When asked to summarize his teachings in one word, Ramana Maharshi said, “Attention.” That struck home in a deeper way the most recent time I heard it. I thought he would have said, “Silence,” because that what his preferred method of teaching. But his answer makes perfect sense. His teachings on Self-inquiry are all about directing attention from the world of thoughts and objects to the source of attention. Attention has been described as focused Awareness and is the “tool” (if we can call it that) through which things are known. Without attention on something, it is unregistered as existing. For most people, attention is focused on thoughts much of the time and can seem like it’s getting “lost in thought” on a regular basis. But the purpose of inquiry is to withdraw attention from thoughts and the world and direct it toward Awareness. Ramana’s teaching recommended using the simple question, “Who am I?” and then direct attention toward the “I-thought” to which that question points. It’s a simple but powerful way to see through the illusion of separation.
Because of its simplicity and directness, Self-inquiry is also referred to as the direct path to Self-realization (aka Enlightenment, Awakening, Happiness, etc.). Inquiry is a practice that came alive in me a few years ago as I was absorbing teachings from Mooji and Rupert Spira (to name just a few). Then, Dan Kelso and Deep Self Investigation entered the picture about a year ago or so. My work with Dan and DSI over the last year has taken Self-inquiry to a new level and has led to numerous breakthroughs, increased clarity and less identification with the imagined separate self (aka character, ego, etc.). DSI introduced new questions (beyond the traditional, “Who am I?”) and a new way of directing attention. This practice has led to more inquiry questions, all aimed at directing attention toward Awareness and “seeing” what we truly are.
The Nature of Attention
I have talked with Dan K about the nature of attention on a few occasions and discovered that, on the one hand, it seems to have a will of its own and goes where it wants, when it wants. On the other hand, it appears that there is some limited capacity to “control” where it goes. For example, if I say, “Direct attention toward your left foot,” attention would most likely go to your left foot. If I say, “What’s that over there?” and point to an object, attention will most likely go toward that object. Since the invitation of Self-inquiry is to withdraw attention from the world of objects and thoughts and turn toward its aware Source, redirecting attention is the key.
That said, I have found that asking a good question is one of the best ways to direct attention. We are all conditioned from the time we are young to answer questions, which involves directing attention toward where we think we will find the answers. Once on the path of awakening, it becomes clear that the answers to Life’s most important questions are not found “out there” or even in the mind, but instead found in its Source. How do we find the Source? Ask a question that leads attention to it.
Another good thing about a teaching based on asking questions is that the questioner gets to discover the answer firsthand, instead of believing it secondhand. Secondhand information is what our identities are built on, so it’s time to discard it and rely only on firsthand information. All of the good teachers out there will tell you, “Do not believe what I say, check for yourself.” If we could believe ourselves into Self-realization there would be a lot more wakefulness in the world. Instead, it has to be experienced directly in order for true transformation to take place.
Line of Questioning
A number of inquiry questions have come to this character through various teachers (i.e. Dan Kelso, Rupert Spira, Mooji, Robert Adams, Ramana, Nisaragadatta, etc.). New questions started coming to the surface as I began exploring the nature of Consciousness, so I have been keeping a list of questions that have been useful for inquiry and hope it will be beneficial to “others” on the same path.
So, consider this an invitation to let go of all your beliefs and ideas about Enlightenment, Awakening, Self-realization, Awareness, Consciousness, etc., and put all of the teachings aside. All of that goes with the rest of the secondhand information we’ve accumulated. Then, sit with each of these questions and look with your own direct experience to where they point. These questions are not designed to be answered with the mind. They are intended to invite attention to discover the experiential answer.
[See the Comments section for the inquiry questions and practice. Audio recordings of these are available at on my Question the Orthodox Podcast site.]