Thursday, 20 November 2008

Atma-vichara and the ‘practice’ of neti neti

On one of my earlier articles, Repeating 'who am I?' is not self-enquiry, two anonymous comments dated 31 October 2008 and 19 November 2008 have been posted recommending the practice of neti neti as prescribed by Stephen Wolinsky.

I do not know anything about Stephen Wolinsky or the practice that he has prescribed, but what these two comments say about his practice of neti neti makes me suspect that it is very different to the simple practice of atma-vichara (self-investigation or self-enquiry) taught by Sri Ramana, which is the only truly effective means by which we can experience our natural state, in which we remain separate from all the extraneous adjuncts that are not ‘I’.

The term neti neti literally means ‘not thus, not thus’, and denotes the process of intellectual self-analysis by which we discriminate and understand that our body, mind and all other such adjuncts cannot be ‘I’. Having understood this truth intellectually, we should seek to experience what we really are. Since we are not the body, mind or any other such transitory phenomenon, we should withdraw our attention from them and allow it to rest in and as our own essential being, which is always conscious of itself as ‘I am’.

In the comment dated 31 October 2008 Anonymous writes that Stephen Wolinsky prescribes practising neti neti ‘without using your thoughts, memory, feelings, associations and perceptions’, but how is this possible? Since neti neti (‘not thus, not thus’) is only a thought, how to practise it ‘without using your thoughts’?

In order to ‘practise’ neti neti, we must think of the body, mind and other adjuncts that we wish to reject as ‘not I, not I’, but by this very act of thinking that they are not ‘I’ we are continuing to give them reality and to attach ourself to them. In order to separate ourself from them, we must simply ignore them, which we can effectively do only by attending exclusively to that which is really ‘I’, namely our own self-conscious being.

Any practice other than atma-vichara — which is the non-dual practice of thought-free self-conscious being — is merely a mental activity, so it can be practised only when we have risen as this thinking mind, which is our primal thought ‘I’, the subject or first person who thinks all other thoughts. In order to separate ourself from this mind and all the other adjuncts to which it attaches itself, we must refrain from rising as it. In other words, we must just be as we really are, which is thought-free self-conscious being.

We can exclude all thoughts only by attending to nothing other than our own essential being, which is the source from which they all rise and in which they must all subside. Since thoughts can rise only when we attend to them, they will all subside naturally when we keep our attention fixed exclusively in our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’.

In the comment dated 19 November 2008 Anonymous writes that ‘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’. In true ‘meditative inquiry’ our attention should not be on anything other than ‘I’, our own essential being or self-consciousness. If our attention is on anything else, such as some words that are being said, we are not practising true self-enquiry or atma-vichara.

Atma-vichara is truly a practice that need not and cannot be “guided”, because what guidance do we need to know ‘I am’? As Sri Ramana once said:
The way is subjective, not objective; so it cannot and need not be shown by another. Is it necessary to show anyone the way inside his own house? If the seeker keeps his mind still, that will be enough.
(Maha Yoga, 10th edition, 2002, page 200)
We can keep our mind still only by being keenly self-attentive and thereby excluding all thoughts. And since we always know ‘I am’, there is nothing easier or more straightforward for us than to be self-attentive.

However, though we always know ‘I am’, we tend to ignore or overlook this ever-present self-consciousness because we are so enthralled with attending to our mind, body and this world, so in order to withdraw our attention from all such things we should make effort to be wholly and exclusively self-attentive.

Such exclusive self-attentiveness is the only practice that we need do, because it is the only practice by which we can separate ourself from all thoughts or adjuncts, which are ‘not I, not I’ (neti neti), and thereby experience ourself as we really are.


Anonymous said...

"Since thoughts can rise only when we attend to them, they will all subside naturally when we keep our attention fixed exclusively in our own essential self-conscious being, ‘I am’.". I try to fix my attention on the feeling 'I am', which is present all the time. However, this attention, even when sustained for a considerable amount of time, does not result in the the melting away of body consciousness, and as a result of this, other thoughts occasionally arise and sense perceptions are constantly active. Sometimes, I feel the practice is futile because the melting away of body consciousness seems like an act of grace and not something which I can accomplish by attempting to focus on 'I am' as much as possible. Exclusive attention to 'I am' doesn't seem like something the spurious 'I' can accomplish but something which may or may not happen, depending on if an act of grace occurs or not. I'm not sure if I'm practicing correctly. How long should I keep my attention on 'I am' before body consciousness abates? If done correctly, should it abate immediately, in a few seconds, in a few hours? Please help.

Michael James ( said...

In reply to the anonymous comment posted above, I have written a new article, Self-attentiveness, effort and grace.

Anonymous said...

You're quite right to question the value of the Neti Neti practice as I presented it before(via Stephen Wolinsky's guided meditation which I brought up). However, after a few months I discarded it in favor of just practicing self attentiveness or self inquiry as you've described it.

Nonetheless, following the Neti Neti paradoxically enough brought me to the point where I could sense what Wolinsky called the "non verbal I am" on his CD. I realize it wouldn't seem feasible that this could work out as such but when one is instructed to not use his "thoughts, memory, emotions, associations or perceptions", that in itself constitutes this non verbal I am. Then the tricky part comes when one is asked for instance whether one is "a man, woman, or neither." But in NOT resorting to thoughts, memory, perceptions, etc., it's not possible to answer the question being that obviously requires the mind. So in THAT sense, to accomplish the goal of attaining and maintaining the I am, one must not bother with the Neti, Neti aspect even with the "temptation" that might represent.

Perhaps in this respect, it's akin to solving the age old Zen Koan about the sound of one hand clapping.
One can't "think" of answering it but it is certainly "answerable."

Heruka said...

Re: Wolinsky:"I do not depend on thoughts, memories, associations, perception."

You might enjoy the 2min vid of Stephen explaning consciousness in terms of "I am" at:

Roger Isaacs said...

Hi Michael,
I just found your site and I am very excited to look through it.

I have often wondered about the topic of "neti-neti" versus "who am I?".

My post is somewhat strange considering the last activity was 8 years ago.... but some topics are timeless!

IMO both approaches are entirely valid and have the same potential. They are very similar. BTW, I have heard ofStephen Wolinsky.

You say:
In order to ‘practise’ neti neti, we must think of the body, mind and other adjuncts that we wish to reject as ‘not I, not I’, but by this very act of thinking that they are not ‘I’ we are continuing to give them reality

The term neti neti literally means ‘not thus, not thus’, and denotes the process of intellectual self-analysis

Since neti neti (‘not thus, not thus’) is only a thought, how to practise it ‘without using your thoughts’?

The statements above define neti-neti as intellectual activity or thought process and there is a misunderstanding here.
Just as there can be a grosser initial intellectual practice of "who am I?" There also can be a grosser initial practice of "neti-neti" which might contemplate on the thinking level the adjuncts that we wish to reject. However, real success for both methods arrives when this gross process comes to a stop and we rest free from identification with thought in "I".

We could distinguish between the discriminative facility and the process of discursive thought. "Not this" skillfully applied is not discursive thinking, it is a discrimination that suddenly becomes aware that we are lost in thought and just by seeing this, effortlessly we are back to "I".

And you say
"we must direct our attention on the thought called 'I'".
While in the practice of directing our attention to "I", we are likely to find that the attention has slipped off and we are lost in thought. And this observation or discrimination that we are no longer on "I" is the "not this". Effortless, no thinking, and instantly effective.

You might say that neti-neti is a subtle mental activity, well yes, but discrimination is subtler than discursive thinking. And this subtle effort is transcendental in nature. That is: after the _realization_ that sees we are lost in thought occurs, the discrimination having served it purpose ends, and we are back on "I". It is one method of keeping attention fixed on "I". And, I strongly believe that there are multiple other such methods. One of which I use and may describe later that has helped me a lot.

One difference::
"Who am I?" does seem like an active seeking inquiry in some sense.
Whereas "not this" is not an inquiry, not a seeking, it simply interrupts discursive thought.
One might argue: since "not this" only interrupts discursive thought... since it is not seeking.... how can it find?
I would argue that when we are no longer lost in thought, when we are "I", then the higher reality is self revealing.
When we are on "I"... all technique has really stopped regardless of whatever technique we used, it does matter how we get to "I" as long as we do get there!

Oh, one more thing: you used the words "simply ignore thinking" and "exclude all thoughts" and "overlook thoughts" which might imply force. A lesson from Krishnamurti: if force is used to terminate thought, then freedom remains elusive. It seems that until the thinking process is truly listened to, truly understood, then thinking persists. Perhaps if we truly understand the whining child mind, then it will shut up. It may be telling us that we may need to made changes in our outer life etc. It seems that while we listen attentively to whatever may arise, eventually arising ceases.


Roger Isaacs said...

Hi Michael,
In the last post I said "I have heard ofStephen Wolinsky" this was a typo: should be "have NEVER heard of Stephen".

In the document "Who Am I?",
verse #1 states the question "Who am I?" and then describes all the things that "I am Not".
verse #2 states "If I am none of these, then who am I?"
After negating all of the above-mentioned as 'not this', 'not this', that Awareness which alone remains - that I am.

But verse #12 states "Other than inquiry, there are no adequate means.

This presents an apparent contradiction: the document praises "neti-neti" but claims "inquiry" is the only means.

What do you make of it?


Michael James said...

Roger, I have replied to both of your comments in a separate article: We can separate ourself permanently from whatever is not ourself only by attending to ourself alone.