Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Beginner's Confusion is Unavoidable

Sorry for not posting much lately. I've been traveling, and sick, and just busy. Not that everyone feels this is a bad thing, of course. Here's a recent comment on my last post:

“If you would like to bring some clarity to your often confused and confusing notions about self-enquiry, you will do well to study Michael James' magnificent work "Happiness and the Art of Being" subtitled 'A layman's introduction to the philosophy and practice of the spiritual teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana.' Michael James is a deep and profound student of Ramana's teaching, and was a close collaborator with Sadhu Om. You can learn more about him by checking him and his book out on the net. His book stays very close to Ramana's own words, but also draws on the insights of Muruganar and Sadhu Om. James' own contribution is his crystal clear writing style and deep understanding of these teachings, practices, and their implications. The book "Happiness and the Art of Being" is available from amazon, or free on the web as a pdf file.

If you are sincere about delving into the practice of self-enquiry, you will find this work invaluable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to ruminate about these things and post your own idiosyncratic take on them, feel free to ignore this advice. Best regards to you and best wishes for your study and practice.”
I guess I should make it a little more clear what I'm doing on this blog, and what I'm not doing. First, I'm not trying to present any orthodoxy of Ramana's teachings, or Advaita, etc., not as a rule at least. I may do that from time to time, it's on my list so to speak, but really, there are way, way better sources on the subject out there than me. I'm familiar with the “Happiness of Being” website the commentator referred to, as well as all kinds of great sources such as various books by Ramana, Sadhu Om, Lakshmana, and David Godman's website (which, by the way, has the ebook posting of Guru Vachaka Kovai). I've gone through a fairly rigorous samyama on self-enquiry, though I'm sure not as much or as deeply as many readers here. However, I think it needs to be said that book knowledge is at best a beginning, at times a guide, and is no substitute for the actual practice of self-enquiry, which is much “messier” than the book descriptions lead one to think.

One issue that has struck me from the beginning of my interest in self-enquiry is how few people actually practice it, and how few who actually practice it become enlightened. It's obviously a fairly advanced practice, and I'm fairly obviously not an advanced spiritual soul, and so I've had some reservations about the practice. The descriptions of self-enquiry by Muruganar, Ramana, Lakshmana, Sadhu Om, and others who have taken it all the way are beautiful and inspiring. On the other hand, there's a certain unreachable quality to their descriptions which makes the practice seem beyond the reach of all but the most mature souls. This, of course, is contrary to Ramana's own teachings on the subject. Ramana claims that self-enquiry is also the best practice for beginners, for those who are anything but advanced souls. In a series of emails with David Godman last year about self-enquiry I argued this point, and he emphatically confirmed that this was Ramana's view, to the point where I had to concede it to him. The question that remains for me is, what is the actual practice of self-enquiry like for beginners, and how is it made effective?

That's what this blog is supposed to be about. In part, of course, it just represents my own ruminations about various related spiritual topics, but the question remains, how does the rest of spirituality relate to self-enquiry, not just in theory, but in practice? Spirituality is complex, the human spiritual organism is complex, and the practice of self-enquiry has to address all of it in practice or it's just not meaningful. My sense for why self-enquiry is so unpopular, even among followers of Ramana, is that people simply don't know how to take it up as beginners, and so instead they take up all kinds of simpler practices, such as bhakti. David Godman remarked in an interview a few years ago that someone interested in self-enquiry stood at the door of the meditation hall at Ramanashram asking for help on self-enquiry, and found that not a single person was actually practicing it there.

So please, pardon me for being a neophyte at this, but I think there's a serious disconnect out there between the theory of self-enquiry and its beginning practice. My own postings clearly reflect this. I do “sorta” know what self-enquiry is, intellectually. I do “sorta” know how to practice it. But the gulf between me and the full and clear understanding of a Ramana or a Muruganar on the subject is immense. And yet, I can't start from Ramana's position, I have to start from where I am, and move as best I can towards their position. And yes, I know that means I am assuming unenlightenment on my part, and that this is a self-fulfilling assessment. But assuming enlightenment doesn't seem to be working for anyone I know of either. There's obviously a real process that has to be engaged that grows us in the practice of self-enquiry, and that brings even the most lowly beginners through a process of enlightenment that may take many lifetimes, perhaps, but is real and true in the moment it is engaged.

And that is what I would like to be doing – simply engaging in a process that is real and true, even though I'm clearly a very raw beginner, not an advanced or mature being by any means. The process of self-enquiry seems very difficult even for advanced practitioners, so I think it's going to be even more so for beginners like me. If I seem confused and confusing, yes, it's because I am. But I don't think I'm going to become less confused merely by intellectual study of the subject. It certainly helps from time to time, but really, at some point one has to put down the books and engage the practice, and make a fool of oneself. I don't think the actual practice of self-enquiry is flattering to anyone. I don't think it's very clear to anyone who hasn't actually realized it. If it were clear, these people would be enlightened themselves. That they are not suggests that the process is more profoundly confusing than the literature suggests, and that focusing on the literature too much can become a crutch which gives one an intellectual sense of clarity which lacks the depth necessary to actually make self-enquiry effective in practice.

And I think that is why so many people abandon self-enquiry. I have certainly done that a number of times, only to be drawn back into it. Most people, it seems, even ardent followers of Ramana, just give it up after a few fruitless tries. There is very little guidance for such people out there, and it's very easy to imagine that the confusion which arises when we begin to practice self-enquiry means that we are doing something wrong. Unfortunately, we probably are, but that is also simply to be expected when engaging in something as profoundly central to our being as self-enquiry.

I don't think it's necessary to say this, because I think it's rather obvious, but in case some people are wondering I am most definitely not trying to develop a spiritual “teaching” about self-enquiry. I have zero qualifications for that. There's a ton of people far better qualified than I for that job, and as I say, lots of literature on the subject. I'm just trying to engage a beginner's consideration of the actual practice of self-enquiry, and how it relates to this messy business of mind and life and spirit. I appreciate any feedback I can get, as long as it's constructive feedback, and not merely trying to play suppression games.

Now, as for the issue of my “idiosyncratic take”, yes, it most definitely is. But I think everyone's take on self-enquiry is idiosyncratic – except for those who have realized the Self. The problem with the literature and public discussion of self-enquiry (what little there is) is that everyone seems to be striving to eliminate the idiosyncratic, and give only the purest and most refined descriptions of self-enquiry. I think that creates an imbalance. I think we need more idiosyncratic views and accounts of self-enquiry, not less of them. I for one would really appreciate hearing how other people practice self-enquiry, what their views are, and their experiences, without trying to make a perfect cookie-cutter of it that corresponds to the pure descriptions of Ramana and Muruganar and Sadhi Om. I would find it more inspiring to hear such things. Others might disagree. In my case, it's the only option I have, since I can't really write about the pure teachings except intellectually. As I've said, I've been there, done that, and it's just not useful to me anymore.

I'm quite aware that what I'm doing here is of very dubious value, and who knows, I may not do it for much longer. I originally began posting here simply because I thought it would help me maintain some attention on self-enquiry, which is useful in and of itself. But I won't pretend that my practice is anything profound. I do what I can, and I'm open to any help anyone can offer. You don't have to be a spiritual teacher, just an ordinary bloke like me who is traveling this same difficult path.

Thanks again to everyone out there for your support.


Anonymous said...

I am the previous commentator whom you quoted. My apologies for the deprecatory tone of some of my remarks, which I regret. I tried to edit my comment after posting it, but found that I could not. I was over-reacting to your last post which seemed to wander pretty far from anything I recognized as self-enquiry, but now I understand your purpose better. The constructive part of my comment, I believe, was the recommendation of the James book, but that doesn't seem to be the focus of your interest right now.
I do think Michael James is making a very serious effort to address the practice of self-enquiry specifically for beginners. But he does not spend a lot of time discussing beginners experiences with the practice, but rather in clarifying and correcting characteristic beginner's misconceptions of the practice, and wrong approaches to it. I think this does at least overlap some of the areas in which you express an interest in your current post. And books are not necessarily merely about "theory" as opposed to "practice". James does indeed get into the theory, but primarily focuses on practice.
I suppose we're all "beginners" in this practice, but I have been devoted to this particular path of self-enquiry, inspired by Ramana, for decades now, including several stints in Tiru, acqaintance with Godman, James, and others, etc. But this is not my place to discuss my experience with this practice. This is not a discussion group, but rather a blog which is your stage.
Again my best regards to you and best wishes for your practice. May it be fruitful.

Inner Bliss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Inner Bliss said...

Hello BY,

I came here by way of Guruphiliac, where I appreciated reading your insightful comments in your discussion with jody.

The following instructions were on the website xof a friend of mine who is a Ramana bhakta. I hope you find them useful. I'm posting in two parts. The second part will be in the following comment.


The following article has been added to the website for the benefit of devotees who find it difficult to understand the process of self-enquiry. It was written by someone who is and wishes to remain anonymous.

Self Enquiry

The method and its fruit

Throughout his life at Arunachala, Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi not only recommended but also taught the path of Self-enquiry to ardent devotees.

This teaching by word, example and by the granting of silent inner experience to those who were fit and ready for it, exemplified his supreme state; a state that few have ever attained.

Some of those who received this highest upadesa have chosen to write about it and to describe their experience, but most have remained silent, not wishing to reveal themselves; none however have tried to step into his shoes, because only the genuinely self-realised can understand the supreme and unequalled nature of his attainment – what He really was and is.

The steps to this attainment were clearly laid out by Bhagavan in words and by inner experience for some, and here it is important to understand that the mere experience of Self-realisation is not the finality, apart from exceptional cases like that of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. For the majority it is only the beginning of arduous tapas and sadhana to make the experience permanent.

The purpose of this article is to bring together Bhagavan’s direct teaching on the method of self-enquiry, culled from several books published by the ashram, and to detail the experiences that can follow it.

First and foremost Bhagavan stated that self-enquiry should be performed with the same intensity as that of a drowning man struggling for air, only then can it succeed.

Self-enquiry is holding on to the awareness of being that ‘you already are’. There is only one awareness, the one who is reading this article is the ego and the Self all in one, but the ego is the apparition covering the pure Self and that has to die to the real Self in order that self-realisation can take place. This is a mystery at first, but once accomplished it is very clearly understood.

Bhagavan often made the comparison of the actor in a Play - during the Play the actor assumes a completely different role, yet retains his true nature and combines the two. A good actor truly believes he is the role that he is playing, but after it is finished he discards the role and reverts to his original nature. In our case we have forgotten who we are and believe that our role is the reality. Just as the actor is not two Beings, not two ‘I’s’, nor are we two ‘I’s’. It really is that simple. However, our ingrained belief that the role we play is in fact the Reality is so strong, that it requires intense and prolonged effort to remove it.

To do this you must concentrate totally upon the awareness of ‘you’, without thought of any kind, or try to catch the ‘I-thought’ as it rises from within and then hold on to that firmly to the exclusion of all else.

The ‘I’ thought that you have to catch is a tangible and distinct force that rises from within the apparition created by the ego. It is this force that sustains the apparition and gives it life, just as the actor gives life to his part in the play through his own personality. There is however an acute difference. The pure ‘I’ thought is devoid of personality as we normally understand it – it just IS. This process requires intense, unbroken concentration, and in the majority of cases takes many years of hard effort and should be carried out, if possible, with eyes open. This does not involve physical or emotional strain of any kind, and strain should always be avoided.

When successful, awareness withdraws from the body into the crown of the head – this is usually very fast and experienced as receding from the feet upwards. At this point the breath becomes automatically controlled separate from that awareness of ‘being’ and it might even stop altogether. Even in this minor stage there is no concern whether the breath stops or not, because the body is already perceived as a heavy, cold and totally lifeless thing, not ‘you’, but something alien to you, a burden that you do not want. The awareness focussed in the crown of the head is however pristine in clarity and thought is suspended. This expansion of consciousness though devoid of bodily attachment is still the dark ego/mind complex.

At this point and in all of the following experiences the attention should be carefully, but powerfully turned towards the witness of all of this, with an intense thought-free longing to know who it is that sees it. The focus of attention will now move to the nape of the neck and then after further enquiry to the middle of the spine above the solar plexus, but the body and outer world are still apparent, though dreamlike.

Once again attention must be turned back to the one who witnesses all of this and it is at this point that a full expansion of consciousness takes place and the awareness moves to the so-called heart-centre, which is NOT within the body. This heart-centre is the seat of dark ignorance, the point from which the ego rises. The body, world and everything else has now vanished, to be replaced by a perception of vast energy proceeding forth to give rise to the universe. This energy is perceived as darkness, a profound ignorance covering the light of Pure Being, but is arising from ‘you’, the witness, and it is to that source that the attention has to be turned and the enquiry continued. This is the point reached by those who experience the stars and the universe withdrawing into them, it is not the finality, not self-realisation, merely one more illusion, but a very powerful one.

When attention is once more silently focussed on the one who witnesses all of this, the final stage of the enquiry takes place. The transition through the knot of ignorance at the heart-centre is accomplished and the purity of the unlimited deathless Self is known. Yet even here at the fifth stage of the quest the mind remains potential. The light of pure consciousness is perceived, but it is still only ‘perceived’. This is NOT self-realisation, but a very seductive state to remain in for those who seek the finality.

Only when this final stage is transcended is Self-realisation complete. This cannot be accomplished by the same enquiry as the previous steps, but only by complete surrender, the total dissolution of the mind into the ‘being-consciousness-bliss’ of the One Reality. This is in fact the most difficult, yet the easiest of all; how it is accomplished can be understood only when it is reached.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi remained permanently in the Supreme State. It is the state of Supreme Solitude, where death is an impossibility, where time and timelessness are one, where a billion years and a fraction of a second are the same, where immeasurable energy and absolute stillness are one, where difference is impossible and bliss alone is. Where light brighter than a billion suns pervades all, yet pervades nothing, where awareness of Being, beyond measure, pristine and unchangeable is known as you! This is the supreme state … your true state! It is not a void, but is immeasurably full, it is pure awareness, pure Being, perfect bliss, without beginning, middle or end. You are all of That and more!

To overcome the cycle of birth and death this latter state has to become permanent, and nothing less should be accepted by the true seeker.

Inner Bliss said...


Bhagavan does not detail the transitional states in any book or publication that I know of, but there are hints here and there. If He ever gave precise instruction to any devotee by word of mouth then it has not been recorded.

The steps laid out above are the experiences that accompany effort, the course that most of us have to follow. Bhagavan’s Realisation was instantaneous and did not necessarily pass through those stages, though it is quite clear from careful reading of everything He said, that He was fully aware of them.

There are many other types of experience possible, but they are only minor experiences, with the exception of one. Mystics have recorded bliss arising from within and embracing them in an ocean of love, silencing the mind, a transitory experience lasting for hours, days or even weeks.

In this state, happiness beyond all description overwhelms everything. The world is still clearly seen, but the body is perceived as something separate, almost intangible, dreamlike. There is no desire because thought is almost impossible, yet the normal functioning of the individual continues. Discrimination between you and everything else is no longer possible, even though it is seen as separate through the senses – this non-difference is not a thought, not an impression, but a fact.

This state is identical to that of the Jnani acting His part in the world. It is the state experienced through complete surrender to the Self Supreme. Here there are no stages of effort, only the finality itself, but transitory, except in the rarest of cases; transitory because the one experiencing it simply enjoys it in the body and does not dive within to make it permanent.

Whoever attains this state completely, knows that the body is a useless object, a burden to be carried until the time arrives when it can be dropped, never to rise again. He is eternally free from desire of any kind and therefore has no motive. He sees all as only Himself and acts accordingly. He becomes the servant of all, never placing Himself first, but is always last. He avoids any special treatment and never inflicts suffering upon others. He knows that all before Him is only Himself. For Him there are no others and is therefore the very source of all charity and consideration. He is love incarnate, all giving, never taking.

Everything that He does or says arises from deep within. It is Parabrahman that speaks through His words and acts through His body. He is the Supreme Itself, the only true Brahmin, beyond body and mind, yet using both like the craftsman uses his tools.

Do not limit Bhagavan (Parabrahman) to the body, but find Him in your heart, because He is already there waiting for you.

Everything that you need to know is written above, it is based upon my own experience and presented here for the benefit of sincere seekers, so that those who know only empty words will not misguide them. Mukti is not a free gift, make the effort and succeed!

I pray to my Supreme Master, who through His grace and benevolence revealed to me, his unworthy devotee, the Supreme Truth in all its glory. May His grace be showered upon those who practice the highest Truth with faith and sincerity.

Anonymous said...

This is many years ago still one point is not wrote that when as pure awareness in sahasrara and perceiving body as not you,this is still part of mindbody this can be as Ramana often said that when identification with physical body is no more than also ego is dead and mind as well cause ego is root for mind creation.when body is trsnscended also ego is transcended and also subtle and casual bodies are transcended when phisical body is transcended. All ancient scriptures. Upanishads said when awerness and kundalini unite at sahasrara that is self realisation all knots of ignorance broken before brhma, vishnu and rudra granthi. But this is path of control of life force. So maybe with self enquiry it is different.. in all his life Bagavan Ramana mad only one mistake all else is perfect; he said that self kniwledge is higher than life force control..Yoga Vashitha the highest authority for self realisation said clearly ; there are only two paths for highest realisation(though I allow possibilities of more paths) ;self knowledge (ramana method) and life force control(prana vidya method) . So ramana said that self inquiry is supreme cause when you stop prana you are free just as long prana is controlled, but yoga vashitha does not deal with simple pranayamas here. Stopping prana is only begin with, then follow samadhi of cosmic prana and you are not suspending prana anymore it is effortlessly suspended. Either through enquiry into self or path of worship of prana as Self realised Yogi Bhushunda said to Sage Vashitha, according to Yog Vashitha itself both methods lead to same supreme realisation but while one method might suit some it might not other sadhakas and vice versa.. so obviously self knowledge method was close to Ramana and all those who follow Him..still He did not had to say that one method is supreme cause Vashitha clearly praised them equaly worth. Maybe path of shakti (prana control) was not close to Sage Ramana cause he was clearly mental type ..maybe this have to do something with which half of brain work stronger for some. Pingala or solar nadi is pranic path while Ida or lunar nadi is mental path. So maybe for Ramana Ida was stronger but I don reall know. He was more *smart* here than Vashitha and that is his only mistake as far as i know... omomom