You also ask: ‘when you are doing self-inquiry should your concentration be so good that you are not even aware of what’s going on around you, like the ceiling fan running, a baby crying etc. or is it OK if you are aware of the background noises like that?’ Yes, ideally you should not be aware of anything other than ‘I’. For example, if you were absorbed in reading a book that really interests you, you would not notice the sound of a fan or any other background noises, and if you did notice some sound such as a baby crying, that would mean that your attention had been distracted away from the book. Likewise, if you are absorbed in experiencing only ‘I’, you will not notice anything else, and if you do notice anything else, that means that your attention has been distracted away from ‘I’, so you should try to bring it back to ‘I’ alone.Referring to this, a friend wrote to me in June saying:
In a recent post, you wrote that while doing Atma-vichara we should not be aware of any sounds or other sensations if we are fully immersed in the “I am.” However, I believe I’ve read that while Ramana said that there is no “world” as perceived by the ego-mind, all appearances are fundamentally manifestations of the Self. While no particular “thing” is the Self in a limited sense, the Self can’t be restricted to a state of nothing being seen or sensed.The following is adapted from the reply I wrote to him:
Would you agree that the Self manifests It-Self when there is no subject-object duality? […] If this is true, why is it said that the practice of Atma-vichara should lead to a state in which nothing is perceived?
When you say, ‘all appearances are fundamentally manifestations of the Self’, in what sense are you using the term ‘manifestation’? When a rope is mistaken to be snake, would you say that the snake is a manifestation of the rope? Would it not be more correct to say it is a manifestation of our ignorance — our failure to recognise the rope as it actually is? Likewise, rather than describing all appearances as manifestations of our real self, would it not be more accurate to describe them as manifestations of our self-ignorance — our failure to recognise ourself as we really are?
It is true that the substance that appears as all this diverse multiplicity is ourself, just as the substance that appears as a snake is the rope, but just as the rope cannot seem to be a snake unless it is seen to be such by an ignorant observer, what we actually are cannot seem to be anything else unless we experience it through the ignorance-tainted lens of our mind. Our mind is tainted by ignorance because it is a mistaken experience of what we actually are, so in order to see clearly what actually exists (that is, what everything that seems to exist actually is), we must investigate who am I and thereby experience ourself as we actually are.
Since the appearance of otherness and multiplicity exists only in the view of this mind (and not in the view of our real self), so long as we experience anything other than ‘I’ we are experiencing ourself as this mind and not as what we actually are. Therefore, in order to experience ourself as we actually are, we must experience ourself in complete isolation from everything else — that is, we must experience nothing other than ‘I’ alone — and in order to experience ourself thus, we must attend to ‘I’ alone and thereby completely ignore and remain unaware of the seeming existence of any other things. This is all that the simple practice of self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) entails.
Because we cannot experience ourself as we actually are so long as we are experiencing anything other than ‘I’, Sri Ramana wrote in the third paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? (Who am I?):
சர்வ அறிவிற்கும் சர்வ தொழிற்குங் காரண மாகிய மன மடங்கினால் ஜகதிருஷ்டி நீங்கும். கற்பித ஸர்ப்ப ஞானம் போனா லொழிய அதிஷ்டான ரஜ்ஜு ஞானம் உண்டாகாதது போல, கற்பிதமான ஜகதிருஷ்டி நீங்கினா லொழிய அதிஷ்டான சொரூப தர்சன முண்டாகாது.When you say, ‘While no particular “thing” is the Self in a limited sense, the Self can’t be restricted to a state of nothing being seen or sensed’, this is true in a certain sense, but it is like saying that the rope cannot be restricted to the state in which it is not seen as a snake. Even when it is seen as a snake, it is actually only a rope, so the appearance of the snake does not limit or in any way affect the rope itself. Likewise, even when our real self (that is, what we really are) is experienced as all this multiplicity that we call the world, it is actually only our real self, so the appearance of this multiplicity does not limit or affect our real self in any way whatsoever.
sarva aṟiviṯkum sarva toṙiṯkuṅ kāraṇam āhiya maṉam aḍaṅgiṉāl jaga-diruṣṭi nīṅgum. kaṯpita sarppa-jñāṉam pōṉāl oṙiya adhiṣṭhāṉa rajju-jñāṉam uṇḍāhādadu pōla, kaṯpitamāṉa jaga-diruṣṭi nīṅgiṉāl oṙiya adhiṣṭhāṉa sorūpa darśaṉam uṇḍāhādu.
If the mind, which is the cause of all knowledge [other than our fundamental knowledge ‘I am’] and of all activity, subsides, jagad-dṛṣṭi [perception of the world] will cease. Just as knowledge of the rope, which is the base [that underlies and supports the illusory appearance of a snake], will not arise unless knowledge of the imaginary snake ceases, svarūpa-darśana [true experiential knowledge of our own essential self], which is the base [that underlies and supports the imaginary appearance of this world], will not arise unless perception of the world, which is an imagination [or fabrication], ceases.
However, just as the appearance of the snake creates fear in us, even though it is actually only a harmless rope, so the appearance of this world creates many problems for us (such as desire, fear, pain and suffering), even though what seem to be this world is actually only ourself. This is why Sri Ramana ends the fourteenth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? by saying:
[…] ஜக மென்பது நினைவே. ஜகம் மறையும்போது அதாவது நினைவற்றபோது மனம் ஆனந்தத்தை யனுபவிக்கின்றது; ஜகம் தோன்றும்போது அது துக்கத்தை யனுபவிக்கின்றது.Like the ‘world’ that we experience in a dream, all that we experience as the ‘world’ in this waking state is nothing but a series of mental phenomena (impressions, images, ideas or thoughts) that we have formed or fabricated in our mind by our power of imagination, so here he says, ‘What is called the world is only thought’, and in the fourth paragraph he says:
[…] jagam eṉbadu niṉaivē. jagam maṟaiyum-pōdu adāvadu niṉaivaṯṟa-pōdu maṉam āṉandattai y-aṉubhavikkiṉḏṟadu; jagam tōṉḏṟum-pōdu adu duḥkhattai y-aṉubhavikkiṉḏṟadu.
[…] What is called the world is only thought. When the world disappears, that is, when thought ceases, the mind experiences happiness; when the world appears, it experiences duḥkha [affliction, pain, sorrow, distress, trouble or difficulty].
[…] நினைவுகளைத் தவிர்த்து ஜகமென்றோர் பொருள் அன்னியமா யில்லை. தூக்கத்தில் நினைவுகளில்லை, ஜகமுமில்லை; ஜாக்ர சொப்பனங்களில் நினைவுகளுள, ஜகமும் உண்டு. சிலந்திப்பூச்சி எப்படித் தன்னிடமிருந்து வெளியில் நூலை நூற்று மறுபடியும் தன்னுள் இழுத்துக் கொள்ளுகிறதோ, அப்படியே மனமும் தன்னிடத்திலிருந்து ஜகத்தைத் தோற்றுவித்து மறுபடியும் தன்னிடமே ஒடுக்கிக்கொள்ளுகிறது. மனம் ஆத்ம சொரூபத்தினின்று வெளிப்படும்போது ஜகம் தோன்றும். ஆகையால், ஜகம் தோன்றும்போது சொரூபம் தோன்றாது; சொரூபம் தோன்றும் (பிரகாசிக்கும்) போது ஜகம் தோன்றாது. […]The world that we experience consists of only sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations, all of which are impressions formed within the mind, and since they are therefore just mental phenomena, Sri Ramana says that the world is nothing but thoughts or ideas. Hence any sounds, sensations or anything else that we may experience other than ‘I’ are only thoughts or ideas, which are projected by our mind, and therefore we can experience the world (or anything else other than ‘I’) only when our mind has arisen from our real self (ātma-svarūpa). And since our mind arises only when we mistake ourself to be a body, we cannot experience ourself as we really are so long as we experience the world or anything other than ‘I’.
[…] niṉaivugaḷai-t tavirttu jagam-eṉḏṟōr poruḷ aṉṉiyamāy illai. tūkkattil niṉaivugaḷ illai, jagam-um illai; jāgra-soppaṉaṅgaḷil niṉaivugaḷ uḷa, jagam-um uṇḍu. silandi-p-pūcci eppaḍi-t taṉṉiḍamirundu veḷiyil nūlai nūṯṟu maṟupaḍiyum taṉṉuḷ iṙuttu-k-koḷḷugiṟadō, appaḍiyē maṉam-um taṉṉiḍattilirundu jagattai-t tōṯṟuvittu maṟupaḍiyum taṉṉiḍamē oḍukki-k-koḷḷugiṟadu. maṉam ātma sorūpattiṉiṉḏṟu veḷippaḍum-pōdu jagam tōṉḏṟum. āhaiyāl, jagam tōṉḏṟum-pōdu sorūpam tōṉḏṟādu; sorūpam tōṉḏṟum (pirakāśikkum) pōdu jagam tōṉḏṟādu. […]
[…] Excluding thoughts [or ideas], there is not separately any such thing as ‘world’. In sleep there are no thoughts, [and consequently] there is also no world; in waking and dream there are thoughts, [and consequently] there is also a world. Just as a spider spins out thread from within itself and again draws it back into itself, so the mind projects the world from within itself and again dissolves it back into itself. When the mind comes out from ātma-svarūpa, the world appears. Therefore when the world appears, svarūpa [our ‘own form’ or essential self] does not appear [as it really is]; when svarūpa appears (shines) [as it really is], the world does not appear. […]
Everything other than ‘I’ is just a thought or mental phenomenon, and since thoughts are only an expansion of our mind or ego, everything is ultimately just the ego, as Sri Ramana says in verse 26 of Uḷḷadu Nāṟpadu:
அகந்தையுண் டாயி னனைத்துமுண் டாகுWhen we investigate what this ego is, we will eventually discover that it is nothing other than our infinite real self, and hence it will cease to exist as (or seem to be) an ego. And since everything else that seems to exist exists only in the deluded view of this ego (which itself does not actually exist but just seems to exist), when it ceases to exist even seemingly everything else will also cease to exist, and only our real self will remain as it always is, experiencing nothing other than itself, ‘I am’.
மகந்தையின் றேலின் றனைத்து — மகந்தையே
யாவுமா மாதலால் யாதிதென்று நாடலே
யோவுதல் யாவுமென வோர்.
ahandaiyuṇ ḍāyi ṉaṉaittumuṇ ḍāhu
mahandaiyiṉ ḏṟēliṉ ḏṟaṉaittu — mahandaiyē
yāvumā mādalāl yādideṉḏṟu nādalē
yōvudal yāvumeṉa vōr.
பதச்சேதம்: அகந்தை உண்டாயின், அனைத்தும் உண்டாகும்; அகந்தை இன்றேல், இன்று அனைத்தும். அகந்தையே யாவும் ஆம். ஆதலால், யாது இது என்று நாடலே ஓவுதல் யாவும் என ஓர்.
Padacchēdam (word-separation): ahandai uṇḍāyiṉ, aṉaittum uṇḍāhum; ahandai iṉḏṟēl, iṉḏṟu aṉaittum. ahandai-y-ē yāvum ām. ādalāl, yādu idu eṉḏṟu nādal-ē ōvudal yāvum eṉa ōr.
English translation: If the ego comes into existence, everything comes into existence; if the ego does not exist, everything does not exist. [Hence] the ego itself is everything. Therefore, know that investigating what this [ego] is alone is giving up everything.
Regarding your question, ‘Would you agree that the Self manifests It-Self when there is no subject-object duality?’, yes, I would agree that (as Sri Ramana clearly implies in the third paragraph of Nāṉ Yār? quoted above) what we actually are will not manifest itself (that is, will not be experienced by us) so long as we experience any subject-object duality. However, since we do not experience any subject-object duality in sleep, not experiencing such duality is (though necessary) not sufficient to enable us to experience ourself as we really are. In order to experience ourself as we really are, we must not only experience no subject-object duality, but must also clearly experience what ‘I’ actually is (who am I) by focusing our entire attention upon ourself (‘I’) alone.
So long as we experience anything other than ‘I’, we are experiencing subject-object duality, so the only way to destroy subject-object duality is to experience only ‘I’, and the only way to experience only ‘I’ is to be exclusively self-attentive.
Regarding your final question, ‘If this is true [that the Self manifests It-Self when there is no subject-object duality], why is it said that the practice of Atma-vichara should lead to a state in which nothing is perceived?’, so long as anything other than ‘I’ is perceived, we are experiencing subject-object duality, which means that we are experiencing ourself as the perceiving subject, namely the ego or mind. Therefore, if we practise ātma-vicāra (that is, if we investigate who am I by trying to focus our entire attention on ‘I’ alone), this will eventually lead us to our natural state, in which we experience ourself as we really are, and when we experience ourself thus, the illusion that that we are this ego or mind will be destroyed, and in the absence of this illusion no perceiving subject will remain to perceive or experience anything other than itself.
Therefore, since we can experience ourself as we really are only when we experience ourself alone, in complete isolation from the appearance of any other thing, the only means by which we can experience ourself as we really are is the practice of ātma-vicāra, in which we try to experience ourself alone by attending keenly and vigilantly to nothing other than ‘I’.