I want to use this space to discuss with you the simple, perfect self-inquiry of Ramana Maharshi.
We will start from nowhere, knowing nothing but that we are here, as human beings, and that there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with life as a human: it seems that it should be better, easier, sweeter than it is.
I want to persuade you to try Ramana’s self-inquiry for yourself because I am certain that if you do, it will naturally energize your interior life and will, in the end, bring to an end the delusion of personal suffering in which we somehow come to see our lives as broken promises; the sensations of life that come and go in our bodies as objects of fear and lust and loathing; our minds as fearful dark jungles of confusion, our friends and neighbors and family as enemies; and the sweet, sweet world itself as a hostile encampment.
To begin self-inquiry does not require you to abandon anything you are doing now or trying not to do now, neither does self-inquiry require you to decide for or against any spiritual practice, for the self-inquiry of Ramana is not spiritual practice at all in the sense that we normally think of spiritual practice. Self-inquiry is unaffected by any of it; self-inquiry bypasses all mental and spiritual activity whatsoever, and does its work silently.
So what is self-inquiry anyway? What’s the point? Isn’t it seeking to understand myself, transform myself, transcend myself, get in sync with my true self and so forth? Isn’t pretty much any spiritual practice that seeks unity self-inquiry? Isn’t ‘who am I?’ for beginners?
Well, no, actually, none of that.
Self-inquiry, atma vichara in Sanskrit, has been around for a long, long time — 2,500 years or more. In the old days, self-inquiry was a sacred set of practices, meditations, and austerities intended to liberate the boundless, eternal True Self from the snare of samsaric delusion in which it – True Self – is trapped by conditioned mind. All ordinary thought and feeling and desire had to be forcibly extinguished if there was to be even the slightest hope of breaking through the fog of conditioning, subconscious impulses (vasanas), and karmic consequence that kept us forever outside, denied entrance to the shining reality of our True Self. This viewpoint — that there is a True Self that needs to be liberated, a True Self that I need to become, a True Self for the realization of which I need to transcend ego and ordinary life — is still hugely prevalent in modern spiritual circles and in my view does great damage to all who fall for it.
The self-inquiry of Ramana Maharshi is none of that, either. Ramana’s self-inquiry is much less, much simpler than any of that. For Ramana, there is no “True Self” from which you are separated; there is only you, just as you are.
For Ramana, there is an obvious and universal need for self-inquiry that arises naturally from the realization that the sole cause of all human suffering is a false belief about what we are. Or, to put it another way, the cause of all my suffering is a false belief about what I am.
Just consider this for a moment. Even if you have heard it before; even if you’re completely familiar with it and completely agree or completely disagree with it, just stop for one moment and consider it freshly at face value. There is no possibility of receiving what Ramana has to offer without first fully understanding that this profound and powerful insight is the ground from which it arises, and on which it rests.
And if it is true that the cause of all my suffering is a false belief about what I am, then nothing matters other than to know the truth of what I am. And knowing the truth must rid me of any false idea about what I am. Nothing else can do that. Seeking the truth of my nature is self-inquiry.
So how hard can that be? I am, after all, always here. I am, after all, always completely available to myself. Certainly, it requires no special spiritual development to see this. Certainly I can, whenever I wish to do so, look at myself. I can taste, just for a moment, what it feels like to be. And looking directly at myself, tasting the feeling of myself is all there is to Ramana’s self-inquiry.
Here’s the promise: if you will, whenever you can, whenever it occurs to you to do so, stop for just one moment and direct your conscious attention toward the naked, unmediated experience of being that is all there is to you, suffering will immediately begin to diminish and the thick, hot smoke of falseness, confusion, doubt and fear that fills the mind will begin to clear. And, in Ramana’s words, all will come out right in the end.
In truth, this investigation, this self-inquiry, is not a path or a method to Realization, it IS Realization, and every moment spent with your attention resting in the experience of being is spent in full, conscious realization of Reality.
And, if you will continue with this practice and make it a part of your life, all falseness will finally vanish and what has always been here — peace and ease and love without condition — will stand fully, permanently revealed, once and for all.
Here then is the beginning and end Ramana Maharshi’s teaching of self-inquiry:
There is no problem anywhere to be found other than a false belief about what you are.
The only solution to this problem is to know consciously the truth of what you are, and that truth cannot fail to bring to an end all experience of misery in your life, and projection of that misery on others.
There is no need to understand what you falsely believe yourself to be, nor is it possible to do so.
This false belief is entirely unconscious, and it cannot be seen.
This is not a matter of this rather than that, a matter of believing that I am Consciousness say, rather than ego, but a matter of limitation. In truth, we are — you are — I am — everything that is. I am the ground, and I am the totality of spontaneously arising phenomena which comes and goes within me. There is nothing apart from me. The falseness lies entirely in the fearful move to limit, to carve out a defensible position within the limitless reality and name it me.
There is nothing at all you can do — no practice you can undertake, or discontinue or perfect — that will in any way help you rid yourself of this false belief, apart from directly seeing for yourself the truth, in this moment, again and again.
All that you know, all that you can know is that you are here. All the rest is story and conjecture. Self-inquiry, which is the effort to see the truth of what you are now, is therefore nothing other than the turning of attention deliberately, consciously to that simple, single knowing of your hereness for no purpose other than to see it directly for yourself.
There is no understanding, no teaching and no teacher that can give you or show you what you are. You must do this for yourself. The most a teacher can give you is encouragement and practical direction from experience.
The self-inquiry of Ramana is unbelievably simple, and being so simple, it will take some time and careful effort actually to receive its essential transmission. We have all the time in the world to consider all this as carefully as needed. I would love to hear from you.
Soon, I’ll write some about my personal history and experience with Ramana’s method and about how the discovery of changeless reality forever changed my life.