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Self Inquiry (Atma-vicara)
Self Inquiry is a meditation technique for attaining enlightenment which
is associated with Sri Ramana Maharishi..
The Sanskrit name for it, atma-vicara, really means self-investigation, self-examination, self-reflection, or looking within, but self-inquiry has become the standard translation.
History of Self-Inquiry
Self-inquiry is an ancient technique that dates back at least to the Upanisads. For example, the Katha Upanishad says:
wrapped in mystery, hidden in the cave,
residing within the impenetrable depth-
Regarding him as god, an insight
gained by inner contemplation,
both sorrow and joy the wise abandon.
This is a summary of Ramana Maharshi's method, although it's written in indirect language. The "primeval one" in this verse is Brahman (the Self) and the "cave" is the heart center, so the meaning is: concentrate inwardly (on the feeling of me) until the innermost self is distinguished in the heart and recognized as God.
Ramana Maharshi was aware of the method's long history, for he himself pointed out that self-inquiry is described in book six of the Bhagvad Gita:
How to Do
David Godman wrote the best description of self-inquiry. It appears in two of his books, both of which we recommend highly. Here is what David wrote:
It was Sri Ramana's basic thesis that the individual self is nothing more than a thought or an idea. He said that this thought, which he called 'I'-thought, originates from a place called the Heart-centre, which he located on the right side of the chest in the human body.
From there the 'I'-thought rises up to the brain and identifies itself with the body:
'I am this body.' It then creates the illusion that there is a mind or an individual self which inhabits the body and which controls all its thoughts and actions. The 'I'-thought accomplishes this by identifying itself with all the thoughts and perceptions that go on in the body. For example, 'I' (that is the 'I'-thought) am doing this, 'I' am thinking this, 'I' am feeling happy, etc. Thus, the idea that one is an individual person is generated and sustained by the 'I'-thought and by its habit of constantly attaching itself to all the thoughts that arise. Sri Ramana maintained that one could reverse this process by depriving the 'I'-thought of all the thoughts and perceptions that it normally identifies with. Sri Ramana taught that this 'I'-thought is actually an unreal entity, and that it only appears to exist when it identifies itself with other thoughts.
He said that if one can break the connection between the 'I'-thought and the thoughts it identifies with, then the 'I'-thought itself will subside and finally disappear. Sri Ramana suggested that holding onto the 'I' -thought, that is, the inner feeling of I 'or' I am and excluding all other thoughts, could do this. As an aid to keeping one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', he recommended that one should constantly question oneself:
'Who am I?'
'Where does this "I" come from?'
He said that if one can keep one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the 'I'-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre.
This, according to Sri Ramana, is as much as the devotee can do by himself. When the devotee has freed his mind of all thoughts except the 'I'-thought, the power of the Self pulls the 'I'-thought back into the Heart-centre and eventually destroys it so completely that it never rises again. This is the moment of Self-realization. When this happens, the mind and the indvidual self (both of which Sri Ramama equated with the 'I'-thought) are destroyed forever. Only the Atman or the Self then remains.
A Common Misunderstanding
The key sentence in David Godman's description, quoted in the previous section, is this one:
"He [Ramana Maharshi] said that if one can keep one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the 'I'-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre."
As this sentence suggests, self-inquiry is basically about keeping the attention fixed on the I-thought - that is, on the feeling of me.
The word inquiry leads many people to think, wrongly, that the technique has more to do with asking questions than with focusing attention. Since the technique does involve questions, the misunderstanding is natural.
One of these questions, "Who Am I?", is the name of Ramana Maharshi's first written work. He meant to suggest that self-inquiry reveals the answer to this question, not that a seeker should ask the question over and over.
Self-inquiry also involves a second question, "To whom does this thought arise?" Ramana Maharshi advised meditators to ask this question whenever their concentration is interrupted by a thought, because the answer causes the attention to return to the feeling of me where it belongs.
Ramana Maharshi summed up his technique as follows:
What is essential in any sadhana [practice] 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? That alone is Self-enquiry (atma-vicara). That is all that is to be done!
Contrast with Yoga
Ramana Maharshi often said that yoga and self-enquiry are two methods of controlling the mind, which he compared to an agitated bull. Yoga attempts to drive the bull with a stick, while self-enquiry coaxes it with green grass.
Two important technical terms are used with self-inquiry: I-thought and heart center. Neither is wholly original with Ramana Maharshi.
The term I-thought is the false notion that the mind (rather than the Self) is the seer or doer. (We refer to it in this article as the feeling of me because, well, that's what it feels like.) The term goes back at least as far as Sankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta. He used several Sanskrit expressions for this idea: ahamdhi, ahampratyaya, ahamkriya, and ahamkara.
According to Sankara, "awareness of one's own Atman [i.e., the Self] is established at the time of the cessation of the 'I'-notion."7 This awareness and cessation are exactly what self-inquiry is designed to accomplish.
The second technical term, heart center, is a translation of the Sanskrit hridayam. According to Ramana Maharshi, this is where the Self is located. The I-thought rises from this location and, at the end of the process of self-inquiry, sinks back into it, causing self-realization. This idea goes back to the earliest Upanisads, where Brahman is found in the "cave of the heart".
Ramana Maharshi sometimes described the heart center as an actual object located in the right side of the chest, but at other times he said this was an oversimplification for people who couldn't understand the truth. According to H.W.L. Poonja, Ramana Maharshi told him: When I speak of the 'I' rising from the right side of the body, from a location on the right side of the chest, the information is for those people who still think that they are the body. To these people I say that the Heart is located there. But it is really not quite correct to say that the 'I' rises from and merges in the Heart on the right side of the chest. The Heart is another name for the Reality and it is neither inside nor outside the body; there can be no in or out for it, since it alone is. I do not mean by 'Heart' any physiological organ or any plexus or anything like that
A Quotation About Self-Inquiry
"Devotee: If I go on rejecting thoughts can I call it Vichara?
"Maharshi: It may be a stepping stone. But really Vichara begins when you cling to your Self and are already off the mental movement, the thought-waves."
Jnana yoga uses our considerable mental powers to end the duping process, to know that we are even now-and have always been-free, perfect, infinite, and immortal. Realizing that, we will also recognize in others the same divinity, the same purity and perfection. No longer confined to the painful limitations of "I" and "mine," we will see the one Brahman everywhere and in everything.
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