“You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things — that is, of the not-self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains . . .”
~Sri Ramana Maharshi
For something to be “true” in the absolute sense, it must be true both now and always, independent of any transient conditions. Just so, there is no moment when the Truth cannot be true. Indeed, only the Truth is true, or Real. The Truth is Reality, and all else is imagination, illusion, impermanence.
Likewise, our “True Nature” or absolute identity must be always and already real and ever-present, rather than something to be acquired through the strategic manipulation of methods, schemes, and circumstances, or through arbitrary fortune, or even beneficent Grace.
Only by incorrect, or mistaken, identification do we come to take the false as our actual nature and condition, giving birth to and sustaining the complex and stressful story of “me and mine”. This fundamental error in recognition is most commonly expressed as the belief and conviction “I am the body-mind-self”. It is as if the sky were to mistake itself as a passing cloud, and subject to its destiny.
By inquiring into our true nature and condition, we may see through any such identification with the false, and what then is revealed is not something new, but simply that which has always been the case: the Truth, the Real. The tacit assumption that there was an individual and concrete “I” who was operative in the field of experience is recognized as an error of judgment and appreciation — a case of mistaken identity.
Some call this direct recognition “Enlightenment” or “Liberation”, but such terms are mere expedient concepts and do not ultimately exist in the Truth, or Reality. If they did, then this would imply that there must have been a time when there was not enlightenment or liberation, indicating that “Enlightenment” or “Liberation” is some sort of new or freshly acquired state. If it can be acquired, however, then it cannot be our True Nature, since in order to be True it must have been True originally and always, and not dependent on changing causes and conditions.
Strictly speaking, this Recognition cannot even be called “Realization”, since that would imply the making real of what was not priorly real. Nor can it be called “Self-Realization”, since again, strictly speaking, even “Self” (not to mention “self”) is ultimately recognized via True Inquiry as a fantasy of interpretation on perception, empty of any inherent and substantial Person or person. What is, simply is. The tongue goes silent.
The direct recognition of our Original Nature and Identity (“our face before our parents were born”) is the purpose of True Inquiry, though again, it is not a technique to be employed in the accomplishment of some change of state, transcendental ascension, or mystical elevation. I have briefly introduced the subject of True Inquiry here, and so the aim of this essay will be to elaborate a bit further on the topic, in hopes of clarifying its actual practice and application.
When thoughts arise, the ego-mind automatically claims ownership of them, creating the sense that “I think”, “I know”, “I desire”, “I am the doer”. In reality, this ego-mind is itself nothing but a thought, the “I” or root-thought, which cannot exist independently from the phenomena with which it is identified. It strings together all other thoughts, emotions, memory associations, and perceptions to create the illusion of a separate person, an enduring entity in the form of the body-mind-self. It is precisely this mis-identification which serves as the source of all complications, and so True Inquiry consists of seeing through and letting go of this mental fabrication first and foremost.
Confusing the issue, most spiritual practices, traditional meditations, and various exoteric as well as esoteric methods are actually based on the existence and reality of the person — the subject — who is undertaking these strategies, resulting only in the confirmation and validation of the “I”-thought, or ego-mind. These efforts may produce a variety of interesting or blissful experiences, which nevertheless remain tethered to the sense of self. They can even serve to inflate that false sense with the fictional narrative of a “someone” making progress, rising to a heavenly level of consciousness or triumphant personal illumination.
Many would-be gurus and aspirants get entangled in various fantasies stemming from the primal mis-perception of the heroic seeker traversing the spiritual path to glory, when in reality they are only digging themselves deeper into storyland. In any case, such practices cannot culminate in true Recognition because the “I”-thought is not penetrated. In Buddhism, for example, Shamatha alone, or calm abiding, may produce some peaceful feelings and a quiet mind, but unless it is married to Vipashyana (insight into the illusion of independent selfhood), it will not amount to True Recognition. Such Recognition is also called the Unity of Samadhi (one-pointed concentration) and Prajna (Wisdom).
In its application, True Inquiry begins by bringing attention to this sense of “I”, or “I-amness”. In order to “kick-start” this focus, the question “Who am I?” is often employed, not as a mental riddle or mantra, but as a prompt for awareness to attend to awareness at the source of mind itself — where the “I”-thought first arises. It is essentially being aware of being aware. If this focused attention is distracted by other thoughts, one should repeatedly revert to the basic awareness of “I am”. When the clarified attention is concentrated on this subjective feeling-of-being to the point that transient or provisional identifications cease to arise, then the ego-mind will be unable to fixate on phenomena/objects, particularly if that subjective attention is pursued to its end.
One common misconception about True Inquiry is that it involves some kind of conceptual exercise entailing the rejection of all thought objects and perceptions as “not-self”. In traditional Advaita Vedanta practices, for example, this method is called “Neti Neti” (not this, not this). Again, the problem here is that the ego-mind is still sustained by this intellectual approach, since the very “I”-thought which eliminates all other forms of identification as “not-I” cannot eliminate itself. In fact, the Truth can never be grasped by the discursive mind, either through affirmation or negation, but only in its dissolution does the Real emerge from the silent background.
The great Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma noted: “If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.” Likewise, when asked, “It is said that [Truth] is beyond the mind and yet the realization is with the mind. The mind cannot think it. It cannot be thought of by the mind and the mind alone can realize it. How are these contradictions to be reconciled?” Ramana Maharshi responded: “[Reality] is realized with mind devoid of thoughts and turned inward. Then the mind sees its own source and becomes that.”
When the perception of all objects, both physical and mental, cease via the correct application of True Inquiry, the individual “I”-thought will be unable to hold its dominant position, and will eventually become obsolete, falling back into its source and disappearing there. In its place True Recognition will shine forth, and once seen, the Truth cannot be unseen. Only Awareness remains, the same aware spaciousness that has always been the case, except that we have temporarily been distracted by the self-sense, taking that “I”-thought to be who and what we are. For most, the full embodiment of this revolutionary Recognition in life and relations will require a period of integration, even many lifetimes. Indeed, as Dogen Zenji notes, just as there is no beginning to enlightenment, so too there is no end to practice.
“The only true and full Awareness is Awareness of Awareness. Until Awareness is Awareness of itself, it knows no peace at all. Is it not because you are yourself Awareness, that you now perceive this universe? If you observe Awareness steadily, this Awareness as Teacher, will reveal the Truth.”
~Sri Ramana Maharshi