One thing I want to start getting into, and spend a fair amount of time on, is the practice of Advaitic non-dualism. Specifically, the practice of Ramana's Self-enquiry and all the supports for it recommended by Ramana and his lineage devotees, as well as others like Nisargadatta who teach very similarly.
One of the more interesting things going on with me has been a month-long email correspondence with a long-time resident of Ramanashram on the subject of Self-enquiry and its practice. The fellow has been extremely patient and helpful with me, and yet also firmly one-pointed on Ramana's actual instructions on Self-enquiry. I, on the other hand, have tried to introduce interpretations of Self-enquiry based on my own readings and beginner's practice of it that appear not to be what Ramana actually taught. My friend has been slowly wearing me down, and yet I continue to stubbornly hold onto a number of notions that seem true to me, regardless of what others say. This does not make me right and him wrong, or vice-versa, but it does mean that I have to understand all this more deeply than I do.
One of the primary points of contention is whether Self-enquiry involves an active inspection of the conditional self in any way at all, from the practice of niddidyasana's "not this, not this", to a simple noticing and rejection of the illusions of conditional selfhood. My friend insists, and after examining the evidence I'd have to agree with him, that Ramana's description of Self-enquiry does not admit any such forms of practice as being actual Self-enquiry. However, my fallback position has been that while true Self-enquiry may not involve any attention to the conditional self, or any process of inspecting the conditional self, the beginner who is taking on the practice of Self-enquiry will and even needs to make such inspections as a matter of course - except of course in the cases of individuals who have incredible clarity and single-mindedness, such that they realize with great speed and effectiveness - people like Ramana himself and Lakshmana Swami. For most everyone else, even Ramana recommended supplemental practices and approaches that were not so pure.
The central point my friend keeps bringing up is that Self-enquiry is purely a matter of attention to consciousness itself, that it has nothing to do with attention to objects at all, that any practice that puts attention on objects of any kind, whether they be thoughts or objective experience, the body-mind itself, or any process of thinking and observing, simply reinforces thought, mind, and objects. So to examine any object, any aspect of the conditional self, and say to oneself, no, this isn't true, this isn't real, this isn't me, this isn't consciousness, itself reinforces the mind and the very illusions it wishes to be free of. This is a radical position on the subject of Self-enquiry, and while it appears to be true, it also perhaps accounts for why so few people, even at Ramanashram, actually practice Self-enquiry. To actually practice Self-enquiry in this manner seems virtually impossible for beginners such as myself, and yet when I say this to my friend he insists that I am wrong, that it is possible, and that it is only my mind which tells me it can't be done, and that I shouldn't listen to my mind. In a discussion of the necessity of the Guru he brought up a wonderful quote from the Guru Vachaka Kovai:
An external Guru is needed because the desire-filled,infatuated mind rushes out lithout listening with love to the truth unceasingly proclaimed in the Heart by the self, being-consciousness
The point here is that the purpose of the external Guru is to help steer the devotee's atention back to this voice that is constantly speaking the truth in the Heart of the devotee, but which we do not listen to because our minds are distracted with the world of objects and thoughts. This internal voice of the Heart does not speak the mind's language and can only be "heard" in silence. Self-enquiry, acccording to Ramana, is the direct path of attending to the Guru's true teaching in silence, rather than attending to the mind's thoughts and objects, which constantly steer one away from this teaching in silence. Self-enquiry destroys the mind and its thoughts, and all its objects, not by putting any attention on them at all, but by not giving them attention, and instead by putting attention on its source, on consciousness itself, on awareness, by simply being the witness. When this is done, the power of the Self destroys the mind naturally, without any effort on the devotee's part. So Self-enquiry is not a method of the mind, but from the beginning moves beyond the realm of mind. As my friend says
No answer you give yourself is the correct answer, and any answer you supply yourself just keeps the mind busy.
So far so good. But in practice, mind is not so easy to transcend. It does seem to require a "dirty" approach of attention to objects and mind, to some extent at least, in order to grasp that they are not the point, even that they don't lead anywhere except to more mind. Simply accepting these truths as true is itself merely a form of mind, and doesn't actually produce any greater depth of understanding. So there seems to me to be a need for something like this, described by Nisargadatta
M: Before you can accept God, you must accept yourself, which is even more frightening. The first steps in self-acceptance are not at all pleasant, for what one sees is not a happy sight. One needs all the courage to go further. What helps is silence. Look at yourself in total silence, do not describe yourself. Look at the being you believe you are and remember - you are not what you see. 'This I am not - what am I?' is the movement of self-enquiry. There are no other means to liberation, all means delay. Resolutely reject what you are not, till the real Self emerges in its glorious nothingness, its 'not-a-thing-ness.'
Here Nisargadatta seems to be describing an approach to Self-enquiry which acknowledges the need for a basic inspection of the conditional self. It's not that he's trying to turn Self-enquiry into that, but he's using this approach as a means of strengthening and deepening the practice of Self-enquiry, by alternating it with an inspection of the conditional self. In other words, he's actually recommending alternating practices. First, one inspects the conditional self in silence, seeing that this is not who we really are. Second, one practices direct Self-enquiry, in the manner similar to Ramana, without attention to the conditional Self. Then wash and repeat as needed. The whole point of first inspecting the conditional self is to set it aside as an illusion, so that one can practice Self-enquiry in its true form. It seems to me, therefore, that something like this is simply a natural part of how the beginner approaches the pure practice of Self-enquiry. In theory it may not require attention to objects, and Self-enquiry itself never actually involves this, but it does seem to be helpful to make this simple inspection/rejection of the illusion of the conditional self that most of us simply assume ourselves to be
There is another dimension to this, which is faith. Even Nisargadatta often said that in his case the most important element of his practice was simply faith in his Guru. When he met his Guru, his Guru told him that he was the Supreme Self, and he said that this was the driving force behind his own practice. In the beginning, he practiced a meditation on the "I am" which resembles the pure form of Self-enquiry, but soon all he did was meditate on his Guru's assertion that he, Nisargadatta, was the Supreme Self. He had such faith in his Guru's words that simply abiding in that bare proclamation led him into realization. This also seems to me to be an essential element in the practice of Self-enquiry. That even if it may seem impossible, or too pure to practice, the simple assertion of the Guru's instruction on the actual practice of it can be sufficient to overcome all the obstacles of the mind, After all, what Self-enquiry is directed towards is not the mind's answers, but the voice of the Guru given in silence, in the heart, pointing to itself, and not towards anything else. So Self-enquiry is the same as listening to the Guru's core instruction on Self-Realization: you are that. Rejecting that core instruction and thinking of oneself as the conditional self who must work out his problems and karmas and get his mind free leads to endless circular traps of mind and life. So Self-enquiry is always directed back at the core truth which transcends the mind and its circular illusion-reinforcing nature. It is incredibly simple, and yet comprehensive. It is a gesture of faith, at its core.