Practicing Self-Enquiry in Daily Life
5 August 2013
The practice of Self-enquiry (“Atma-vichara” in Sanskrit) is the most important meditation practice in the Advaita-Vedanta tradition. It is the primary practice of the yoga of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), which is traditionally regarded as the highest of the yogas because it is the most direct method of attaining liberation through Self-realization. This is how the realization of our true nature (beyond the mind and the body) is achieved.
Self-enquiry is the culminating practice through which Self-realization (the realization of our true nature beyond mind and body) can be achieved. It is emphasized in the entire Vedantic tradition since the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Many texts of Advaita (non-dualistic Vedanta) describe it in detail, particularly the works of Shankaracharya, but also Ashtavakra Samhita, Avadhuta Gita, Yoga Vasishta and Adhyatma Ramayana.
Self-enquiry is known today mainly through the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1878-1950) The Maharshi made this direct approach available to the general public, offering it as his main teaching to any individual who was capable of receiving the teaching.
The Actual Practice…
You may wonder… how do I put Self-enquiry into constant practice? There is only one way, by turning your attention inwards, to the sense of “I am” and that which is aware of the “I am.”
Simply put; turn your attention to the source of the ‘I’ thought.
Your hand doesn’t tell you it’s yours, you feel it is. There’s no part of the body that tells you it’s yours, not even the breath or heartbeats, yet you feel they are all yours. Thoughts keep appearing in the mind, they don’t tell you they are yours, but you believe that they are – that you’re the one who is thinking. From where does your sense of I, me, mine arise?
The objective is to discover your true self; therefore your practice begins with an enquiry into your real self by simply asking, “Who am I?”
Begin by setting aside some time for quiet reflection, preferably every day. To start, just ponder this question, “if I keep referring to everything, including body, senses, thoughts and mind as mine, then who am I? What is the source of this sense of “I, me and mine?” Where does this sense of ‘I’ arise from?
Ignore intruding thoughts and everything else that distracts you; keep your attention on this ‘I’ thought, remain intent on finding the very source from where it arises. If you keep paying attention in this manner, you’ll find that all other perceptions will start fading away.
If you get distracted, you can turn inwards again by asking; ‘I got distracted, but where did this feeling of ‘I’ arise from?
Soon you’ll find that you can keep this attention on your Self (the sense of ‘I’) by asking at any time during your normal daily routine; “Who is experiencing all this? Who is aware of all this?” Follow this by paying attention to where the sense of where ‘I’ arises from. It helps if you de-focus your eyes as you enquire, de-focusing will automatically draw your attention away from all other thoughts and objects in your perception.
Take a deep breath, pausing for a moment. Pay attention to the feeling/being when the lungs are full and the breath has stopped then stay with that feeling. Focus your attention on that ‘I am’ when the breath has stopped. Now, breathe out and pause for a moment, again noting the feeling/being when the breath has stopped and stay with that feeling.
You’ll begin to notice that this feeling is the same whenever the breath has stopped, whether after breathing in or breathing out.
Continue, but do not focus on the breathing itself, and notice how that being/feeling stays in the background even while the breath is going in and out. Now put your attention entirely on this feeling/being instead of the breath. As you do this, abide in that feeling/being as it appears in the gaps, do not focus on the breathing. If your mind wanders occasionally (and it will), bring your attention back to the pause (gap) between the breath and then keep paying attention to that. Abide in the pure awareness of your “being,” for as long as you can.
Eventually, you’ll be able to continue being aware of your being even during your normal daily activities. When walking, remain with the awareness that appears before each step is taken and after, and notice how this awareness stays with you in between the steps as well.
If when meditating using a name or mantra in your mind, be aware of the being/feeling in the gap between the repetitions until you stay with that; and then ignore the chanting.
When your mind seems extremely active (cluttered with too many thoughts), remind yourself to turn your attention to the pause between the breath as outlined above.
Remember to focus not on the objects that you see, but your awareness of the seeing (or hearing, smelling, touching, etc). Continue to remind yourself that all objects in your sensory perception merely prove that you are aware; meaning you turn your focus away from the objects themselves and into the awareness that you are aware.
Be aware of your being whenever and wherever possible and abide in that awareness, know that you are only awareness, not any object that you perceive, including your body, senses, thoughts or your mind. This is not an intellectual exercise, and these guiding, reminding thoughts should be kept to a minimum, always returning to abiding in the feeling of being.
*Note: If you wish to learn more about the subtleties of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, the following books are recommended reading: “Be As You Are” by David Godman, “The Path of Sri Ramana Part One” by Sadhu Om, and Sayings from Sri Muruganar’s “The Garland of Guru’s (Sri Ramana Maharshi’s) Sayings”(click on title to read these e-books).
“The only true and full awareness is awareness of awareness. Till awareness is awareness of itself, it knows no peace at all”…Sri Muruganar
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