A friend wrote me and asked how he can get established in the practice of self-inquiry (atma-vichara). I’ve included my reply below, in case it might be helpful to others.
I’ve always loved Ramana Maharshi, but it took me a long time to click with his self-inquiry method. I couldn’t figure out how self-realization was supposed to be attained through further mental elaboration. I didn’t like saying, “Who am I?” then waiting for insight to strike. It felt stupid.
Fortunately, this isn’t what Sri Ramana meant by self-inquiry at all. It’s a common misunderstanding.
His highest teaching was silence. When people had trouble assimilating his silence, he would sometimes remind them there is only Brahman or the Self, whose nature is Being-Consciousness-Bliss.
He also encouraged them to look directly at themselves. You feel like you’re standing in your own way, but if you look for this obstructive object, it disappears. Nothing is there but the true Self, which is absolute awareness, silence, or stillness.
You can take the practice of turning toward (or looking for) ‘I’ to mean either of two things:
(1) Look for the troublesome ego, or (2) look for the true Self.
It’s like asking for directions to John’s neighbor’s house when John lives alone on a rural route. Even if you believe (incorrectly) that there is a house in front of John’s, the directions will still take you to John’s house. Likewise, even if you take ‘I’ to be the ego, the directions will take you straight to the Self.
This practice is also the truest form of surrender. We must surrender all mental activity to know what we actually are. Since we are not an object, but the eternal Self, to know ourselves is simply to be ourselves!
For more information, please see Happiness and the Art of Being by Michael James.