Ramana Maharshi On Self-Inquiry In 2 Sentences

In the “Preface” to The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, Arthur Osborne includes an elegant summary of self-inquiry in Ramana’s words: “It is not right to make an incantation of ‘Who am I?’ Put the question only once and then concentrate on finding the source of the ego and preventing the occurrence of thoughts” (p. 5).

Ramana’s very succinct instructions can use some unpacking.

  1. The Difference between a Mantra and Self-inquiry.– As Chan master Sheng Yen also states, self-inquiry (akin to huatou) is not a mantra. While a mantra is repeated time and again and while a mantra is a sacred sound, self-inquiry is indeed a mode of questioning. As a genuine line of questioning, the question, well, needs to be deeply registered as a question. Sure, each time one asks, “Who am I?,” it may seem as if the question could get old or gray, but, quite the contrary, the question is ever-fresh, ever-penetrating, ever-enigmatic.
  2. Putting the Question.– Sheng Yen and Ramana also agree on the fresh way of putting the question. Now Ramana does not mean “only ever ask the question once.” What he means, rather, is that the question, whenever it is put, needs to be put in a mysterious, hungrily-wanting-to-know sort of way. Therefore, putting the question “only once” means asking it gingerly, tenderly, and hungrily and then trusting that the question will point the way Home. What cannot be underscored enough here in Point 2 is the growing, then abiding sense of deep trust in What Is.
  3. Concentrating on Finding the Source of the Ego.– Here, I think that Ramana, committed to the direct path, leaves out what, I believe, is a preliminary step for many (but not all) spiritual aspirants. That preliminary step involves strengthening considerably the powers of concentration first. Once, via early meditations, such powers have been strengthened, then Ramana’s counsel is to the point: concentrate on finding the source of the person/personal consciousness/ego-self. “Who am I?” means, really, “Who is that which is really asking the question, who is that from which this question arises, and who is that to which this question returns? Who, in brief, is aware of all of this?” In Zen speak, there can be, as the inquiry deepens, a greater and greater sense of “I don’t know.” The finite mind starts to realize that it cannot know its Source.
  4. Preventing the Occurrence of Thoughts.– This pointer requires some finesse. On the one hand, self-inquiry has nothing to do with the suppression of thought (cf. spiritual bypass). On the other hand, there is room in self-inquiry for some “delicate muscle” to be applied: really wanting to know Who I Am, I, as personal consciousness, may need to experience fewer and fewer thoughts first. For when there is, as Zen says, no-thought or no-mind, then there is realization. “Preventing the occurrence of thoughts” really means seeing What Is beneath and prior to it all.

Metaphysical Univocity And Neti Neti: Going Too Far

One of Brad Gregory’s elegant arguments from Th Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society is that metaphysical univocity made possible the disenchantment of the modern world. Here is his summary:

Despite cascades of (post-)Enlightenment propaganda to the contrary, the mathematization of ordinary natural processes could entail no exclusion of God’s alleged, abiding, mysterious process in and through them. That required metaphysical univocity plus Occam’s razor: if a natural cause explained a natural event, it was thought, there was nothing supernatural about either. Therefore, as post-Newtonian believed, once the regularities of nature were understood to have natural causes, God could be no more than a remote first cause [cf. Deism–AT]. Nor, despite generations of (post-)Enlightenment polemics denouncing allegedly primitive superstitions, did the discovery of laws that explain natural regularities exclude the possibility of extraordinary actions by God. That, as we shall see, required a dogmatic, unverifiable belief that natural laws are necessarily and uniformly exceptionless, such that miracles as traditionally understood were impossible. But if, having absorbed and taken for granted metaphysical univocity, one imagined that God belonged to the same conceptual and causal order as his creation, and if natural regularities could be explained through natural causes without reference or recourse to God, then clearly the more that science explained, the less would God be necessary as causal or explanatory principle. In Funkenstein’s terms, “it is clear why a God describable in unequivocal terms, or even given physical features and functions, eventually became all the easier to discard.” (pp. 54-5)

What a beautiful argument! Understand that Gregory is a traditional Catholic theist. Here, he is insisting that metaphysical univocity is the crux of a massive historical and cultural mistake, the mistake being that God “belong[s] to the same conceptual and causal order as his creation.” Because of this mistake, God’s transcendence could be outright denied. But denying God’s transcendence, which is what happened as the modern science was making real, tangible, material progress, effectively meant that God, as a hypothesis, became not only unnecessary but also redundant. Hence, Occam’s razor.

Gregory’s, then, is a plea for, and defense of, God’s transcendence–and rightly so. Pure immanence cannot be defensible–surely not by any genuine mystic.

But then Gregory does not entertain the opposite tendency, one evident in Advaita Vedanta teacher Stephen Wolinsky’s approach to neti neti (“not this, not this”). The via negativa (the negative way) is a powerful tool in that it reveals to the spiritual aspirant that he or she is definitely not the mind, not the body, and not the doer. Yet, if taken on its own, this approach can also terminate in desiccation, in a feeling that things are, as it were, “dried out.”

How so?

Because while the negative way can take one all the way to the Nameless Absolute, or God, it can also, on its own, seem to “dry out” the arising of phenomenal experience. After all, sentient life is celebration, a dance, a great yawlp, a wonderful act of yea-saying. God, abiding as God-self in pure transcendence, must also shine and tumble forth in immanent creative potency, in the “ten thousand things” of which Daoists speak and sing. It is inexplicable, to the finite mine, why there is something rather than no-thing, but the essence of the nondual teaching states that God has a “natural tendency” to vibrate into form or to play Himself into beings.

Now, where nonduality departs from traditional theism is in its claim (which, I tell you, is more than a claim) that transcendence is in, is in-forming immanence and that what is immanently formed is none other than God. God is above and beyond, yes, but also completely in and through and around. And what is in and through is nothing but God’s being. Beings are Being and Being is beings.

Thereefore, yes, let us celebrate God’s transcendence but let us also celebrate God’s immanence. How can we not? And, come to that, who are we anyway?

How To See Off Samskaras

In a short essay, “Freedom from Binding Ego Tendencies: The Essence of Spiritual Liberation,” Timothy Conway discusses the “constricting ego tendencies of attachment and aversion (variously termed samskarasvasanaskleshasnafs, sins, etc.), and cessation of the ignorance which creates a sense of a separate ‘me” (italics in the original). Of course, a good number of these ego tendencies simply fall away as one is on the path, but what about the “stickier” samskaras (and as Stephen Wolinksy suggests, some samskaras can be especially sticky)?

Here’s the pith from Conway:

As for these binding, heavy likes and dislikes (we’re not talking here about harmless preferences, e.g., preferring brown rice to white rice)—a good sign of spiritual progress is that these tendencies, these karmic habit-patterns of the egoic soul, become thinned out as one lets go, lets God. So, even if it seems that one can’t right now entirely drop certain “unwholesome” or “sinful” patterns of pride, anger, greed, lust, hatred, revulsion, apathy, disgust, envy, jealousy, shame, guilt, pettiness, and so forth, one can endeavor to have these patterns thinned out—letting them arise and pass away more quickly by simply seeing them off. One realizes, as the Buddha so often advised 2500 years ago about any body-mind identifications, “This is not me, this is not mine, this is not my Self.” (my emphases in bold)

It’s worth asking: what approaches can help these sticky samskaras to thin out? What follows are some helpful approaches/meditations:

Let it be energy. Take the label off of the samskara and have it simply as energy.

Let it be energy–and add a koan. Take the label off of the samskara and have it simply as energy. Additionally, ask: “Where does this vital energy come from? Where does it go?”

Use self-inquiry. “To whom does this samskara arise?” “To me.” “Who am I?”

Play with: little mind… Big Mind…. First, become intimate with the samskara, noticing where and how it shows up in the physical body. Next, give it a label that has some strong emotional charge. For instance, if it’s hatred, it could be: “Hell is other people.” Notice what it’s like when that phenomenon is really charged. Next, come to the heart space and give this a provisional label like “love,” “vastness,” or “openness.” Dwell in this heart space. Next, toggle back and forth between the samskara (“Hell other people”) and the heart space of openness (“love”). Finally, abide in and as love. (Cf., similarly, Integral Zen’s approach called Conflict Liberation.)

Use a Tantric approach. Suppose the samskara is fear. First, be very intimate with the fear. Ask: “Can I merge with this fear, merge with it entirely?” Next, ask: “What is it that this fear truly longs for?” See that it truly longs for all-things-being-abidingly-all-right-or-OK. Finally, allow it to be with, and as, the abidingly OK. See: what is that like in direct experience?

Hold it in a steady gaze. Simply and kindly hold the samskara in a steady gaze, neither indulging it nor being repulsed by it. Let the gaze be very steady, secure, humble, simple, and loving. Observe as the samskara fades away (cf. the Buddha’s first discourse).

Be behind the mind. As Nisargadatta says, “Look at the mind from the outside.” As Th Diamond Sutra says, “Mind arises, but I do not abide.” Here, look at the samskara from the outside. Can you establish yourself “out and back”? Can you realize that, always, you are “behind” the mind?

These are just some approaches I’ve used. Experiment: see what works for you.

In all things, Nisargadatta would urge upon us earnestness, sincerity, and patience. So too here. The desire to get rid of a samskara is not the way. (That’s, in fact, just more of the same, isn’t it?) Help in patiently and earnestly seeing it Home is.

Who Creates Your Dreams?

Each night we go to sleep and we may have as many as seven dreams before waking up in the morning. Where, I wonder, do all these dreams come from? And who, or what, created them?

If you’re being honest with yourself, then the questions above should strike you as being quite mysterious. You don’t know where your dreams come from nor do you know who, or what, created them.

And if you’re being especially honest with yourself, then you have to admit that your dreams are more sophisticated, nuanced, detailed, and complex than most, if not all, of your experiences in the waking state.

Let’s be even more honest with ourselves, shall we? If you are keenly aware of your dreams (lucidly or via memory upon waking), then it seems quite farfetched to claim that you could have created them, that your dreams could have been spun from somewhere within your finite personal consciousness. After all, the plots are just too intricate, the character development too refined, the resolution too high, the whole thing too ornate and exquisite. Let’s stop kidding ourselves: I’m no great American novelist or filmmaker, and I suspect that you aren’t either. Besides, if we could create such fantastic worlds from out of our imaginations and by drawing from our artistic acumen, why aren’t we actually doing so in the waking state? Our waking state experiences are, in fact, often drab, repetitive, and redundant, especially when they’re compared with our dreams.

The truth is that we don’t have what it takes to create such intricate, lively, multi textured dreams and dreamscapes. Therefore, dreams must come to us.

Realizing this, we should be open to the possibility that some greater form of consciousness is creating all these dreams. What is that? And what are we?