in previous incarnations originated with Ganapati Muni. In much the same way I think that most of the people who believe that self-enquiry involves meditating on the right-side heart-centre can trace their beliefs back to Arthur Osborne’s writings.
The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in his own Words came out in the 1950s and for the next twenty-five years or so it was the only book on Bhagavan’s teachings that was easily available in the West. Several generations of Bhagavan’s western devotees picked up their ideas about Bhagavan from this book. I was one of them. I read this book in 1974, and when I came to Ramanasramam for the first time in 1976 I was firmly convinced that self-enquiry involved concentrating on the heart-centre. However, in the first year or so after my arrival here I read all the available books on Bhagavan and spoke with many old devotees about Bhagavan’s teachings. Faced with the overwhelming body of quotes on this topic (many of which I have listed above) I dropped this particular idea. I think that Arthur Osborne went through a similar process. In the articles that he wrote for The Mountain Path in the 1960s he was advocating a more acceptable position: that meditation on the Heart-centre was one practice – and a very good one – and that self-enquiry was something else. I suspect that, like me, he read more widely, and perhaps talked to other devotees about this, and eventually came to the conclusion that the two practices were not related. He concluded, as I did, that ‘you should try to have rather than to locate the experience’. That was Bhagavan’s advice to Kapali Sastri, and it is advice that all devotees should follow.
A few moments’ reflection on how and why self-enquiry works ought to convince most devotees that self-enquiry will not be successful if one holds the heart-centre as the object of one’s attention. Bhagavan taught that the individual ‘I’ continues to exist only so long as it associates itself with objects of thought or perception. When it is freed of such associations, it subsides into the Heart and disappears since it cannot exist unless it latches on to and associates with thoughts. Concentrating on any place in the body prolongs the existence of the individual ‘I’; being subjectively aware of ‘I’ and ‘I’ alone makes it sink and disappear.
Around 1980 I was giving a talk at a conference in New Delhi. I mentioned that Bhagavan had not advocated concentrating on the heart-centre during enquiry. At a later session of the same conference I was accosted by a distinguished elderly gentleman who produced a pile of bookmarked Ramanasramam publications. All the marks related to his contention that self-enquiry and concentrating on the heart-centre were practices that should be done together. I tried to convince him that Bhagavan had not taught this, but he remained unconvinced. A few years later he took sannyasa under the name Swami Ramanananda Giri, and he ended up becoming a devotee of Papaji. In the early 1990s I caught up with him again in Lucknow, where we were both attending Papaji’s satsangs. He told me that when he first met Papaji in Rishikesh in 1985 he had produced the same pile of books and had tried to get Papaji to validate his position. Papaji refused, saying that Osborne was wrong on this particular point.