The Self-Enquiry Method of Ramana Maharshi
About the Question “Who am I?” in the Meditation for the Revelation of the Spiritual Heart, Atman
Ramana Maharshi terms “Self-Enquiry” as “the most sacred of sacred.” Indeed, it is a revolutionary method in spirituality.
There is an essential affirmation of Ramana that explains the reason for which this method is unique:
“What is essential in any sadhana is to try to bring back the running mind and fix it on one thing only. Why then should it not be brought back and fixed in Self-attention (To this feeling of ‘I’)? That alone is Self-enquiry (atma-vichara). That is all that is to be done!”
Self-Enquiry is an awareness of the awareness itself. It leads us beyond duality, because the object of meditation (the “I”) is ultimately revealed as the Subject itself (the transpersonal Consciousness).
Nevertheless, in order to let the question “Who am I?” bring us closer to our real nature, or in other words, to truly ask “Who am I?” in an efficient way, a certain understanding and spiritual maturity is necessary.
The Self-Enquiry Method of Ramana Maharshi: There Is No Rational Answer
First of all, we must understand that we cannot answer rationally and intellectually to such a question.
When we state “I understand, I know who I am” we are actually conceptualizing that which in reality is ineffable.
Asking “the Question” while we are centered in the head can stimulate the mind, and can make this process of inquiring nothing else but mental imagery.
When we abandon any striving in order to mentally know the answer, (when we simply accept an answer like “I don’t know”) to the Question, we are in a state of complete Open Attention.
The Difference between Jnana and Intellectual Knowledge
Rational knowledge is characterized by duality, is sequential and is always partial.
But when we relate to the Spiritual Heart, to our true “I,” this knowledge should be of another kind, total and complete, and this is only possible if our ego – with its personality, mind, feelings, etc. does not intervene.
All the searching for who we really are gives rise to a sacred wonder or astonishment because it escapes any sort of understanding.
Then, because of the attitude of surrender, we have the feeling that all our limits dissolve into the infinite and a re-orchestration of our energies is produced. In it, all the energies converge towards the Ultimate Subject, towards the Spiritual Heart (which brings beauty, love, and freedom). Therefore, we should ask the essential question “Who am I?” without expecting a rational answer, but, rather, in a state of surrender to a sacred wonderment, to a mystical intuition about who we really are.
From Thinking to Pure Existence
In this way, we give up the usual approaches to knowledge, because we realize that the mind cannot contain the mystery of the answer. Therefore, the emphasis shifts from the preoccupation of finding out who we are (which, in the beginning of Self-Enquiry is still done in accordance with our usual mentality, with the rational mind) to the pure presence of the Spiritual Heart.
Loving the Question
We can love, admire, and embrace this question-intuition in regards to our existence. Consequently, it will slowly cease to have a rational, objective, conscious character.
As it is an answer impossible to formulate, we will free ourselves of the snare of conceptualization and be able to have access to the totality that the Spiritual Heart Consciousness awakens in us.
The Art of Maintaining the Question in the Heart
The question “Who am I?” should be repeated with sincerity, as often as possible, but we must not ask it of the mind in order not to receive just superficial answers connected with that which we already know about us and our memories of the past.
Moreover, to live under the mark of “the Question” by savoring the state of mystery which it stirs in the Spiritual Heart, but not allowing it to be touched or tinged by any conceptualization, we will learn another manner of existing.
In this new attitude, the intuition of our Ultimate Reality dominates and we are in a perpetual surrender and expectancy, in an unconditional openness towards the ineffable mystery of the pure “I am.”
Becoming Aware of How the Question Awakens in Us Organically
The question “Who am I?” exists in us in a latent state and emanates profoundness and creates harmony in our whole being. This harmony itself brings the recognition of our divine existence.
What remains is just a feeling of profound recognition. It originates from the untold depths of our being.
The Answer Precedes “the Question”
It was affirmed that the question “Who am I?” comes to be formulated spontaneously when the answer-intuition of our real nature is already suggested.
Neutrality and Surrender
In the Self-Enquiry Method of Ramana Maharshi, the question “Who am I?” has a very special quality because it is an interrogation which makes the mind enter into a state of void.
If we have the wisdom and adequate training of the mind not superimpose anything on this void (no concepts, no attributes), the Reality of the Spiritual Heart, atman, emerges.
Harmony Brought by Surrender
The Spiritual Heart, being the Ultimate Subject, cannot be known by means of methods or systems. When we truly understand this, a kind of surrender comes about in our being and it penetrates us; all our inner energies that were previously mobilized by thoughts, desires, and by our personality in general enter into a peace-bringing equilibrium
The Question and “Neti Neti”
Trying to reveal “The Ineffable” with the help of the question “Who am I?” is not a common meditation on some specific object.
The Spiritual Heart, atman, is not, as we have clearly stated before, an object. In such a meditation, we remain lucid, without interpreting, without judging, simply following the intimate feeling of existence. This feeling is not unknown, but just usually ignored because of our different identifications with the body, mind, etc.
It follows that any time the mind tends to hold on to a concept in the desire to explain and make objective the ineffable experience of the Supreme Self, it is necessary to remember the famous Vedantic negation “Neti, Neti.” (Not this, nor that).
The path of Self-Enquiry is, in fact, an elimination of all that is known, because, for the moment, the direct knowledge of the Supreme Self’s true nature is missing. Only by eliminating what is known (our thoughts, perceptions, and emotions) will it be possible to reveal the Ultimate “I,” the Eternal Present.
Thus, we immerse ourselves in an attention that becomes increasingly intimate and profound concerning our true nature.
This Question itself is born from stillness and it is also fed from the silence that we sometimes create in our mind and in our being. Thus, because of the silence, a spontaneous inward awareness of who we are naturally appears.