Monday, 19 October 2015

Self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) is just the simple practice of trying to be attentively self-aware

This article is adapted from the replies that I wrote to two emails written by a friend called Ladislav asking for advice on how to practise self-investigation (ātma-vicāra).

First reply

In his first email Ladislav wrote:
My issue: still I can’t feel ‘I’ or my self. I also tried to repeat in my mind the word ‘I’ or ‘I am’, but still I have not succeeded (i.e. I don’t feel anything other than before. I don’t feel myself). I don’t look for sensation but I seek sense of self. Please can you advise me, what do I do to know feeling self?
In reply to this I wrote:

When you say ‘I can’t feel I’, are there two ‘I’s, one of which cannot feel the other? Are you not always just one ‘I’? Are you not always self-aware? Are you not always aware that ‘I am’? There is nothing more to know than this.

However, though you always know ‘I am’, now you know yourself as ‘I am Ladislav’. Though you now seem to be Ladislav, you are not really Ladislav, because you exist even in sleep, when you are not aware of Ladislav. Therefore your experience ‘I am Ladislav’ is illusory, not real.

This is why Bhagavan used to say that we need not attain any new knowledge, but only need to get rid of our current wrong knowledge of ourself (the illusory experience ‘I am Ladislav’). Therefore when we practice self-investigation we should not look for anything that we do not already experience, but should only try to experience ourself (‘I am’) alone, in complete isolation from everything else (that is, in complete isolation from Ladislav and everything that you experience only when you experience yourself as ‘I am Ladislav’).

We are already self-aware, but most of the time we are not attentively self-aware, because we are most interested in experiencing things other than ourself. Therefore all we need to do is to try to be attentively self-aware — that is, aware of nothing other than ourself alone.

Second reply

Ladislav responded to my first reply by asking several more questions, such as how to remember the consciousness ‘I am’, and whether he should try to do so by repeating the words ‘I am’, even though the words are not the consciousness itself, to which I replied:

When you think or say ‘I’ or ‘I am’, what are you referring to? Superficially you are referring to a certain person or body called ‘Ladislav’, but why do you refer to this person as ‘I’ and all the other people as ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘she’? What special relationship do you have with Ladislav that makes you refer to him as ‘I’? You refer to him as ‘I’ because you now experience yourself as the body called ‘Ladislav’.

However, this body called ‘Ladislav’ cannot be what you really are, because you are aware of yourself in dream even though you are then not aware of this body. In dream you experience yourself as some other body, so since you do not permanently experience yourself as any one particularly body, you cannot really be any of the bodies that you temporarily experience as yourself.

You, who now experience yourself as this body and who at other times experience yourself as other bodies, remain the same you (the same ‘I’) whatever body you experience as yourself, so underlying the superficial and temporary awareness ‘I am this body’ is a deeper and more permanent awareness, namely the awareness ‘I am’. Whatever body you may currently experience as yourself, you are always aware of yourself as ‘I am’, so this awareness ‘I am’ is your fundamental self-awareness. This fundamental self-awareness is what you are actually referring to whenever you think or say ‘I’, but generally you confuse this self-awareness with your awareness of a body, so you mistake that body to be ‘I’.

You are always self-aware, but you are generally not attentively self-aware, because your attention is usually preoccupied with being aware of other things, in which you are more interested. When we investigate ourself, we are interested in experiencing what we really are, so we try to divert our attention away from other things back towards ourself. In other words, we try to be not merely self-aware, as we always are, but attentively self-aware.

Trying to be attentively self-aware is all that self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) entails, so it is an extremely simple practice. However, when we try to be attentively self-aware we are beginning to undermine our ego, which is the foundation on which everything else that we experience depends, so as long as we have any desire to experience anything other than ourself, we will try to protect our ego by resisting our attempts to be attentively self-aware. Therefore, though it is actually very easy to be attentively self-aware, we find that every time we try to be attentively self-aware our attention is quickly attracted towards other things, so we have to patiently and persistently continue trying to be attentively self-aware whenever we find that our attention has been diverted away towards anything else.

This is why this simple practice seems to be so difficult. It is not actually difficult, but it seems difficult because we prefer to be aware of other things rather than to be aware of ourself alone. In other words, it seems difficult because of our lack of true love (bhakti) to be aware of ourself alone. The only way to cultivate the required love and the consequent desirelessness (vairāgya) is to persevere in trying to be attentively self-aware.

The difficulties you face with this practice are difficulties that we all face, but we should not allow these difficulties to deter us. We should just continue trying as much as we can. As Bhagavan often used to say, no one has ever succeeded in this path without perseverance.

Because we have more love to be aware of other things than we have to be aware of ourself alone, when we try to be attentively self-aware our self-awareness often seems elusive, but it is not really elusive. We are always aware of ourself, whether or not we are also aware of anything else, so our self-awareness is more clear than our awareness of anything else.

Our self-awareness is the light that illumines our awareness of everything else, so saying that our self-awareness is too elusive for us to catch is like saying that we can see all the objects in this room but cannot see any light. If there were no light, we could not see anything, so whenever we see anything we are seeing light. Likewise, without self-awareness we would not be aware of anything, so whenever we are aware of anything else we are aware of ourself, because we are aware that ‘I am aware of this’.

Self-awareness is ‘I’, so I could not be aware of anything else without being aware of myself. Since what is aware of anything is only ‘I’, ‘I’ is the fundamental basis of awareness of anything whatsoever. Without ‘I’ there would be no awareness at all, so we are never not aware of ‘I’, ourself. Therefore we are always self-aware, and hence it cannot actually be difficult for us to be attentively self-aware if we really want to be. If it seems difficult, that is only because we do not want it sufficiently, so we have to cultivate the love to be attentively self-aware by repeatedly and persistently trying to be so.

You ask whether you can remind yourself of your awareness ‘I am’ by repeating the words ‘I am’ in your mind, and you express doubt about this idea, saying that those words are not the awareness. It is true that the words are not the self-awareness that they denote, but whenever we think of a word we tend to recall whatever is denoted by it. For example, if we think of the word ‘apple’, what comes to our mind is a visual image and/or the taste of an actual apple. Likewise, if we think ‘I’ or ‘I am’, these words tend to remind us of our self-awareness, which is what they denote. Therefore thinking these words can sometimes help us to turn our attention back towards our self-awareness.

However, we should remember that merely repeating the words ‘I’ or ‘I am’ is not self-investigation. Self-investigation begins only when our attention actually turns back towards our self-awareness. In other words, what we must attend to is not just the words ‘I’ or ‘I am’ but what these words refer to, namely ourself. The words are something other than ourself, but they can be a powerful aid in helping us to turn our attention back to ourself, because we are what these words actually refer to.

Our aim is only to be attentively aware of ourself alone. Whatever may be an aid to this is good insofar as it does actually help us to be attentively self-aware, but we should not mistake any aid to be the actual self-awareness on which alone we should be focusing. Any aid can only be of limited use, and can never be a substitute for actually being attentively self-aware. Therefore we should take care never to lose sight of our aim, which is only to be attentively aware of ourself alone, in complete isolation from even the slightest awareness of anything else whatsoever.

How to actually be attentively aware of ourself alone is something that we can learn only by practice. Just as we can learn to ride a bicycle only by practising to ride one, we can learn to be attentively aware of ourself alone only by practising to be so. Whatever words may be used to explain this practice are only pointers, but to understand what they are pointing at we must try to apply them in practice. By trying we will learn by experience. There is no other way.

We only need to be attentively aware of ourself alone for a moment, because as soon as we are attentively aware of ourself alone we will experience ourself as we really are and thereby the illusion that we are this ego will be destroyed forever. Now we are only trying to be attentively aware of ourself alone, but none of us have yet succeeded, because if we had succeeded we would no longer exist as an ego or mind.

Whenever we try we do manage to a certain extent to be attentively aware of ourself, but our awareness of ourself is still mixed with awareness of other things, so we must continue trying until we manage to be aware of nothing other than ourself alone. Therefore we should not give up on this practice just because we have not yet experienced what it is to be attentively aware of ourself alone, in complete isolation from everything else, but must continue trying until we succeed.

The more we try, the more it will become clear to us what being attentively aware of ourself actually is, but it will become perfectly clear to us only when we succeed in being attentively aware of ourself alone, thereby destroying our ego forever.

21 comments:

Gowri said...

Michael,
"Our self-awareness is the light that illumines our awareness of eveything else,..."
Oh, many thanks, you do us a good turn when we get remembered that without self-awareness we would not be aware of anything.

Monterosso said...

Michael,
You say "Our aim is only to be attentively aware of ourself alone."
Am I right when I think/feel you mean a kind of alert attentive listening into oneself ?

Michael James said...

Monterosso, self-attentiveness could be called ‘listening into oneself’ only in a metaphorical sense, not a literal one, because we ourself are not a sound, but only absolute silence. Therefore rather than describing being attentively aware of ourself alone as ‘alert attentive listening into oneself’, it would be more accurate and may be more helpful to describe it as ‘alert attentive observation of oneself’.

However, in this context even terms such as ‘observation’, ‘observing’, ‘watching’ or ‘attending to’ have a potential to be misunderstood, because such terms are generally used with reference to the observing of objects (that is, things other than ourself), whereas we ourself are the subject and can therefore never become an object. Therefore whenever such terms are used to describe the state of self-attentiveness, we should be careful to avoid thinking of ourself as something that can be observed as an object. This is why I generally prefer to use terms such as ‘self-attentiveness’ or ‘attentive self-awareness.

However, by saying this I do not mean to imply that it is wrong to talk of observing, watching or attending to ourself, or to use even more metaphorical terms to describe being attentively self-aware, so long as we each understand that what such terms mean in the context of the practice of self-investigation is not any kind of objective attention. Bhagavan himself often described this practice using metaphorical terms, because no words are actually adequate to describe it, and hence metaphorical language can sometimes convey what is meant more powerfully that even the most precise words could do.

Therefore if you find it helpful to think of this practice as ‘alert attentive listening into oneself’ in the sense of listening to silence, then you may certainly do so.

Monterosso said...

Thank you, Michael James, for your reply.
Yes I mean the "sound of non-objective silence".

Anonymous said...

Does this practice work? There are so many Gurus each offering a unique method - a method that might have worked for them. The real question is does it work for others? Michael, from your writings I gather you have been practicing this for more than two decades (?). What is your realization so far? Have you been able to achieve what Bhagavan describes? Honestly, if the answer is no, then I will be very skeptical of this method.

Ptolemais said...

Anonymus, whether a method is well suited to you only you can try it out and then judge.
Practising two or more decades of self-investigation does not appear a long time. It may depend on your ripeness how long you persevere in trying to be attentively self-aware and thereby dissolve the ego and experience your real nature. What gain will you have from scepticism ?

Steve said...

"Have you been able to achieve what Bhagavan describes? Honestly, if the answer is no, then I will be very skeptical of this method."

You might be drawn to Ramana Maharshi and the practice of atma-vicara, you might not be. But the time to be skeptical, Anonymous, is if the answer to your question is yes.

Sivanarul said...

Anonymous,

Any spiritual practice, if done with earnestness will “eventually” work. It has to, because the mind is withdrawn from objects repeatedly through practice, and eventually will have to subside. There is no such thing as a fallen yogi.

As Ptolemais said, you have to try it for yourself and see whether this practice is suitable for you. With regards to time, I remember a story related to this.

There were two devotees. God appeared before the first devotee and told him that he has 3 more lifetimes for liberation. The devotee got really upset. I have been practicing Sadhana my entire lifetime and you are telling me, I have to wait 3 lifetimes. Is this a joke?

God then appeared before the second devotee and told him that he has to wait 100,000 lifetimes for liberation. The devotee got excited. He jumped up and down. He thanked God profusely. He was overjoyed that he has to wait just 100,000 lifetimes. That very second he got liberated.

Mouna said...

Self-realization does not depend solely on "the method" or how well and how often is applied. The other necessary component is Grace.
The "method" (being investigation or surrender) takes us only up to a certain stage and from there is the pulling in of Grace or the Guru (internal or external) that will complete the apparent "process".
That is what Master Ramana said and he is a good example of that.
The ego starts the process, only Grace finishes it.

Yours in Bhagavan

Sanjay Lohia said...

Mouna, You write, 'The ego starts the process, only Grace finishes it'. In a sense it is true, but Bhagavan has also said something to the effect:

Grace is the beginning, grace is the middle and grace is the end.

How did Bhagavan and his teachings come to our life? Was it not purely due to Bhagavan grace? Likewise is not the same grace supporting our all our inward effort? Our manana and whatever little we have practised being attentively self-aware is only because of some clarity and happiness that we have gained by our practice. And as you write 'The "method" (being investigation or surrender) takes us only up to a certain stage and from there is the pulling in of Grace or the Guru (internal or external) that will complete the apparent "process"'. Our external guru will vanish as we approach our ego's end, and only the internal guru (the real Bhagavan) will remain, and only this inner presence will eventually consume us.

To put it in simple words, our self-awareness always exists and we are constantly aware of it as 'I am' (though we may confuse it with our body and mind), and this self-awareness is the constant undercurrent of grace which is there from our very beginning and will remain until the very end of our sadhana. Without this presence of grace any sort of sadhana is not possible. We should respond to this grace by being attentively self-aware as much as possible. This is our response to grace, and this love to attend only to ourself is required, otherwise grace cannot complete its task of our ego's complete annihilation. Regards.

Sanjay Lohia said...

Anonymous, you write, 'Does this practice work? There are so many Gurus each offering a unique method - a method that might have worked for them. The real question is does it work for others? Michael, from your writings I gather you have been practicing this for more than two decades (?). What is your realization so far? Have you been able to achieve what Bhagavan describes? Honestly, if the answer is no, then I will be very skeptical of this method'.

Do you know of any other method which is guaranteed to work? If yes, please share it with us. Our sadguru had dissolved his ego by practising vigilant self-attentiveness, and he has convinced us that this method works. He used to say to sceptics something to the effect, 'Others have tried this method and it has worked for them, why do you think it will not work in your case?' Moreover Bhagavan is not asking us to gain or experience some unknown state which is not familiar with us, he is asking us to experience ourself as we really are, bereft of our deluded awareness of this body and mind. Do we not experience this state in our deep-sleep? We just have to experience a deep-sleep like state in our waking state. This is atma-jnana, or liberation or moksa or merging in God. Regards.

Anonymous said...

If, as a beginner, I start asking myself "Who sees that?" while being aware of my thoughts, sensations, etc and then trying to attentively see/investigate That,... is this what Bhagavan actually taught?!

Thanks...

Sanjay Lohia said...

Yes, anonymous, we should turn our attention towards ourself, towards the one who is aware of thoughts, sensations, etc. Asking oneself 'who sees that?' is not exactly what Bhagavan has asked to do, but we can ask such questions in the beginning if it helps us to turn our attention towards ourself. In other words, asking oneself mentally or vocally 'who sees that?' or 'who am I?' is not a necessary step, nor is it a essential step to bring our attention back to 'I' or 'I am'.

Michael often says that if somebody asks us find out what is written in a book, do we do this by repeatedly asking ourself 'what is written in this book', 'what is written in this book', or we simply open the book and start reading it. Our practice of self-attentiveness is similar. It is a single step practice of trying to turn our attention towards ourself alone, as frequently as possible, and for as long as possible. Regards.

Monterosso said...

Anonymus,
as also a beginner I might advise you to try to focus your attention not on the mental movement of the thought "Who sees that ?" but totally on the awareness of the source of thoughts, sensations etc.
When your concentration fades start trying again to be attentively self-aware.
Direct your focus only in your "own house".
When thoughts begin to roam around start again and again.

Michael James said...

Anonymous, in answer to the question you asked in your comment, while practising self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) our aim should be to be attentively aware of ourself alone. Asking ourself questions such as ‘who sees this?’ can be an aid insofar as it helps us to turn our attention back towards ourself, the seer or experiencer, but it is not the actual investigation, just as asking ourself ‘what is written in this book?’ is not actually reading the book. Only when we withdraw our attention from everything else (including all thoughts, sensations and questions) by trying to focus it only on ourself (our own self-awareness) are we actually investigating what we are.

Therefore if what you mean by ‘That’ (when you write ‘trying to attentively see/investigate That,... is this what Bhagavan actually taught?’) is yourself, the one sees or experiences everything else, then yes, this is what Bhagavan actually taught.

R Viswanathan said...

"Does this practice work? There are so many Gurus each offering a unique method - a method that might have worked for them. The real question is does it work for others? Michael, from your writings I gather you have been practicing this for more than two decades (?). What is your realization so far? Have you been able to achieve what Bhagavan describes? Honestly, if the answer is no, then I will be very skeptical of this method."

Please see the following two videos. These are by another sincere Bhagavan's devotee like Sri Michael James - for many decades.

Talks on Sri Ramana Maharshi: Narrated by David Godman - Self-Enquiry
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDVQC_uHRCI

Talks on Sri Ramana Maharshi: Narrated by David Godman - Recognising Enlightenment
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBflwS3IzjM

If the first video narrates the method, that the method does work can be known from the description about Sri Muruganar by Sri David Godman in the latter video.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael. Yes, what I was actually asking is, after realizing clearly that there is "something" that is aware/sees thoughts, if the practice îs to hold on to the seer... so yes, this is it...thank you (it was more of a personal confirmation). I wanted to get this as clearly as possible în my head so as to stop endless debating and reading. So, personaly, i realized that the first fundamental thing to realize is "i cannot be what i see/am aware of"(thoughts/senzations/emotions etc) there is always something that sees them and this seer is what is cucial. So i should put my attention/hold on to the Seer of what i experience. When i do that strong enough thoughts will subside along with the Seer himself (they were not real) and self realization will occur. So the Seer/Witness is esential... This is what i understood...

Noob said...

The only thing that we are certain is that we are going to die, therefore we should watch ourselves closely at that moment.

Noob said...

That's why it is important that we try to look into ourselves before the final moment comes. To practice, to get a feeling, to have a chance to avoid the confusion.

Steve said...

I agree with you, Noob. What better motivator than death, for us to persevere in trying to truly know ourself as the deathless, not as the body that dies?

Michael James said...

Anonymous, I have replied to your comment asking whether this practice works in a new article that I have just posted: The logic underlying the practice of self-investigation (ātma-vicāra).