Author Topic: David Godman speaks on self enquiry: excerpts from Interview  (Read 4389 times)


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Maalok: In my experience there is a tendency among many people to convert the 'Who Am I?' technique into a mantra and repeat it. Is this a good method?

David: In the Second World War American troops took over an isolated Pacific island that had never been exposed to western civilization before. They built a runway and flew in a vast amount of supplies for their military personnel. The locals, some of whom were still hunter-gatherers, ended up with many of the leftovers. 

     When the war was over, the Americans departed, leaving behind a runway and some abandoned buildings. The local tribals wanted the American bounty to continue, but they didn't know how to bring it about. They were clueless about geopolitics and technology. They had seen large birds descend from the sky and deposit an unimaginable amount of goodies on the runway. They had never really bothered to find out why these strangers were on their island, or how these exotic goods were manufactured and brought to the island. 

     They set up altars on the runway and started to perform their own religious rites there in an attempt to entice the big metal birds back to their island. These practices became a kind of religion that anthropologists labeled 'cargo-cult'. 

     I mention all this because many people try to do self-inquiry without really understanding how it works and why it works, and this lack of understanding leads them to do many practices that are not real self-inquiry, and which consequently will not produce the desired results. If I may pursue this analogy a little further, there is self-inquiry and there is cargo-cult inquiry, and to understand the difference between the two, you have to know how and why self-inquiry works. 

     In self-inquiry one is isolating the individual 'I', and by doing so one is making the mind, the individual self, sink back into its source and vanish. Any technique that encourages the mind to associate with objects or thoughts is not self-inquiry, and it will not make the mind disappear. On the contrary, it will make the mind stronger. When you repeat 'Who am I? Who am I?' the subject 'I' is concentrating on an object of thought, the phrase 'Who am I?' This does not lead to the disassociation of the 'I' from its thoughts; it keeps it enmeshed in them. 

     The same comment can be made about practices that associate self-inquiry with concentration on a particular place in the body. A lot of people have this misconception. If you are focussing on a place in the body, you are associating the subject 'I' with an object of perception - whatever spot you are concentrating on. This is not self-inquiry, and you will never cause the 'I' to vanish in this way. Any technique that puts attention on a thought or a perception or a feeling that is not 'I' is not self-inquiry. If you think it is, you are practicing cargo-cult inquiry. You are following a ritual or a practice that derives from an incorrect understanding of how the mind comes into existence, and how it can be made to disappear. Your likelihood of success will be the same as the islanders who tried to entice planes out of the sky with religious ceremonies.

Maalok: But doesn't faith and devotion have a role? What about the people who are doing things with deepest devotion and faith but perhaps don't have a good idea of what needs to be done (or undone in this case)?

David: I'm not criticizing faith or devotion here. I'm simply saying that there's an effective way of doing self-inquiry and an ineffective way, and that one understands the difference by understanding Sri Ramana's teachings on the nature of the 'I': how it rises, and on how it can be made to subside. 

     If you have complete faith in a realized teacher, and complete devotion to him or her, that in itself will take you to the goal. You won't need to bother with anything else, and you won't even care about anything else. The best example of this I have ever come across is Mathru Sri Sarada, a devotee of Lakshmana Swamy who realized the Self solely on account of her intense love and devotion towards him. In the 1970s she was doing japa of his name and concentrating on a photo of him for up to twenty hours a day, and in the remaining four hours, while she was asleep, she would often be dreaming about him. This wasn't merely intense concentration; it was accompanied by an intense, uninterrupted flow of love towards him. Lakshmana Swamy has said that at times, the flow was so strong, it kept him awake at night. He once asked her to moderate the flow a little so that he could get some sleep, but she couldn't do it. That love was flowing continuously, twenty-four hours a day to the object of her devotion, and in the end, the power of her love brought about her realization. 

     You need that much love to realize the Self through this method, and if you are hoping to realize the Self through self-inquiry, you need the same kind of commitment and intensity on your spiritual path.


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Re: David Godman speaks on self enquiry: excerpts from Interview
« Reply #1 on: April 05, 2013, 05:29:57 PM »
Maalok: It is said that Ramana Maharshi was clear that mere mantra japa and mental imagery can be obstacles to Self-realization. Is this correct? Is it also true that he allowed and even encouraged many people to continue their spiritual practices even if they were not quite consistent with his strong preference for the method of self-inquiry? If he thought that self-inquiry was so beneficial, why did he not encourage everyone who came to him for advice to do it?

David: There are several different questions here. I will answer them one by one. 

     When people came to Sri Ramana for the first time, they would often ask for spiritual advice. Sri Ramana would generally reply, 'What practice are you following right now?' If they said they were worshipping some particular deity, or repeating a mantra, he would usually say, 'Good, you can carry on with that'. 

     He recognized that different people were attracted to different paths, and he knew that many people found self-inquiry difficult or uninspiring. He was not a dictator. Everyone in his ashram was quite free to follow any spiritual path. No one was compelled to study Sri Ramana's teachings, and no one was compelled to follow a particular practice. 

     Quite often devotees would find, after a few months, that they were no longer interested in their old practices. They would again come to see Sri Ramana and ask him what they should do. When this happened Sri Ramana might suggest self-inquiry, but he would never force a change. 

     However, some people went up to him and said, 'I am not following any particular practice at the moment, but I want to get enlightened. What is the quickest and most direct way of accomplishing this?' 

     I think that such a questioner would invariably be told to do self-inquiry. 

     There is a nice story about a group of villagers who came to see Sri Ramana in the 1920s. One of them asked for the best technique to realize the Self, and Sri Ramana advised him to do self-inquiry. A senior devotee later expressed a doubt that this advice was appropriate. He thought that such people ought to be told to do some form of japa. 

     When Sri Ramana heard about this comment, he said, 'Why should I cheat people who come to me and ask for the best technique? He asked this question, so I gave him the right answer.' 

     If people wanted to do self-inquiry, Sri Ramana always encouraged them to do it, but if they felt drawn to other paths, he never tried to push them into doing something that they didn't feel comfortable with. If you go through the published dialogues that visitors had with Sri Ramana you can find several instances of Sri Ramana recommending self-inquiry to people who didn't seem enthusiastic about doing it. When he sensed their hesitation, he would ask them to follow some other practice instead. 

     This leads on to one of your other questions. What role did devotional practices, such as japa or meditation on a visual image or symbol of God, have in Sri Ramana's teachings? He always said that there were only two ways to get enlightened: either do self-inquiry or completely surrender to God or the Guru. He never belittled devotion to names and forms of the divinity. 

     Many of the people who were following the path of surrender would do japa of some holy name. Sri Ramana approved of this whole-heartedly, but he did on occasion say that such practices would only bring results if one had love towards the name that one was repeating, or the form that one was concentrating on. This is an important distinction to note. You can repeat a particular name of God all day, but this will only be an exercise in concentration if there is no love, no devotion towards the name that is being repeated. Such repetitions will make the mental muscles stronger in the same way that repeated exercise makes the body's muscles stronger. They will not make the mind disappear. However, if one can chant the name of God with love, not just with concentration, this will ultimately make the mind dissolve into God and become God.