Monday, May 24, 2010


The practice of self-inquiry (Atma-vichara in Sanskrit) is the most important meditation practice in the Vedantic tradition. It is the primary method through which Self-realization-the realization of our true nature beyond mind and body-is achieved. Sage Ribhu said in Ribhu Gita “Only by those strong willed persons who make earnest and persistent Self-enquiry will the turbulent mind be controlled and fixed still in the practice of firm bhavana. In due course all thoughts and nescience will disappear, yielding place to the effulgent Awareness-Self of mukti.” In Yoga Vashista sage Vashista said to Rama, “O Rama, this enquiry into the Self of the nature or 'Who Am I?' is the fire which burns up the seeds of the evil tree which is the mind”.

Self-enquiry finds prominent place in the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharishi. Ramana Maharishi says “Barring fruitful self-enquiry there is, for real mind control, no other spiritual practice whatsoever. The mind may seem to be controlled by other methods, but after a while it will spring up again. If without wasting time one starts and keeps up steady self-enquiry, one’s life becomes at once ennobled, and there wells up within one’s heart a sea of bliss supreme”.

The process of Self-enquiry can be explained in a few words. To practice it you need only trace the root of your thoughts back to the I-thought, from which all other thoughts arise. This is initiated by the question "Who am I?". By asking, "Who am I?" our thought current naturally gets focused on the search for the true Self and we forget about all other concerns and worries of the mind.

However, Self-enquiry does not consist of merely repeating the question "Who am I?" over and over again in our minds, which is only a tiring mental exercise. It means holding to the search for the true Self in all that one does. It requires that we have a real and fundamental doubt about who we are, through which we can reject all outer identifications. It is as if one had amnesia and didn't know who one was and had to give full attention to the matter before anything else could be done.

Self-enquiry is an enquiry that requires one's entire energy and attention. It requires a full and one-pointed concentration, not interrupted by the intrusion of other thoughts. The thought current naturally moves back to the Self to the extent that we do not preoccupy our minds with outside stimulation. The problem is that the senses present us with so many distractions that it is difficult to look within. Self-enquiry means to constantly question and reverse this process of extroversion by seeking out the origin of our awareness and energy in the heart.

The truth is that we don't know who we really are, because we never properly investigate our true nature. The sense of 'I', the feeling of being a particular person who inhabits a particular body, only persists because we continuously identify ourselves with thoughts, beliefs, emotions, objects, and so on. The 'I' never stands alone by itself; it always exists in association: 'I am Rama,' 'I am a lawyer,' 'I am a woman,' 'I am angry,' etc. These identifications are automatic and unconscious. They are just the unchallenged assumptions that lie behind all our experiences and habits

Sri Ramana Maharshi maintained that this tendency towards self-limiting identifications could be checked by trying to separate the subject ‘I’ from the objects of thought which it identified with. Since the individual ‘I’-thought cannot exist without an object, if attention is focused on the subjective feeling of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ with such intensity that the thoughts ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’ do not arise, then the individual ‘I’ will be unable to connect with objects. If this awareness of ‘I’ is sustained, the individual ‘I’ (the ‘I’-thought) will disappear and in its place there will be a direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ was called self-enquiry (vichara) by Sri Ramana Maharshi and he constantly recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the ‘I’-thought.

So what we call our Self is but some thought, emotion or sensation that we are temporarily identified with and that is constantly changing. Our lives are shrouded in ignorance about our true nature, springing from the most basic feelings that we have, especially our bodily identity. We are not the body. Rather, the body is a vehicle in which our true Self is obscured. As long as we don't question this process of self-identification we must come to sorrow and remain in darkness and confusion.

The true Self is not only beyond human distinctions, it is beyond all divisions of time and space, name and form, birth and death. Self-inquiry leads us ultimately to the Absolute in which the phenomenal world becomes little more than a mirage of the mind and senses. It goes far beyond the discovery of some greater self, or any human or creative potential, to what is beyond all limitations. In the process we expand our sense of self to include the entire universe.


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