Sunday, December 06, 2009

Self-Enquiry and the Feeling of Self

A commenter asks an interesting series of questions in relation to my last post on "The Confusion of Self and Self-Image Among Western Non-Dualists.":

Broken Yogi- I was wondering if you could shed light on Ramana's instructions regarding self-inquiry, that it can and should be practiced when one is engaged in activity and not just when sitting in meditation.

The suggestion that self-inquiry can be practiced at all times has confused me ever since I read that that was what Ramana taught. How does one focus the mind inward but also think and behave normally at the same time? If self-inquiry involves focus of a similiar nature to mediation, except meditation is on an object and self-inquiry is on attention itself, then the usual thought processes of the mind are interrupted as in meditation. The problem is, these thought processes can't be comfortably interrupted for any great length of time, let alone all the time. Hence my confusion.

Because of Ramana's teachings I've allowed my mind very slowly and naturally to become more restive in itself. Not through any contrivance but through the recognition that this is what the mind is always attempting to do anyway and that the ground upon which the mind sits is the Self. So, before I would allow various inner agitations to have a greater reign over my thinking but now I return to my center or sense of self more quickly and the agitation is allowed to dissolve rather than be fed.

Perhaps this knew subtle understanding, which has allowed me to become more restive in myself, is actually what Ramana meant by self-inquiry and my current idea is incorrect? I can certainly go about my day normally because I'm not forcing my attention in any way but I am more aware of returning to my sense of self.

This suspicion leads me to be partial to the idea that self-inquiry is too subtle to be rightly called a practice in the usual sense. Perhaps Elias is on to something?

It's important first off to understand that self-enquiry can be described in many ways, and that there isn't just one conceptual description that fits it. Even so, there are certain basic notions that really do apply in virtually all cases, and one of them is that self-enquiry fundamentally means "feeling the sense of self" as deeply as one can.

The practice of self-enquiry is not a mental or conceptual one, in the sense that it imposes no ideas or dogma or conclusions upon its investigation of the self or ego. It uses the mind in a purely observational sense, in a sensual, feeling examination of this basic sense of self we all have. Self-enquiry doesn't examine the ego and say it is good or bad, right or wrong, real or unreal. It merely feels this feeling of self that we all have all the time, and allows attention to simply feel as far into this feeling as it can in any moment. For most people, a period of sitting meditation offers the best chance of feeling the most deeply into this feeling of self, but it's certainly possible to do it throughout the day, since we have the feeling of self at all times, and in the midst of every activity.

There's a lot of truth to the notion that self-enquiry isn't a practice at all, at least not in the ordinary sense of being some special "thing" we do. In the most basic respect it's nothing more than consciously knowing ourselves as we are, as "egos". Self-enquiry isn't concerned with the qualities of the ego, but with merely feeling it directly and deeply. The strange thing is that as we feel into the ego more and more directly, it becomes more and more diffuse. I call this the "evaporative cloud effect". Because the ego is not a "thing", and is not an actual person, examination of it does not find anything definite there. Instead, the feeling of self begins to expand and diffuse, like a fog or cloud. As this occurs, the feeling of self becomes less confined and constrictive, and instead becomes open and clear. The body relaxes, as it no longer has an imaginary "center". Instead, it finds itself centered and grounded in a deeper feeling of reality. The feeling of limited self begins to give way to a feeling of unlimited Self. The mind becomes naturally relaxed and easeful, rather than tense and concentrated. Thinking becomes clear, and merely functional. If one is engaged in some kind of demanding activity, the mind simply follows it naturally and intentionally, thinking as needed, and otherwise merely feeling into this sense of self.

Part of the problem some people have with the notion of practicing self-enquiry in the midst of ordinary activity is the notion that it requires an orientation of "inwardness". Ramana often used that term, along with "introversion of attention", but tried to make it clear that it does not refer to a functional or character orientation of eshewing outward experience and instead being immersed in inward experiences. To Ramana, all experiences, whether of the outer material world or the inner world of thoughts and mind, is "outward", meaning oriented towards something other than oneself. To Ramana, "looking within" merely means feeling the sense of self, rather than merely looking at things from the perspective of self. So to Ramana, there is no real difference between practicing self-enquiry quietly in a meditative setting and doing so in the midst of an outwardly active life. The key is to be attentive to this feeling of self which is always at the core of our experiencing, whatever the nature or quality of that experience.

Poonja Swami is famous for advocating the approach of "no practice". He told people that all practices are nonsense and do not lead to realization. However, he also said that people should practice self-enquiry as deeply as possible. When asked to explain the apparent contradiction, he said that self-enquiry wasn't an activity or practice of any kind, it took no effort to simply be who we are and be attentive to that. Many have misunderstood this instruction, but I think there's a great truth in it. THe more one practices self-enquiry, the more we begin to see what he meant, that it isn't really a practice, it's just being attentive to who we are. If we feel ourselves to be egos, then self-enquiry merely means feeling that ego-sense deeply.The more we feel into the ego, the more diffuse the ego becomes, and the more grounded in reality we feel ourselves to be. We may discover all kinds of things about ourselves in the process. The mind even opens up to all kinds of experience it might never have felt before. The point is not to form conceptual judgments about any of that, but merely to continue feeling the sense of self which observes these things.

So clearly real self-enquiry can be done by anyone at any time. In fact, the more disturbed we might be in any moment, the more egoically self-obsessed we might be, the easier it is to practice self-enquiry, because the feeling of self is so obvious and unavoidable in those moments. The ego is all about activity, so unless we can feel the sense of ego in the midst of activity, there's not much hope of getting to the root of it. The good news is that this doesn't require some special "other" activity that we direct our attention towards. Practicing self-enquiry doesn't mean taking our attention off our work. It means doing our work while feeling this basic sense of self. Engaging in activity in this manner is not difficult or distracting, and in fact self-enquiry helps us become more grounded and less distracted, if we keep it this simple and don't impose some kind of conceptual ideations upon it.

So doing self-enquiry really is a very natural process, and if often doesn't feel like a method at all. Oftentimes, when we try to turn it into a "method", we lose the real thread of it, and begin to practice it as some kind of mental effort, rather than a natural movement of the heart. Even then, there's no particular need to be concerned, because even while trying to practice self-enquiry in a self-conscious way, the feeling of self is magnified. In some sense, then, it's impossible to not get the point. Which is why it's important merely to persist in the practice, and not worry if one is doing it right. Even the worst, most mentally self-conscious practitioner of self-enquiry can't help but notice this feeling of self that won't go away. Maybe he's trying to get rid of it, but merely by putting attention on it he's doing a basic form of self-enquiry. It will mature when he stops trying to make it produce results or get rid of his ego, but that's part of the natural process also. Self-enquiry at core has no motive at all, just a desire to feel our own reality. That isn't something that can only be done in a meditative mode, it has to be something that is going on all the time, because reality is always present, and our own self is always present, and our own feeling capacity is always present. It's merely a matter of allowing that natural process to unfold as an intentional, conscious mode of awareness, rather than unconsciously, obsessed with results and the objects of our awareness.

There are ways of describing self-enquiry that are more complex than this basic mode of feeling into the feeling of self, and there are all kinds of ways of doing that, but they all unfold from this basic disposition, and not much else is actually necessary. How it unfolds in anyone's case is hard to say, and hard to judge. We don't need to worry about that, as long as we stay attentive to the basic practice. It has clear advantages over other "methods" even from the start, but it's not necessary to eschew other methods either. One can practice the basics of self-enquiry even while practicing a mantra, or doing yoga, or practicing bhakti, or any other spiritual exercise. In some way, it's merely the basic, natural truth within any spiritual path. It's the way of the heart itself, feeling into the very heart of our own self regardless of how we happen to experience ourselves. Not just in the end, but even in the beginning, it isn't about any activity at all, so it doesn't interfere with any activity. It may take time to learn that lesson, and we may easily become distracted in the midst of activity and lose the thread of self-enquiry, but that is possible even in meditation. Learning to remain undistracted and to feel oneself at all times is simply a natural process as we become more and more drawn to face reality and live within it. The difference between activity and stillness becomes slighter and slighter, until we begin to sense the stillness that is always present even in the midst of all activity. That stillness is our own presence.

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