In my last post, Beware of Reason, I made it clear that one cannot reason their way to awakening. But I also mentioned that it is possible to use the mind against itself as a means of waking up. The means I was referring to is the practice of self-enquiry.

Self-enquiry is not the same as rational inquiry. Rather than coming up with ideas that nicely together to form a rational conclusion, self-enquiry looks directly into the nature of the one to whom a thought arises. There’s a huge difference between inquiring into how concepts fit together vs. inquiring into the nature of experience itself.

Self-enquiry is a common practice throughout many awakening traditions, including various forms of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, as well as the contemplative branches of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In my view, Sri Ramana Maharshi was perhaps the foremost teacher of self-enquiry in the last hundred years – if not the best who ever lived.

In the book Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Ramana is asked the question, “How should a beginner start this practice?” He answered:

“The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’, destroying all other thoughts, will itself finally be destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre. If other thoughts rise one should, without attempting to complete them, enquire ‘To whom did they rise?’ What does it matter however many thoughts rise? At the very moment that each thought rises, if one vigilantly enquires ‘To whom did this rise?’, it will be known ‘To me’. If one then enquires ‘Who am I?’, the mind will turn back to its source [the Self] and the thought which had risen will also subside. By repeatedly practicing thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.(emphasis mine)

Ahh… that last sentence drops a big fat clue as to what this awakening business is all about. But I won’t go into that now, for the sake of not sending anyone down another intellectual rabbit hole.

So, that’s how it’s done. You ask, “Who am I?” and you clarify the sense of “I am-ness.” Simply clarify it, and then to stay with it while continuing to inquire, “Who am I? Who is this?” Don’t expect to arrive at answer by way of thought. The thought may arise, “I am nothing,” or, “I am everything,” etc. Dismiss such conceptual answers by asking, “Who has the thought, ‘I am nothing/everything’?” Clarify that sense of “I am” and stay with it. Keeping this sense of “I am” within your awareness will eventually result in its total collapse. And that, my friends, may be the first time you catch a glimpse of the Truth.