Thursday, 25 January 2007

Repeating 'who am I?' is not self-enquiry

One confusion about self-enquiry that exists in the minds of many spiritual aspirants is that the practice of self-enquiry involves asking ourself or repeating to ourself the question 'who am I?' Therefore I often receive questions from aspirants that reflect this common misunderstanding.

For example, a new friend recently wrote to me as follows:

I am still trying to obtain a copy of The Path of Sri Ramana (Part One) translated by you. According to product description from product page of this book [at]:
... Sri Sadhu Om makes it clear that the point of Self-inquiry is not repeating "Who am I?" and the point of Self inquiry is not repeating "To whom do these thoughts arise?". The purpose of Self-inquiry is Self-Awareness or Self-attention ...
Is this correct observation? But from what I read from Sri Ramana Maharshi's books, basically Maharshi was saying "repeating 'Who am I?' or 'To whom do these thoughts arise?'" when doing self-inquiry? Is this conflicting? Actually, I feel "repeating 'Who am I?' or 'To whom do these thoughts arise?'" is quite awkward.
In my reply I wrote as follows:

Sri Sadhu Om has explained the practice of self-enquiry correctly and very clearly. When you manage to obtain a copy of The Path of Sri Ramana, you will be able to see for yourself how convincingly he explains the real meaning of Sri Ramana's teachings and the correct method of practising self-enquiry.

Sri Ramana never recommended that we should repeat questions such as 'who am I?' or 'to whom do these thoughts arise?'. In fact, in verse 2 of Ekatma Panchakam (which I have translated and explained on pages 400 to 401 of Happiness and the Art of Being) he says:
Declare a drunkard who says, 'Who am I? What place am I?' as equal to a person who himself asks himself 'who am I?' [or] 'what is the place in which I am?' even though oneself is [always] as oneself [that is, though we are in fact always nothing other than our own real self or essential being, which clearly knows itself as 'I am'].
As Sri Sadhu Om explains, the correct practice of self-enquiry is self-attention, that is, focussing our attention wholly and exclusively upon ourself — upon our fundamental consciousness of our own being, 'I am'. This is clearly stated by Sri Ramana in the sixteenth paragraph of Nan Yar? (Who am I?), in which he defines the true meaning of the term atma-vichara — 'self-enquiry', 'self-investigation' or 'self-scrutiny' — by saying:
… The name 'atma-vichara' [is truly applicable] only to [the practice of] always being [or remaining] having placed [our] mind in atma [our own real self]…
In Happiness and the Art of Being I have discussed in detail why Sri Ramana sometimes used to explain the practice of atma-vichara or 'self-enquiry' using terms such as 'investigate to whom these thoughts have occurred' or 'investigate who am I'. For example, on pages 157 to 159 I have translated the sixth paragraph of Nan Yar?, in which he uses such terms, and on pages 156 to 170 and 444 to 446 I have discussed the meaning of this important paragraph in great detail.

If someone said to us, "Investigate what is written in this book", we would not close our eyes and repeat to ourself 'what is written in this book?' but would open the book and read what is written inside it. Similarly, when Sri Ramana says to us, "Investigate who am I", we should not close our eyes and repeat to ourself 'who am I?' but should turn our attention towards ourself and keenly scrutinise our essential consciousness 'I am' in order to discover what we really are.

One of the reasons why Sri Ramana's basic teaching 'investigate who am I' or 'scrutinise who am I' has been misunderstood by many people to mean that we should repeatedly ask ourself the question 'who am I?' is that the word which he used to mean 'investigate' or 'scrutinise' has often been translated as 'enquire'. Therefore, in order to clear up this confusion caused by the use of the English word 'enquire', on page 399 of Happiness and the Art of Being I wrote:
... What exactly is this practice that Sri Ramana described as self-investigation, self-examination, self-scrutiny, self-enquiry or self-attention?

Though he used various words in Tamil to describe this practice, one of the principal terms he used was the Sanskrit term atma-vichara, or more simply just vichara. The word atma means self, spirit or essence, and is often used as a singular reflexive pronoun applicable to any of the three persons and any of the three genders, though in this context it would be applicable only to the first person, meaning oneself or myself. The word vichara, as we saw in the introduction, means investigation or examination, and can also mean pondering or consideration, in the sense of thinking of or looking at something carefully and attentively. Thus atma-vichara is the practice of investigating, examining, exploring, inspecting, scrutinising or attending keenly to ourself, that is, our own essential being, which we always experience as our basic consciousness 'I am'.

In English the term atma-vichara is often translated as 'self-enquiry', which has led many people to misunderstand it to mean a process of questioning ourself 'who am I?' However such questioning would only be a mental activity, so it is clearly not the meaning intended by Sri Ramana. When he said that we should investigate 'who am I?' he did not mean that we should mentally ask ourself this question, but that we should keenly scrutinise our basic consciousness 'I am' in order to know exactly what it is. Therefore if we choose to use this term 'self-enquiry' in English, we should understand that it does not mean 'self-questioning' but only 'self-investigation' or 'self-scrutiny'.
Therefore I would suggest that, while you are waiting to obtain a copy of The Path of Sri Ramana, you may find that reading Happiness and the Art of Being is very beneficial, since it will enable you to understand clearly both the practice of self-enquiry and the philosophy that underlies this practice.

In order to understand the practice of self-enquiry correctly, it is necessary for us to understand clearly the philosophy taught by Sri Ramana, because the reason why he taught his clear and rational philosophy, which is based upon a deep and thorough analysis of our experience of ourself in our three states of consciousness, waking, dream and sleep, is that it enables us to understand not only why it is necessary for us to know our real self, but also the precise means by which we can know our real self. If we try to practise self-enquiry without such a clear understanding, we will almost certainly practise it incorrectly, and we will therefore end up being disappointed because we are unable to acquire the clarity of true self-consciousness or self-knowledge that we seek.

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Ganesan said...

The gentleman who referred to this confusion prevalent in the minds of many people, may be better able to understand the quest, "Who am I," through the approach of, "Awareness watching awareness," to remove any possible doubt about self-inquiry being one of repetition. Since the quest is essentially one of one of knowing oneself as pure awareness which is at once Being, there is no question of this involving a mental act like repetition of a mantra. While Bhaghavan discountenances even meditations on Mahavakyas such as, " I am That," with the complicated syntactical meanings of the words, 'That,' and, 'Thou,' how could this suggest the idea of, 'who am I,' inquiry being a mental repetition?

Robbie said...

"If someone said to us, 'Investigate what is written in this book', we would not close our eyes and repeat to ourself 'what is written in this book?' but would open the book and read what is written inside it."

This is a wondeful analogy, Michael.

A said...

For me, Self Inquiry means to leave off all thinking (centered in the head), and language and actually try to Feel and Experience and trace in silence, where the sense of I is located at various times of the day and night.

Pure, sattvic food, little speech and not too much sleep are great aids.

One can feel oneself withdraw into the right-side Heart at night.

One can be awake prior to the body awakening in the morning - first radiant light in which there is nothing, then the layers of body mind coming to be, then the world spilling forth. In silence, one can hear the world waking up, from within. The sun comes out of the Heart.

If one listens in the Heart, for Truth to arise, then correction and direction arise from within to inform the mind.

All the teachings are buried in the Heart.

Anonymous said...

Or you could practice neti neti as it's prescribed by Stephen Wolinsky who was a student of Nisargatta(i.e., without using your thoughts, memory, feelings, associations and perceptions, are you perfect, imperfect or neither?).

Anonymous said...

Yes, Stephen's Neti Neti is effective as it's a "guided" meditative inquiry which(at least for me)keeps my attention on what's being said. Same with the meditation he has in the 4th DVD, "Beyond Consciousness."

Michael James ( said...

In reply to the above two anonymous comments dated 31 October 2008 and 19 November 2008 I have written a new article, Atma-vichara and the ‘practice’ of neti neti.

ANON said...

When reading some of the teachings, the impression I came away with was, in a nut-shell, that the individual ‘l’ is in fact an illusion and that if one investigates earnestly, it can be realised that no owner (or ‘l’) of this body or this mind, can be found to exist.

Consequently, I decided it was a good idea to begin actively directing my attention to the ‘l’ thought and the ‘l’ feeling as and when they arise. When I see the ‘l’ arise, I have taken to verbally challenging it: Who is this? Where did this come from? Whose is this? etc etc.

My thinking is that if the ‘l’ is in fact illusory, then persistently challenging such thoughts and feelings would consequently undermine the ‘l’ and its associations.

I don’t experience this approach as mindless questioning but rather as interested investigation into the ‘l’.

Is there no case, when viewed in the context of Ramana's teachings, for the approach as described??

Anonymous said...

While the repetition of the words "who am I" or "to whom has this thought arisen" might appear to be tedious repetition, it is actually, every time it is done, engraining a habit of profound change in awareness, by separating the self (or ego) from the Self (Spirit). By seeing the former as unreal and fleeting one will e entually only be aware of the latter.

mr. bend said...

'who' misleads. It suggest a thing.

Existence cannot be conceptualized because it is prior to thought. If existence cannot be conceptualized, it is not an object. If not object, then not subject to time.
When man sees that man is an idea, peace on Earth. For if no thought, identify the enemy.

Paul N said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul N said...

Thank you for your informative post. The Path of Sri Ramana sounds like a good book to read. Thanks again.