Friday, February 08, 2008

Feeling of Pain, Feeling of Self

I've had some interesting responses to this whole matter of practicing self-enquiry. I got a very wonderful email from someone who practices self-enquiry, and describes the process as intensely frustrating, and even painful. I would print the email, but the writer wishes to remain anonymous. But here's one small sample of her experience, if she doesn't mind my quoting her:
“Another thing that happens sometimes is as soon as I turn inward instead of looking outward, I feel pain. A kind of burning sensation in the heart area that immediately makes my eyes fill with tears. This is a strong disincentive ... I can hear my mind urging: oh this bad feeling will go away if you stop this enquiry business. I do my best not to give in to this and to feel through the pain to the sense of "I am" -- even if the pain does not go away -- though it does if I stick with this long enough.”

I don't commonly have these experiences of pain when I practice self-enquiry, but it reminds me of a basic principle in deep-tissue massage, which is that you have to learn to relax and surrender into the pain. My son has been learning deep-tissue massage techniques, and tried them out on me recently when I visited him in Santa Cruz. He's become quite the expert at finding the areas in the body where I hold tension and am, essentially, “fighting” myself, not relaxed and surrendered. When he pushes on those points, I can't tell you how painful it is. My first reaction is to tense up and fight his pushing, clenching my muscles, which also numbs them to the pain. But then I realize I have to let go and surrender to the pain, and let the whole fitful tensing process relax. A lot of the time I was able to do this, and though it hurt, it was good, and I could let go of some of that tension-effort. But some spots were just so fricking painful I just had to plead with him to stop (he let up, but not by much).

I think there's a general principle here in relation to any experience in life, but particularly the wisdom which comes from even a little bit of self-enquiry. Which is to simply observe and feel whatever is coming up in the body or mind, and not react to it, not try to fight it, but simply relax the grip we have on ourselves that we reinforce through every kind of experience, even painful ones. I think self-enquiry brings these things up, because it goes deeper than the body, deeper than the mind, and thus whatever we are holding onto in body and mind will make itself none, and sometimes painfully so. What this woman experiences in self-enquiry is probably unique to her in the specifics, but universal in the basic pattern. I think Ramana said that virtually everyone who takes up self-enquiry will go through a lot of trials and difficulties, internal and/or external. I gather it gets subtler over time, and maybe even the content gets “subtle”, but the process seems pretty much the same in principle all the way through. Everything that we experience has to be let go of, because holding onto our experience is in some sense the very essence of our suffering. The devil of course is in the details.

I suppose this is what I mean by there not being much guidance out there for what literally goes on in the practice of those embarking on self-enquiry, and I don't know if it really changes all that much even for those who are very mature in it. From the accounts of Muruganar and Ammamalai, for example, this seems to be the case. They of course had the direct guidance of Ramana. Most people out here in the west have little to none, and much of what does pass for “guidance” falls well short of the mark. In fact, even the more prominent pseudo-Advaita gurus out there don't seem to talk about self-enquiry much, probably because they don't know much about it.

I recall when I first began to re-read Ramana about three years ago (for the first time since I was a teenager) and flirted with self-enquiry for the first time, I sensed that I was in for big trouble. Sure enough, I went through the most difficult time of my life rather suddenly. Something I read in Ramana really stuck with me and came alive to help me through this, when he said that the biggest mistake most people make is that they thank God when good things happen, and never when bad things happen. I just started repeating this over and over and thanking God every day for all the difficulties I was going through, and you know what? It really helped. And in the end, things did work themselves out fairly well. And I had a chance to see what was really important in life, which is why I began, eventually, to take self-enquiry more seriously. So maybe that's another thing to do. When the shit really hits the fan while doing self-enquiry, thank God, or the Self, or Ramana, or whatever you want to call it, for it, and don't just thank him for the blissful experiences that sometimes come.

We also got a comment from Kang, who sometimes gets a little over-excited, but we appreciate his passion. He writes:
“You know, I don't care what you or anyone else or even Ramana might say about this, self-enquiry is not a "practice." To call it that is just to make a self-conscious, narcissistic, egoistically fetishistic affair out of what is patently, in that case, NOT self-enquiry.”
Come on, Kang, don't be shy, tell us how your really feel.

Okay, this isn't really so hard. As the other dude says, this is just words. I understand the whole “no practice” teaching of Papaji, and I love his way of putting it, and I also know that he teaches self-enquiry, but says that self-enquiry isn't a practice. I guess you are arguing along those lines? Well, good. There's a serious truth there. Self-enquiry isn't a “practice” like doing mantra japa or meditating on Tibetan visualizations of Tara. It is, as you say, merely finding out who we are. But let's face it, semantics aside, if you have to do it more than once, it's a practice. Those who only did it once and succeeded can be counted on the fingers of one hand, that I know of. Ramana, Papaji, and Lakshmana. Obviously all three were hugely prepared to make self-enquiry effective. The rest of us who have tried at least once and not realized the Self, well, if we want to keep trying, we might as well just call it a practice.

Is the practice of self-enquiry a self-conscious, narcissistic, egoistically fetishistic affair? Yes, I think so, if we are honest with ourselves. I mean, what's more narcissistic than putting all our attention on ourselves? What's more egotistical than focusing on the “I”-thought? It's hard for me to think of anything. It's egotism pure and simple, which I think is really what makes the whole thing work. Rather than beating around the bush, or running away from the ego, or trying to purify and transform the ego, self-enquiry just looks at the ego head on, no fuss, no muss. As Ramana said, in self-enquiry we look for the guy who is claiming to be the boss of this whole affair, and when we make the enquiry thorough and still can't find him, the whole charade is up. That's the end of the ego, and yet the process means putting all attention on this imaginary ego, until we see through ourselves.

My own experience with self-enquiry is erratic, but a lot does come up that I have to surrender. Lots of emotions come up, lots of happiness comes up, lots of tears, lots of devotion, lots of doubt, lots of mediocrity, etc. For me, it's all about simply feeling the “feeling of self”, which I don't even know quite how to describe. That's kind of how I got into self-enquiry in the first place. I was still in Adidam, and I'd pretty much given up on most of it, but something about the whole description of the “self-contraction” in Adidam had always intrigued me, and so I had gotten into “feeling the self-contraction” not in the usual way people talked about in Adidam, as a cramp in the gut or the mind, but in the basic self-position. When I left Adidam shortly thereafter that's about the only thing I took with me, spiritually speaking – not that I practiced it much, or did anything about it really. But when I began reading Ramana again the practice of Self-enquiry now seemed to make sense to me, which it hadn't long ago when I first knew of Ramana. The feeling of self seemed like a good starting place for moving into self-enquiry, and it seems to obviate something of the more headache-inducing notions about self-enquiry such as “awareness watching awareness”.

Although I must admit the AWA teachings, based of course on great quotes from Ramana and Nisargadatta, are excellent ways of looking at self-enquiry, but they try to distill it too far from its source, and make a fetishistic obsession of it that is divorced from its living reality, by which I mean the whole living reality of spirituality altogether. I've definitely benefited from such views, but I always find that the reality of Ramana is much wider than that narrow understanding and reductionism of self-enquiry.

I suppose that's why I react a bit to some of those who pass on the great teachings of Ramana, even very astute and high-minded guys like David Godman. There's a tendency, I think, to reduce Ramana's teaching to a “practice”, rather than a living relationship to a profoundly overwhelming Transcendental Being residing in our Heart. Ramana himself didn't do self-enquiry till the last minute. Before then, he was hanging out at the local temple, staring at the statue of the Goddess there with tears running down his cheeks. Now, could we say that practice was a form of self-enquiry? Maybe we could, if we understood self-enquiry in a way that's a little “out of the box”. Because I think self-enquiry includes a lot more than just the most literal exercise of asking “who am I?” for a half hour each morning and evening, and randomly throughout the day. It involves more than merely putting attention on awareness itself. I don't know that I want to define what it really is, but I do know that it's more than any of the book definitions let on.

Of course, maybe there's a reason why this doesn't get talked about much. Maybe it's not supposed to be talked about. I'm not sure why that would be, but it could be the case. And maybe it's a mistake for me to even broach the subject, much less have a blog like this. I gotta say, every week I wonder if I should just let this go. Who knows, maybe God will strike me dead. I should be so lucky.

Anyway, that's where I get off, this feeling of self. Meditating on that feeling is quite relaxing, really, even if it is just ego. Somehow, by meditating on the feeling of self, I feel something beyond self. Meditating on the “I', not as an abstraction, but as a feeling, makes the process seem real to me in ways that many conceptual approaches simply don't. The feeling of self isn't limited to just some sense of interior personae, but is the feeling of the body, and the feeling of the mind, as a sense of self. So when I practice self-enquiry, and feel this sense of self, it isn't apart from the body really. It's coincident with the body, just not limited to the body. It's coincident with the breath, with awareness, with feeling altogether. Somehow, that makes it work for me. And it's easy to see that this “I” is a feeling that runs through the whole of our being, all of our bodies, all the sheaths, to whatever degree we are aware of them. Everywhere we experience anything, there is a feeling of self at the core of that experience, and we experience that feeling all the time.

So, that's just my beginner's experience. It hasn't made me into some kind of enlightened dude who can now pontificate about the ultimates. Or rather, it hasn't stopped me from being a pompous dude who likes to pontificate about ultimates whether he knows what he's talking about or not. But it does feel damn good, and as Janis says, that can't be bad.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Open Secrets

The commentator quoted in my last post has replied in a kindly fashion, and I think it's worth responding to:
“I am the previous commentator whom you quoted. My apologies for the deprecatory tone of some of my remarks, which I regret. I tried to edit my comment after posting it, but found that I could not. I was over-reacting to your last post which seemed to wander pretty far from anything I recognized as self-enquiry, but now I understand your purpose better. The constructive part of my comment, I believe, was the recommendation of the James book, but that doesn't seem to be the focus of your interest right now.

I do think Michael James is making a very serious effort to address the practice of self-enquiry specifically for beginners. But he does not spend a lot of time discussing beginners experiences with the practice, but rather in clarifying and correcting characteristic beginner's misconceptions of the practice, and wrong approaches to it. I think this does at least overlap some of the areas in which you express an interest in your current post. And books are not necessarily merely about "theory" as opposed to "practice". James does indeed get into the theory, but primarily focuses on practice.

I suppose we're all "beginners" in this practice, but I have been devoted to this particular path of self-enquiry, inspired by Ramana, for decades now, including several stints in Tiru, acqaintance with Godman, James, and others, etc. But this is not my place to discuss my experience with this practice. This is not a discussion group, but rather a blog which is your stage.

Again my best regards to you and best wishes for your practice. May it be fruitful.”
Thanks, dude, I appreciate the kind words. No apologies necessary, as your criticism is probably quite valid. I only wish you would be more specific about what you saw in my posts, because that would be really helpful. You have to understand, I'm very much alone out here, with no one around me who practices self-enquiry, and not much chance of traveling to Tiruvanamalai anytime soon, and yeah, kind of going crazy. So I'm just putting it out there as it rattles around and then comes out of my mind. I don't expect any of it to be correct or right. And you don't have to think that it isn't your place to put in your two cents. Believe me, two cents is more than I have, so it could prove mighty valuable to me. You're probably right that we're all just beginners, but some are more beginnerish than others I'm sure. One thing self-enquiry does, I think, is make us realize that we are all equal, that we really are all in this together, and struggling for better or worse with that part of ourselves we all share in common. And it eliminates any sense of worry about being criticized or having failed, because it's obvious we have already done that for endless lifetimes, and it can't really get any worse, so what do we have to lose except some silly sense of self-imagery.

I appreciate the reference to Michael James' site, but without mentioning any particulars, I don't really know what part of his site you are referring me to, or what issue you noticed that might be addressed there. If you've been practicing self-enquiry for a couple of decades I'm sure you have a lot of wisdom to share with me and others who might be reading this blog, and it would be more than appreciated. Again, have no fear of trespassing on any taboos here. Self-enquiry (as I understand it) means going beyond those things to the core of ourselves, where we are one at heart. So you are not separate from me, nor do you have to act that way. Nor does anyone out there. Just do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I think that's the only operative rule.


Beginner's Confusion is Unavoidable

Sorry for not posting much lately. I've been traveling, and sick, and just busy. Not that everyone feels this is a bad thing, of course. Here's a recent comment on my last post:

“If you would like to bring some clarity to your often confused and confusing notions about self-enquiry, you will do well to study Michael James' magnificent work "Happiness and the Art of Being" subtitled 'A layman's introduction to the philosophy and practice of the spiritual teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana.' Michael James is a deep and profound student of Ramana's teaching, and was a close collaborator with Sadhu Om. You can learn more about him by checking him and his book out on the net. His book stays very close to Ramana's own words, but also draws on the insights of Muruganar and Sadhu Om. James' own contribution is his crystal clear writing style and deep understanding of these teachings, practices, and their implications. The book "Happiness and the Art of Being" is available from amazon, or free on the web as a pdf file.

If you are sincere about delving into the practice of self-enquiry, you will find this work invaluable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to ruminate about these things and post your own idiosyncratic take on them, feel free to ignore this advice. Best regards to you and best wishes for your study and practice.”
I guess I should make it a little more clear what I'm doing on this blog, and what I'm not doing. First, I'm not trying to present any orthodoxy of Ramana's teachings, or Advaita, etc., not as a rule at least. I may do that from time to time, it's on my list so to speak, but really, there are way, way better sources on the subject out there than me. I'm familiar with the “Happiness of Being” website the commentator referred to, as well as all kinds of great sources such as various books by Ramana, Sadhu Om, Lakshmana, and David Godman's website (which, by the way, has the ebook posting of Guru Vachaka Kovai). I've gone through a fairly rigorous samyama on self-enquiry, though I'm sure not as much or as deeply as many readers here. However, I think it needs to be said that book knowledge is at best a beginning, at times a guide, and is no substitute for the actual practice of self-enquiry, which is much “messier” than the book descriptions lead one to think.

One issue that has struck me from the beginning of my interest in self-enquiry is how few people actually practice it, and how few who actually practice it become enlightened. It's obviously a fairly advanced practice, and I'm fairly obviously not an advanced spiritual soul, and so I've had some reservations about the practice. The descriptions of self-enquiry by Muruganar, Ramana, Lakshmana, Sadhu Om, and others who have taken it all the way are beautiful and inspiring. On the other hand, there's a certain unreachable quality to their descriptions which makes the practice seem beyond the reach of all but the most mature souls. This, of course, is contrary to Ramana's own teachings on the subject. Ramana claims that self-enquiry is also the best practice for beginners, for those who are anything but advanced souls. In a series of emails with David Godman last year about self-enquiry I argued this point, and he emphatically confirmed that this was Ramana's view, to the point where I had to concede it to him. The question that remains for me is, what is the actual practice of self-enquiry like for beginners, and how is it made effective?

That's what this blog is supposed to be about. In part, of course, it just represents my own ruminations about various related spiritual topics, but the question remains, how does the rest of spirituality relate to self-enquiry, not just in theory, but in practice? Spirituality is complex, the human spiritual organism is complex, and the practice of self-enquiry has to address all of it in practice or it's just not meaningful. My sense for why self-enquiry is so unpopular, even among followers of Ramana, is that people simply don't know how to take it up as beginners, and so instead they take up all kinds of simpler practices, such as bhakti. David Godman remarked in an interview a few years ago that someone interested in self-enquiry stood at the door of the meditation hall at Ramanashram asking for help on self-enquiry, and found that not a single person was actually practicing it there.

So please, pardon me for being a neophyte at this, but I think there's a serious disconnect out there between the theory of self-enquiry and its beginning practice. My own postings clearly reflect this. I do “sorta” know what self-enquiry is, intellectually. I do “sorta” know how to practice it. But the gulf between me and the full and clear understanding of a Ramana or a Muruganar on the subject is immense. And yet, I can't start from Ramana's position, I have to start from where I am, and move as best I can towards their position. And yes, I know that means I am assuming unenlightenment on my part, and that this is a self-fulfilling assessment. But assuming enlightenment doesn't seem to be working for anyone I know of either. There's obviously a real process that has to be engaged that grows us in the practice of self-enquiry, and that brings even the most lowly beginners through a process of enlightenment that may take many lifetimes, perhaps, but is real and true in the moment it is engaged.

And that is what I would like to be doing – simply engaging in a process that is real and true, even though I'm clearly a very raw beginner, not an advanced or mature being by any means. The process of self-enquiry seems very difficult even for advanced practitioners, so I think it's going to be even more so for beginners like me. If I seem confused and confusing, yes, it's because I am. But I don't think I'm going to become less confused merely by intellectual study of the subject. It certainly helps from time to time, but really, at some point one has to put down the books and engage the practice, and make a fool of oneself. I don't think the actual practice of self-enquiry is flattering to anyone. I don't think it's very clear to anyone who hasn't actually realized it. If it were clear, these people would be enlightened themselves. That they are not suggests that the process is more profoundly confusing than the literature suggests, and that focusing on the literature too much can become a crutch which gives one an intellectual sense of clarity which lacks the depth necessary to actually make self-enquiry effective in practice.

And I think that is why so many people abandon self-enquiry. I have certainly done that a number of times, only to be drawn back into it. Most people, it seems, even ardent followers of Ramana, just give it up after a few fruitless tries. There is very little guidance for such people out there, and it's very easy to imagine that the confusion which arises when we begin to practice self-enquiry means that we are doing something wrong. Unfortunately, we probably are, but that is also simply to be expected when engaging in something as profoundly central to our being as self-enquiry.

I don't think it's necessary to say this, because I think it's rather obvious, but in case some people are wondering I am most definitely not trying to develop a spiritual “teaching” about self-enquiry. I have zero qualifications for that. There's a ton of people far better qualified than I for that job, and as I say, lots of literature on the subject. I'm just trying to engage a beginner's consideration of the actual practice of self-enquiry, and how it relates to this messy business of mind and life and spirit. I appreciate any feedback I can get, as long as it's constructive feedback, and not merely trying to play suppression games.

Now, as for the issue of my “idiosyncratic take”, yes, it most definitely is. But I think everyone's take on self-enquiry is idiosyncratic – except for those who have realized the Self. The problem with the literature and public discussion of self-enquiry (what little there is) is that everyone seems to be striving to eliminate the idiosyncratic, and give only the purest and most refined descriptions of self-enquiry. I think that creates an imbalance. I think we need more idiosyncratic views and accounts of self-enquiry, not less of them. I for one would really appreciate hearing how other people practice self-enquiry, what their views are, and their experiences, without trying to make a perfect cookie-cutter of it that corresponds to the pure descriptions of Ramana and Muruganar and Sadhi Om. I would find it more inspiring to hear such things. Others might disagree. In my case, it's the only option I have, since I can't really write about the pure teachings except intellectually. As I've said, I've been there, done that, and it's just not useful to me anymore.

I'm quite aware that what I'm doing here is of very dubious value, and who knows, I may not do it for much longer. I originally began posting here simply because I thought it would help me maintain some attention on self-enquiry, which is useful in and of itself. But I won't pretend that my practice is anything profound. I do what I can, and I'm open to any help anyone can offer. You don't have to be a spiritual teacher, just an ordinary bloke like me who is traveling this same difficult path.

Thanks again to everyone out there for your support.