Edited by David Godman
By 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 Maharshi himself once remarked:
‘Do not meditate – be!
Do not think that you are – be!
Don’t think about being – you are!’
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 Maharshi 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.
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