By Paula Horan
When you cut through the layers of thought through the relentless application of ramana maharshi’s technique of self-enquiry, you eventually reside in the silence of the true self
Every day in samsara is difficult. Even when circumstances are favourable, and life brings us a sense of joy, suffering is there, lurking in the background. This is because the root of suffering lies in our identification with an ego, a seemingly separate ‘I’ made up of the sum total of our thoughts. It is this ‘I’, which evokes in all of us, a false sense of self, contrary to the ‘I’ of non-dual awareness. This illusory creation of the mind, an identification of being separate from all that is, leaves us with a fundamental loneliness. A sense of being incomplete. Feeling incomplete, we begin to look outside of ourselves for happiness, and as a result, desire is born.
From this point on, the mind continues to manufacture a never-ending chain of desire. Generally, it starts with the desire for love, and when that is unfulfilled, a number of material desires emerge, based on our desire for security. When one desire is fulfilled, the next one quickly takes its place. For brief moments in time, our longing is assuaged, and we feel light as our desires are met. But is it the fulfilled desire that ultimately gives us satisfaction? Or is it more likely the temporary freedom from desire, the brief interlude of peace before the next desire pops up?
The other side of the coin of delusion is aversion. When discomfort arises, we fall prey to aversion (the opposite polarity of desire). Basically, we have two main motivations for all of our actions – we want to feel good, and we want to avoid feeling bad. Wanting to feel good, we go after our desires. To avoid feeling bad when certain circumstances arise, we go into aversion. The trouble is, whenever we fall prey to aversion, as the old saying goes, ‘whatever you resist, persists’. We then end up attracting the very thing we tried to avert.
Drop the sufferer
From the very beginning, our basic modus operandi is fraught with difficulty.
With the rat trap described above, there can only be pain and suffering. The only way out, is to drop the one who is experiencing the suffering. In other words, the only way out of difficulty is to drop the difficulty by dropping the sufferer. The actual circumstance may not disappear, but the whole experience of it shifts dramatically. It only involves a slight shift in perspective… from being an “experiencer” to being experience happening.
The shift is not an easy one, or you could also say that it is so easy, it is so close, that we normally miss it entirely. Fortunately, there are different means to this end. One is to cultivate such a strong positive energy, a contentment deep within, that the surface desires do not distract you from keeping your focus on the heart of who you are – your true nature. You still allow the body-mind to fulfil its desires, but deep within, you don´t get involved, and are thus not creating further karma, by fostering more desires. Taoist practices are very helpful with this approach.
Vichar and some of the simple practices inspired by the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism help develop and maintain non-dual awareness. This article is primarily concerned with vichar, which is a part of jnana yoga, the path of cutting through the mind. It is a way of maintaining your focus in the heart of who you are, so that you don´t become distracted by either desire or resistance.
So who is this sufferer? The one who jumps from one craving to another, and constantly does the aversion dance to avoid discomfort? It is once again, the illusory ‘I’ or ego which feels all too real…until you begin to investigate. Until you begin to ask pointed questions. In fact, the only way out of the rat trap is to continually question your suffering “self” until it is unmasked, and is revealed to be the non-entity it really is.
The ego is very ephemeral, being only a conglomeration of our thoughts. Each thought is a response or reaction to the original ‘I’ thought, and is without real substance. One of the most poignant statements that my guru ever made, is: “Only imagination suffers.” Every time I catch myself identified, and as a result, suffering over some situation, I remember that phrase, and experience immediate relief.
The relief comes because I remember to shift my focus from the one who is totally identified with the character called Paula, to the one who is dreaming the character called Paula; who is indeed dreaming the whole lila. It is because I remember that suffering is a mere thought. What is best about this sort of remembering is that it takes you beyond any need for relief into total acceptance of the present moment.
Vichar should continue every moment of your life, naturally, like the act of breathing until your last breath
Perhaps a good way to explain it is to compare oneself to being an actor in a theatrical play. To do a character well; for example to play a tragic role, you have to temporarily identify with the tragedy, and feel its effect on you. Deep down, however, you don´t really suffer, because you are simultaneously aware that who you are, is not the tragic character in the play. Similarly in life, when we can remember that who we are is the awareness which is dreaming the whole play, and not merely the character with all the labels we accept from others, we cease to suffer over our suffering.
Indeed what appears to be “others” are also only further aspects of ourself, in as much as how we experience others is always only through the filter of our own mind. In other words, what we experience outwardly, is always only through the filter of our own conditioning. So the dilemma is how to regain our awareness of our true nature. How do we make contact with our fundamental nature, live in full awareness and transcend the effect of all our thoughts? How do we overcome this hard grip our thoughts hold over our awareness, keeping us locked in the merry-go-round of desire and resistance?
The ancient way described in the texts is called vichar, a form of direct self-inquiry which was conveyed in the last century by Sri Ramana Maharshi. It involves asking yourself the simple question, ‘Who am I?’, until the sense of a separate self disappears.
When asked by one of his disciples how to enquire, “Who am I? ” he replied, “Actions such as ‘going’ and ‘coming´’belong only to the body. And so when one says “I went, I came,” it amounts to saying that the body is ‘I’. Here the Maharshi is pointing out that because our awareness attaches itself to its primary locus for experience, the body, we sink further into a belief that we are separate and apart…a separate self, centred on the body and its five senses.
Sri Ramana continues: “But can the body be said to be the consciousness ‘I,’ since the body was not (in existence) before it was born, is made up of the five elements, is non-existent in the state of deep sleep, and becomes like a corpse when dead? Therefore, making the corpse-body remain as a corpse, and not even uttering the word ‘I’, one should enquire keenly thus: “Now, what is it that rises as ´I´?”
By focusing very intently on the ‘I’ in the question, Who am I ?, many thoughts simply disappear. One very effective way to begin vichar is to start with a theme that you really identify with, one that carries a lot of ‘juice’. Something that you are having difficulty with. For example, if you are currently angry about something, you can start by asking yourself: “Who is angry?”
Your mind will probably come back with some answer like “I´m angry!”. And you then retort, “Who is angry?” An answer may come back like: “I´m angry, the one who has to take care of everything, or it won´t get done.” You then turn the answer into a question again: “Oh yeah, and who is that?” Basically you just keep turning each “answer” back into a question, until no answers come back….and that is the answer (no answer).
The mind is now empty of thought, and you use that emptiness to continue to focus inward on the empty source of thought. A devotional feeling may arise or just a sense of peace as your focus shifts to that which you are beyond thought. With the constant practice of vichar, eventually fewer questions are necessary to take you to that still silent space which the Maharshi describes so well: “Then there would shine in the heart, a kind of wordless illumination of the form ‘I’. That is, there would shine of its own accord, the pure consciousness which is unlimited and one, the limited and the many thoughts having disappeared.”
According to my own guru, Sri Harilal Poonja, one of the primary disciples of Sri Ramana Maharshi, “Vichar should continue every moment of your life, naturally, like the act of breathing until your last breath.” With constant self-inquiry, there will be no one left to experience difficulty. All of samsara will begin to acquire one taste. In other words, inquire until there is no one left to inquire.
The habits of mind are very hard to break,
and so it (inquiry) must be continued.
You have been ignorant for years.
So when you know the Truth
you must stay as such for some time.
What else is important?
You have to be very strong.
Question the mind unceasingly.
Decide never to return to stupidness.
Once you are silence
stay silent as Silence.
– Sri Harilal Poonja
Paula Horan is a long-time practitioner of vichar which is
featured in her five-day retreat, The Core Empowerment
Training, to be held from August 1-5 in Goa. To find out
more about her programmes and her soon-to-be-released
book on micro-meditations for a busy world,
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