[Sri Ramana's life story] [Sri Ramana's teaching] [How to conduct self-enquiry]

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Sri Ramana’s Life at Arunachala
David Godman in dialogue with Premananda

David takes us through the various stages of Sri Ramana’s life. The chapter begins with Sri Ramana born into a family in South India in Tamil Nadu in 1879. This family life came to an end after his sudden spiritual realisation at age sixteen. The call to his beloved Arunachala, the holy mountain in Tiruvannamalai, was too strong to resist. David tells us the details of Sri Ramana’s life at Arunachala from his period of deep samadhi in Arunachaleswara Temple to his time living up on the mountain in Virupaksha Cave and then at Skanda Ashram; later as a world-renowned Master in the ashram he constructed at the foot of the mountain.


Coming down the hill was the big move in Bhagavan’s life. When his mother died in 1922, she was buried where the ashram is now located. The spot was chosen because it was the Hindu graveyard in those days. After her death Bhagavan continued to live at Skanda Ashram, but about six months later he came down the hill and didn’t go back up. He never gave any reason for staying at the foot of the hill. He just said he didn’t feel any impulse to go back to Skanda Ashram. That’s how the current Ramana Ashram started.

So the ashram’s actually built on a Hindu burial ground?

Yes. In those days the graveyard was well outside the town. Now the town has expanded to include Ramana Ashram and the present Hindu graveyard is now a mile further out of town.

How did the ashram come to take over the land round here?

The place where Bhagavan’s mother was buried was actually owned by a math, a religious institution, in town. When she died, the devotees had to get permission from the head of this math to bury her on this land, but there was no problem since he was also a devotee. He had a high opinion of Bhagavan, so he handed over the land to the emerging Ramana Ashram.

And the first building, was it the shrine over the Mother’s grave?

Well, shrine is a bit of a fancy word. A really wonderful photo was taken here in 1922, shortly after Bhagavan settled here. The only building is a coconut-leaf hut. It looks as if one good gust of wind would blow it over. People who came to see him that year have reported that there wasn’t even room for two people in the room where Bhagavan lived. That was the first ashram building here: a coconut-leaf hut that probably leaked when it rained.

It’s very beautiful now: water, trees, peacocks. It must have been very primitive eighty years ago.

I talked to the man who cleared the land here. He told me there were large boulders and many cacti and thorn bushes. It wasn’t really forest. It’s not the right climate for a luxuriant forest, and there isn’t much soil. The granite bedrock is often close to the surface, and there are many rocky outcrops. This man, Ramaswami Pillai, said that he spent the first six months prising out boulders with a crowbar, cutting down cacti and levelling the ground.

When the building started, was Bhagavan himself involved in that?

I don’t think he built the first coconut-leaf hut himself, but once he moved here he was very much a hands-on manager. The first proper building over the Mother’s samadhi (burial shrine) was organised and built by him.

Have you seen how bricks are made around here? It’s like making mud pies. You start with a brick-shaped mould. You make a pile of mud and then use the mould to make thousands of mud bricks that you put out in the sun to dry. After they have been properly dried, you stack them in a structure the size of a house that has big holes in the base for logs to be put in. The outside of the stack is sealed with wet mud and fires are lit at the base. Once the fire has taken, the bottom is sealed as well. The bricks are baked in a hot, oxygen-free environment, in the same way that charcoal is made. After two or three days the fires die down, and, if nothing has gone wrong, the bricks are properly baked. However, if the fires go out too soon, or if it rains heavily during the baking, the bricks don’t get cooked properly. When that happens the whole production is often wasted because the bricks are soft and crumbly – more like biscuits than bricks.

In the 1920s someone tried to make bricks near the ashram, but the baking was unsuccessful and all the half-baked bricks were abandoned. Bhagavan, who abhorred waste of any kind, decided to use all these commercially useless bricks to build a shrine over his mother’s grave. One night he had everyone in the ashram line up between the kiln and the ashram. Bricks were passed from hand to hand until there were enough in the ashram to make a building. The next day he did bricklaying himself as he and his devotees raised a wall around the samadhi. Bhagavan did a lot of work on the inside of the wall because people felt that, since it was going to be a temple, the interior work should be done by Brahmins.

This was the only building that he constructed himself, but years later, when the large granite buildings that make up much of the present ashram were erected, he was the architect, the engineer and building supervisor. He was there every day, giving orders and checking up on progress.

You say he abhorred waste. Can you expand on that a little?

He had the attitude that anything that came to the ashram was a gift from God, and that it should be properly utilised. He would pick up stray mustard seeds that he found on the kitchen floor with his fingernails and insist that they be stored and used; he used to cut the white margins off proof copies of ashram books, stitch them together and make little notebooks out of them; he would attempt to cook parts of vegetables, such as the spiky ends of aubergines, that are normally thrown away. He admitted that he was a bit of a fanatic on this subject. He once remarked, ‘It’s a good thing I never got married. No woman would have been able to put up with my habits.’

Going back to his building activities, how involved in day-to-day decisions was he? Did he, for example, decide where the doors and windows went?

Yes. Either he would explain what he wanted verbally, or he would make Iittle sketches on the backs of envelopes or on scrap pieces of paper.

What you’re describing now is a totally different Bhagavan from the one who sat in samadhi all day. Most people think that he spent his whole life sitting quietly in the hall, doing nothing.

He didn’t like sitting in the hall all day. He often said that it was his prison. If he was off doing some work when visitors came, someone would come and tell him that he was needed in the hall. That’s where he usually met with new people. He would sigh and remark, ‘People have come. I have to go back to jail.’

‘Got to go sit on the couch.’

Yes. ‘Got to go and sit on the couch and tell people how to get enlightened.’

Bhagavan enjoyed all kinds of physical work, but he particularly enjoyed cooking. He was the ashram’s head cook for at least fifteen years. He got up at two or three o’clock every morning, cut vegetables and supervised the cooking. When the new ashram buildings were going up in the 1920s and 30s, he was also the supervising engineer and architect.

I think what you’ve just been speaking about is very important. People tend to have an image of him as a man who sat on a couch, looking blissful and doing nothing. You are describing a completely different man.

His state didn’t change from the age of sixteen onwards, but his outer activities did. In the beginning of his life here at Arunachala he was quiet and rarely did anything. Thirty years later he had a hectic and busy schedule, but his experience of who he was never wavered during this later phase of busy-ness.

In a way you’re debunking a lot of spiritual myths.

Bhagavan never felt comfortable with a situation in which he sat on a couch in the role of a ‘guru’, with everyone on the floor around him. He liked to work and live with people, interacting with them in a normal, natural way, but as the years went by the possibilities for this kind of life became less and less.

One of the problems was that people were often completely overawed by him. Most people couldn’t act normally around him. Many of the visitors wanted to put him on a pedestal and treat him like a god, but he didn’t seem to appreciate that kind of treatment.

There are some nice stories of new people behaving naturally and getting a natural response from Bhagavan. Major Chadwick wrote that Bhagavan would come to his room after lunch, go through his things like an inquisitive child, sit on the bed and chat with him. However, when Chadwick once put out a chair in the expectation of Bhagavan’s arrival, the visits stopped. Chadwick had made the transition from having a friend who dropped by to having a guru who needed respect and a special chair. When this formality was introduced, the visits ended.

So he saw himself as a friend not as the master?

Bhagavan didn’t have a perspective of his own, he simply reacted to the way people around him thought about him and treated him. He could be a friend, a father, a brother, a god, depending on the devotee’s way of approaching him. One woman was convinced that Bhagavan was her baby son. She had a little doll that looked like Bhagavan, and she would cradle it like a baby when she was in his presence. Her belief in this relationship was so strong, she actually started lactating when she held her Bhagavan doll.

Bhagavan seemed to approve of any guru-disciple relationship that kept the devotee’s attention on the Self or the form of the guru, but at the same time he still liked and enjoyed people who could treat him as a normal being.

Bhagavan sometimes said that it didn’t matter how you regarded the guru, so long as you could think about him all the time. As an extreme example he cited two people from ancient times who got enlightened by hating God so much that they couldn’t stop thinking about Him.

There is a Tamil phrase that translates as ‘mother-father-guru-God’. A lot of people felt that way about him. Bhagavan himself said he never felt that he was a guru in a guru-disciple relationship with anyone. His public position was that he didn’t have any disciples at all because, he said, from the perspective of the Self there was no one who was different or separate from him. Being the Self and knowing that the Self alone exists, he knew that there were no unenlightened people who needed to be enlightened. He said he only ever saw enlightened people
around him.

Having said that, Bhagavan clearly did function as a guru to the thousands of people who had faith in him and who tried to carry out his teachings.

During which period was Bhagavan actively involved in the building work?

The ashram started to change from coconut-leaf structures to stone buildings around 1930. The big building phase was from 1930 to 1942. The Mother’s Temple was built after that, but Bhagavan wasn’t supervising the design and construction of that so much. That work was subcontracted to expert temple builders. Bhagavan visited the site regularly, but he wasn’t so involved in design or engineering decisions.

If anybody had visited during those twelve years they would have found a Bhagavan who was not sitting on the couch. They would have found him out working, supervising workers?

It would have depended on when they came. Bhagavan had a routine that he kept to. He was always in the hall for the morning and evening chanting – two periods of about forty-five minutes each. He would be there in the evening, chatting to all the ashram’s workers who could not see him during the day because of their various duties in different parts of the ashram. He would be there if visitors arrived who wanted to speak to him. He walked regularly on the hill, or to Palakottu, an area adjacent to the ashram. These walks generally took place after meals. He would fit in his other jobs around these events. If nothing or no one needed his attention in the hall, he might go and see how the cooks were getting on, or he might go to the cowshed to check up on the ashram’s cows. If there was a big building project going on he would often go out to check up on the progress of the work. Mostly though, he did his tours of the building sites after lunch when everyone else was having a siesta.

He supervised many workers, not just the ones who put up the buildings. Devotees in the hall would bind and rebind books under his supervision, the cooks would work according to his instructions, and so on. The only area he didn’t seem inclined to get involved in was the ashram office. He let his brother, Chinnaswami, have a fairly free rein there, although once in a while he would intervene if he felt that something that had been neglected ought to be done.

[Sri Ramana's life story] [Sri Ramana's teaching] [How to conduct self-enquiry]

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Commentary on Sri Ramana’s Teachings ‘Who Am I?’ (Nan Yar) from a Vedanta point of view

James Swartz in dialogue with Premananda

[Sri Ramana’s direct words are in bold]

James begins by introducing us to Vedanta. He points out that Sri Ramana had respect for the Yoga and Vedanta traditions even though he wasn’t a traditional teacher. James explains that as we are not able to remove the world, what is meant by removal is the removal of our ignorance. Our beliefs have to go, not our mind. He points out that Sri Ramana knew he was the Self, hence his realisation. There was no duality in his understanding of himself.


Many Western people have no idea what sadhana (spiritual practice) is. They actually think that they can just get a ticket to India and get on the spiritual circuit and attend a Satsang (meeting in Truth) or two and they will get ‘awakened’. They may have some experiences but if they get ‘awakened’ they will certainly fall back to sleep, usually because there is no sadhana in place. And there are gurus who themselves did sadhana but are loath to insist that their disciples do it – for fear of losing them, I suppose. You see many people who have been to Ramesh Balsekar coming through Tiruvannamalai and what they seem to have got is the idea that they are not ‘doers’. So their sadhana is ‘no sadhana’. Why? Because they have been told there is nothing you can do because your enlightenment is not up to you. It’s all up to ‘grace’. I’m not sure why the resolve to do vigorous sadhana is not the grace of God, but there you are.

It’s true that you are not a doer, but the you that is not a doer is the Self. The ego doesn’t become a non-doer by trying not to ‘do’ anything. This sort of teaching is very misleading because it is tailor-made for
the ego.

Sri Ramana is completely in line with traditional Vedanta on this issue of sadhana. Purification is at least as important as knowledge, perhaps more so, because without a clear mind, you will not get knowledge, jnanam. This idea does not sit well with people nowadays. They want it handed to them on a platter. This accounts for the popularity of the shaktipat (spiritual energy transmitted from guru to student) gurus like Amachi, and the miracle makers like Sai Baba. Around them you have a whole class of people who actually believe that the guru is doing the work for them!

But Sri Ramana didn’t do sadhana to get enlightenment.

That’s true, but he certainly did sadhana after it. Knowing who he was, he need not have sat in meditation in caves for many years; he could have gone home and eaten his mum’s iddlys (rice cakes) and played cricket. It was all the same to him. But he didn’t. He decided to purify his mind. The glory of Sri Ramana is not his enlightenment. It was just the same as every other enlightenment that’s ever been. His glory was his pure mind. He polished his mind to such a degree that it was particularly radiant, a great blessing to himself and everyone whom he contacted. That kind of mind you only get through serious sadhana, or Yoga, if you will. These modern gurus, particularly the so-called crazy wisdom gurus who seem to revel in gross mind, refuse to encourage people to develop themselves because they do not understand the tremendous pleasure that comes from a pure mind.

Who Am I? (Nan Yar) is a small booklet containing the core teachings of Sri Ramana. See Chapter 4 for the complete original text. The numbers of the original questions are written in brackets. James, I would like to ask you to comment on these teachings.

    Who am I? [Q1]

Sri Ramana answers with a typical Vedantic teaching, called the pancha kosas or the five sheaths. This teaching is found in the Upanishads. He negates the five sheaths (erroneous notions about one’s Self).

    If I am none of these, then who am I? [Q2]

    He replies ‘After negating all of the above-mentioned as “not this”, “not this”, that Awarness which alone remains – that I am.’

    What is the nature of Awareness? [Q3]

    ‘The nature of Awareness is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.

    When will the realisation of the Self be gained? [Q4]

    ‘When the world which is what-is-seen has been removed, there will be realisation of the Self which is the seer.’

The question ‘When will the realisation of the Self be gained?’ is a Yogic type of thought. Yoga is for doers, achievers. He or she believes the Self is something that is not available all the time, something to be gained. It is natural to want what you do not have if you think it will benefit you in some way. One of the meanings of the word Yoga is ‘to obtain’. Obviously you can only obtain something you do not already possess.

Vedanta, the Science of Self-Enquiry, contends that the Self cannot be gained at some time in the future as a result of action. It is called the path of understanding and it employs a language of identity. For example, it says, ‘You are consciousness.’ It says that the Self cannot be gained because you are the Self already. If there is anything to gain it will be Self-knowledge, and Self-knowledge is only a loss of ignorance because you actually do know who you are.

This teaching is called the discrimination between the subject (the seer), and the objects (the seen). It establishes the understanding that what you ‘see’ meaning experience – including all mystic experiences – is ‘not Self’, and the one who sees them is you, the Self. He says that you will realise who you are, meaning understand that you are the Self, when you have separated you from your experience.

Sri Ramana’s response is completely in harmony with traditional Vedanta – the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Shankara’s Drk-Drksha Viveka. Sri Ramana had the greatest respect for the knowledge enshrined in Vedanta. Contrary to the popular notion, he was very scripturally astute. He even wrote a scripture that has been granted the status of an Upanishad by the traditional Vedanta community, a great honour.

One thing I admire about Sri Ramana is his refusal, unlike many of the modern teachers, to cook up a fancy personal teaching on the subject of Self-realisation. His statements were in harmony with the scriptures on either Yoga or Vedanta. Even though Sri Ramana died a half century ago he was a very ‘modern’ sage if you consider the fact that the Vedic spiritual tradition is thousands of years old.

Why did he refuse to do so? Because no fancy, modern teaching is required. The whole ‘what is enlightenment and how to attain enlightenment’ business was worked out a long time ago. Enlightenment is a very simple understanding of the Self and its relationship to experience, the ego-experiencer and the forms the ego experiences. In a nutshell it is the understanding that while the forms depend on the Self, the Self does not depend on the forms. This freedom from experience is called moksha, liberation. This wisdom had been clearly stated long before Sri Ramana came on the scene and needs no interpretation or new terminology.

Sri Ramana probably knows that the question ‘When will the realisation of the Self be gained?’ is actually imprecise and that the person who is asking it will not understand if he attacks the question, so he takes it at face value and puts it in a traditional way. You have a copy of the booklet. Can you refresh my memory about how he answers?

    He says, ‘When the world which is what-is-seen has been removed, there will be realisation of the Self, which is the seer.’

This statement is pure Vedanta. The operative words are, ‘has been removed’. How is one supposed to understand the words ‘has been removed’? What kind of removal is it? Is it the Yogic view that complete destruction of the unconscious tendencies, vasanas, allows you to ‘gain’ the ‘Self’? Or is it the Vedantic view – removal of the notion that the world is separate from the Self?

In Sri Ramana’s teachings you will find both ideas. The first is called the vasana kshaya theory of enlightenment by Vedanta and manonasha by Yoga. The word ‘world’ is actually a psychological term in Yoga. It does not mean the physical world. The physical world – in so far as it is physical – is the Self. No individual created it and no individual is going to remove it. But the ‘world’ that Sri Ramana says has to be removed consists of the psychological projections that make up our personal ‘worlds’, that is, ignorance. These projections are based on an incorrect understanding of the Self, on a belief that the Self is separate, inadequate or incomplete.

Sri Ramana’s teaching, which is Upanishadic teaching, is called vichara, enquiry. The purpose of enquiry is knowledge, not the ‘physical’ removal of the mind. If he had been teaching Yoga as a means of liberation he would not have encouraged enquiry because Yoga is committed to the experience of samadhi, not to understanding that one is the Self.

This is interesting. I never heard it stated this way before.

Well, it isn’t really revolutionary. People read into Sri Ramana whatever fits with their beliefs. So from that point of view it may seem controversial. But if you know the tradition from which Sri Ramana comes this statement is pure Vedanta. Yoga is very popular and it always has been. I started out as a meatball businessman practising Hatha Yoga for muscles, and I worked my way up to some very high samadhis through meditation. Then I realised that the Self wasn’t a state and with a bit of luck a guru came into my life and sorted me out. Mind you, I’m not attacking Yoga. Yoga, purification through sadhana, is essential for enlightenment but it is an indirect means.

But I thought the goal of the practices was sahaja samadhi.

This is what the Yogis say but it is only a means to liberation. Liberation is freedom from experience and samadhi is an experience. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the samadhis are not the final goal. Sama means equal and dhi is a contracted form of buddhi, intellect. So it means a mind that values everything equally. Sahaja just means ‘continuous’ and ‘natural’ so it is a mind that has continuous nondual vision. Perhaps you can gain this kind of mind by the long and difficult practice of Astanga Yoga. But why go to all this trouble when you actually have this samadhi naturally all the time without doing a lick of work?

Oh, how is that?

As the Self. This vision is not continuous because the Self is out of time, but it is natural to the Self. It is your nature. Anyway, no samadhi is equivalent to enlightenment because samadhis are only states of mind or no mind, no mind being a state of mind. Nirvikalpa samadhi (highest transcendent state of consciousness) is nondual but unfortunately it is a state that can easily be destroyed. And there is no individual there in that state. So when it ends, ignorance about the nature of the Self is not removed and a sense of limitation is experienced once more.

Samadhi helps to purify the mind by burning subconscious tendencies and is a great aid to enquiry, but if you remove the mind how will you make an enquiry? Who will make an enquiry? You make an enquiry with the mind for the mind, so it can shed its ignorance and no longer trouble you. The mind is a very useful God-given instrument. Would God have given a mind if He had intended for you to destroy it? And, in fact, Yoga isn’t about killing the mind either because how will you experience a samadhi if you don’t have a mind? The mind is the instrument of experience.

If you argue that you are aiming at nirvikalpa samadhi where there is no mind, fine, but the problem with nirvikalpa samadhi is that a fly landing on your nose can bring you out of it, not that there is anyone there to come ‘out’. And when the ‘you’ who wasn’t there does ‘come back’, as I just mentioned, you are just as Self-ignorant as you were before because you were not there in the samadhi to understand that you are the samadhi. If you are the samadhi you will have it all the time because you have you all the time. Therefore, there will be no anxiety about making it continuous or permanent.

Okay. You’re saying that samadhi is not the goal, that it is just the means?

Yes. Not ‘the’ means, ‘a’ means. There are other ways to purify the mind. Misunderstanding this teaching is perhaps responsible for more despair, confusion, and downright frustration than any other. It is commonly believed that this ‘removal’ means that all the vasanas (tendencies of the mind) need to be physically eradicated for enlightenment to happen. And many people believe that Sri Ramana had ‘achieved’ that
state.

If you study Sri Ramana’s life you will see that by and large he was a very regular guy – a large part of his appeal – head in the clouds, feet firmly planted on the earth. He walked, talked, cooked, read and listened to the radio. I love the story of him returning to the ashram at one in the afternoon to see a sign saying the ashram was closed from noon till two. So he sat down outside and waited for it to open. If he did not have a mind, who or what was doing all these things? No vasanas means no mind because the vasanas are the cause of the mind. How did he go about the business of life? So I think we need to look at the word ‘removal’ in a different way.

Sri Ramana was called a jnani, a knower of the Self, because he had removed the idea of himself as a doer – it is called sarva karma sannyasa – which happens when you realise you are the Self. Or you realise you are the Self when you realise you are not the doer. ‘Not the doer’ means the Self. It doesn’t mean that the ego becomes a non-doer. The ego is always a doer. As the Self he understood that while the few non-binding vasanas he had left (which are not a problem even for a worldly person) were dependent on him, he was not dependent on them. So for him, as the Self, they were non-binding. How can a thought or a feeling affect the Self? For a person who thinks he or she is the doer, allowing the vasanas to express or not is not an option. Actions happen uncontrollably because the ego is pressurised to act in a certain way by the vasanas. For a jnani, vasanas are elective, for a normal person they are compulsory.

So the ‘removal’ that Sri Ramana talks about is only in terms of knowledge. He often uses another metaphor which he borrowed from Vedanta, the snake and the rope. In the twilight a weary, thirsty traveller mistook the well rope attached to a bucket for a snake and recoiled in fear. When he got his bearings and his fear subsided he realised that the snake was actually only the rope. There was no reason to take a stick and beat the snake to death (which is equivalent to trying to destroy the mind) because the snake was only a misperception. When he calmed down and regained his wits (did some enquiry) he enquired into the snake and realised that it was just a rope. And in that realisation the snake was ‘removed’.

My understanding is that when he said ‘When the world which is what-is-seen has been removed …’ he meant the removal of all the attachments to the conditioned mind.

How would that come about?

His disciples would sit for years. His attendant, Annamalai Swami, spent fifteen years with Sri Ramana and every minute when they were not working, they would be sitting quietly. Then, one day Sri Ramana said to him, ‘Now, you stop working and you go away and sit quietly.’ He then sat for fifty years in his room never again setting foot in Ramana Ashram. Sri Ramana himself sat for almost fifteen years in Virupaksha Cave. So it involved a lot of sitting, presumably witnessing whatever thoughts were coming up.

Well, sitting doing nothing is doing something. And you can get very attached to a meditation lifestyle. You can get attached to anything, even sannyasins (renunciates) get attached to their sticks and begging bowls. But yes, this idea is completely in line with traditional Vedantic sadhana. The texts support it. First you get the mind quiet and then you are capable of realising that you are the Self. There is no better way to get the mind quiet than staying in close proximity to a person like Sri Ramana whose mind was exceptionally quiet. It sets the tone and the disciple’s mind becomes like it. The longer you do apparently nothing, the more you realise that you don’t have to do anything to be what you are. So this practice gradually kills off the doer.

One of the misconceptions people have about Vedanta is that the talk somehow obscures the silence and therefore the words are just ‘intellectual’ and therefore of no use spiritually. But this is not true. My guru, Swami Chinmaya, was a famous Vedanta master who had many enlightened disciples and he spoke incessantly. But the words were all coming out of the silence, the Self, and pointed the person’s mind at the Self. Words and silence are not necessarily opposed. Sri Ramana had a mind. He spoke. He used it efficiently all his life.

Yes.

So, he wasn’t removing vasanas.

Perhaps he was removing the attachment to them? He must have had a pull to go back to his family. He didn’t do that and when his mother first came he sent her away. He wasn’t caught up in that anymore.

That was because he understood he was the Self. The way you lose attachment in one go is to understand you are the Self.

It is often called ‘a constant experience’.

Sure, but the Self is ‘constant experience’ anyway. Or put it this way, if this is a nondual reality and this reality is the Self then each and every experience is the Self. So nobody is short of Self-experience, the ignorant and the enlightened alike. The problem is that very few people understand that everything is the Self. So they seek for all these incredible ‘Self’ experiences.

The Self is a constant experience?

No, the Self is constant experience, if there is such a thing. In fact ‘constant experience’ is a contradiction. The Self becomes experience but it does not sacrifice it’s nature as a non-doing, non-experiencing witness to do it. That means you actually are free of your experiences. Let’s put it a better way: experience is the Self but the Self is not
experience.

When one says ‘constant experience’ would that mean remembering the Self constantly?

Yes, remembrance is helpful, up to a point. But you can never make remembrance constant. Knowledge is constant. When knowledge takes place, that’s it. Remembering is a kind of mental activity that implies forgetting. Once you know you are the Self there is nothing to remember any more. How can you remember what you are? You are the one who is doing the remembering. You are prior to the act of remembrance. You cannot forget because you are always present. If you were somewhere else you could forget.

 

[Sri Ramana's life story] [Sri Ramana's teaching] [How to conduct self-enquiry]

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How to conduct Self-Enquiry

Practical commentary on part of ‘Who Am I?’ (Nan Yar)

from a Satsang with Premananda

[Sri Ramana’s direct words are in bold]

This chapter is taken directly from Premananda’s Satsang. He draws our attention to the fact that we are always occupying our minds with some story. When we make the space by becoming still and quiet, the Self is revealed. He asks us to become aware of our conditioning and our attachment to our thoughts – my thoughts, my life. Questions and answers from Who Am I? (Nan Yar)
where Sri Ramana talks about Self-enquiry are discussed and clarified. Premananda clearly explains how to do Self-enquiry, leaving no doubt as to how to proceed. Quotes from Sri Ramana on Self-enquiry are scattered through the chapter.



Sivaprakasam Pillai, a scholarly devotee, approached the young Sri Ramana on Arunachala when he was living in Virupaksha Cave and asked him for his teachings. He approached Sri Ramana when Ramana was about twenty-two years old, by which time he’d been living on the mountain, alone and in silence, for about three years. What resulted was this small booklet with twenty-eight questions and answers.

It’s very small and will fit in your pocket. It’s called Who Am I? (Nan Yar). At the end of all the different spiritual traditions, with all the different techniques, you come to this question about the ‘I’. It’s about the fact that we believe in the false ‘I’, this video, ‘my life’. We believe I am these strange beliefs, judgments and desires, this whole package I call ‘my life’. But it’s simply not true. It’s just a wrong idea.

Self-enquiry begins with changing the focus from outside in the world to the inside. We become Self aware. We watch. This is only possible when our mind has become quiet. If the mind is constantly full of thoughts we cannot get anything from Self-enquiry. Sri Ramana has outlined a clear method for using Self-enquiry intensely in our everyday life to bring the mind to rest at the source.

    You have to ask yourself the question ‘Who am I?’ This investigation will lead in the end to the discovery of something within you, which is behind the mind. Solve that great problem and you will solve all other problems.

    Sri Ramana Maharshi

We will look at the questions and answers from the booklet which have a direct bearing on how to conduct Self-enquiry. Sri Ramana’s words are printed in bold. The complete booklet is reproduced in Chapter 4.

What I’m calling the True Nature is called the Self in the booklet. You can call it the Higher Self. You can call it God. You can call it the Soul. ‘The world’ means the thoughts and feelings and all the objects, including people, which can be perceived by the five senses.

Sri Ramana was asked:

    When will the realisation of the Self be gained? [Q4]

    When the world which is what-is-seen has been removed, there will be realisation of the Self which is the seer.

    Will there not be realisation of the Self even while the world is there (taken as real)? [Q5]

    There will not be.

This is very clear and very shocking because he’s saying that if you want to know the SeIf, then the world has to be recognised for what it really is, an illusion. He is also saying that if the world is there you don’t know the Self. It suggests that what we take as the world is not really as solid as it appears. Our whole conditioning has always been that the world is real as it is, that it is solid and that we are a separate part of that world. This world, which we take as real, must be seen as an illusion in order to know the Self.

People who have had a taste or a glimpse of the Self or who have found the Self, know this to be true. It doesn’t actually mean, for example, that Premananda doesn’t see any trees in the garden. I see the trees in the garden. I even see you sitting here. In that way the world looks like it used to look, but something changes. When we merge with the Self then it’s as if our whole awareness is just there in this stillness. It’s as if the world then disappears. We only know the world through our senses but when we come deeply into the Self we’re not so busy with our senses and it’s as if the world fades or becomes like a shadow.

Any words I might say about this don’t make sense because the mind can’t understand. If you are quite new to this, your mind can only freak out. It can’t catch it, yes? There’s no way for the mind to make sense of this. The understanding has to be from your own being, from deeper than the mind.

When people come to Satsang they become quiet, they leave their stories and dramas behind for two or three hours. They drop their attachment to these stories and come to stillness. They go back to work, families, relationship, everyday life. Just walking in the street there’s a collective sense about life that we’ve been conditioned by for so many years. We pick up again all those invisible structures and we’re back in the movie called, ‘my life’. Immediately this stillness seems to fade away and then we say ‘Oh! Satsang didn’t work.’ But it can’t not work because we are that stillness. That is our nature. It has to work. It’s always working, we just don’t know it.

A prerequisite to know the Self is to have achieved a still mind though a spiritual practice. Most people have such a busy mind and are so identified with their story that there is simply no space in which Self-enquiry can work. There needs to be some work, some time spent to get to know the mind and to quieten it. It is important to come to a sattvic mind, a clear and peaceful mind. This is a mind that is available to understand the Truth.

So Satsang absolutely works. It’s absolutely beautiful because it’s so simple. It’s so incredibly simple and it’s a complete change, a revolution, because you don’t need anything from the outside. You don’t need anything from anybody. You’ve got it all there, everything, all the wisdom of the universe, all the knowledge, all the love, everything is just there, right there inside you. I say ‘inside’. Actually it’s not inside. It’s all around and through you.

So how to stay in touch with this stillness? There’s a suggestion from Sri Ramana who was asked:

    How will the mind become still? [Q10]

    By the enquiry ‘Who am I?’. The thought ‘Who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will be Self-realisation.

In India, when they burn the body, they use one stick for making sure everything burns and in the last minute they also throw that stick into the fire and then nothing is left. It is the same with Self-realisation. The question ‘Who am I?’ acts like the stick in the fire and it will destroy all the other thoughts. He says, ‘Then, there will be Self-realisation.’ When all the thoughts are destroyed then Self-realisation is simply
there.

    Persist in the enquiry throughout your waking hours. That would be quite enough. If you keep on making the enquiry till you fall asleep, the enquiry will go on during sleep also. Take up the enquiry again as soon as you wake up.

    Day by Day with Bhagavan, (D. Mudaliar)

Yesterday, when we did this enquiry together, almost everybody arrived for the meeting with some excitement in the body. Perhaps there was a little bit of pressure in the chest or some other bodily sensations, maybe some fear or other emotions, or lots of thoughts. You’d been busy driving a car or arranging something on the telephone. Then we all just became quiet.

We sat together for twenty or thirty minutes and we became more and more quiet. There was no talking, no discussing. Then I asked everyone to look: What is there? In the beginning people found a thought, they found a feeling, because we are always looking for something. When we look at the sky we always see clouds, an aeroplane, the sun, the moon or the stars at night. We never even notice the blueness of the sky because our minds are programmed to always look for something. It’s the same when we look inside. We’re always looking for something – a thought, a feeling, a body sensation, something.

Actually what we’re really looking for, the Self, is simply an empty nothing. It’s just a huge space of nothing, like the sky without any boundaries, without any colour, without anything in it. It’s just emptiness. It’s like a vast dark ocean. Sometimes people experience it as light, but most people experience it as a kind of shiny black ocean. Once you come into this shiny black ocean even a few thoughts don’t matter. There can be a few thoughts coming and going and they’re just bubbles in the ocean. They don’t disturb anything.

But we so easily get attached to the world. There’s some drama with the children, or suddenly there’s heavy rain and the roof starts leaking. Then there’s the drama of getting the builder to come. Where’s the money to pay for it? A big telephone bill arrives. It’s so easy to get caught up in the world. We need some way to come from the world back to this ocean, back to the source.

    What is the means for constantly holding on to the thought ‘Who am I?’ [Q11]

    When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them, but should inquire: ‘To whom do they arise?’ It does not matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, ‘To whom has this thought arisen?’ The answer that would emerge would be ‘to me’. Thereupon if one inquires ‘Who am I?’, the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.

‘When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them …’ What does he mean by ‘not pursue them’? Usually when some thought appears in our head, ‘Lunch!’ then we think, ‘What kind of lunch?’ ‘Fish.’ ‘Where to buy the fish?’ Okay, then, ‘How to get to the fish shop?’ ‘Oh! My bicycle is broken.’ Before long, this first thought about lunch has suddenly taken us a long way and we’re thinking about how to borrow our friend’s bicycle. (Laughter) It started just with a thought about lunch and now we’re thinking, ‘Well, how can I borrow my friend’s bicycle?’ You see? Don’t pursue the thought. The thought comes, ‘lunch’. It’s okay, no problem, and then it will disappear.

If you get really quiet you can see the thoughts popping out of nothing. There’s this stillness, there’s this ocean and suddenly out of the ocean comes a thought. Usually we take this thought and we say, ‘It’s my thought. I thought that. I’m thinking about lunch.’ But actually it’s just a thought. We’re very attached to all these thoughts. ‘They’re my thoughts.’ But actually it’s not true. They’re just thoughts. So Sri Ramana is saying don’t pursue the thoughts. The thought of lunch comes and then it will go, and then another thought, ‘football’. Then that one goes.

Question from the audience: When do you eat?

When you’re hungry.

When you’re hungry. That’s different from thinking of lunch?

Yes. You just go through your day and when the body needs food you’ll feel hungry. It’s all arranged. The body is arranged like an alarm clock and when it’s hungry you know it. But of course, we human beings have made all these things into a programme. Lunch is at one o’clock, tea is at four o’clock and dinner is at seven o’clock. But in fact you can simply trust your own body. When the body is tired then you sleep. Maybe you want to sleep at four o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe you sleep at eleven at night. Maybe it changes. When the body is tired you can sleep. When the body is hungry you eat.

Sri Ramana says, ‘When other thoughts arise, one should not pursue them …’ That’s very important. Don’t go into the thoughts, don’t become attached to the thoughts. Don’t follow lunch back to the friend’s bicycle. Treat the thought just as a thought, not my thought. No attachment. Rather, he says, ‘As each thought arises, one should inquire with diligence, “To whom has this thought arisen?”’ You’re not interested in the thought. You are not interested if it’s about lunch, money or a new girlfriend. You’re not interested in the quality of the thought or the content of the thought. You’re just interested to ask, ‘To whom has this thought arisen?’ The answer is ‘to me’. It’s always ‘to me’ because our whole attachment is to this ‘me – my life’.

Then he said, ‘Thereupon if one inquires “Who am I?” [or “Who is this me?”] the mind will go back to its source …’ So it is two questions: you ask, ‘“To whom has this thought arisen?” The answer that would emerge would be “to me”. Thereupon if one enquires, “Who am I?” [or “Who is this me?”] the mind will go back to its source; and the thought that arose [it doesn’t matter what it is] will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.’ If you continue to enquire intensely, after some time the mind will become quieter; there will be fewer thoughts and the mind will get into the habit of simply being still.

In the beginning there is a bit of a battle, but after some time it works by itself. If you do this intensely, after some time you don’t have to ask the two questions. It comes to the point where just to remember the questions is enough, or even a shorthand like ‘who’. Just the remembering, and you are back into stillness.

Sri Ramana also suggests that when you start Self-enquiry you sit and with your eyes closed. As soon as you close your eyes sixty percent of the world disappears. Then you’ve only really got the thoughts, the sounds, some emotions and body sensations. In the beginning you can make it like a practice, sit and look inside and do the Self-enquiry. Once you have mastered Self-enquiry with your eyes closed, then you’re ready to take Self-enquiry and put it in your ordinary day.

John David
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