The stick that stirs the fire

Let’s look at this well-known quote from Ramana Maharshi’s pamphlet Who Am I?

The thought ‘who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, will itself in the end get destroyed.

There are two separate ideas in this statement:

1. A thought exists which, when you think it, destroys your mind.

2. That thought will also get destroyed.

The second idea gets most of the attention in this quote because of the vivid metaphor of the stick that stirs the fire. Note that this metaphor mainly describes the second idea, not the first.

But the first idea is the important one:

By thinking a particular thought, you can destroy your mind.

That’s actually pretty scary, isn’t it? That thought should come with a red label:

Warning! If you think this thought, your mind will get destroyed!

That thought is like a song that destroys your vocal cords when you sing it.

Like a photograph that destroys your eyes when you see it.

Like somebody who destroys your heart when you fall in love with them (aren’t there about a million songs where that happens)?

Like a program that destroys a computer when the computer runs it.

That last metaphor about the computer is a common trope in science-fiction. The computer says “does not compute,” explodes, and expires in a cloud of smoke. It’s like a Windows blue screen of death on steroids. Wikipedia has a page about this trope called “Does Not Compute.” According to Wikipedia, it was probably invented by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov in 1941.

Lethal computer programs are not just science fiction. I once saw something like this happen. I wrote a program that caused a component inside my computer to burn out. There was an audible crack! as an unseen spark jumped inside the computer case; then a small cloud of smoke; and then my Hercules VGA graphics card was dead forever. Apparently I had mis-programmed registers on the card so it overheated and shorted out. This was in the 1980s. Hopefully graphics cards are more self-protective nowadays.

On second thought, maybe it was the monitor that got destroyed, not the graphics card. This is the downside of getting old; I can’t remember anything.

Another thing I wish I could remember is the upside of getting old.

But enough rambling around. Here we are at last at the main point of this article. Somebody said here the other day that he couldn’t figure out the point of one of my posts. To prevent that from happening again, I’ll be explicit:

The point of this post is to explain, “What is this thought that destroys your mind when you think it?”

First, we must understand that this thought isn’t really a thought in the ordinary sense of the word ‘thought’. Ramana’s translators use the word ‘thought’ for every possible kind of mental event, process, or activity.

This “thought” is really a mental process or activity.

Second, “who am I?” sounds like a question. But this “thought” isn’t a question. It’s an activity that answers the question.

How do we answer this question? In the most obvious way. By looking at “I” and seeing what it is.

So here’s what the quotation really means:

Look at yourself to see what you are.

Of course, it’s a little tricky to look at yourself because you can’t look in the ordinary way. But that’s a topic for another day.

According to Ramana, that special kind of looking destroys the mind.

That special kind of looking is called Self-enquiry.

5 thoughts on “The stick that stirs the fire

  1. It’s always very useful to listen to other explanations of what self-inquiry is. Another perspective sometimes make it very vivid for me.
    By the way, I didn’t know that you’re a programmer. I’m, too. I have been thinking that the interest on non-duality is a bit more common in programmer (or geek) type personalities.
    Have you noticed such an correlation?

    1. I agree about listening to explanations from multiple traditions. I’d add that it’s also helpful to listen to people who realized without knowing much if anything about traditions.

      I can’t say much about the correlation because I’ve known only a handful of people who are interested in enlightenment or nonduality. I just counted and I can think of only six. Of the six only one might qualify as geeky or programmerish. But I think the sample is too small to conclude anything from it, sorry.

  2. Two books which discuss the same topic from many different angles, while highlighting crucial distinctions, are Michael James’ “Happiness and the Art of Being” and Michael Langford’s “The Seven Steps to Awakening”.

    Michael James, who spent 8.5 years with Sri Sadhu Om, discusses the practice of self-inquiry – including what it is not – in the tradition of Ramana Maharshi over the course of about 400 immensely readable and not dense pages.

    Michael Langford’s book is one of quotations on similar topics (e.g., increasing the desire for liberation) from the point-of-view of Ramana Maharshi, Annamalai, Vasistha, Sankara, Nisargadatta, Muruganar and Sadhu Om.

    I found the congruence of the teachings to be very effective in convincing me that there was “something real” that each was pointing to, which inspired me to forget about most everything else, which, of course, was a relief.

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