Yesterday, concerning Ramana Maharshi’s understanding of self-inquiry, I wrote something that I now see needs to be corrected:
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.
It’s clear that I was mistaking the present-day manner in which self-inquiry is now commonly taught with Ramana’s actual teaching. For in his earliest written work, “Self-inquiry,” dating back to the time when he was just 22-years-old, Maharshi lucidly emphasizes (1) the need to cultivate the powers of one-pointedness as well as (2) the great importance of diligent effort.
A disciple asks Ramana, “What are the limbs of yoga?,” and Ramana proceeds to elaborate on the eight limbs of yoga (see The Yoga of Patanjali). About the fifth limb, Pratyahara, Ramana states,
This is regulating the mind by preventing it from flowing towards external names and forms. The mind, which had been till then distracted, now becomes controlled. The aids in this respect are (1) meditation on the pranava [on Om–AT], (2) fixing the attention betwixt the eyebrows, (3) looking at the tip of the nose, and (4) reflection on the nada [or sound–AT]. The mind has thus [i.e., by one or more of the above means] become one-pointed will be fit to stay in one place. After this, dharana [the sixth limb, which is concerned with “fixing the mind” on the Heart] should be practised. (“Self-inquiry, The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, p. 23)
It is clear, then, that at least for some disciples Ramana prescribed mind control as a prerequisite for beginning the seventh limb of practice: meditation (dhyana) often in the form of self-inquiry.
Deliberate Effort in Self-Inquiry
At two points late in this short, powerful text, Ramana explicitly tells the disciple that one “should put forth effort in the form of reflection on the Self in a gradual and sustained manner” (p. 31), for the “experience of Self is possible only for the mind that has become subtle and unmoving as a result of prolonged meditation” (p. 32).
While Ramana’s sudden awakening “occurred” when he was but a boy of 16-years-old, documentaries also make plain that he meditated very deeply for years after this no doubt with a view to establishing himself fully in and as the Self.
In short, purifying the mind until it is one-pointed and early on making deliberate efforts in meditation (at a later point: all deliberate efforts give way to effortlessness) are indeed parts of Ramana Maharshi’s teaching.
Perhaps Ramana’s version of the direct path isn’t quite as direct as some contemporary expositors make it out to be. Better, perhaps, to call Maharshi’s an “ever-skillful almost-direct path.”