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UNDERSTANDING SELF-ENQUIRY (Enquiring into the self)
By N. A. Mohan Rao

Self-enquiry is ordinarily said to proceed in three steps. Firstly, the stream of thoughts in the mind is brought to a halt in order to bring the ‘I-thought’ into focus. The source of this ‘I-thought’ is then investigated to abide by in the Self. Next, the state of abide by in the Self is allowed to last as long as possible. The cycle is repeated till all the vasanas are eliminated, culminating in Liberation. Of the three steps enumerated, the first one is plain enough to understand and follow. At any rate, it is soon found to be redundant. The third step requires no special skills since it is only a matter of holding on to what has been gained in the second step. So, if any difficulty is experienced with Self-enquiry, it is only with the second step of investigating the source of the ‘I-thought’. Many seekers find it difficult to understand the true nature of this step. It shall be our endeavour here to delve into and obtain as clear a picture as possible of this crucial step

Thought and Feeling
Our mind operates broadly on two planes of consciousness, namely, thought and feeling. To take an example, we all know what it feels to be angry. At such times, what we sense with our mind is the ‘feeling of anger’. When a Guru speaks to his disciples on the need to shun anger, by recounting its many evils, what occurs in the minds of those people is the ‘thought’ of anger. Thus, thought and feeling are entirely different things. ‘Feeling’ may be said to be more intimate to us than ‘thought’. We can see this clearly from the fact that, generally speaking, we can change a thought quickly at will, but not so a feeling. While thought may be said to be ‘superficial’, being essentially confined to the mind, feeling would somehow appear to run deeper in our being. Feeling is therefore said to belong to the category of experience, while thought is to that of knowledge.

I-thought and I-feeling
The I-thought and I-feeling occupy a central place in Self-enquiry, because the very purpose of Self-enquiry is to unveil the Self, which is our true ‘I’. As with any other thought-feeling pair, the I-feeling is more intimate to us than the I-thought. It means, of the two, the I-feeling is closer to our Self, and plays by far the greater role in the practice of Self-enquiry.

 When we refer to ourselves in everyday life as ‘I’, what operates in our mind as ‘I’ is the ‘I-thought’. It is not our true-I, but a pseudo-I, otherwise known as the ‘ego’, which alone projects all other thoughts. It operates primarily as the idea ‘I-am-the-body’, or ‘I-am-the-mind’. For instance, when we say, “I had been to Chennai yesterday”, the ‘I’ there is mostly identified with our body. When we say, “I like poetry better than prose”, that ‘I’ is identified more with our mind. It is hence that Bhagavan said, “This ‘I’-thought is … contaminated with the association of the body and senses. Being thus composed of parts, the I-thought is classed as ‘dualistic’.

The I-thought may take other derivative forms too, such as ‘I-am-the-doer’, ‘I-am-the-enjoyer’, ‘I-am-the-parent’, ‘I-am-the-shopper’, etc depending on the situation. Each form is composed of two parts: the subjective part ‘I’, which represents the sentient principle, and a predicative, insentient part such as ‘body’, ‘doer’, ‘parent’ etc. The idea such as ‘I-am-the-body’ superimposes a false sense of sentience of the ‘I’ on the predicative part. In most situations in life, we identify ourselves with this falsely sentient predicative part. We are therefore, most of the time, a doer, a parent, a shopper or some other cognizable object, but not our original, subjective ‘I’. This, in brief, is the nature of the I-thought.

But, then, there can be certain situations in which we take part with a noticeable level of awareness of our subjective ‘I’. A typical instance is when we brood over a misfortune that has visited us most unexpectedly. Another is when we offer our grateful thanks to a stranger, who had gone out of his way to help us in a crisis situation. The feeling of ‘I’ that we become aware of and experience in ourselves at such times is what we call the ‘I-feeling’. In the examples cited, this I-feeling plays a subordinate role to the I-thought which actually runs the proceedings. We may call it the ‘implicit’ I-feeling. We can see that even such a second-grade I-feeling occurs a little deeper in us than the I-thought we have when we make a matter-of-fact statement like “I like poetry better than prose.”

Once we have some inkling of what I-feeling is, we may be able to summon it at will with a little practice. The practice consists in merely turning our attention inwards, and looking for a feel of our subjective ‘I’. In other words, we straightaway intuitively the I-feeling. It is an ‘explicit’ type of I-feeling, in which thought, if any, takes a mere secondary role. It is the only kind of I-feeling that is relevant in Self-enquiry. Hence from now on when we say ‘I-feeling’, we shall mean only the explicit kind.

Initially, we may find the I-feeling a little too elusive, but after some practice, will be able to hold it for a few moments at a time. Even at this early stage, we can see how remarkably different it is from the I-thought. We distinctly experience some kind of ‘abide by’ within us: we feel we are at one with where we belong, untouched by any objective feature of our existence. We get a feeling of being in something of a safe-house, beyond limits for intrusive thought. The world would seem to lie somewhere ‘out there’, and not in our immediate ken. It will appear there is nothing that can threaten our existence in that ‘pure’ state, and so we feel we ought to be eternal in that state. All these we experience within the brief span over which the ‘I-feeling’ lingers. The criss-crossing of any thoughts expressive of this state does not seem to hamper the feeling of our ‘abidance’. Such a state of abidance co-existing as a capsule alongside ‘non-intrusive’ thoughts, is what we shall call the ‘impure’ I-feeling. It is the key element in the take-off to Self-enquiry.

Although we have deduced the I-feeling as only a kind of I-thought, in which we identify ourselves mostly with the subjective ‘I’, we see that it is profoundly different from the usual, predicative type of I-thought, in which we identify ourselves with all kinds of insentient things. We shall therefore treat them as two separate and distinct entities. The I-thought may then be broadly characterised as being predicative, conceptual, of the nature of knowledge, and dualistic. The I-feeling, on the other hand, is largely subjective, intuitional, of the nature of experience, and unitary (or integral).

The Essence of Self-enquiry Practice
The second step in Self-enquiry, which is our main area of concern here, might be stated somewhat thus: “When we investigate the source of the I-thought (or ego), there results our spontaneous abide by in the Self.” We are usually deceived by the simplicity of the statement. If we take it literally, we find it odd that we do not get the real non-dual experience, said to be characteristic of the Self, upon an attempted investigation of the I-thought. All that we get to is the I-feeling, with a few thoughts fluttering about. But, then, we arrived at the I-thought only after eliminating other thoughts, and now its investigation brings us back to some thoughts again. We wonder if we are to proceed once more with the question, “To whom are these thoughts?”, and if so, how it would end.

The fact is that the statement of the second step is an oversimplification. Taken literally, it holds good only in the case of a very advanced sadhaka (to whom the one-step model of Self-enquiry applies). To the rest of us, the abide by in the Self can come only over a period of time, and not spontaneously. Alternatively, if we want to rely on the term ‘spontaneously’, then we have to take the statement in a different sense. Then the statement applies to practically all of us. We shall return to this point later.
Strictly speaking, for the practice of Self-enquiry, we do not need any more understanding than what has been given above of the I-feeling, and a general insight into the method as given in Part One. We can then, if we have normal levels of intuition, practise Self-enquiry to its logical end. The practice consists in merely holding on to the ‘abide by’ found in the I-feeling all the way, till, at long last, Realization is obtained. The state of Realization will be unmistakeable, and so we will know when we come to it. It lasts for some time, and then the former duality sets in. We have then to go through the cycle once again. Eventually, when all the vasanas are destroyed, we attain Liberation.

Strictly speaking, for the practice of Self-enquiry, we do not need any more understanding than what has been given above of the I-feeling, and a general insight into the method as given in Part One. We can then, if we have normal levels of intuition, practise Self-enquiry to its logical end. The practice consists in merely holding on to the ‘abidance’ found in the I-feeling all the way, till, at long last, Realization is obtained. The state of Realization will be unmistakeable, and so we will know when we come to it. It lasts for some time, and then the former duality sets in. We have then to go through the cycle once again. Eventually, when all the vasanas are destroyed, we attain Liberation.

A useful suggestion at this juncture is that the seeker should not over-exert himself for obtaining or retaining the I-feeling. This is because when the mind gets active, intuition takes a back seat. Only intuition can bring a feeling of abide by to the Self. Folding up the analytical mind, and adopting a laid-back attitude, is what is needed to bring intuition into play. It is like withdrawing into the ‘now’ of the moment.

The practical-minded seeker can, therefore, straightaway plunge into practice on the basis of these indications. He has everything to gain and nothing to lose thereby. If, however, the seeker is one of an inquisitive type, who would not take a step forward before he understands the in and out of a thing, then he needs put himself to a little more study. In this cyber age, we may suppose, most seekers would belong to this category. We shall, for their sake, attempt a detailed analysis below.

Identity of the I-feeling vis-à-vis the Self; Evolution and Involution
When the unmanifest Self begins to manifest, its light issues out as ‘I’ or aham. We may refer to it as the ‘undifferentiated-I’. Bhagavan often refers to it as the ‘light of I—I’ (or ‘reflected light from the Self’). Sometimes he calls it ‘light of I’ in the sense of ‘the I that is light’. The Maya mode begins here.
The ‘undifferentiated-I’, upon further evolution, divides itself into what we may designate as the ‘particularised-I’ (also known as aham), and the object, idam. The two may be looked upon as the sentient and the insentient principles respectively. The particularised-I, by its very nature, seeks an object for its identity. So, it grabs a part of the idam, such as the body, and superimposes itself on the latter forming the ‘ego’. The rest of the idam takes on the role of the ‘world’. The particularised-I, that now forms the sentient constituent of the ego, is what we have called the ‘subject-I’ (i.e., subjective ‘I’). The portion of idam constituting the insentient part of the ego, is called the ‘predicate’.

In Self-enquiry, we aim to precisely reverse this process of evolution, by taking the consciousness up the scale — from the ego to the Self. We call it ‘involution’. Two important stages in this ascent are the subject-I (in the I-feeling) and the undifferentiated-I.

When we wish to investigate the source of the I-thought, we instinctively try to look for our Self, but it being too ‘remote’, we reach only the subject-I. It involves shifting of our attention that is presently locked in the predicate part of the ego, to the subject-I. While doing so, we do not find it necessary to identify what that predicate part is, since it may consist of many identities, all lying in a jumble. It suffices if we merely fix our attention in the direction of the subject-I. The shifting then occurs by itself, as desired.

Our abide by in the subject-I is at first accompanied by some thoughts. This is what we have called ‘the impure I-feeling’. From now on, our practice consists in merely holding on to the abidance found in it.The abide by becomes more and more intense and steady, as the practice goes on. As for the thoughts, we do not have to specifically try to control them. If we remain keen with the abide by, the thoughts (and with them the breath) will subside in due course. The control of thoughts was once necessary to arrive at the I-thought for investigating its source, but that purpose is now served with the onset of the I-feeling, and we have no more concern with either the presence or absence of thoughts.

In due course, we attain a perfect, unwavering abide by in the subject-I. Since this is tantamount to holding it in isolation from its predicate, the subject-I transpires to be the ‘particularised-I’ itself. Our continued abide by, now in this particularised-I, amounts to its isolation from idam; and so, it being unstable in this condition, resolves itself into its cause, the undifferentiated-I. We thus arrive at abide by in the undifferentiated-I. Bhagavan considers this as an indispensable stage before Realization. He terms it therefore as the ‘forestate of Realisation’, and refers to it often as the ‘transitional-I’.At times, he refers to it as ‘pure-I’ too.

When the undifferentiated-I is held steady, it itself is realised to be the Self. It is somewhat like this. The Self is like a person resting in the interior of his house. The undifferentiated-I is like the person standing at the front door intending to go out. The sadhaka is like a passer-by who can strike conversation with the person standing at the front door, but not with the one in the interior. If, now, the passer-by engages the person at the door in conversation long enough, the latter’s intention to go out is frustrated, and he becomes as good as the person resting in the house. In the same way, the urge of the undifferentiated-I to evolve as aham and idam is defeated by our constant attention to it, and in absence of that urge, it is no different from the Self.

It is clear from the above, that the I-feeling has nothing to do with the true Self. But in parts of spiritual literature, the I-feeling is identified with abidance in the Self. We have to understand that such passages are only simplified presentations. Else, we will be confronted with the anomaly that the Self, known to be beyond the mind, is being cognized by the mind. The fact that we need to expend effort to maintain the I-feeling, also shows that it cannot be a state of abide by in the Self, which is known to be effortless. Besides, Bhagavan has ruled out any connection between ‘feeling’ and the Self. Hence, the I-feeling must be understood as merely abide by in subject-I, and not the Self.

In general, whenever we see references to the Self in literature in a dualistic context, we might do well to take them as referring to a manifestation of the Self, (known in common as ‘I’, aham, naan or ‘pure-I’) such as the subject-I or undifferentiated-I, and not the true Self (otherwise called ‘I—I’, atma, taan, or ‘true-I’). The statement of step two of Self-enquiry we saw earlier, may therefore be understood (inclusive of its reference to ‘spontaneity’) to refer to a manifested form of the Self as far as a beginner is concerned form of the Self as far as a beginner is concerned.

Subconscious Processes in Self-enquiry
When we investigate the source of the I-thought, we instinctively shift our attention from the predicate part of the ego to the subject-I. These two parts of the ego are joined together by a ‘knot’, called the chit-jada-granthi. It consists of age-old vasanas, and belongs to the causal sphere. So, shifting of our attention from the predicate to the subject involves crossing of this causal zone by our intellect, the agent of action. Since the intellect cannot discern causal objects, this passage of the intellect through causal zone has been compared to the groping of one’s way in a dark room past obstacle towards a ticking clock (referred in Part One). It is thus that the knot is transited (‘transcended’) subconsciously.
When we attain abide by to the self in the subject-I, the light of the subject-I falls on the vasanas, causing their annihilation to an extent. Since it is only a reflected light, its intensity is less as compared to the light of the true Self. Hence only the grosser of the vasanas are eliminated at this stage. In the subsequent stage of abidance in undifferentiated-I, the less gross vasanas start to be eliminated. When, finally the Self is realised, its direct light shines on the vasanas, and hence even the subtlest of vasanas start to be eliminated. Continued practice at these different stages eliminates all vasanas and leads to Liberation.

Concept of Sphurana

Sphurana stands for abiding in a manifestation of the Self (in the Maya mode), such as the subject-I or the undifferentiated-I. Sphurana is short for aham-sphurana, which means ‘shining forth of I’. It is a figurative way of referring to the seeker’s glimpsing of the ‘I’ (aham) during the said states of abide by. Thus, when we enter the I-feeling, we are said to have sphurana of the subject-I. A characteristic of sphurana is that it is cognized by the mind. So, sphurana has a semblance of non-duality in the form of abide by, and duality in the form of knowledge of the mind.

The concept of sphurana allows us to discuss abide by in subject-I and undifferentiated-I in common. It is advantageous, since, for all practical purposes, we as sadhakas do not have to distinguish between them any time. All that we do is merely keep holding our abidance, and it changes from subject-I to undifferentiated-I on its own. The subsequent abide by to the Self too follows on its own, except that a brief discontinuity will be encountered before this ultimate step.

The fact that the intellect is able to cognize the higher manifestations of ‘I’ in sphurana may be understood from two viewpoints. Firstly, as Bhagavan said quoting from Kaivalya Navaneeta, “Maya cannot obscure Sat (being) but it does obscure Chit and Ananda.”Hence the ‘being’ aspect of the Self is transparent to the intellect, and is realised as sphurana. Secondly, the intellect becomes subtler and subtler, as sadhana progresses.

Bhagavan wants us not to think of sphurana as something too far out of the ordinary. He assures us, “Sphurana is felt on several occasions, such as fear, excitement, etc.” In its pure form, it is said to occur immediately upon our waking from sleep for a brief moment. Bhagavan suggests holding on to it as a viable way to Realization. Sphurana is also said to be experienced in the brief interval between two consecutive thoughts.

Sphurana stays with us from the time we attain the impure I-feeling till we are on the verge of realizing the Self. It ensures that we never lose track of our goal, just as a dog that is in possession of its master’s scent, or a mountaineer with a hazy view of the distant peak, do not.
Incentive to Practice
A sound understanding of Self-enquiry is itself the best incentive to its practice. The knowledge that the vasanas start getting depleted from as early a stage as we abide by in subject-I (I-feeling), enthuses us to proceed with hope even if we do not presently measure up to sky-high levels of aspiration. We feel optimistic that both our aspiration and practice will pick up as time passes. It beholds us to keep persevering and translate this hope into reality.