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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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