Repeating 'who am I?' is not Self-Enquiry
Annamalai Swami on Self Enquiry
Atma vichara - Self-enquiry
Sadhu Om on Self Enquiry
Excerpts from Discourse on the Mind



Repeating 'who am I?' is not self-enquiry

One confusion about self-enquiry that exists in the minds of many spiritual aspirants is that the practice of self-enquiry involves asking ourself or repeating to ourself the question 'who am I?'

As Sri Sadhu Om explains, the correct practice of self-enquiry is self-attention, that is, focussing our attention wholly and exclusively upon ourself - upon our fundamental consciousness of our own being, 'I am'. This is clearly stated by Sri Ramana in the sixteenth paragraph of Nan Yar? (Who am I?), in which he defines the true meaning of the term atma-vichara - 'self-enquiry', 'self-investigation' or 'self-scrutiny' - by saying:

" ... The name 'atma-vichara' [is truly applicable] only to [the practice of] always being [or remaining] having placed [our] mind in atma [our own real self] ..."

If someone said to us, "Investigate what is written in this book", we would not close our eyes and repeat to ourself 'what is written in this book?' but would open the book and read what is written inside it. Similarly, when Sri Ramana says to us, "Investigate who am I", we should not close our eyes and repeat to ourself 'who am I?' but should turn our attention towards ourself and keenly scrutinise our essential consciousness 'I am' in order to discover what we really are.

... What exactly is this practice that Sri Ramana described as self-investigation, self-examination, self-scrutiny, self-enquiry or self-attention?

Though he used various words in Tamil to describe this practice, one of the principal terms he used was the Sanskrit term atma-vichara, or more simply just vichara. The word atma means self, spirit or essence, and is often used as a singular reflexive pronoun applicable to any of the three persons and any of the three genders, though in this context it would be applicable only to the first person, meaning oneself or myself. The word vichara, ... means investigation or examination, and can also mean pondering or consideration, in the sense of thinking of or looking at something carefully and attentively. Thus atma-vichara is the practice of investigating, examining, exploring, inspecting, scrutinising or attending keenly to ourself, that is, our own essential being, which we always experience as our basic consciousness 'I am'.

In English the term atma-vichara is often translated as 'self-enquiry', which has led many people to misunderstand it to mean a process of questioning ourself 'who am I?' However such questioning would only be a mental activity, so it is clearly not the meaning intended by Sri Ramana. When he said that we should investigate 'who am I?' he did not mean that we should mentally ask ourself this question, but that we should keenly scrutinise our basic consciousness 'I am' in order to know exactly what it is. Therefore if we choose to use this term 'self-enquiry' in English, we should understand that it does not mean 'self-questioning' but only 'self-investigation' or 'self-scrutiny'.

In order to understand the practice of self-enquiry correctly, it is necessary for us to understand clearly the philosophy taught by Sri Ramana, because the reason why he taught his clear and rational philosophy, which is based upon a deep and thorough analysis of our experience of ourself in our three states of consciousness, waking, dream and sleep, is that it enables us to understand not only why it is necessary for us to know our real self, but also the precise means by which we can know our real self. If we try to practise self-enquiry without such a clear understanding, we will almost certainly practise it incorrectly, and we will therefore end up being disappointed because we are unable to acquire the clarity of true self-consciousness or self-knowledge that we seek.

By Michael James, January 2007




Annamalai Swami on Self Enquiry

Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi has said: 'When thoughts arise stop them from developing by enquiring, "To whom is this thought coming?" as soon as the thought appears. What does it matter if many thoughts keep coming up? Enquire into their origin or find out who has the thoughts and sooner or later the flow of thoughts will stop.' This is how self-enquiry should be practiced.

When Bhagavan spoke like this he sometimes used the analogy of a besieged fort. If one systematically closes off all the entrances to such a fort and then picks off the occupants one by one as they try to come out, sooner or later the fort will be empty. Bhagavan said that we should apply these same tactics to the mind. How to go about doing this? Seal off the entrances and exits to the mind by not reacting to rising thoughts or sense impressions. Don't let new ideas, judgements, likes, dislikes, etc. enter the mind, and don't let rising thoughts flourish and escape your attention. When you have sealed off the mind in this way, challenge each emerging thought as it appears by asking, 'Where have you come from?' or 'Who is the person who is having this thought?' If you can do this continuously, with full attention, new thoughts will appear momentarily and then disappear. If you can maintain the siege for long enough, a time will come when no more thoughts arise; or if they do, they will only be fleeting, undistracting images on the periphery of consciousness. In that thought-free state you will begin to experience yourself as consciousness, not as mind or body.

However, if you relax your vigilance even for a few seconds and allow new thoughts to escape and develop unchallenged, the siege will be lifted and the mind will regain some or all of its former strength.

In a real fort the occupants need a continuous supply of food and water to hold out during a siege. When the supplies run out, the occupants must surrender or die. In the fort of the mind the occupants, which are thoughts, need a thinker to pay attention to them and indulge in them. If the thinker withholds his attention from rising thoughts or challenges them before they have a chance to develop, the thoughts will all die of starvation. You challenge them by repeatedly asking yourself 'Who am I? Who is the person who is having these thoughts?' If the challenge is to be effective you must make it before the rising thought has had a chance to develop into a stream of thoughts.

Mind is only a collection of thoughts and the thinker who thinks them. The thinker is the 'I'-thought, the primal thought which rises from the Self before all others, which identifies with all other thoughts and says, 'I am this body'. When you have eradicated all thoughts except for the thinker himself by ceaseless enquiry or by refusing to give them any attention, the 'I'-thought sinks into the Heart and surrenders, leaving behind it only an awareness of consciousness. This surrender will only take place when the 'I'-thought has ceased to identify with rising thoughts. While there are still stray thoughts which attract or evade your attention, the 'I'-thought will always be directing its attention outwards rather than inwards. The purpose of self-enquiry is to make the 'I'-thought move inwards, towards the Self. This will happen automatically as soon as you cease to be interested in any of your rising thoughts.

Annamalai Swami from "Living in the words of Bhagavan"






Atma vichara - Self-enquiry

Sri Bhagavan once said categorically, "For practising atma vichara everyday is auspicious and every moment is good - no discipline is prescribed at all. Any time, anywhere it can be done; even without others noticing that you are doing it.

All other sadhanas require external objects and congenial environment, but for atma vichara nothing external to oneself is required. Turning the mind within is all that is necessary. While one is engaged in atma vichara one can with ease attend to other activities also. Besides, atma vichara being a purely internal movement, one does not also distract others who are around; whereas, in sadhanas like puja, others do notice you. One-pointed perseverance alone is essential in Self-enquiry and that is done purely inwardly, all the time. Your attention on the Self within alone is essential."

Some of Bhagavan's personal instructions to me were:

(i) If you observe the breathing one-pointedly such attention will lead you spontaneously into kumbhaka (retention) - this is jnana pranayama.

(ii) The more you humble yourself, the better it is for you, in all ways.

(iii) By withdrawing the mind within, you can live anywhere and under any circumstances.

(iv) You should look upon the world only as a dream.

(v) Do not allow your mind to be distracted by objective things and by thoughts. Except attending to your allotted duty-work in life, the rest of your time should be spent in Atma Nishta; do not waste even a second in inattention, lethargy.

(vi) Do not cause even the slightest hindrance or disturbance to others. Also, do all your work yourself.

(vii) Both likes and dislikes should be equally discarded and eschewed.

(viii) With attention focussed on the first person and on the heart within, one should relentlessly practise Who am I? When this is done one-pointedly, one's breathing will subside of itself. During such controlled practice, the mind might suddenly spring up; so you have to vigilantly pursue the vichara, Who am I?

(ix) To remain silent without thoughts is the Whole: To remain without thoughts is Nishta; To remain without thoughts is Jnana; To remain without thoughts is Moksha; To remain without thoughts is Sahaja. Therefore, the state without any trace of thoughts is the final state of fullness, indeed!

Sri Bhagavan's Instructions by M.G. Shanmugam
(The Mountain Path, Jayanti Issue 2001; p. 152)







Sadhu Om on Self Enquiry

"As soon as we hear the terms 'Self-enquiry', many of us naturally consider that there is some sort of effulgence or a formless power within our body and that we are going to find out what it is, where it is, and how it is.

This idea is not correct, because, Self (atman) does not exist as an object to be known by us who seek to know it! Since Self shines as the very nature of him who tries to know It, Self-enquiry does not mean inquiring into a second or third person object. It is in order to make us understand this from the very beginning that Bhagavan Ramana named Self-enquiry as 'Who am I?', thus drawing our attention directly to the first person."

"There is a difference between the sense in which the term 'enquiry' is used by Sri Bhagavan and the way in which the scriptures use it. The scriptures advocate negating the five sheaths, namely the body, vital force (prana), mind, intellect and the darkness of ignorance, as 'not I, not I' (neti, neti). But who is to negate them, and how? If the mind (or the intellect) is to negate them, it can at best negate only the insentient physical body and the prana, which are objects seen by it. Beyond this, how can the mind negate itself, its own form?

And when it cannot even negate itself, how can it negate the other two sheaths, the intellect (vijnanamaya kosa) and the darkness of ignorance (anandamaya kosa), which are beyond its range of perception?

During the time of enquiry, therefore, what more can the mind do to remain as the Self except to repeat mentally, 'I am not this body, I am not this prana'? From this, it is clear that 'enquiry' is not a process of one thing inquiring about another thing. That is why the enquiry 'Who am I?' taught by Sri Bhagavan should be taken to mean Self-attention! (that is, attention merely to the first person, the feeling 'I')."


" . . . the more we attend to the mind, the thoughts which are the forms (the second and third person objects) of the world, the more they will multiply and be nourished. This is indeed an obstacle. The more our attention - the glance of Grace (anugraha-drishti) falls on it, the more the mind's wavering nature and its ascendancy will increase. That is why it is impossible for the mind to negate anything by thinking."


"Verily the ego is all! Hence the enquiry 'What is it?'
(In other words, 'Who am I, this ego?')
is the true giving up (renunciation) of all,
Thus should you know!'"

Ulladhu Narpadhu verse 28


". . . while practicing Self-enquiry, instead of taking any one of the five sheaths as the object of our attention, we should fix our attention only on the 'I'-consciousness, which exists and shines as oneself, as the singular, and as a witness to and aloof from these sheaths."


". . . the mind which attends to Self is no more the mind; it is the consciousness aspect of Self (atma-chit-rupam)! Likewise, so long as it attends to the second and third persons (the world), it is not the consciousness aspect of Self; it is the mind, the reflected form of consciousness (chit-abhasa-rupam)! Hence, since Self-attention is not a doing (kriya), it is not an action (karma). That is, Self alone realizes Self; the ego does not!"


"The ego, the feeling of 'I' generally taken by people to be the first person consciousness, is not the real first person consciousness; Self alone is the real first person consciousness.

The ego-feeling, which is merely a shadow of it, is a false first person consciousness. When one inquires into this ego, what it is or who it is, it disappears because it is really non-existent, and the inquirer, having nothing more to do, is established in Self as Self. Because it rises, springing up from Self, the false first person consciousness mentioned above has to have a place and a time of rising. Therefore, the question 'Whence am I?' means only 'Whence (from where) does the ego rise?'. A place of rising can only be for the ego. But for the Self, since It has no rising or setting, there can be no particular place or time."

Extracts from Chapter 7 from "The Path of Sri Ramana Part 1" by Sri Sadhu Om






Excerpts on Discourse on the Mind

The entire world is based on the concept of I. So long as this I-principle exists in you, you will be involved with the outside world. And as long as the world exists in your experience, you will not be able to free yourself from sorrow and misery. During deep sleep you do not have the thought of I and mine. Once the I-thought disappears there is no longer any world for you, and when there is no world there will be no sorrow. Therefore, eradicate the cause of sorrow. Relinquish the feeling of I and mine. Then you will be in Ananda, You will be in unending bliss.


The I-thought can be compared to a river bounded by name and form. Once it merges into the limitless ocean it loses its name and form and all its limitations. Before that it had a separate identity as a river. But once it merges it becomes the ocean. In that way, when you remove the I-thought, you as a limited man merge with the unlimited ocean of Divinity and become one with It. Then you as a separate entity called 'man' disappear.


What is the origin of the I-thought? The I-thought takes its origin from the Atma, the true I, the one eternal Self. From the one Self arises the thought of I. And out of this I-thought all the rest of the mind takes form. In truth, the I-thought and the mind belong to the Self; they are both just aspects of the Self. The relationship can best be visualized as the Self being the grandfather, the I-thought, the personal self, being the father, and the mind being the grandson.


You should be clear about the distinction between the I-thought and the impersonal, immortal Self. The I-thought takes birth and grows; for a time it comes in and is associated with a body; then it disappears. But for the Self there is no birth, there is no growth, no death, no coming, no going. Once you recognize the truth that from the one unlimited Self has emerged the limited I, and from that I the mind has taken birth, then you will realize your true Self and understand the origin of the world and everything in it.


Make an effort to know who you are and what the deeper meaning of this word I is. When you conduct this investigation you will unlock all the secrets of existence. When you examine your own truth, you will discover the very basis of the whole creation, and you will find the source of life itself. Then the Divine Flame inside you will blaze forth and you will realize the truth that the Divinity is your very core. In this you can be your own guru. If you develop a high level of patience and calmness, and remain free from selfishness, the basic truths that are always within you will naturally manifest and shine forth in your awareness.


The mind has 50 million different ways of manifesting itself in the thinking process. Behind all these myriad thoughts there is the seed-thought which is the source of all thoughts. This is the I-thought which emerges from the One Self. Everyone, be he a theist or an atheist, says 'I' and believes that he himself exists. Eventually everyone will have to realize the truth of his existence by tracing back to the very root of that original I-thought and discover there his true Self. Spirituality is nothing more than that. It is recognizing your true nature. It is abiding in the very heart of the Reality and enjoying it.

I bless you that you will steadily inquire into the Divine Principle and realize the Ananda which is your own natural state."

By Sri Sathya Sai Baba