The Art of Self Inquiry with Viriam Kaur
First published in Yoga Magazine UK 2010.
“We have a moral obligation to the entire ecological web of existence
to wake up from self-pity and self-promotion in order to attend
to our place in the world with sensitivity and wisdom.”
On some level, we are always practicing self analysis – but alas, not in a conscious way. Every day, we judge our actions, our words, our looks and we compare and contrast ourselves with those around us. It gives us our sense of self day-to-day. It gives us our imagined sense of place within society. It gives us a sense of the progress we have made or a sense of the goals that we want to achieve.
Self enquiry can be where we get our juice to start a business, write a novel, or alternatively what makes us chuck it all in and travel the world. We start to ask ourselves where we want to be in the world. We start to ask ourselves if we are on the right path.
Alternatively, it can keep us limited. Our self analysis is often fuelled by the thoughts, analysis and judgements that have been passed onto us from others – family, friends, teachers – and we carry these comments with us and often use them to justify our decisions in life.
Often our self analysis can be crippling – it keeps us in a state of judgement about ourselves. We cannot achieve our goal because we are perpetuating a myth about ourselves that our families planted. We are constantly trying to put our lives into perspective – but the lens we are looking through is clouded by judgement.
In yoga, the art of looking at ourselves from a neutral or non-judgemental perspective is viveka – discrimination. We discrimate between the real and the illusion, between our desires and our truth, our pleasures and our purpose.
“Discrimination allows subtler introspection: This one-pointed attention and discrimination, which comes from the practice of the eight limbs, is used for examining, exploring, and attenuating the colorings of the subtle impressions of the mind field (2.10), so as to go beyond, inward to the pure, eternal center of consciousness.” Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati
So again, we come back to the roots of our yogic practice and the 8 limbs of Patanjali. In order to practice discrimination, we need to absorb ourselves in our practice.
“The 8 limbs are for discriminative enlightenment: The reason for practicing the eight limbs of Yoga (2.29) is to develop attention as the tool for discriminative knowledge, which is the means to discriminative enlightenment and liberation. It means using razor-like attention (3.4-3.6) to separate the seer and the seen (2.17), so as to break the alliance of karma (2.12-2.25), and to get past the four mistakes of ignorance, or avidya (2.24-2.25), which are: 1) confusing the temporary for the eternal, 2) the impure for the pure, 3) misery for happiness, and 4) the false self for the true Self (2.5). Resulting from this systematic discrimination, the seer or Self is eventually experienced in its true nature (1.3).” Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati
So our practice of discrimination comes straight from the roots – the yamas. The 8 limbs contain everything we need to instill awareness.
It is essential when we live with an enquiring mind that we practice ahimsa. Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence and this should apply to every aspect of ourselves and really needs to start with turning our attention inwards to our thought process and our inner soundtrack.
Self enquiry can help us go beyond the judgements. Whenever we come face-to-face with one of these stories that hold us back in life, we need to ask ourselves if this is true? If we were told that we would never amount to much, we need to ask the question ‘is this true’? If we were told that we were destined for greatness as a lawyer for example, we need to question it.
Often we programme ourselves with a whole litany of demoralizing statements that keep us in fear from fully embracing life. And because we mentally programme ourselves with thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’ll never find a better job than this’; ‘But what if they hate my book proposal?’ – we hold ourselves back. We get stuck in our habitual thought patterns. We need to catch every time we enter into a negative monologue – that ongoing soundtrack in the mind that reinforces our negative beliefs about ourselves.
“Wisdom is knowing the extent to which self-dentity is manufactured,” says Michael Stone in his book The Inner Tradition of Yoga “and then projected onto all expereince, and the way this ‘self’ construction hinders a spontantenous and ethical response to life and the greater questions it presents.”
Self enquiry is living consciously and catching ourselves in each moment. We start to question our thought process, we start to question ourselves, we come back to Source.
Our preoccupation with Me-Myself-I
Asmita is defined as the “I”-maker (sometimes referred to as the storyteller). Asmita is one of the five kleshas or afflictions that hinder our growth.
“When you contemplate your own thinking process,” says Michael Stone. “you may come to notice that almost all of your thoughts are stories about you! Most of us go through the day telling ourselves endless stories about ourselves. Our perceptions in daily life seems to pivot around this ongoing narrative of ‘me’. We talk to others about ourselves, and if there is no one around, we talk to ourselves about ourselves and call it thinking!”
I am – it puts us in a place and time. It states our permanence and our impermanence. I am and I am not. Every time you define “I am”, you also acknowledge everything that you are not. There are two sides to the coin… “I am” can define us – it makes us value all the aspects of ourselves; whether it’s as a writer, a mother, a maths genius, a generous person, a wise woman… it also limits us by all the things that we leave out. The ultimate path is to go beyond “I am” – because you are everything.
‘I am that I am’ is at the heart of many spiritual doctrines around the world. “I am that I am” or ehyeh asher ehyeh is one English translation of God when Moses asks his name.
Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharishi felt that ‘I am that I am’ was the best description of God. His first teachings in Tamil questioned Nan Yar – ‘Who Am I?’ So as we unweave the web of our personality, the ultimate question is ‘who is this ‘I’ that we refer to?’
“When sought within ‘What is the place from which it rises as ‘I’?, ‘I’ (the ego) will die! This is Self-enquiry
The essence of Ramana Maharishi’s teachings was that “For all thoughts the source is the ‘I’ thought. The mind will merge only by Self-enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am l?’ will destroy all other thoughts and finally kill itself also. If other thoughts arise, without trying to complete them, one must enquire to whom did this thought arise. What does it matter how many thoughts arise? As each thought arises one must be watchful and ask to whom is this thought occurring. The answer will be ‘to me’. If you enquire ‘Who am I?’ the mind will return to its source (or where it issued from). The thought which arose will also submerge. As you practise like this more and more, the power of the mind to remain as its source is increased. He state we call realization is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realized, he is that which alone is, and which alone has always been. He cannot describe that state. He can only be That.”
“I am that I am” is like polishing the mirror. It is an opportunity to see God looking back at you.
Self Enquiry as Daily Practice
Yoga is the practice of Self Enquiry. On a practical level, our daily sadhana of yoga and meditation give us the space and time for self enquiry. As we practice, if we can sink into the body and into the present moment, we can start to drop the judgement of the mind and the notion of ‘I’. When we are ‘of’ the mind, we tend to be in the past thinking back to some glory days or dwelling on past troubles, or fast-forward into the future and we are projecting some rose-coloured future, a fantasy life. The more we can sink into the body bringing awareness to the breath, to our subtle energy flow, the more we can surrender to the present moment. When we dwell in the past and future, we are often stuck in a place of judgement – we judge this moment compared to what we thought it would be like (especially if we are struggling with a particular asana today or finding it hard to settle in meditation – it ignites judgement and mind games). So we don’t value this gift of a moment for what it is. Simply that it is. The present moment is the place where we can plant the seed of awareness and watch it grow. In each asana, in each breath, in each mantra, there is a chance for that seed to grow.
See yourself as bigger than your definitions. You go beyond the body and the mind. Beyond limitations, beyond the universe. I am and I am not. We are all one.