Four mistakes people make when engaged in self-inquiry

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Self-inquiry, the spiritual technique that the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi recommended, is the royal road to seeing through the illusion of self. I explain it briefly in this video and more extensively in my book. It involves trying to locate where the feeling "I am" is coming from.

It's a very simple exercise, but it is easy to make mistakes. Here are four common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Making it an intellectual exercise

You are experiencing the sense that "I am" (as in "I am reading these words") right now. That sense, that feeling, is what you are trying to examine.

This is not an intellectual exercise. It is not about thinking about what science and philosophy are telling us the "I" is or isn't. It is not about whether "I" have free will, or the kind of "I" that we think of when we say try to think of ourselves as being part of a larger community or society. These are all fine ways of thinking, but they are not the self-inquiry game.

Self-inquiry involves examining our experience, our feeling of the I, and trying to find out just what it is. What exactly is it?

For example, we might find that feel something irritating, and identify it as a) a physical pain because we have something in our shoe, b) an emotion because we are angry at someone, c) a memory of something unpleasant, etc.

In the same way, we ask what is this sense of I? To answer the question, we have to hold that feeling with great concentration. And then as soon as we think we've held it, we then apply a rule: whatever we experience can't be the I, because "I experience it." So what is the I? We keep looking.

Mistake #2: Only doing self-inquiry at set times

Self-inquiry can at first be practiced in a formal way, while sitting for some period of time. But this is just the beginning.

Self-inquiry should eventually be done at all waking moments, while talking, cooking, cleaning, working, and doing any other of life's daily activities.

"But how will I do my work?"

It's a mistake to believe that self-inquiry interferes with work. There is a bit of practice required at the beginning, but basically self-inquiry does not interfere with doing. You are not the true doer, and self-inquiry is helping you see that.

To get to enlightenment, self-inquiry must be engaged in with great intensity at all times.

Mistake #3: Not paying attention to distractions and resistances

When you get distracted or feel like doing something else, your mind and heart are trying to tell you something. These messages are not to be ignored.

If you do, they will keep interfering with your practice, and will stop you from progressing.

Interpret the messages by expressing what they feel like (I call this process "metaphorization") and attempting, through imagination and action, to figure out what they mean.

Mistake #4: Expecting to find the I

First, this process is not going to be instantaneous. It is going to be frustrating. It is going to be confusing. It would be perfectly normal not even to quite understand what you are doing or what you are trying for at times. Keep going. 

More importantly, you cannot find the I. That is the point of the exercise. That feeling is the illusion we are trying to see through. As long as the feeling of the I remains, you must pursue it, but the end of that pursuit will be to have it suddenly and strangely disappear! It's what I call the "spacious mind" in my book. Ramana Maharshi calls it the "I-I." You will know it when it happens. 

That's the shift we're aiming for. It will disappear -- and then seem to reappear. As many times as it reappears, you must re-examine that feeling. Eventually the disappearance will sink in, and it will become apparent that it had never appeared in the first place. That's the delightful, hilarious contradiction.