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“That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real.” -Sri Ramana Maharshi

The profundity of the above quotation cannot be fully unpacked in a simple blog post. However, I would like to use the quote as a pointer for the subject of this post.

The path to awakening brings lots of interesting experiences, particularly in the realm of states of consciousness. It would appear that the human mind (and perhaps other non-human minds) are stratified or layered. Through concentration, it is possible to access a wide range of experiences. Some are blissful, some are dull. Some are in the realm of dreams, others of the void. Many states are rather enticing, which is why so many great sages (including Ramana Maharshi) have warned against getting too caught up in them.

So, when Ramana refers to “deep dreamless sleep,” he’s pointing to a state of consciousness. In traditional Vedanta philosophy, there are three primary states of consciousness: gross/waking, subtle/dreaming, and causal/deep dreamless sleep. We are warned that the states themselves are not “real,” due to their changing nature. These states come and go. And although the state of deep dreamless sleep feels like freedom, it isn’t. It isn’t freedom because there’s no way to stay there. Clinging to any state will keep one immersed in sticky, murky delusion.

That’s not to say that states of consciousness do not have a place on the path to awakening. Quite the contrary, actually. For, it is in accessing these states that we discover that which exists in them all; or rather, that which is the essence of them all. In Vedanta, they call this the turiya, or the fourth state, which isn’t really a state at all. Turiya is the Witness – the aspect of reality which cognizes experience of the three basic states. And really, the only way we can really recognize that which persists through all three basic states is to access them all consciously. That’s why we meditate. And the Witness just so happens to be the cognizant aspect of the source.

Recognizing the Witness is not the end of the game. As I mentioned in a post on tracing back the radiance, recognizing the source is only the beginning. We must then trace it back. In so doing, the seeming separation between the Witness and the three states is seen through completely, and one eventually achieves Self-realization. Ramana called this awakened state of affairs turiyatita – that which beyond the fourth state, beyond the Witness.

Any way you look at it, awakening is not a state that you learn to hang out in. Recognize the essence of every state, trace it back, and awaken.

The state of Self-realisation, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been.

All that is needed is that you give up your realisation of the not-true as true.

-Sri Ramana Maharshi, Be As You Are

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.