The Constancy, Intensity, And One-pointedness Of Self-inquiry

In Annamalai Swami: Final Talks (ed. David Godman), a questioner asks Annamalai Swami a very important question. He or she wonders why asking, “Who am I?,” has not brought about Self-realization. After all, Sri Ramana Maharshi seems, at the age of 16, to have asked, “Who am I?,” but one time and, in a flash, awakened to the Self.

Many accounts are given that seek to account for the relative “ripeness” of a spiritual seeker. Here, below, Annamalai Swami presents a simple, elegant, and straightforward account: (1) you must be constant in your practice; (2) you must bring great intensity to the inquiry; and (3) you must come to “one-pointed determination” for only in this way can the mind sink back into its Source. Without all three, the question will lack “flavor” (in the language of Chan).

In brief, in your practice: be constant, bring fire, and be one-pointed.

I include the marvelous excerpt from Annamalai Swami: Final Talks, pp. 44-6 below the asterisks.

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Question: Bhagavan wanted to know the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ He seemed to find the answer straight away. When I ask the question, when I try to find out what the Self is, I can reject thoughts that arise as being ‘not me’, but nothing else happens. I don’t get the answer that Bhagavan did, so I am beginning to wonder why I am asking the question.

Annamalai Swami: You say that you are not getting the right answer. Who is this ‘you’? Who is not getting the right answer?

Question: Why should I ask? Asking has not produced the right answer so far.

Annamalai Swami: You should persist and not give up so easily. When you intensely enquire ‘Who am I?’ the intensity of your enquiry takes you to the real Self. It is not that you are asking the wrong question. You seem to be lacking intensity in your enquiry. You need a one-pointed determination to complete this enquiry properly. Your real Self is not the body or the mind. You will not reach the Self while thoughts are dwelling on anything that is connected with the body or the mind.

Question: So it is the intensity of the enquiry that determines whether I succeed or not.

Annamalai Swami: Yes. If enquiry into the Self is not taking place, thoughts will be on the body and the mind. And while those thoughts are habitually there, there will be an underlying identification: ‘I am the body. I am the mind.’ This identification is something that happened at a particular point in time. It is not something that has always been there. And what comes in time also goes eventually, for nothing that exists in time is permanent. The Self, on the other hand, has always been there. It existed before the ideas about the body and the mind arose, and it will be there when they finally vanish. The Self always remains as it is: as peace, without birth, without death. Through the intensity of your enquiry you can claim that state as your own.

Enquire into the nature of the mind by asking, with one- pointed determination, ‘Who am I?’ Mind is illusory and non­-existent, just as the snake that appears on the rope is illusory and non-existent. Dispel the illusion of the mind by intense enquiry and merge in the peace of the Self. That is what you are, and that is what you always have been.

Annamalai Swami On The Need For Constant Meditation

In Final Talks with Annamalai Swami, a student asks Annamalai Swami, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi when Ramana was alive and, in later years, a fine teacher in his own right, about how he or she can “stabilize” in the Self. After all, the questioner states, “One can have a temporary experience of the Self… but then it goes away.”

Annamalai Swami reminds the questioner of a common mistake: the Self is not like a lamp that, being lit, “may blow out if the wind is strong.” The Self, or Consciousness, alone is. Therefore, if it appears as if the Self is only temporarily experienced, then it must be because you keep, as it were, putting “a curtain or a veil in front of it.” That is, “you are still believing in wrong ideas,” and these wrong ideas are coloring the Self while appearing to hide it. Indeed, he underscores, “While these ideas are covering up the Self, you still need to do constant sadhana.”

Annamalai Swami’s last remark helps us to clear up a certain confusion. Because Ramana Maharshi was fully realized at the age of 17, when one reads his teachings, sometimes, albeit mistakenly, one can be left with the impression that Self-inquiry is fairly smooth and effortless. Ya know it was so easy for Ramana! So simple: just inquire, “Who am I?” with earnestness–and poof–Self-realization!

That’s not how it was, it seems, for Annamalai Swami. As David Godman tells it,

Annamalai Swami lived and worked with Sri Ramana from 1928 till 1938, supervising most of the construction projects that were undertaken in his Guru’s ashram. In 1938, Sri Ramana asked Annamalai Swami to give up this work and devote himself instead to solitary meditation. All these construction activities and the subsequent years of meditation were graphically described in Living By The Words O f Bhagavan, Swami’s autobiography.

Annamalai Swami: Final Talks, ed. David Godman

Imagine all those decades during which Annamalai Swami was involved in deep meditation. Not until the 1980s did spiritual seekers, according to Godman, come to see Annamalai Swami for upadesa, or spiritual instruction. It can be inferred that Annamalai Swami was very thorough in his investigation of Reality.

From this short biography, it can be gleaned why Annamalai Swami, in his Final Talks, repeatedly emphasizes the need for “constant meditation” on the Self, for Self-inquiry to be continuous. So long as the mind arises, one shall need to undertake Self-inquiry. And when the mind finally sinks back into the Source and abides as the Source, then Self-inquiry is over and Self-abidance naturally takes hold.

I find in Annamalai Swami’s teaching, then, a very compassionate way of helping students, time and again, to make their inquiry into the nature of the Self complete, to make sure that throughout the day Self-inquiry continues, and, ultimately, to see this inquiry through all the way to the end.

Realizing The Non-existence Of Ignorance

Recently, my wife Alexandra read aloud an excellent passage from S.S. Cohen’s little book Guru Ramana:

[Female Disciple]: Why then do we need to concentrate?

[Ramana]: Concentration, meditation and all spiritual practices are not performed with the object of realising the Self, because the Self is ever-present, but of realising the non-existence of ignorance.

This is very direct teaching.

Note that Ramana Maharshi is not urging upon us the need to “polish the mirror.” According to this teaching, one that I myself have drawn from and commonly cited, Reality is a mirror that appears, in any case, to be obscured by all the specks and stains upon it. Consequently, the point of spiritual practice, in this understanding, is to do what is necessary to let go of as many obscurations and vexations as is needed in order for Reality to be clearly apprehended.

Ramana is speaking even more directly than this. Spiritual practice, he insists, isn’t even about polishing the mirror. In fact, all it “does” is to reveal the inherent nature of our very blessed being. Thus, one carries on with spiritual practice only so long as is necessary to directly realize “the non-existence of ignorance.”

Can we be even clearer about his teaching?

The True Self is always already the case. Period. Ever-present, it goes nowhere and comes from nowhere else. Period. As the Single Reality, it therefore can’t be realized or unrealized. Period. In the strongest possible sense, then, it is. Or, simply, isness.

Therefore, we can only ever, in truth, be enlightened, awake, liberated. This direct vision, this immediate understanding, however, can only seem opaque so long as we continue to mistakenly believe that we are ignorant of our true nature.

We need to be careful, here, so as not to fall into Neo-Advaita’s false teaching: stop spiritual practice and just–intellectually–affirm that you are the True Self.

This Neo-Advaita stance is not what Ramana Maharshi says. In his reply, he unequivocally underscores the need for spiritual practice (again, “[c]oncentration, meditation and all spiritual practices”), a need that applies to anyone who is still enthralled by the false belief that he or she is not enlightened.

The practical point of all this? To sit deeply is to cease all seeking. And what remains is precisely, as it has ever been, This.

A Brief Summary Of Koyre’s From the Closed World To The Open Universe


Because Alexandre Koyre’s brilliant From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1957) can, for those who aren’t scholars in the history of science or in the history of ideas (and I am certainly not the former), I’d like to provide a way of understanding the text below. In essence, I surface what I take to be the three central questions that Koyre seems to be implicitly asking.

The Final Paragraph: The New Cosmology, Summarized

You need only read the final paragraph of the text to see where the story of the paradigm shift in cosmology as we cross the threshold into modernity ultimately leads:

The Infinite Universe of the New Cosmology, infinite in Duration as well as in Extension, in which eternal matter in accordance with eternal and necessary laws moves endlessly and aimlessly in eternal space, inherited all the ontological attributes of Divinity. Yet only those–all the others the departed God took away with him.

Koyre, From Closed World, p. 276

There is much to unpack here. We can begin to do so by citing a longer, more recent work by B. Alan Wallace, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher as well as an able expositor of contemporary science.

A Picture of Scientific Materialism

Wallace succinctly summarizes the scientific materialism that, since the nineteenth century, has not only won out but also become ideological common sense for most Westerners:

Existence is purely physical–there is no other reality. The sources of this reality are the laws of nature, forces that are entirely impersonal, having no connection whatsoever with the mind of human beings, their beliefs, or values. These laws operate in isolation from any supernatural, spiritual influences, all of which are illusory. Life in the universe is an accident, the outcome of mechanical interactions among complex patterns of matter and energy. The life of an individual, one’s personal history, hopes and dreams, loves and hates, feelings, desires–everything–are the outcome of physical forces acting upon and within one’s body. Death means the utter destruction of the individual and his or her consciousness, and this too is the destiny of all life in the universe–eventually it will disappear without a trace. In short, human beings live encapsulated within a vast, alien world, a universe entirely indifferent to their longings, unaware of their triumphs, mute to their suffering. Only by facing this reality and accepting it fully can humans live rationally.

B. Alan Wallace with Brian Hodel, Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), pp. 24-5

In this passage, we can easily make out the coordinates of the New Cosmology: infinitude, materialism, acosmism, and atheism.

My Interpretation of Koyre’s Central Questions

In my reading of From the Closed World, Koyre is asking three basic questions:

1. The Infinite Universe: Is, for thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth and indeed for us today, there a cosmos or a universe–that is to say, a finitist conception or an infinite conception?

The reason this question matters has to do, I divine, with what I’ll term aesthetic comprehensibility. A finitist conception of the cosmos is fit, orderly, elegant, and graspable. In short, such a conception presents Reality as a home, at least at the level of intelligibility, for human beings and for other sentient beings.

A oft-cited line in Pascal’s Pensees, originally published in 1670, bears out the existential stakes: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” For what we have inherited is a mathematically infinite universe, one that “infinite in Duration as well as in Extension” lacks the aesthetic comprehensibility on offer in the Ptolemaic cosmos. For this reason, when we peer out into the distant night sky, we can seem ‘lost,’ ‘in exile,’ or as if this ‘cold, indifferent universe’ bears no relation to our meager, apparently time bound existences.

2. The Status of Materialism: Does the Closure Principle hold universal sway?

That is, can we account for all of reality by appealing only to material forces? Though Newton didn’t think so (thus the immaterial, or supernatural, force of gravity that he defended), a certain Cartesian materialism clearly captured the imagination of European elites by the nineteenth century.

The result for us today is, quite shockingly, an all-pervasive materialism.

3. The Status of God: Is God the author and architect of the created world, or is God irrelevant?

As we discover in Michael Buckley’s tome At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987), it’s not as if atheism was ‘proven’ or theism ‘disproven.’ Rather, by the nineteenth century–and we’re experiencing this tragic result in our time–the question of God’s existence had become irrelevant. Hence, Koyre quotes Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1823) who, when asked about the role of God in his system, told Napoleon : “Sire, je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothese” (Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.)

Strange yet very sad to say, the most important existential-metaphysical questions–Does God exist? And what is God?–have gone into hiding for us today.