Friday, February 08, 2008

Feeling of Pain, Feeling of Self

I've had some interesting responses to this whole matter of practicing self-enquiry. I got a very wonderful email from someone who practices self-enquiry, and describes the process as intensely frustrating, and even painful. I would print the email, but the writer wishes to remain anonymous. But here's one small sample of her experience, if she doesn't mind my quoting her:
“Another thing that happens sometimes is as soon as I turn inward instead of looking outward, I feel pain. A kind of burning sensation in the heart area that immediately makes my eyes fill with tears. This is a strong disincentive ... I can hear my mind urging: oh this bad feeling will go away if you stop this enquiry business. I do my best not to give in to this and to feel through the pain to the sense of "I am" -- even if the pain does not go away -- though it does if I stick with this long enough.”

I don't commonly have these experiences of pain when I practice self-enquiry, but it reminds me of a basic principle in deep-tissue massage, which is that you have to learn to relax and surrender into the pain. My son has been learning deep-tissue massage techniques, and tried them out on me recently when I visited him in Santa Cruz. He's become quite the expert at finding the areas in the body where I hold tension and am, essentially, “fighting” myself, not relaxed and surrendered. When he pushes on those points, I can't tell you how painful it is. My first reaction is to tense up and fight his pushing, clenching my muscles, which also numbs them to the pain. But then I realize I have to let go and surrender to the pain, and let the whole fitful tensing process relax. A lot of the time I was able to do this, and though it hurt, it was good, and I could let go of some of that tension-effort. But some spots were just so fricking painful I just had to plead with him to stop (he let up, but not by much).

I think there's a general principle here in relation to any experience in life, but particularly the wisdom which comes from even a little bit of self-enquiry. Which is to simply observe and feel whatever is coming up in the body or mind, and not react to it, not try to fight it, but simply relax the grip we have on ourselves that we reinforce through every kind of experience, even painful ones. I think self-enquiry brings these things up, because it goes deeper than the body, deeper than the mind, and thus whatever we are holding onto in body and mind will make itself none, and sometimes painfully so. What this woman experiences in self-enquiry is probably unique to her in the specifics, but universal in the basic pattern. I think Ramana said that virtually everyone who takes up self-enquiry will go through a lot of trials and difficulties, internal and/or external. I gather it gets subtler over time, and maybe even the content gets “subtle”, but the process seems pretty much the same in principle all the way through. Everything that we experience has to be let go of, because holding onto our experience is in some sense the very essence of our suffering. The devil of course is in the details.

I suppose this is what I mean by there not being much guidance out there for what literally goes on in the practice of those embarking on self-enquiry, and I don't know if it really changes all that much even for those who are very mature in it. From the accounts of Muruganar and Ammamalai, for example, this seems to be the case. They of course had the direct guidance of Ramana. Most people out here in the west have little to none, and much of what does pass for “guidance” falls well short of the mark. In fact, even the more prominent pseudo-Advaita gurus out there don't seem to talk about self-enquiry much, probably because they don't know much about it.

I recall when I first began to re-read Ramana about three years ago (for the first time since I was a teenager) and flirted with self-enquiry for the first time, I sensed that I was in for big trouble. Sure enough, I went through the most difficult time of my life rather suddenly. Something I read in Ramana really stuck with me and came alive to help me through this, when he said that the biggest mistake most people make is that they thank God when good things happen, and never when bad things happen. I just started repeating this over and over and thanking God every day for all the difficulties I was going through, and you know what? It really helped. And in the end, things did work themselves out fairly well. And I had a chance to see what was really important in life, which is why I began, eventually, to take self-enquiry more seriously. So maybe that's another thing to do. When the shit really hits the fan while doing self-enquiry, thank God, or the Self, or Ramana, or whatever you want to call it, for it, and don't just thank him for the blissful experiences that sometimes come.

We also got a comment from Kang, who sometimes gets a little over-excited, but we appreciate his passion. He writes:
“You know, I don't care what you or anyone else or even Ramana might say about this, self-enquiry is not a "practice." To call it that is just to make a self-conscious, narcissistic, egoistically fetishistic affair out of what is patently, in that case, NOT self-enquiry.”
Come on, Kang, don't be shy, tell us how your really feel.

Okay, this isn't really so hard. As the other dude says, this is just words. I understand the whole “no practice” teaching of Papaji, and I love his way of putting it, and I also know that he teaches self-enquiry, but says that self-enquiry isn't a practice. I guess you are arguing along those lines? Well, good. There's a serious truth there. Self-enquiry isn't a “practice” like doing mantra japa or meditating on Tibetan visualizations of Tara. It is, as you say, merely finding out who we are. But let's face it, semantics aside, if you have to do it more than once, it's a practice. Those who only did it once and succeeded can be counted on the fingers of one hand, that I know of. Ramana, Papaji, and Lakshmana. Obviously all three were hugely prepared to make self-enquiry effective. The rest of us who have tried at least once and not realized the Self, well, if we want to keep trying, we might as well just call it a practice.

Is the practice of self-enquiry a self-conscious, narcissistic, egoistically fetishistic affair? Yes, I think so, if we are honest with ourselves. I mean, what's more narcissistic than putting all our attention on ourselves? What's more egotistical than focusing on the “I”-thought? It's hard for me to think of anything. It's egotism pure and simple, which I think is really what makes the whole thing work. Rather than beating around the bush, or running away from the ego, or trying to purify and transform the ego, self-enquiry just looks at the ego head on, no fuss, no muss. As Ramana said, in self-enquiry we look for the guy who is claiming to be the boss of this whole affair, and when we make the enquiry thorough and still can't find him, the whole charade is up. That's the end of the ego, and yet the process means putting all attention on this imaginary ego, until we see through ourselves.

My own experience with self-enquiry is erratic, but a lot does come up that I have to surrender. Lots of emotions come up, lots of happiness comes up, lots of tears, lots of devotion, lots of doubt, lots of mediocrity, etc. For me, it's all about simply feeling the “feeling of self”, which I don't even know quite how to describe. That's kind of how I got into self-enquiry in the first place. I was still in Adidam, and I'd pretty much given up on most of it, but something about the whole description of the “self-contraction” in Adidam had always intrigued me, and so I had gotten into “feeling the self-contraction” not in the usual way people talked about in Adidam, as a cramp in the gut or the mind, but in the basic self-position. When I left Adidam shortly thereafter that's about the only thing I took with me, spiritually speaking – not that I practiced it much, or did anything about it really. But when I began reading Ramana again the practice of Self-enquiry now seemed to make sense to me, which it hadn't long ago when I first knew of Ramana. The feeling of self seemed like a good starting place for moving into self-enquiry, and it seems to obviate something of the more headache-inducing notions about self-enquiry such as “awareness watching awareness”.

Although I must admit the AWA teachings, based of course on great quotes from Ramana and Nisargadatta, are excellent ways of looking at self-enquiry, but they try to distill it too far from its source, and make a fetishistic obsession of it that is divorced from its living reality, by which I mean the whole living reality of spirituality altogether. I've definitely benefited from such views, but I always find that the reality of Ramana is much wider than that narrow understanding and reductionism of self-enquiry.

I suppose that's why I react a bit to some of those who pass on the great teachings of Ramana, even very astute and high-minded guys like David Godman. There's a tendency, I think, to reduce Ramana's teaching to a “practice”, rather than a living relationship to a profoundly overwhelming Transcendental Being residing in our Heart. Ramana himself didn't do self-enquiry till the last minute. Before then, he was hanging out at the local temple, staring at the statue of the Goddess there with tears running down his cheeks. Now, could we say that practice was a form of self-enquiry? Maybe we could, if we understood self-enquiry in a way that's a little “out of the box”. Because I think self-enquiry includes a lot more than just the most literal exercise of asking “who am I?” for a half hour each morning and evening, and randomly throughout the day. It involves more than merely putting attention on awareness itself. I don't know that I want to define what it really is, but I do know that it's more than any of the book definitions let on.

Of course, maybe there's a reason why this doesn't get talked about much. Maybe it's not supposed to be talked about. I'm not sure why that would be, but it could be the case. And maybe it's a mistake for me to even broach the subject, much less have a blog like this. I gotta say, every week I wonder if I should just let this go. Who knows, maybe God will strike me dead. I should be so lucky.

Anyway, that's where I get off, this feeling of self. Meditating on that feeling is quite relaxing, really, even if it is just ego. Somehow, by meditating on the feeling of self, I feel something beyond self. Meditating on the “I', not as an abstraction, but as a feeling, makes the process seem real to me in ways that many conceptual approaches simply don't. The feeling of self isn't limited to just some sense of interior personae, but is the feeling of the body, and the feeling of the mind, as a sense of self. So when I practice self-enquiry, and feel this sense of self, it isn't apart from the body really. It's coincident with the body, just not limited to the body. It's coincident with the breath, with awareness, with feeling altogether. Somehow, that makes it work for me. And it's easy to see that this “I” is a feeling that runs through the whole of our being, all of our bodies, all the sheaths, to whatever degree we are aware of them. Everywhere we experience anything, there is a feeling of self at the core of that experience, and we experience that feeling all the time.

So, that's just my beginner's experience. It hasn't made me into some kind of enlightened dude who can now pontificate about the ultimates. Or rather, it hasn't stopped me from being a pompous dude who likes to pontificate about ultimates whether he knows what he's talking about or not. But it does feel damn good, and as Janis says, that can't be bad.


Anonymous said...

Yikes, my last comment seems to have been lost. Well, that's life. I'm not excited. Why is everybody else? Ha ha.

Is it really all just words? You and anon have said that, but I don't think you really mean it. We seem to believe in some substance other than words/thoughts and we think we're discussing that substance. But there may be no such thing. Ramana says it's all thoughts. I think that's right.

But some thoughts congeal into the illusion of substance (otherwise called ego, the world, etc.), and "practice" is one of those, I believe.

Self-enquiry is as much about dissolving illusion as direct questioning, isn't it? Probably more so. That's where I come from. I haven't read Papaji.

Anonymous said...

Re self/Self-enquiry:
Yes, let's get it "out of the box." Good idea.

I realize this is all an imaginary game (especially when one assumes to know what The Goal is, then insists on getting there over and over again, or pretends to never get there), but within the game itself I’m wondering if maybe there isn’t a better way to do the enquiring, a more useful way to phrase the question?

If one is going to keep on (and on and on) with it, I’d like to suggest that he/she might be better served to replace "Who am I?" with "What is this?" (meaning "What is all of this?" or "What is just this?" or "What is this which includes that?" and other variations.) Ramana and other big names may have championed it, but I think the "Who am I?" routine has just become too problematic for ego-centric earthlings.

What is the real question? (and perhaps the answer as well! :-)


todd mertz said...

Hi, Conrad. I think your question, "How does the rest of spirituality relate to self-enquiry, not just in theory, but in practice?" is a really good one, and I think your comments on guidance and beginning are common/relevant to nearly everyone who tries to focus on one type of practice or discipline. I agree that more idiosyncratic commentary by people who feel like beginner's and "journeymen" CAN be helpful, but most spiritual traditions are clearly set up around advanced states/stages. It's always helped me to ask how folks would show/share their disciplines with children. Anyway, it seems that there are elementary attentional skills that help solidify conscious awareness of simple/realized states, and without these skills, the states may arguably always-already exist without being tangible to any of us beginners.

It's my experience that most people are more interested in inspiration than serenity, and because of that, many people confuse serenity (as a fundamental state or Self) with the need for rest. Then, we end up seeking rest (in our drive for inspiration) and sometimes wanting that rest to be serenity. It seems that there may be no "relating" in oneness states or in utter simplicity, but if we haven't stabilized awareness of that simplicity, then we need to find out how we relate to simplicity and how we want to relate to simplicity. And, since we all seem idiosyncratically set for different types of inspiration depending on all sorts of circumstances, the ways in which self-inquiry relates to anything else in practice is always pinpoint to the moment and unique to the individual. Having said that, there definitely seem to be universal influences from common anatomy and neurological-personal development. Within a state of conscious oneness, the individuality may not be important, but it is certainly influential when we are not in those states (or before we have stabilized access to whatever states as a stage).

I'd be interested to see your comments on what I've got listed here:



Mike said...

Re: "maybe it's a mistake for me to even broach this subject, much less have a blog like this." That's probably the only notion I hope you abandon.

Looking over Muthra Sri Sarada's report in finally dealing with the rising and falling (into the source) of the "I" thought, I began wondering what impact or affect such reports have on others. Do they try (in their practice) to create a picture in their mind's eye of this happening with them?
Do they try to visualize and create a sense of falling into the Heart?
Such reports (from Realizers) are good to hear. But, what are some of the self-generated things we do with them? (I know I have done such things.) It's not just our
own thought imagery I'm talking about (being directed in such a way) but also energetic senses.
(Imagining a center of gravity on the right side of the sternum.)

Anonymous said...

"Everywhere we experience anything, there is a feeling of self at the core of that experience, and we experience that feeling all the time"

Perhaps just thinking in terms of 'experiences' implies a separate self that does the experiencing. The idea of a 'core' of individualism arises merely from the concept of experience. Do you have experiences or are you the experience? Like your head, for example. Do you have a head or is your head actually you, pretending to have an independent existence. Who are you? You are it, the Works, pretending to be some isolated and humbled ego.

Anonymous said...

I think the most difficult part people have with self enquiry is to associate it with thought or getting anything other than self peace. We go and analyze and analyze and that has its place but in my experience, at least, this is not what it's about. After searching and struggling (and analyzing quite a bit!) I am finding out through experience that what Bhagavan and Saradamma are saying is all true. It's all in his Naan Yar. The question "Who am I?" is not really to start a thought process, but begins to mess up the mind's own thought process. For me it is very physical. It seems unbelievable at first and easily ridiculed by the mind. Indeed, the mind won't believe it. But when the "I thought" begins to descend into the heart and you physically feel the sensation it is not a joke anymore. It becomes an extremely dangerous game and the mind will resist like anything and this, at least for me, is felt physically - reacted to physically. The mind is seeing real danger. The snake is right there and it's about to bite you. But what has enabled me to overcome some of the physical difficulty is simply to continue with atma vichara and ask the simple question "Who is experiencing this pain?" I think also it is true that it is the Self's grace that will let you in and no amount of thinking of yours does it. The only way I've been able to rationalize all of this is to realize that when you are approaching the Self through atma vichara you are dealing with real intelligence. It knows everything about you. It knows every nook and cranny of your body.

Anonymous said...

Today is April 22. So what's up with you? Did Elias get your goat or something? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Regarding the person who felt physical pain when questioning "who am I?" ... I wonder if the thoughts came up around the theme "I am bad." I have found that often the simplest explanations are best rather than attributing some mysteriousness going on.

It seems to me a big thing I overlooked in doing this practice was the sense of trying to get somewhere with it. I had been so programmed to "accomplish" which is something that adds a tremendous pressure on the practice rather than a relaxing look at what is truly here now when everything else is cleared away.

I have always found the pastime of feeling my own existence an incredibly happy occupation for its own sake. If I do it in order to get somewhere else (higher consciousness, guruhood, etc.) the pure satisfaction is lost.

Naturally the ego will want to use self-enquiry as a means to get somewhere. It's ok, I just go back again to feel the aliveness field which is the essence of fun. If it is not fun, better to question some of the negative judgements that have cropped up around the feeling of "I".

If you ask someone if a chair in the room exists they cannot immediately be sure, but if you ask them if they exist, they will answer quickly with 100% certainty. How? ... that is the feeling we meditate on for no other reason than it is fun.

Anonymous said...


Even when you wrote as an advocate of Ramana's 'practice' of self-inquiry (which I view skeptically) I was drawn to the authenticity behind your commentary. Now that you seem surrendered to the admonition of the Buddha- 'be a lamp unto thyself', or to Krishnamurti- 'follow no leader' or to Kant- 'dare to know' - I hope you will continue to use your gift for sharing your feelings as your path arises. The Internet seeths with knowings so your 'knowing nothing'- along with your temporary angst offers a perfect stillness that everyone- both seekers and the already awakened - can relate to. I note Google seems to have an inordinate fondness for indexing thebrokenyogi upfront over a broad range of spiritual search terms which might be a synchronicity that the Muse has her eye on you. maya-gaia

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for this experiential and honest wisdom. I appreciate you. And you have strengthened my resolve.