I am aware that many people end up on this site after Googling some combination of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Ramana Maharshi’. I am assuming that most of them are looking for practical advice on how to take up or pursue Ramana Maharshi’s teachings on self-enquiry. I have therefore put together this package of instructions and dialogues that I hope will be enough to explain the method and encourage people to try it out.
The first section is derived from a Youtube talk that I gave a few years ago. I have removed some of the introductory material about the text Who am I? which Ramana Maharshi wrote in the 1920s and instead focused on the part of the talk that gave practical advice on the method. I have substantially expanded and revised the material, so what follows is not just a transcript of what I said in the talk. If, on the other hand, you have come to this page looking for a translation and analysis of Bhagavan’s essay Who am I?, that can be found here.
After this two-page presentation on the practice of ‘Who am I?’ there will be excerpts and transcripts from other sources, including from Ramana Maharshi himself, which will go into various aspects of his teachings on self-enquiry.
David: I have been asked, ‘What is Bhagavan’s simple, most basic message on how to do self-enquiry. I will start with his brief explanation from his essay Who am I?:
Question: What is the path of enquiry for understanding the nature of the mind?
To which Bhagavan replies:
That which rises as ‘I’ in the body is the mind. If one enquires as to where in the body the thought ‘I’ rises, first one would discover that it rises in the heart. That is the place of the mind’s origin. Even if one thinks constantly ‘I-I’, one will be led to that place. Of all the thoughts that arise in the mind, the ‘I’-thought is the first. It is only after the rise of this that the other thoughts arise. It is after the appearance of the first personal pronoun ‘I’ that the second and third personal pronouns [you, he, she, it] appear. Without the first personal pronoun there will not be the second and third.
And the next question is: ‘How will the mind become quiescent?’ This is Bhagavan’s answer:
By the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts and, like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then there will arise Self-realisation.
After this reply there is this crucial question about practice. The question is: ‘What is the means for constantly holding onto the thought ‘Who am I?’ To which Bhagavan replies:
When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them but should enquire, ‘To whom do they arise?’ It does not matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises one should enquire with diligence, ‘To whom has this thought arisen?’ The answer that would emerge would be ‘To me’. Thereupon if one enquires, ‘Who am I?’ the mind will go back to its source and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.
So those are Bhagavan’s instructions on what you have to do. But that’s not the end of the story. This is a two-way transaction. Bhagavan has said in other places that if you can make your ‘I’ go back to its source and abide there, you invoke the power of the Guru, the power of the Self. Ultimately, it is this power which is going to suck your quiescent ‘I’ thought into its source and definitively destroy it. What Bhagavan is saying is that through repeated practice you can learn to take your sense of ‘I’ back to its source and hold it there in such a way that nothing distracts it. Nothing will make it want to go out and follow a thought. If you reach this state of effortless thought-free ‘I’ sense, then this ‘I’ will be abiding at its source. But this is not liberation. This is simply the ‘I’ offering itself up as a sacrifice to the Self. When this ‘I’ no longer has any impetus to move out – when there is no momentum left in it to chase a thought – then the power of the Self will reveal itself to that ‘I’ thought. It will draw it into itself. It will then destroy it and liberation will result. Your job is to take the ‘I’ back to its source and hold it there. The power of the Self, acting through the Guru, will take hold of that ‘I’ and destroy it once you’ve done that initial process.
You started off [this interview] by talking about the Buddha, [mentioning his statement] that one should not take anything on trust, not take anything as a belief. One should instead find out for oneself what is true and what is not true. One should reject what is not true and hold on to truth. That is also the essence of what Bhagavan had to say, and it’s also its the core of what he taught about self-enquiry.
Question: How is self-enquiry done? How does it work? Why doesn’t it work sometimes? And what makes a successful practice?
David: To answer all these particular questions I will first need to explain how Bhagavan saw the mind and how he thought it should be eliminated, because that’s what Self-realisation really is: the permanent eradication of the mind.
Sri Ramana taught that all of your thoughts, all of your perceptions, all of your memories, all of your ideas – they are all an outgrowth or a predicate of one primal thought which he called the ‘I’ thought. This ‘I’ is the equivalent of a string in a necklace. It’s the thread that runs through every single idea, thought and perception that you have. Bhagavan said this ‘I’ is the subject. It is who and what you are. Everything that the ‘I’ thinks or perceives or experiences is an object.
When I say, ‘I see a tree,’ ‘I’ is the subject and the tree is an object. When I say, ‘I feel angry,’ ‘I’ is the subject while the emotion anger is the experienced object. Sri Ramana said that your attention is continually on the objects that you, the subject ‘I’, are seeing, feeling and perceiving. He said that because your attention is always on experienced objects, rather than the subject, you never become aware of the true nature of the subject. Very interestingly, he said this subject ‘I’ that you never seriously look at is, in fact, a fiction. It appears to exist by attaching itself to things that are not itself. It arises from the mistaken idea that ‘I am a person. I have a mind. I live inside a particular body. I do things. I remember things.’ Sri Ramana taught that this idea is absolutely wrong. He said that this is what causes you suffering. It’s what makes you have wrong ideas about yourself and about the world. He said that every single wrong idea you have about yourself, about the world, about God, stems from this idea that you are a person inhabiting a body and having a mind.
Bhagavan said this sense of personal identity, which he called the ‘I’ thought, needs to be challenged, and it needs to be challenged repeatedly, regularly, on a moment-to-moment basis. He said that because your attention is always on things that are not the ‘I’ – the objects of your attention, the objects that you remember, believe and perceive – you never put attention on yourself to see what it is that is thinking your thoughts and perceiving your perceptions. Bhagavan said that this subject, the ‘I’ thought, is where your focus needs to be. When you do this, you’re not looking at things that you want to study, things that you want to know. You’re actually looking at the entity within yourself which thinks your thoughts and which perceives your perceptions.
Ramana Maharshi repeatedly asked visitors to contemplate the following question: ‘What is this thing inside you that is aware of your thoughts? What is this thing inside you that claims it’s perceiving objects outside of yourself?’ And when he said ‘contemplate’, he meant putting attention exclusively on it and keeping it there. He didn’t mean that you should study it as an object and come to some intellectual conclusion about what it might be.
Bhagavan said this ‘I’ which we assume ourselves to be is not something that ever comes under scrutiny because we are all obsessed with the continuous flow of objects that present themselves to us: remembered objects, perceived objects, the thought objects. Sri Ramana said that we need to find out the nature of this sense of individual identity in order to see through the fiction of individuality. His solution was to be continuously aware of this one inner entity, this one inner thing that associates and identifies with all the things that it thinks about and perceives.
Bhagavan called it the ‘I’ thought but calling it ‘I’ and looking for it often makes people create an idea called ‘I’, which they then go looking for. They think, ‘Oh, my “I” is up here, or its down there’. Or, ‘It’s this feeling of peace or beingness that I experience when I close my eyes.’ They then start focusing on an idea or an experience, something they imagine the ‘I’ to be, rather than the ‘I’ itself.
How to avoid this trap of objectifying the ‘I’ as something that needs to be looked at? Whenever you go looking for the ‘I’, whatever the mind alights on is an object, because that is the way the mind functions: it creates things to look at and then puts attention on them. Notice how your attention, like a searchlight, seeks something to focus on. If you are looking for the ‘I’, it might end up on a bodily sensation, a bodily location, or an intense feeling of peace or well-being. Examine the process of how this happens. Before you find that object you think might be the ‘I’, there is a preliminary stage of looking, or seeking. That which is doing the looking is the ‘I’, not the thing that it eventually looks at. Catch yourself in the process of searching for the ‘I’ and try to catch the ‘I’ that is doing the looking. That looking ‘I’ is the ‘I’ thought, not some experienced object that you subsequently latch onto and label ‘I’.
What I would suggest is that you look at yourself and be continuously aware, ‘What is it inside me that thinks my thoughts when I am thinking? What is it inside myself that perceives a perception when I think I am seeing something?’ That is your ‘I’. That is your sense of individual identity.
This isn’t simply a question of looking at something and understanding it. It is not an object to be analysed and understood like a dissected specimen pinned to a board. Bhagavan tells us that this thing which correlates and organises all thoughts, all perceptions, isn’t actually a real entity. It fools us into believing that it is a real and permanent thing because we never look at it closely, never study it to see how it persuades us of its reality.
Sri Ramana said if you can hold on to this sense of ‘I’, this thing that thinks your thoughts, and not be distracted by any passing thought-object it wants to be entertained by, this ‘I’ will very very slowly start to subside. Keep full attention on this inner feeling, this thing that thinks your thoughts, without allowing it to escape and grab any more ideas or perceptions. Sri Ramana says that if you do this successfully, this ‘I’ will go back to its source and, ultimately, it will disappear. That disappearance will reveal to you who you really are. Bhagavan sometimes says that you need to find the source of the ‘I’. You don’t find that source by looking in a particular place or direction. You discover it by holding onto an awareness of ‘I’ until it subsides and vanishes. Holding onto it leads you slowly back to the source in a way that looking for a specific localised source never does.
Bhagavan gave a good analogy in one of his dialogues. He said, ‘Imagine the ‘I’ thought is the shirt of a man, and that shirt is not being worn. It’s not on the body. The man’s dog can pick up the scent of that man. The dog can put its nose on the ground and follow that scent back to the original owner of that shirt.’
This is a good analogy for the ‘I’ thought and its relationship with the Self. The ‘I’ thought is not the real Self, but nevertheless it still has a component of reality that can be used to track it back to its source. The ‘I’ thought is not who you really are, but by absolutely focusing intently on that thing within you which has all these thoughts, you pick up the scent of its origin, and you then follow it back to its source. If you keep your metaphorical nose to this ‘I’ thought and follow it back to its place of origin, it goes back to the Self – it goes back to the Heart and vanishes.