Around 2014 I was filmed at Ramanasramam giving explanations of Bhagavan’s teachings on self-enquiry. The talks took place in the old office building from where Bhagavan’s younger brother Chinnaswami ran the ashram for many years. Nowadays it has been turned into a small meditation room whose walls are covered with old images of Bhagavan. The questions are being asked by Reinhart Jung, a friend of mine who has been a regular visitor to Arunachala for several decades. An edited transcript of the exchange appears below the video.
Talking with Reinhart Jung about self-enquiry
Reinhart: David, many people are of the opinion that self-enquiry is the highest and most direct teaching of Bhagavan. What do you say about that?
David: Bhagavan did say on innumerable occasions that self-enquiry was the most direct path to liberation. He said it’s the most effective, and on some occasions he also said it’s the only effective way to realise the Self. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s his highest teachings. I’ll explain why.
Bhagavan himself, when he was asked to make a hierarchy of his teachings, always said ‘Silence is my highest teachings’. The jnani’s Self-abidance creates an energy field. If you become absorbed in that energy field, you are somehow infused with radiations of silence and peace. You tune into those emanations. If your mind is sufficiently quiet and subtle, you yourself experience the Self by being in the presence of the jnani. This, Sri Ramana said, was the direct and immediate teaching. It doesn’t require any activity on the part of the recipient. All it needs is a quiet mind, and to sit in the presence of someone who has realised the Self.
Some people might object and say that ‘Well, Bhagavan is no longer here, so that particular option is no longer possible.’ But I would say that it’s eminently available. The Self is everyone’s true nature. It’s what we really are.
Bhagavan once said that his favourite verse from the Bhagavad Gita was: ‘I am the Self, O Gudaseka, abiding in the Heart of all beings. I am the beginning, the middle, and likewise the end of all that exists.’
Bhagavan is not the person who sat on the sofa for decades. Bhagavan is the Self, shining in your own Heart. If you want to contact that Self, all you have to do is look in the right direction and be directly aware of it. There is a very nice verse in Padamalai, one of Muruganar’s collections of Bhagavan’s spoken teachings. Bhagavan says there: ‘Why are you complaining that I am not looking at you? Your problem is, you’re not looking in the right direction. If you look at me in the Heart, you will discover that I am looking at you all the time, continuously.’
Although there is no longer a Bhagavan on a sofa on whom one can physically focus and get this satsang, there is always a Bhagavan residing in the Heart. To see Bhagavan looking back at you, all you need to do is move your attention 180 degrees away from where it is now and instead point it towards the Heart.
The number one teaching is therefore silence. It’s not a prescription to think about anything, do anything, or want anything. It is simply abiding in that inner silence, in that inner presence. Attention should be directed towards the Bhagavan who resides there all the time. And it should be held there until the one who is attempting to hold onto the source vanishes into that source.
That’s level one. The next level down would be Bhagavan telling you authoritatively who you really are. If you went to Bhagavan and said, ‘Who am I? What is the truth? What is the highest truth?’ He wouldn’t say do self-enquiry or some other practice to discover it. He would usually say instead, ‘You yourself are the Self. You yourself are Consciousness. You yourself are Brahman.’
This is not simply a piece of information that he is giving you to file away with all the other bits of information in your brain. When a jnani tells you, ‘You are the Self, you are consciousness,’ there is a power in those words. If you listen to those words in your Heart, not in your brain, not in your mind, then those words are charged. By simply accepting those words in silence, you yourself have the possibility of becoming the truth of those words. You experience the truth of those words simply by hearing them in the right place, from the right source, and by letting them settle in the right place.
To recap: The highest level of teaching is sitting in the presence of the Self, and experiencing it directly through the power and grace that emanates from the jnani. If that doesn’t work, and if you then ask Bhagavan what you should do to realise the Self, he would often reply, ‘Why are you looking for something that you already are? You yourself are Consciousness. You yourself are the Self.’
People would often respond to this by saying, ‘Yes, yes, but what do I do?’ That’s not the correct or most effective response. When Bhagavan says, ‘You are Brahman, you are consciousness,’ you should respect the Guru’s words. The Guru is telling you a very important truth about your true nature. He’s not asking you to do something. He’s not asking you to go to a cave and meditate. He is telling you from his own experience what the truth of your own real nature is. If you can accept those words, if you can take delivery of them in the right place, then you yourself become the Brahman that Bhagavan has just declared that you are.
Now, regrettably, that is not going to happen with the vast majority of people. Most people could sit with Bhagavan and feel, to some extent, his power, his presence, his silence. But not many people could take delivery of the words, ‘You are the Self, you are Brahman,’ and actually experience those words for themselves. Only a very few, a fortunate few, could. Most people have to come down to the next level.
They approach Bhagavan and they say ‘I have listened to that statement, but it is doing giving me the experience of the Self. How do I get enlightened? What’s the quickest, the most direct way of getting enlightened?’ That’s when we arrive at the practice of self-enquiry.
So, although Bhagavan said that, if you wanted a practice, self-enquiry was the most direct path, he often put it a little way down the list of effective ways to realise the Self.
Reinhart: Bhagavan is famous for giving the question ‘Who am I?’ Why did he do so?
David: When Bhagavan asked people to ask ‘Who am I?’ to find out the nature of the ‘I’, he wasn’t giving some abstract intellectual advice. He was passing on the method by which he himself had realised the Self at the age of sixteen. As he was lying on the floor in Madurai, the question arose in him, ‘Who is the one that sees?’ Meaning, ‘What is this thing inside me that sees something outside?’ He said that, as a direct answer to that question, his individual ‘I’ went back into the Heart and died, revealing a state in which there was no longer any distinction between the one who saw things, and the objects that were seen. When he said, ‘Ask yourself “Who am I?”’ he was saying, in effect, ‘This is how I got enlightened. Try it yourself, and maybe the same thing will happen to you.’
Bhagavan would occasionally be asked, ‘Why does this particular method work, and why is it better than other methods?’ To answer that, I need to explain a little of Bhagavan’s teachings on the nature of the ‘I’ – how people have wrong identifications, and how those identifications can be erased.
Bhagavan said the idea that we are an individual person, an ‘I’ inside a body, is a defective programming, a kind of wrong conditioning that we all suffer from. He said that there is an apparently existing ‘I’ inside the body which thinks itself separate from everything outside. We assume, ‘There’s a world outside; there are people outside there, interacting with each other.’ These are the objects that we perceive through our senses, and these are the things that we think about through our mind.
For example, when I say, ‘I see a tree,’ ‘I’ is the subject ‘I’. ‘A tree’ is the object I look at. When I say, ‘I feel happy,’ ‘I’ is the subject ‘I’ and ‘happiness’ is the object state that I am absorbed in. Bhagavan said this dichotomy between a subject who thinks and perceives and an object that is seen, thought about or experienced is the root cause of individuation. The idea that we are a separate self arises simply because of this confused notion that we are a person occupying a body who sees things that are separate from us, and thinks about things which are different from us. Bhagavan taught that this particular illusion, this particular wrong idea, can be challenged by putting attention exclusively onto the ‘I’ which thinks thoughts, which remembers memories, and which appears to see objects.
Sri Ramana said that this individual ‘I’ comes into existence and continues to exist only as long as it identifies with the things it thinks about, and the things that it sees. He said there is a continuous process of reinforcement in operation. The idea ‘I am a person who lives in a body’ arises and persists only because of all the objects that the individual ‘I’ thinks about, or identifies with, or associates with.
Sri Ramana taught that you need to challenge these limiting ideas: ‘I am a person; I am a woman; I am a man; I am angry.’ He maintained that the common thread to all these assumptions and wrong associations is the ‘I’ who thinks, the ‘I’ who perceives, the ‘I’ who feels. He said that if you can put full attention on this inner sense of ‘I’, vigilantly focusing on it in such a way that the ‘I’ no longer jumps out to identify or associate with objects, then that individual ‘I’ can no longer exist. The ‘I’ needs to identify or associate with an object in order to create and sustain the idea of individuality.
Bhagavan taught that the ‘I’-thought, the illusory sense of being a discrete, localised person, arises and sustains itself by latching onto objects and thinking ‘I am this; I am that’. This indicates and suggests a route by which the ‘I’ can be made to disappear. Bhagavan taught that when you sever the link between the ‘I’ who thinks, the ‘I’ who perceives, and those things it thinks about or perceives, it, the ‘I’-thought, can no longer survive by itself in isolation. At that point, Sri Ramana said it will slowly start to subside back where it came from, which is the Heart, the Self.
Initially, when you ignore the objects and focus on the subject ‘I’, there may be feelings of peace, silence and quietness as the ‘I’-thought begins to sink into its source. Unfortunately, this ‘I’ is conditioned and programmed to extrovert all the time. Even when you try to isolate it and hold onto it, its innate tendency will make it jump towards to associate with new objects, ignoring the peace it was beginning to discover by subsiding.
Bhagavan taught that the practice of self-enquiry should be done by holding onto the inner sense of ‘I’ to the exclusion of all other thoughts. You can do this by either asking yourself ‘Who am I?’ and then transferring attention from the objects to the subject ‘I’, or you can go directly to the ‘I’ and keep attention to it. The important thing is the self-attention that results from the switching of attention from objects to the subject.
If this is done diligently, a point is reached when the mind no longer becomes interested in extroverting and attaching itself to objects such as thoughts, ideas, memories. Once this tipping point is reached, it begins to subside, eventually reaching the Heart, where it vanishes. At this point you realise that the true ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ that thinks ‘I am the body,’ or ‘I am this thing that sees and latches onto external objects.’ You discover the true ‘I’ inside yourself. This is the universal ‘I’ that makes no distinction between what’s inside and what’s outside. Those superimposed categories, inside and outside, cease to function and no longer frame and define your world view.