Administering Electric Shocks Or Sitting With One’s Thoughts?


In 2014, a study published in Science declared something that, to the researchers concerned, was quite surprising:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

But this finding is not surprising at all. For Pascal, it was already clear in the seventeenth century when he wrote that “[a]ll of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 

In other words, the inability to contemplate (in the Western esoteric sense) or to meditate (in the Eastern sense).

Why, it should be asked, would one prefer shocking oneself to being alone with one’s thoughts? Surely, talk in terms of preferences above is just pseudo-economic speak and thus, as a part of a more searching explanatory account, worth setting off to the side.


I submit that it’s because one does not wish to find out whatever you don’t want to see about yourself can be revealed to you while you’re sitting quietly alone. Whatever secrets you have: so revealed. Whatever samskaras–or ego impulsions–that may animate your thinking: also revealed. And so on.

You just don’t want to open this box. 


There is a dodge, in the form of an objection, that comes quickly: “But sitting for 15 minutes on my own is a waste of time.” This, to be sure, is the spirit of restlessness, but that restlessness points back to precisely what was said above: You just don’t want to open this box.

If you’re alone with yourself long enough, what might you find? What fears might be disclosed?

Perhaps: I’m alone. Perhaps: I’m helpless. Perhaps: I’m utterly unlovable. Or just possibly: I’m afraid to die at all, especially alone.


If, however, you have the courage to open the box and to look deeply within, then in time all will become clear, for all is Truth and Truth is Happiness.

Only Practice In Atma Vicara Makes Perfect

One elegant, and very intuitive argument, from Michael James’s Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana is worth sitting with:

Only practice [in atma vicara, i.e., self-inquiry, self-investigation, or self-abidance] can make perfect. By repeated and persistent practice of turning our attention back on itself to discover what this consciousness ‘I am’ really is, we will gradually refine our power of attention, making it more subtle, clear and penetrating, and thus we will gain a steadily increasing clarity of knowledge of the real infinite and non-dual nature of our consciousness ‘I am’. Finally, when our power of attention has been perfectly refined or purified – that is, when it has become freed from its present strong attachment to attend only to thoughts and objects – we will be able to know with perfect clarity our essential consciousness ‘I am’ as it really is, devoid of even the least superimposition of any limitation or identification with any other thing.

James, p. 322.

It’s surprising, I think, that few teachers or Sages speak of the process of “refinement” through diligent practice. For my part anyway, rarely, if ever, have I come upon such statements despite the fact that it’s so obviously true to one engaged deeply in practice.

Truly, diligent daily practice involving self-abidance does indeed “refine our power of attention.” It is easier and easier and more and more natural to simply abide as “I am.” Where once this seemed as if it required herculean efforts to turn from “extroversion” to “introversion” (NB: there were no such efforts in actuality; all along it’s been “unefforting”), the clarity of “I am,” which is at once the peace of “I am,” is a natural draw, a naturally placeless place to rest.

In this, as James also states, there is love as much as, and none other than, knowledge: love of Truth goes hand in hand with the deepening of knowledge such that they are not really two. To know is to surrender; to surrender to know. Whereas at first the Truth seems distant and opaque, the gradual refinement of our power of attention does place one–who has never been such a one–squarely and more firmly in the Seat of Truth.

So that “[f]inally, when our power of attention has been perfectly refined or purified… we will be able to know with perfect clarity our essential consciousness ‘I am’ as it really is, devoid of even the least superimposition of any limitation or identification with any other thing.” Amen.

The Truth Of Being Here Now

As Richard Alpert tells it in his now famous book Be Here Now, he went to India as a late–almost last–ditch effort after he realized that taking psychedelics, even heroic amounts, always left you down, always left you more or less where you were before. Such was–is–the nature of samsara.

In India, Alpert met a young American sannyasin named Bhagavan Das, and Bhagavan Das told him, quite simply, “Be here now.” This is excellent, albeit not yet complete, spiritual instruction. Excellent why?

Because the mind cannot rise outside or, or independent of, space-time. In pure presence, there is no thought. There is only pure “I Am.” Michael James thus:

Thus our experience that the present moment is a point in time is an illusion, just as our experience that the present place is a point in space is an illusion. As we saw above, if we set aside all thoughts of any place other than this precise present place, ‘here’, and keenly scrutinise only this precise present place in order to discover what the truth or reality of it is, we will discover that it is truly not a point in physical space, but is just our own self-conscious being. Similarly, if we set aside all thoughts of any moment other than this precise present moment, ‘now’, and keenly scrutinise only this precise present moment in order to discover what the truth or reality of it is, we will discover that it is truly not a point in the passage of time, but is just our own self-conscious being. When we thus discover that there is no such thing as a precise present point in time, and that our experience of the present moment in time is therefore merely an illusion, an imaginary apparition, we will discover that the passage of time, which we always experience only in this illusory present moment, is likewise merely an imaginary apparition.

Since all points in time and all points in space are experienced only in this present point in time and this present point in space, they depend for their seeming existence upon these present points, the ever-present ‘now’ and ‘here’, which in reality are nothing but the presence of our ever-present consciousness of our own being, ‘I am’. Therefore, our ever-present self-conscious being, ‘I am’, is the sole substance or reality not only of this present moment, ‘now’, and this present place, ‘here’, but also of the entire appearance of time and space.

Happiness and the Art of Being, p. 308.

Hence, “Be here now” essentially and elegantly means: “I am” or “I-Eternal Now-Infinite Here.”

One cautionary note to sound, though: simply sinking into “be here now” may not, on its own, destroy the illusion of the ego. For the mind could, in many cases, rise again in the form of “I am the body.”

For this reason, one may need to do Self-inquiry rather actively to discover that the apparent ego does not, in fact, exist. The only thing that truly exists is “I am.” That is, looking for the ego each time only reveals Pure Consciousness.

In a similar vein and as Atmananda states while citing the famous snake-rope analogy, we can’t just see that the snake is an illusion. Necessary yet not sufficient, since that alone may allow for us to mistakenly believe that it’s some other entity. Instead, we must also, and directly, see what it really is: it is, and has only ever been, a rope.

Turiya And Self-inquiry


Sri Ramana really cuts to the chase: for serious sadhakas, there is no point to engaging in any meditation technique except Self-inquiry. This is because pranayama, counting exercises, chanting, etc.–while they have their modest place in the nondual spiritual life–nonetheless fail to get to the heart of the matter. They leave the central ‘problem’ where they found it.

For after chanting, singing, or breathwork temporarily causes the mind to “take flight,” mind returns, rising again and again and again. Thus, any technique that doesn’t place the an inquiry into the “I” first is part and parcel with samsara–more: accidentally perpetuates samsara.

This is why Sri Ramana was so apparently harsh (though actually extraordinarily compassionate) when he saw a sadhaka go into a trance-like state (“manolaya”). He would immediately call such a one out of it. Why?

Because going into these kinds of states will not end suffering; in fact, it will only–quite tragically–allow suffering to continue. Sri Atmananda, in fact, is just as cutting when he speaks of yogis going into samadhi states. Through experience, he found out that deep samadhi states did not bring him to Truth. Mind kept rising–again and again…

Hence, one cannot “bypass” an inquiry into the “I.” One must start and end the inquiry there.

A Mistake: Deep Sleep

I think Sri Ramana is clearer than Sri Atmananda when it comes to the deep sleep argument. While Atmananda wants to point to deep sleep on the grounds that it shows us Awareness without objectivity, Sri Ramana, without disagreeing with this, would say: “Yes, but we are not in deep sleep knowingly. Alas, each time the mind, dormant in deep sleep, rises again in the waking state. Therefore, the chief place for practice is in the waking state where effort in Self-inquiry will be necessary in order to go beyond the mind’s projections in the waking and dream states, and to go beyond the primal self-forgetfulness of deep sleep. But this is turiya, which is not really a fourth state but is only ‘I am,’ the transcendent, natural state of being consciously what we are.”

From a Zen point of view, there is no point in sleeping in or in sleeping too long. The waking state, while itself unreal, is where much of the practice must take place. And in the waking state, Self-inquiry must be constant until the Great Matter is thoroughly resolved.


These arguments owe much to Michael James’ book Happiness and the Art of Being.

The Four Noble Truths Of Advaita Vedanta

Naturally, the Four Noble Truths are expounded by the Buddha in the first sutra, The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion”). I hereby offer what I take to be Advaita Vedanta’s riff on the following structure:

  • There is suffering.
  • There is a cause, or source, of suffering.
  • There is an absolute end of suffering.
  • There is a path from suffering to the absolute end of suffering.

Advaita Vedanta’s First Noble Truth

The mind is suffering.

This should be understood with the utmost clarity: whenever mind rises, it already rises as agitation–and that agitation is suffering. That is, there is no such thing as mind rising, in the sense that Sri Ramana speaks of “mind rising,” without suffering.

To rise is to suffer. To set is to temporarily experience relief. To “destroy” the mind is ultimate peace.

Advaita Vedanta’s Second Noble Truth

The cause of suffering is ignorance.

Mind rising at all is concomitant with ignorance–or, better put, is nothing but ignorance.

This ignorance is maya where, as Michael James suggests in Happiness and the Art of Being Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana (2012; second edition), the primary form of maya is “self-forgetfulness.”

Suffering results, quite simply, from taking myself to be what I am not. Specifically, “I am the body idea” is, as Shankara says, the source of all misery. Mind’s rising just is its identification with a particular body, which body–be it the waking body or a dream body–is thought to be a temporary resident in an objective world.

Mind, in consequence, seems to be bound by the body, by space (for it presumes that the body is moving in space whereas in truth the Self is unmoving), and by time (for it presumes that it is subject to changing while, in truth, the Self is timeless and unchanging).

Ignorance is “bondage.”

Advaita Vedanta’s Third Noble Truth

The absolute end of suffering is Self-knowledge.

I must know exactly and immediately who I am and thus must see through “what I am not” (which, James tells us, is the literal translation of maya).

As Sri Ramana often says, it’s not true, however, there is something “new” termed “Self-knowledge.” It’s rather that the removal of all ignorance is the immediate apperception of the Truth.

Advaita Vedanta’s Fourth Noble Truth

The path from suffering to nirvana is atma vicara: that is, Self-inquiry, Self-investigation, or Self-abidance.

(a) I can’t simply turn away from what I am not and abide in a trance-like state of manolaya even if turning away from illusion–wheeling all the way around–is the beginning. (b) I must also see that there is no such thing as ego. (c) But seeing that there is no such thing as ego, or mind, is tantamount to being, immediately, “I am,” “I,” “I-I,” or “I am what I am.”

(a) and (b) look, because they are, like inquiry while (c) feels like abidance. Yang, as it were, gives way to Yin.

In brief, (a) – (c) is one way of spelling out what atma vicara is. Now, the latter is not only the direct path to Truth but also the only ultimate path since, at some point, the question of “Who?” or “What?” must become central, all-encompassing.