How Can We Keep Up Our Spiritual Practice In The Midst Of Our Daily Activities?

The questioner asks Annamalai Swami a question that is relevant for anyone–perhaps like you, dear reader–who is committed to spiritual practice. It is: “How can we keep up our sadhana in the middle of all our daily activities? It is very difficult” (Annamalai Swami: Final Talks, ed. David Godman, p. 59).

Annamalai Swami’s answer is wise:

When you cut jackfruits open with your bare hands, there is an unpleasant, milky liquid inside that sticks to your fingers and makes it very hard to take out the fruit. And afterwards it takes hours to scrub it all off. However, if you put a little oil on your fingers before you start the work, this milky liquid will not bother you because it cannot stick to your oiled hands.

Without some protection, contact with worldly matters can prove to be sticky and unpleasant. But if you oil yourself with remembrance of the Self, you can move smoothly and efficiently through the world, without having any of your business affairs stick to you or cause you any trouble or inconvenience. When there is a remembrance of the Self, everything in life proceeds smoothly, and there is no attachment to the work that is being done.

Ibid, p. 60.

A wise answer yet also, perhaps, an unclear one: how do we “remember the Self” in the midst of all these business and worldly affairs?

The mistake commonly made when a great spiritual teacher like Annamalai Swami tells us to “remember the Self” is that we may all too easily get caught up in believing that the mode or state of seated meditation must carry through into daily activities. But that’s an incorrect expectation for in seated meditation gross objects may subside (and how!) while in daily activities there is quite naturally some attention paid to gross objects (such as fingers on keys). In the former, the physical and mental senses may cease to be activated while in the latter, they may be necessary (albeit as modifications of the unmoving, unchanging Self).

To be more precise, then, let me suggest two ways in which “remembering the Self” happens. First, we continue Self-inquiry or the affirmation, “I am Consciousness,” throughout the course of the day, albeit intermittently. While washing the dishes, ask, “Who is washing the dishes?” While going to the bathroom, ask, “Who is going to the bathroom?” And so on. Let’s call this the more active part of “remembering the Self.” In this sense, we are engaged in “constant meditation.”

As to the more passive part, we are “remembering the Self” whenever we remain detached or uninvolved. For instance, fingers are typing out these sentences right now, but there is no ego involvement in what is presently being written. Words are simply–right now–coming forth, and afterward there is no residue or trace. Hence, we experience everything just happening without taking credit, feeling burdened, or experiencing blame. Like the Daoist sage, we “leave no trace.”


I discuss detachment, as “the essence of the Way” or Self, at greater length in this Dharma talk:

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.

* * *

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.