Our aim should be to experience ourself alone, in complete isolation from everything else

A few months ago a friend wrote to me asking about the practice of ātma-vicāra (self-investigation or self-enquiry) and whether his description of his practice indicated that he was practising it correctly, and he ended his email saying:

I have tried the technique of diving into the heart exhaling your breath, explained in the small book The Technique of Maha Yoga published by Ramanashramam, […] but this does not seem to work in my case.

The following is adapted from the reply I wrote to him:

Firstly The Technique of Maha Yoga [which was not written by K. Lakshmana Sarma, the author of Maha Yoga, but by another devotee called N.R. Narayana Aiyar] is a very misleading book, because the explanation that it gives about the practice of ātma-vicāra is completely wrong, so it is good that you found that it does not seem to work.

Secondly, ‘the heart’ is a term that Sri Ramana used metaphorically to denote what we really are, because it is the core, centre or essence of all that we now seem to be, and ‘diving into the heart’ is a metaphorical description of the mind subsiding or sinking deep within ourself as a result of self-attentiveness, so it should not be interpreted literally (as some devotees seem to do), and it should not be mistaken to be a technique that entails anything other than simple self-attentiveness.

Since you have asked for my comments on your description of your practice, I will quote each of your points as a bullet point and then comment on it:

  • I begin by observing the movement of my breath, breathing in and breathing out at normal pace.

Some people say that they find observing the movement of their breath to be an effective means to calm the mind down before practising self-investigation, but this is not necessary, and it can actually be detrimental in the long run. The most effective way to calm the mind down is simply to try directly to be self-attentive, and in the long run this will yield the greatest benefit.

Suppose that you have to bicycle today from London to Brighton [which is south of London], and you have never ridden a bicycle before. Therefore you have to start practising, and since your aim is to reach Brighton, it is obviously best to start practising on the road to Brighton, because while practising you will be getting nearer to your destination. If instead you were to start practising on the road to York [which is north of London], that would be foolish, because it would take you further away from your destination.

On the path of self-investigation (ātma-vicāra) our destination is only ourself, ‘I’, and the only way to reach that destination is to attend to ourself alone. Therefore to reach our destination as quickly as possible, from the very outset we should not practise anything other than self-attentiveness. If we practise only self-attentiveness from the very beginning, that would be like practising to cycle on the road to Brighton.

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