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Can you please explain the process of self-inquiry? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.
The process of self-inquiry was first enumerated by Yajnavalkya to his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad:
The self, my dear Maitreyi should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. By the realization of the self, my dear, through hearing, reflection and meditation, all this is known. BU II.iv.5
Later in the text, he repeats himself in a nearly identical verse:
The self, my dear Maitreyi should be realized—should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. When the self, my dear, is realized by being heard of, reflected on and meditated upon, all this is known. BU IV.v.6
While Yajnavalkya makes it clear that steps of self-inquiry are hearing, reflecting and meditating, he doesn’t explain them. For further details, let’s look at Shankara’s commentary on the previous verse, BU IV.v.6:
How is the self realized? By being first heard of from the teacher and the scriptures, then reflected on, discussed through argument or reasoning—the hearing is from the scriptures (and the teachers) alone, the reflection through reasoning—and lastly meditated upon (lit. known), ascertained to be such and such and not otherwise. What happens then? All this (the mind, body and universe) is known to be nothing other than the self.
Step One: Listen to the scriptures being taught by a capable teacher. The teacher is a must because there’s an underlying methodology to the scriptures that’s not obvious unless it’s pointed out to you. Without understanding the methodology, the scriptures appear to be contradictory or even nonsensical. If you don’t believe me, just pick up a copy of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and start reading.
However, once you’ve been taught by a good teacher how to interpret the scriptures, you can then study them yourself. The cool thing is that if your mind is properly prepared to understand what’s being taught, having the scriptures explained to you by a teacher is completely sufficient for removing ignorance regarding the true nature of your self. If that happens, no independent study of the scriptures is required. Granted, that’s the best case scenario, which is why the second step, reflecting on the teaching through reasoning, is often necessary. But before moving on to the topic of reflection, let’s talk about the different ways to listen to the teaching. It is, after all, the primary step.
The most obvious way to listen is to attend a class. This option can be inspiring owing to the example of the teacher—assuming they live according to the teaching—and the company of other dedicated inquirers. But to be clear, actually seeing the teacher or having fellowship with other students is by no means a mandatory prerequisite for self-knowledge, which is good because the live teaching of Vedanta isn’t widely available (at least outside of India). Luckily, many teachers record their lectures and make them available to the public. These lectures are easy to find online and the recordings are just as effective as being taught in person (having studied Vedanta both ways, I can attest to that). Most of the time I actually prefer listening to a recording because I can rewind the parts I want to hear again and take notes. Also, I’m able to more effectively control my surrounding environment, thereby reducing potential distractions. However, if you’d still like to hear Vedanta live but you either can’t, or don’t want to physically attend the class, teachers such as Swamini Svatmavidyananda broadcast their teachings live on the internet. As an added bonus, video recordings of the lectures are then made available afterwards for you to review. It’s the best of both worlds (a link to Swamini Svatmavidyananda’s site is on the Links page).
Despite the fact that the traditional way of listening to Vedanta is to literally hear a teacher giving a discourse, you can also expose yourself to the teaching through reading. As I said, don’t simply go out and start reading the scriptures. This won’t work. Instead, find a book that is either an overview of Vedanta based on scripture, or find a translation of a scripture that includes a teacher’s commentary. Good examples of Vedanta overviews based on scripture are Swami Dayananda’s Introduction to Vedanta or Ted Schmidt’s Self-Knowledge. If you want a text that is both a scripture and a summary of Vedanta, Swami Dayananda’s Tattva Bodha is an excellent choice. Here would be a great place to recommend my own Tattva Bodha commentary, but I’m currently in the process of revising it.
Step Two: Reflect on what you learned from the teacher and resolve your doubts through reasoning. As I said above, the ideal situation is that you hear the teaching, understand it, and no further work is needed. But usually doubts remain and reflection and reasoning are required to resolve them. This can be done independently or if you need help, by asking the teacher or even one of your fellow inquirers. Or doubts may simply be removed through further listening.
Step Three: The first two steps, listening and reflection, together form the means to gain self-knowledge—or more accurately, remove self-ignorance—and nothing else is required. This begs the question that, if listening and reflection accomplish the primary goal of self-knowledge, what’s the purpose of the third step, meditation?
Here, it’s important to know that the word commonly translated as meditation in this text is nididhyasana in the original Sanskrit and nididhyasana is not necessarily a synonym to the meditation described in the Yoga Sutras (dhyana) or the meditation on the deities from other portions of the Vedic scriptures (upasana). Similar to dhyana and upasana, nididhyasana is a form of concentration and contemplation. However, unlike dhyana and upasana, whose respective aims are to stop the mind and contemplate deities, the goal of nididhyasana is to counteract emotionally disturbing thought patterns by assimilating the self-knowledge previously gained from listening to, and reflecting on, the scriptures. This process of assimilation continues until it fully transforms the way you think about yourself, meaning until your thinking becomes completely harmonized with the implications of self-knowledge.
Why is assimilation required to change your thinking if you already have self-knowledge? Shouldn’t your thinking change automatically? No, because the mind is a creature of habit. After a lifetime of thinking erroneous self-limiting thoughts, it takes a while for the mind to change its ways, even when it clearly understands that it is none other than the limitless self. Here’s an illustration. There is a homely adolescent girl, overweight, who wears awkward, thick glasses. She is constantly teased and develops a negative, emotionally disturbing self-image, thinking herself to be inferior and unworthy. However, as she grows up, she loses the weight and glasses and develops into a beautiful woman. Despite the obvious fact that she is physically attractive and in the face of advances from potential suitors, owing to mental habits developed from childhood, she continues to view herself as undesirable and suffers needlessly. In other words, the knowledge of who she is—even though it is clear to see—and how she thinks about herself are not yet in alignment. Only over time, through combatting negative untrue thoughts with positive true thoughts about who she really is, does she develop a healthy self-image. (I’m not trying to say that being physically attractive is necessary for good self-esteem or that it determines someone’s worth. This is just a metaphor). Similarly, once it is totally clear that you are the self and that by extension, you are full, complete and always okay, it takes time and continued application of self-knowledge for the mind to accept that this is true and to develop new and healthy thought patterns in alignment with this truth.
The scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita say that a healthy and balanced mental state is the mark of a truly enlightened person. However, is mental stability the actual goal of Vedanta? No, self-knowledge is the goal, and self-knowledge clearly shows that you are not your mind and that the mind never affects you. This is true liberation because the mind can never be perfectly and perpetually balanced. Regardless of that fact, self-knowledge only applies in the realm of our everyday transactional world. So even if you know you aren’t the mind, the mind continues to exist. Therefore, if self-knowledge merely shows you that you are not your mind, but your mind continues to be plagued by fear, anger, sadness and attachment, self-knowledge has little value. What good is self-knowledge if you—at least the apparent you—continue being miserable? If could be argued that it doesn’t matter because you aren’t the apparent you, but as I said, self-knowledge only applies to the apparent you so it might as well help the apparent you be happier. Otherwise, what is the point?
SUMMARY: The two steps required for self-knowledge are listening (in whatever form you choose) to a teacher explain the scriptures and then reflecting on what you’ve heard until it’s absolutely clear and doubt-free. Then, to change the way you think about yourself and to get rid of negative emotions caused by your previous self-ignorance, you meditate on the self-knowledge you’ve gained from listening and reflection until it is fully assimilated into your everyday thought-process. Technically, since the first two steps give you self-knowledge, and self-knowledge shows you that you aren’t your mind, the third step of assimilation is optional, assuming you like how it feels when your mind is angry, fearful etc.
That’s the process of self-inquiry. Now hop to it! And let me know if you need any further assistance.
All my best – Vishnudeva
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