The title of this post refers to an article by Michael James. According to Michael:
This is the crucial and extremely valuable secret that Sri Bhagavan [Ramana Maharshi] has revealed to us all about the nature of our ego or mind: If we attend to anything other than ourself, our mind will thereby rise and be nourished, whereas if we attend only to ourself, our mind will thereby subside and dissolve in its source. (Source)
Four things occurred to me when I read this statement:
First, Michael is correct that this is extremely important. We have to let go of all mental phenomena — in other words, we have to stop paying attention to them, we have to let them disappear from consciousness — in order to make progress past a certain point with Self-enquiry.
Second, this explains why Ouspensky never managed to get anywhere. He kept trying to see the world and himself at the same time. He portrays this effort with a double-headed arrow in In Search of the Miraculous.
Third, I can think of several authors — Richard Rose and Anadi (Aziz Kristof) come to mind — who seem like living contradictions to Ramana’s crucial secret because they successfully integrated two poles of attention. (See Rose’s “triangulation” and “Jacob’s ladder” and Anadi’s idea of integrating me with I Am.) But in their cases both poles are a kind of subjectivity whereas in Ouspensky’s case one of the poles was the world. (I plan to write more about Rose and Anadi some day based on my experience.)
Fourth, Sadhu Om, who was Michael’s mentor, stated this idea (or a related one) in a somewhat different way by saying that Ramana’s innovation was to substitute a positive instruction (seek the Self) for a traditional negative one (neti neti). See chapter 7 in The Path of Sri Ramana Part One. But really, in my opinion, as I’ll explain in a moment, we have to do both the negative and positive sides simultaneously.
One last thing. I want to talk a little about what this feels like, the experience of it.
To do Self-enquiry we have to let go of whatever the mind is involved with.
Letting go means we stop thinking about it. We let it disappear from consciousness.
Letting go seems like an almost literal description. It’s as if the attention consists of arms that we stick out ahead of us to grasp thoughts. We have to relax our grip and let those arms retract. Then the attention pulls back into ourselves. For me, at least, there is an almost physical sense that the “hands” of my attention are retracting backward horizontally into myself. This is a relaxation of attention but the impulse to extend these “hands” is so strong that in a way, an effort is required at times to let this relaxation happen. When the “hands” of attention are fully retracted, the attention stops operating and there is a massive intensification of consciousness.
When the active grasping attention relaxes and stops operating and returns to ourself, there is a feeling that two “things” that were falsely held apart have now returned to unity, like a false double image that is now correctly seen as a single image, like a single real image coming into focus.
When the hands of the attention maintain their grip on objects, you’re preventing your attention from moving back into yourself.
It’s a little like you’re trying to let yourself fall but you can’t because you’re holding onto a bar. However it’s not really like that because you don’t move. Only your attention moves. It may seem at the beginning like you are moving but that’s only because you are identifying with your attention.
The word ‘attention’ has two main meanings. One meaning, the one that concerns us here, is the activity of grasping mental phenomena. This first meaning of the word is an action; it’s something we do; we ‘pay attention’ or ‘attend’; we select what we will see.
When that grasping stops it feels like the arms of our attention retract into ourselves. It feels like pseudopods are returning to the body of an amoeba.
I say amoeba; Paul Brunton says tortoise:
He who would attempt to know his Overself must learn to retire into his mind as a tortoise retires into its shell (source).
The second meaning of the word ‘attention’ means simply that some particular thing rather than some other particular thing is evident. This doesn’t feel like an action but only a state of affairs. When the first kind of attention stops — when we stop selecting and grasping something to see — we ourselves become evident. This is what Sadhu Om means when he talks about being versus doing. The distinction that he expresses by contrasting the words ‘do’ and ‘be’ is the same distinction I am drawing here between the two meanings of ‘attention’.
The main point here is that when we stop grasping phenomena, we stop seeing whatever the hands were grasping because we’re no longer paying attention to it.
“Stop seeing” sounds arcane and advanced but it’s not. It happens to you all the time. Right now, you’re not “seeing” the way the bottom of your left foot feels. You’re not “seeing” your heart beat. You’re not “seeing” air move in and out of your lungs. You’re not seeing a trillion things simply because you’re not paying attention to them.
Ramana’s secret is that you have to stop paying attention to everything except yourself.
Let the greedy anxious hands of your attention relax, let go, and retract.