Stars are visible only after sunset, and attention is a trap

I rewrote this article extensively on May 28, 2024, so some of the comments may no longer apply to it.

People sometimes summarize Ramana’s method as, “Keep your attention incessantly on yourself.”

This is a pretty good summary except for one big problem.

Normally when we pay attention to something, we target or select it.

This can feel a little like aiming a weapon or choosing an object on a computer screen with a mouse pointer.

It may feel like that, but what we are really doing is prompting the brain to generate mental activity.

We’ve been doing this all our lives so naturally it’s what we do when we try to practice Ramana’s method.

This way of paying attention is wonderfully effective for ordinary tasks — listening to a child tell us about her day at school, trying to remember a forgotten name, etc. — but it doesn’t work for Ramana’s method. Two reasons why:

  • This way of paying attention works only when the object of attention is mental activity, and you are not mental activity.
  • When you use attention that way, you look away from yourself.

So how do you place attention on yourself?

Please notice that what I just described is only one meaning of “attention.” The word also has a second meaning: the fact that some particular object is salient or evident, that it fills consciousness, at a given moment. We don’t usually notice the ambiguity because both things happen together. But the second thing can happen without the first, and that’s the key.

Without using attention in the first sense — without aiming it, without prompting the brain to generate mental activity — allow yourself to fill consciousness; let yourself become that which you are aware of to the exclusion of everything else.

This tactic doesn’t work with objects (mental activity) but it works with yourself because you are always already knowing yourself. You don’t need to be generated by the brain.

People often complain, “I don’t know what Ramana means by ‘myself’.” Yes they do. They only think they don’t because every time they try to focus on themself, they fail. But they aren’t failing because they don’t know themself. They are failing because the focus mechanism cannot point to themself. The focus mechanism is like a gun turret on a warship which is designed to turn in all directions except toward the ship itself. The attention (in the aiming/prompting sense) cannot point to its source, yourself.

Four hints:

1. When you say the word “I”, you are referring to yourself. Notice what you mean when you say it. This hint comes from Ramana. For a long time this hint seemed too simple to me. I couldn’t make sense of it. Then one day I realized that his method is that simple. When Ramana says “I” and “yourself” he means those words in the simple sense that a child understands them. I think this hint comes closer to anything else he ever said to explaining experientially how to do his method.

2. You are not an object. You are self-knowing. As soon as you find a way to make your experience match Ramana’s written instructions, you will instantly be subject and object simultaneously which is a way of saying you will be neither. If you haven’t yet had this experience you haven’t yet understood experientially what he is telling you to do. This is not some sort of fancy yogic attainment. It is what happens when the attention is on oneself.

3. Yourself is already known at all times. In a way, part of the attention is already on it. Notice it without generating any mental activity.

4. Don’t settle for objects (mental activity), not even subtle mental activity like space and awareness of awareness. You want the knower of those things.

That’s Ramana’s way, as I understand it — those are my words not his — of putting attention on yourself.

Now I’ll describe another method which is related but doesn’t necessarily reveal yourself. For me it reveals something interesting but I’m not sure what that something is. A pure form of chidibhasa, maybe, if such a thing exists. I’m tempted to omit this part of the article but it was the only method in the original version and some of the comments refer to it.

See all at once (I use “see” figuratively) the totality of mental activity including subtle objects such as whatever you are aware of when you are aware of awareness. You know it’s mental activity; you know that none of it has what you’re looking for; there is no consciousness in it. Automatically you disregard all of it, and automatically you come out of it, and automatically consciousness is the only thing left standing; it becomes obvious. It was there all along, but you only recognize it clearly when everything else is disregarded or unseen.

It all happens in an instant, in the present tense.

This is a kind of neti-neti, not the one in books that people laugh at, but a real one.

I think this may be what Nisargadatta meant when he talked in Seeds of Consciousness about coming out of consciousness. The comparison is confusing because he (or his translators) used the word “consciousness” for what I call “mental activity,” and the word “Absolute” for what I call “consciousness.”

It’s like the sun and stars. No matter how hard you try, you can’t see stars during daylight.

But after the sun sets, and only after the sun sets, they are effortlessly visible.

16 thoughts to “Stars are visible only after sunset, and attention is a trap”

  1. Good points! Nisargadatta’s prescription (see below ) doesn’t really get around the dilemma that you posed but it is the one that I adopted a number of years ago in my attempt to address the issue as best as I knew how. Thanks!

    “Just keep in mind the feeling ‘I am’, merge in it, till your mind and feeling
    become one. By repeated attempts you will stumble on the right balance of attention and affection and your mind will be firmly established in the thought-feeling ‘I am’. Whatever you think, say, or do, this sense of immutable and affectionate being remains as the ever-present background of the mind.”

    1. Thanks Steve. I’ve always liked that quote a lot. Another one from Nisargadatta crossed my mind today while I wrote the above article: “You have to imbibe and be consciousness. In the process of being in the consciousness, you come out of it, and there you see; and meditation is the only remedy.” (I’m sure you know but for other people, the word “consciousness” is used here differently than I used it above.)

  2. Thanks for this inspiring post, Freddie.

    Nisargadatta introduces affection. This seems very important in my opinion.

    The non-doing in itself is a subtle doing. Once we recognize this fact, we are spellbound by utter helplessness.

    Now, in the situation of no control, it is the soft power of trust and loving affection that maintains the alertness to steer clear of sleep and forgetfulness.

    To foster this loving affection for the Numinous, let’s be not shy to pray to the goddess of our liking.

    It is the wholehearted insistence beforehand that will allow our consciousness to navigate the currents of oblivion.

    Hans

      1. Thanks, Freddie for kindling some further thoughts on the topic. :⁠-⁠)

        Let’s talk about the predicament of the post-modern truth-seeker. She has got all kinds of information at her fingertips. But there is no guidance when it comes to the delicate realms beyond language.

        You say, for example, “staying alert”. How to maintain alertness when you are attracted or repelled by a multitude of impressions, unasked for?

        Prayer, as I use the word, just addresses our helplessness when we are facing the unknown. All kinds of strategies and methods fail when we encounter the Benevolent Ineffable.

        We have to rely on our trust and love for the “terra incognita” that area of our being that we don’t know.

        We know, we can fly, but there are lingering fears when we look into the abyss.

        We’ve learned to let go, but who teaches us to let go the letting go?

        There is no guru or teacher around to accompany our journey.

        We have to rely on our sturdiness and the loving companionship of the One, which we are part of.

        This means, trying and trying again and sensing the appeal of the unknown presence.

        Let’s conclude: Prayer is a shorthand for collecting all the powers we are to share with the universe.

        Hans

        1. Hi Hans,

          Your comments deserve a thoughtful reply but I can’t think of anything terribly intelligent to say so I’ll reminisce a little about what may or may not be parallels.

          For 33 years I was very much in the hands of the Goddess. The prayer which set the whole thing off was an intense involuntary desire for ultimate truth, unrecognized as a prayer at the time.

          How to maintain alertness when you are attracted or repelled by a multitude of impressions, unasked for?

          For the purpose I was discussing, I think it’s good enough if alertness happens occasionally. For permanent 24/7 freedom from getting lost in thought, I hate to sound like a broken record but I think probably Ramana’s method is the only way.

          All kinds of strategies and methods fail when we encounter the Benevolent Ineffable.

          The first significant thing that happened to me in those 33 years was developing an undoubtable conviction that reality is benevolent.

          We know, we can fly, but there are lingering fears when we look into the abyss.

          That conviction made it difficult to be afraid.

          There is no guru or teacher around to accompany our journey.

          The Goddess taught me many things, arranged events in my life, fiddled around inside my body, talked to me, even made fun of me.

          But I’m not disagreeing with you because one of the first things she said to me was, “You should meet my husband.” And her husband didn’t act as a guru or teacher, at least not in any way I could recognize, except through the intuition of our Self that all of us know.

          This means, trying and trying again and sensing the appeal of the unknown presence.

          This reminds me of those 33 years which I think of as my mystical period. Nowadays I’m entirely oriented toward what I do know. I suggested to a friend the other day that she ask herself, “What is the most real thing I know?”

          Let’s conclude: Prayer is a shorthand for collecting all the powers we are to share with the universe.

          I think the most powerful prayer is the desire for God/truth/reality/love. That was the case in my own life. The Goddess told me once that such a desire is automatically self-fulfilling.

          The Goddess once said to me, “Use everything we gave you.”

          1. Hi Freddie,
            I am so grateful for your detailed reply.
            Wow.

            I will ponder on your answer.

            Here is a very short clip of Francis Lucille on the shortcomings of the way, self-inquiry is used by quite some people.

            https://www.youtube.com/shorts/V90AoGJZ2c4

            Here is the longer version.

            What is misunderstood about Self-Inquiry, Ramana Maharshi’s Most Direct Teaching, and More…

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brlogKXlc3k

            Francis touches on the point you are making in the post “Stars are visible…”

            Cheers
            Hans

            1. Hi Hans,

              I’m glad you had that reaction to my comment. 🙂 I felt when I wrote it that I wasn’t giving you the kind of answer you deserved.

              I listened to all of the short video and some of the long one. I see why the short one touches on an article I wrote the other day, Reason #1, but I’m not sure why you think it touches on the article on this page. Maybe I’ve forgotten what was on this page. I rewrote it a few hours ago and didn’t bother saving the old version.

              At the end of the short video, Frances says that people misunderstand Ramana when they chant “Who Am I?”. He is of course correct about that.

              But at the start of that video he talks about what is required for “who am I?” to be a “real question”. If he thinks that comment has something to do with Ramana he’s mistaken because Ramana’s method has nothing to do with asking “who am I?” Ramana’s method is, “Keep your attention incessantly on yourself.”

              Then in the long video, Frances says that Ramana says in recorded dialogs that Self-enquiry is a “second option” after his first teaching, the direct path.

              It’s possible that Ramana says that in some of the recorded dialogs, but the recorded dialogs aren’t reliable records of what Ramana said.

              The only texts that contain accurate records of what Ramana taught are his own writings, especially Nan Ar, Ulladu Narpadu, and Upadesa Undiyar, and a few books by other people that Ramana checked carefully.

              In those texts, the reliable ones, especially his most important work, Nan Ar, Ramana says repeatedly that Self-enquiry is the only means for realizing the Self.

              This is a pretty common misunderstanding, and I think I’ll write a post about it in the “reasons” series. Thanks for making me think of it.

  3. This is spot on, Freddie! I think this is your new masterpiece (after “How to Stop Thoughts”)

    1. Thanks Focus. That’s high praise coming from you. It’s about time I wrote something that can keep up with that old article! Only took 17 years. 🙂

  4. How beautiful is this! I enjoyed reading this so much Freddie! There’s something about the way you write which makes it all so clear! Keep writing please.

    There’s a good chance some people might even interpret “keep attention on yourself” to mean keeping attention who they think they are (ego), while Ramana means on the SELF, awareness.

    In my meditations, what I do is to remain alert and relax. As it sit like this, I notice all the inner stuff, thoughts, emotions and sensations calm down and if its a lucky day, I get to experience awareness devoid of all content for a few seconds. And then I experience this stirring in this silence which I have recently come to interpret as something that wants to come up to the surface but which think I’ve been subtly suppressing (because it disturbed the purity of the silence). My challenge has been to just experience it as a pure sensation in my body and allow it to be, because it quickly devolves into thinking (going into the past). The good news is that I know I need to continue to disregard what my mind says and go back into my sensations and silence and not make thoughts so important.

    1. Thank you Rama. I appreciate the kind words. When I was young I tried to make my writing clever and pretty but later in life, Tolstoy convinced me that clarity was far more important. Nowadays that’s all I aim for. Well, mostly all I aim for. 🙂 You comment makes me think I haven’t failed completely. It’s very easy for readers and writers to misunderstand each other, and writers should do everything they can to keep that unavoidable confusion to a minimum.

  5. I’ve recently realized the truth of this – that when attention goes out to focus on anything – a thought, emotion, sensation, physical object, etc – we contract ourselves on that focus.
    Keeping attention at home, not using it at all, we are able to stay in awareness – it could be called being zoomed out instead of zoomed in. Rather than this excluding the world, it actually includes everything without focussing on anything specific unless we choose to for physical well-being and survival.
    Becoming established in this state of awareness as one’s base means one can be present even in deep sleep. It is only the body and mind that need rest, never the Self.

  6. When we try to do anything, its mind activity right? so when we say fall back and relax and be alert, in reality we aren’t doing anything. Not focusing, not trying to be alert, no attention. When we just rest, things/objects/thoughts/feelings/emotions appear and its appearing in us(attention) right? Its hard to dis-attach from what is appearing, but once we recognize that it is appearing that solves it. Had to keep up constantly though. Please let me know if this is making sense… thanks for attention provoking articles.

    1. Hi Arun,

      I deleted an earlier version of this reply and this is the replacement.

      When we try to do anything, its mind activity right?

      Yes.

      so when we say fall back and relax and be alert, in reality we aren’t doing anything. Not focusing, not trying to be alert, no attention. When we just rest, things/objects/thoughts/feelings/emotions appear and its appearing in us(attention) right?

      If the goal is to recognize the Self I think the phenomena have to stop. To make them stop we have to immerse ourselves in something else or, in other words, allow that something else to fill awareness.

      I’m regretting the advice I wrote in the above article about disregarding phenomena. I wrote it because I’ve been playing around with that practice lately, and the results are interesting, but I’m not sure whether it leads to anything permanent or solves any problem. I think maybe what it reveals is a pure form of chidabhasa (reflected consciousness) not the Self.

      What I wish I had written is this: follow Ramana’s advice. Allow awareness of “I” to fill awareness to the exclusion of everything else. I’m writing “allow awareness…to fill” as an alternative to “project the attention outward” as a solution to the problem of attention that I discussed above. The “I” is a special object and our awareness of it is different from our awareness of anything else.

      Ha[r]d to keep up constantly though.

      Yeah. My idea of a solution is something we do for a while and then we stop doing it and the problem stays fixed.

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