When I was a freshman in college half a century ago, my favorite novelist was Doris Lessing. In one of her novels, maybe several of them, a character makes a deliberate effort to silence his or her mental chatter. The idea intrigued me because it touched a major feature of everyone’s experience yet I had never heard it mentioned before. I didn’t realize that this idea is the central theme of Yoga. I knew nothing about Yoga.
I went for a walk to try it. Lessing hadn’t given instructions for how to do this but nobody had told me it was hard so I played around with my mind a little bit and found a way. By the time I had walked one city block — about a minute — my inner monologue had stopped. I remember this clearly because I stood at the curb at the first intersection I reached, hesitating to cross, because I wasn’t sure I could judge correctly whether it was safe to do so while I wasn’t thinking.
(I remember where I was, too: Broadway and 113th Street in Manhattan, one block from my dormitory and one block from Tom’s Restaurant which appeared in Seinfeld on TV. I must have eaten more than a hundred hamburgers in that diner while I was in college.)
Of course only some of my thinking had stopped but still, this state was strikingly different from any that I had experienced before.
Here’s how I did it: I moved all my attention from my thoughts to my visual field. Not to any particular object in the visual field, but to the field as a whole, as if I were noticing the whole area of a movie screen while a movie was playing. Instantly my peripheral vision seemed to get wider, colors seemed to get brighter, and the inner monologue stopped. This was a fun little exercise and I continued to do it from time to time for decades afterward especially when I was in large department stores because they have long sight lines in all directions filled with colorful objects. It didn’t occur to me until decades later that this exercise could have anything to do with spirituality. I thought of it as an odd little habit like cracking my knuckles.
I haven’t tried to do this in years. I can’t remember when I stopped. When I try now, I can’t tell whether I’m doing it. That probably means that either I can’t do it anymore or I automatically do it all the time now.
States like this one which focus on sensory experience have nothing to do with Ramana’s method, which removes attention from objects and places it on the subject. But it may have been one of the things which led me years later to notice that I had been (in a way) unconscious for nearly all of my life, and that in turn led me to practice being more conscious, which was the topic of the first article I wrote for this website, which is still on the home page today. That practice (which I think is what many people mean when they say “be aware of awareness”) isn’t Ramana’s method either, but it may have helped me practice Ramana’s method.
I suppose Lessing was my first guru. A news team caught her on video at the moment when she learned she had won the Nobel prize. It shows her climbing with difficulty from a taxi at her home in London. She is very old. Her disabled son Peter, who remained dependent on her in her old age, sits in the taxi holding an artichoke. They must have just returned from buying groceries. The reporter informs her that she has won the Nobel prize. “Oh Christ,” she mutters.