From now on, for a while at least, I’m going to refer to Ramana’s method as Ramana’s method.
I’m going to avoid saying “vichara” or “self-investigation” (Michael James’s favorite way to translate “vichara”) and “self-attention” (Michael’s second-favorite way).
And I’ll avoid the commonest names, “Self-enquiry” and “Who Am I?”, because those names are the most misleading of all. Ramana used the phrase “Who Am I?” to mean at least three different things — the name of the instruction booklet that bears his name, the name of the method, and the goal of the method. The one thing it never meant is the one thing that almost everybody imagines that it means: that the practice consists of asking a question.
All of those names are misleading, some more than others. “Self-attention” is the least bad of the bunch but even that one is misleading because, although it’s the best short description of the practice, it doesn’t describe the aim or motivation, and as I’ll explain in a moment, it’s extremely important to understand the aim. (Moreover, as I’ll explain below, “self-attention” is misleading even as a description of the practice.)
Even if those names weren’t misleading, they have been ruined by the fact that 99% of the spiritual teachers who use them today are using them in a different way from how Ramana used them. Ramana’s method has nothing to do with analysis or with inspection of mental activity or with asking a question and waiting or looking for an answer.
One of the problems with those names, I think, is a failure to distinguish the practice from the goal of the practice. Very often when people asked about the practice, Ramana answered by describing the goal.
- The practice: put your attention on yourself (but keep in mind that this phrase is misleading in a certain way, as I’ll explain below).
- The aim or goal: find out what you really are.
Ramana placed tremendous emphasis on the aim. He did this in place of giving precise instructions for the practice. His rationale, I think, was that if people become motivated to discover who or what they really are, they will naturally inspect (put their attention on) themselves to see what they really are. This strategy for giving instructions makes sense because it’s incredibly difficult to explain in words how to put our attention on ourselves. Therefore it’s better to fire people up about the goal and let them figure out through their own effort how to do it. (During Ramana’s lifetime, he showed visitors and ashram residents how to do it by transmission, so the lack of precise instructions for the practice was less significant than it is today.)
The reason why the phrase “put your attention on yourself” is misleading is because you can’t do that in the way that we normally focus attention on objects. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Do something with your mind that allows yourself to become salient, to become wholly evident.” And provide the hint, “To make this happen, you must relinquish the activity of paying attention to objects.”
I’m afraid it’s probably the case that there’s no way to describe this method in words that isn’t misleading in some way.