Meditation usually involves focusing one’s attention on an object. Mantra meditation, for example, focuses attention on a word or phrase. In the East this might be the word “Aum,” or one of the many names of God, such as “Rama.” In Orthodox Christianity, attention is placed on the words of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, please forgive me, a sinner.”) In Catholicism, the Hail Mary and other prayers are used together with the Rosary. Other objects of meditation might include a candle flame, or a spiritual image or icon. In many types of meditation, such as Zen or Vipassana (“Insight”) meditation, attention is placed on the breath, which itself is a subtle object.
Self-Inquiry, on the other hand, is a unique style of meditation in that attention is not directed towards an object but rather towards the subject itself. That subject is the very sense of “I” that is perceiving, or rather, through which is perceived, the objects of other types of meditation. Self-Inquiry is the only type of meditation that is directed inwards rather than outwards. And here let me pause to head off a potential objection to what has just been said. Anything that is perceived in consciousness is, in Self-Inquiry, considered an object. That would include thoughts and emotions, as well as any sensations occurring in the body. So one who is in deep meditation, passively witnessing thoughts as they rise and fall, or exploring an emotion, or enthralled with a particularly operatic stomach-gurgle, is still, in terms of Self-Inquiry, focused on objects. Attention is thus considered to be turned outward rather than inward. Self-Inquiry stops this outward flow of attention entirely and turns it back towards the very source from which it rises. That source (or Source, if you prefer) is the true subject.
And just how does this work?
Well, this is where it gets complicated, although it isn’t really. What I mean is, the mechanics are not really complicated at all, but most people, myself included, have a hard time grasping this process in the beginning. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be grasped if you don’t want to grasp it. In other words, if you follow the instructions properly, it will work whether you understand it or not. The even better news is, if you want to grasp it, you can. I’m about to condense for you a couple of years of study and the teachings of multiple sages and their devotees in a simple, graspable way. This is Platinum Level content you’re about to get here, and at no charge. Here goes.
You’re not thinking
If you meditate at all, if you are reflective, or if you just pay attention to your thoughts or are simply honest with yourself about them, you will see that most of your thoughts arise on their own. It is simply not the case that we are the thinker of our thoughts. Thoughts pops into our heads all the time, they give rise to emotion, and emotion in turn gives rise to further thoughts. But this process is largely automatic. I say largely because it can seem that we ourselves are doing the thinking, but what is really happening when it seems that way is that we are, at most, interacting with our thoughts, or focusing on a particular sequence of thoughts. But the percolation, the rising and falling of thought, occurs on its own. We interact with our thoughts just as we interact with our breath. We can stop the breath, start the breath, control the pace of the breath, but only for so long as we are focused on doing so (or until the body rebels). But the moment we stop, breathing goes back on autopilot. And the same is true with thought.
This is a very important point to grasp. It’s more than a presupposition, or the foundation for a persuasive argument. It’s how the mind works. If this point is not understood, then the rest of what is said about the mechanics of Self-Inquiry might as well not be said. It’s that important.
Now, here is the next most important point. You are not your thoughts. This does follow logically from the above, but that doesn’t matter because it also happens to be true. (Intellectual arguments can be internally solid even when they are not true, or when they arrive at false conclusions, especially when they begin with a false presupposition.) I’ll say it again: You are not your thoughts. You are the witness of your thoughts. You are that which is aware of your thoughts just as you are that which is aware of your breath, your feet, the weather, or these words. If this is a stumbling block for you, then you need to come to terms with it before moving on, but I assume that if you are even reading this post, this assertion is not news to you.
So here, then, is the meat of Self-Inquiry: There are two kinds of thoughts. First, there is the “I”-thought. Second, there is every other kind of thought. In other words, there are two categories of thought, and one includes all thoughts minus one, that one being the thought that says “I,” or “I am.” Yes, that is a thought. And this idea of the sense of “I” being merely a thought that rises is a central claim of Self-Inquiry. If that is a sticking point for you, we will need a whole other post to come to terms with that (for now, maybe this one will help), or you will have to realize on your own that it is true. With that in mind, though, the “I”-thought is special enough to get its own category. Because it is unlike any other thought.
How is the “I”-thought different?
The “I”-thought depends on all other thoughts for its existence. The “I”-thought, by it’s very nature, identifies itself with other thoughts and hangs onto them very tightly. In fact, the “I”-thought functions a lot like a magnet. As thoughts arise, it attaches to the ones it likes and repels the ones it doesn’t (as if they were the wrong end of another magnet). It is this attraction/repulsion out of which rises our sense of personal identity. (For more on personal identity, see the three part series “Who Am I?” that begins here.)
I am not going to attempt to persuade you that this is true. It is in fact, true, but I am not going to attempt to persuade you of that. This is really something you have to see for yourself before you can truly know it. And I do mean know, as opposed to believe. There is no belief required here. Self-Inquiry is less a faith-based process and more a how-to. It’s a recipe, a set of instructions. It’s a replicable procedure.
The goal of Self-Inquiry, then, is to eliminate the “I”-thought. This is achieved by depriving it of the opportunity to identify itself with the other category of thoughts (which is, again, all of them). This is where the work comes in, and it’s not easy, the work, but the concept is fairly easy to understand. Here is the concept: As thoughts arise, you inquire. You ask yourself, Who is thinking this thought? The answer that naturally arises is “I am.” But there is no need to answer the question. One reason is, it’s not true. Another is that it’s the question itself that is key. Asking the question is what stops this thought, or sense of “I,” from attaching itself to other thoughts, or that results in “I” detaching from thoughts it has attached to. And really, “I am” is not even an answer, because it begs the question Who (or what) am I? The question and the answer go round and round until you realize there really is no answer to the question. That’s when the “I”-thought is eliminated. It is revealed to be unreal, just a thought itself, and it dissolves.
It’s that simple. Or not that simple. It’s simply stated, but not simply realized. But it is true. As I said, this is a replicable experiment.
It’s not supernatural
The natural flow of attention is outward. In fact, that is what attention means — the word comes from the Latin attendere, which means to stretch toward. Perhaps that is why all other meditation techniques direct attention towards objects. It just feels, and is, natural. Self-Inquiry stops this outward flow of attention — and this is also “natural,” else it wouldn’t work (which it does). It does so by preventing the “I”-thought from identifying itself with other thoughts. When this happens, the other thoughts stop rising, and as a result, the “I”-thought stops rising. It subsides. It simply doesn’t survive without other thoughts to latch onto.
In other words, the process of Self-Inquiry, of asking the question Who is thinking? or Who am I? or some other similar question, shakes loose the “I”-thought and prevents it from identifying with other thoughts. The result of this is that all thought ceases, or stops rising.
When that happens — and this is very important — when that happens, attention stops flowing outward. It stalls. It begins to turn back, to turn inward. This is not something we — you or I as the meditator — do. It just happens. It’s natural. This reverse flow of the machinery is what causes our very sense of self, a separate individual apart from others, to dissolve. And that is the very essence of love. Love, as Rupert Spira is wont to say, is the dissolution of the perceived boundary between “I” and “Other.” It is Bliss. It is true union with the Divine. It is non-duality, or not-two.
It is what it means to say I and the Father are one.