Self-Inquiry and Its Practice
- From the Book:
By David Frawley
SELF-INQUIRY AND ITS PRACTICE
The practice of Self-inquiry, called Atma-vichara in Sanskrit, is the
most important meditation practice in the Vedantic tradition. It is
the main practice of the yoga of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), which itself
is traditionally regarded as the highest of the yogas because it
takes us most directly to liberation.
Self-inquiry is the primary method through which Self-realization--
the realization of our true nature beyond mind and body--is achieved.
Self-inquiry is mainly known today through the teachings of Ramana
Maharshi (1878-1950), who made this approach accessible to the
general public, offering it to any individual who was capable of
receiving the teaching. Traditionally, Self-inquiry was reserved
mainly for monks (Swamis) who had renounced the world. A strong Self-
inquiry tradition persists in the Swami orders of India today,
particularly in the south of the country.
Yet Self-inquiry in some form or another can be helpful to all people
at all stages of life, as part of everyone's quest for Self-
realization. We all want to know ourselves and unfold our deeper
potential in life. This requires understanding ourselves on all
levels of body, mind and spirit, particularly the deepest level of
TECHNIQUE OF SELF-INQUIRY
Because the teaching of Self-inquiry is direct and simple, its
literature is not as extensive as that of other yogic practices. In
addition, the path of Self-inquiry demands a certain ripeness or
readiness of mind that may require other practices to develop.
The process of Self-inquiry is so simple that it can be explained in
a few words. To practice it you need only trace the root of your
thoughts back to the I-thought, from which all other thoughts arise.
This is initiated by the question "Who am I?". By asking, "Who am I?"
our thought current naturally gets focused on the search for the true
Self and we forget about all other concerns and worries of the mind.
All our thoughts are based directly or indirectly on the thought of
the self. Thoughts such as "Where am I going?" or "What will I do
tomorrow?" are based directly on the self. Thoughts like "What will
happen to my family?" or "Who will win the next election?" are based
indirectly on the thought of the self because they refer ultimately
to our own concerns.
Our thoughts consist of two components. The first is a subjective
factor--I, me or mine. The second is an objective factor--a state,
condition or object with which the I is involved, particularly the
activities of our own body and mind. The habit of the mind is to get
caught in the object portion and never look within to recognize the
true Self apart from external concerns.
The result is that the pure I or the I-in-itself is unknown to us.
What we call ourselves is but a conglomerate of "I am this" or "this
is mine," in which the subject is confused with an object, quality or
condition. Self-inquiry consists of discarding the object portion in
order to discover the pure Subject. This requires withdrawing our
attention from the objects of sensation, emotion and thought by
discriminating these from the formless Self or seer that observes
The truth is that we don't know who we really are. What we call our
Self is but some thought, emotion or sensation that we are
temporarily identified with and that is constantly changing. Our
lives are shrouded in ignorance about our true nature, springing from
the most basic feelings that we have, especially our bodily identity.
We are not the body. Rather, the body is a vehicle or vesture in
which our true Self is obscured. As long as we don't question this
process of self-identification we must come to sorrow and remain in
darkness and confusion.
However, Self-inquiry does not consist of merely repeating the
question "Who am I?" over and over again in our minds, which is only
a tiring mental exercise. It means holding to the search for the true
Self in all that one does. It requires that we have a real and
fundamental doubt about who we are, through which we can reject all
outer identifications. It is as if one had amnesia and didn't know
who one was and had to give full attention to the matter before
anything else could be done.
Self-inquiry, moreover, is not merely an intellectual or
psychological inquiry but an inquiry with one's entire energy and
attention. It requires a full and one-pointed concentration, not
interrupted by the intrusion of other thoughts. The thought current
naturally moves back to the Self to the extent that we do not
preoccupy our minds with outside stimulation. The problem is that the
senses present us with so many distractions that it is difficult to
look within. Self-inquiry means to constantly question and reverse
this process of extroversion by seeking out the origin of our
awareness and energy in the heart.
True Self-inquiry is not just questioning the limitation of our outer
identity, like our family, political or religious affiliation--
whether one is a wife, a father, a Christian, a Hindu or an atheist.
It questions our entire identity as an embodied being. It does not
stop short with some general identity as a human, cosmic or spiritual
being but rejects any formation of thought as our true nature. It
directs us back to the pure "I" that is not identified with any form
of objectivity, physical or mental.
The true Self is not only beyond human distinctions, it is beyond all
divisions of time and space, name and form, birth and death. It is
beyond all experience because it is the experiencer or observer of
all. Self-inquiry leads us ultimately to the Absolute in which the
phenomenal world becomes little more than a mirage of the mind and
senses. It goes far beyond the discovery of some greater self, or any
human or creative potential, to what is beyond all limitations. In
the process we expand our sense of self to include the entire
universe and all of its multifarious creatures.
Perhaps the easiest approach to Self-inquiry is what is
called "discrimination between the seer and the seen." This can be
outlined in a few easy steps.
First, one discriminates the seer from the external objects in one's
environment, which constantly change though the seer remains the
same. For example, the eye is not blemished by imperfections in the
objects that it sees.
Second, one discriminates the seer from the sense organs. There are
several senses and each varies in acuity, but the seer of the senses
is constant and not altered by their fluctuations. For example, the
mind can witness imperfections in the eye, like lack of acuity or
blurring of vision.
Third, one discriminates between the seer and mental states. Thoughts
and feelings continually change but the seer, if we look deeply,
remains the same. For example, the seer of anger does not cease to be
when anger itself passes away.
Fourth, one discriminates between the seer and the ego, between the
pure-I and the I identified with body, emotion or thought. Then the
pure Self devoid of external associations can shine forth. For
example, we can witness our ego states like pride and dejection, just
as we can observe shifting sensations or emotions.
Fifth, one abides in the pure Self devoid of objectivity, letting all
the contents of the mind come and go like waves and bubbles on the
It is best to do this process by degrees, taking one's time at each
stage. All is contained in the fifth state of abiding as the seer.
When we return to the state of the seer, all that we see merges back
into the light of seeing, revealing its nature as pure consciousness.