Why people misunderstand Ramana: reason #1

It’s hard to pick the number one reason why people misunderstand Ramana because the top two reasons are very similar and they reinforce each other. But a choice must be made, so here goes:

The question “who am I?” is the number one reason.

Ramana used this phrase as a name for the method he taught. It’s also the name of the short textbook he dictated and edited that describes the method. For example, in the first paragraph of that booklet he refers to the method as “the awareness-investigation called ‘who am I’”. That quote comes from Michael James’s translation which I think is the best.

The misunderstanding is this: many people assume that the practice consists of asking that question.

This is wrong. The practice is something else entirely.

Ramana chose that name “who am I?” not because it describes the practice but because the purpose of the practice is to reveal the answer.

The actual practice is this:

Focus attention incessantly on yourself.

That’s a literal translation of Ramana’s words in his textbook, Who Am I?

That practice has nothing to do with asking “who am I?”

This use of the attention causes the mind to sink into the Source aka Heart aka Self aka sat-chit-ananda aka Brahman aka pure consciousnessn, and that is the answer to the question, “who am I?”

But you don’t find that answer by asking a question. You find the answer by focusing attention incessantly on yourself.

9 thoughts to “Why people misunderstand Ramana: reason #1”

  1. Yes, agree with you Freddie. Nice read as always!!
    In fact, I know many who use “who am I?” like a mantra and keep chanting it. I don’t remember where I read it, but Ramana himself has said that this was not supposed to be used like a mantra but just a way to interrupt thinking and have awareness take a look at the source (itself), and see that thoughts originate from and dissolve into it, stabilize and grow roots in it.
    I wish Ramana had talked about emotions and processing them (particularly stuff like trauma, emotional pain etc.) and I don’t find direct references to it anywhere. In my own case, it feels like these emotions are what are spawning thoughts and while thoughts can be interrupted with “who am I?”, the underlying cause ie. emotions remain untouched and unprocessed. Ramana himself probably never carried emotional baggage and hence didn’t talk about it (at least from what I know and have read).
    Although he doesn’t mention emotional processing explicitly, he has mentioned on many occasions that silence is a great solvent capable of dissolving all illusions/problems. And my experience during my teenage years confirms this. By staying alert and relaxed in silence, many “problems” dissolved without me doing a thing. However, back then, I didn’t have the kind of emotional issues I faced during my adulthood. Somehow I just can’t bring myself to be that quiet internally but I’m persistent in my sadhana. I think this is probably why Ramana stressed “silence” so much perhaps. I have heard some people say that silence sweeps “problems” under the rug and suppresses unresolved emotions, but in my own experience, it actually brought a lot of buried stuff to the surface for release. In other words, the discomfort I experienced by going into silence is what I took as an indication that my silence is not “pure” yet and there’s something “polluting” it begging for attention and release.

    1. Yeah about emotions. I just spent half an hour searching Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi with various related keywords (“unhapp” and “passion” work well) to refresh my memory. He just always tells people to find out who experiences “passions” and to rest in the Self. Judging from the recorded conversations, it’s not just Ramana, it’s also the questioners. I could find only one conversation (number 222) where the questioner might have been trying to ask about emotional suffering. Of course I only spent a half hour on this.

      You may be in a better position than me to judge, but it strikes me that most or all of the traditional Indian literature on liberation is like this. It seems like people just didn’t talk much about emotions. But maybe we’re the weird ones. Maybe modern culture, especially modern Western culture, is the oddball here.

      Still, I suspect that in all times and places, in all cultures on all continents, the thing that all human beings have always wanted most is love or at least admiration and attention from other people. And many of them never got enough and they suffered. I would think it would have been a topic in all times and places. But maybe not.

      1. Oops, how did I forget one of the most famous passages from the Upanishads, Brihadaranyaka 2.4.5?

        “For love of the Self the wife is dear,” etc.

        Although… I’m not sure whether that passage confirms or refutes my previous comment. 🙂

      2. I would characterize Indians as being very emotional. A lot of drama too when it comes to relationships. It quite possible that such people were wrapped up in so much emotional turmoil that they never came to see Ramana at all. And then there are others who prepared questions carefully but after seeing Ramana (and many report this), all those questions just melted away and they were just so happy to bask in silence. In either case, I feel a great opportunity was lost to ask Bhagavan directly about suffering, emotional and physical pain (you might have read that he was an expert when it came to preparing medicines with herbs etc. found on Arunachala hill and it worked like magic. And people were stunned how he knew exactly how to prepare them or what to give whom to remedy their physical pain).

        1. This makes me wonder if the conversations did happen but weren’t recorded. I’m also remembering Kitty Osborne’s memories of growing up in the ashram — did you and I talk about those videos once? — in which she says people would ask Bhagavan’s advice about everything.

          1. Yes, I recall discussing about Kitty Osborne. I later watched her videos and loved it. Its very possible that some conversations were never recorded or people felt shy or embarrassed to discuss them in the hall with other people around. I’ve read many accounts of people seeking his advice on many topics and some of them appear very trivial but Bhagavan was very committed and invested in them.
            And then there are accounts of people who spoke with him when he was alone and we have no idea what was asked or said in response.

        2. Maybe people asked about such things and Ramana answered but we don’t have records because they were embarrassed to ask in the hall, in front of other people, where conversations were recorded. Maybe they waited for an opportunity to catch him alone without any note-taking witnesses.

          In later years when he was always surrounded by people this would have been difficult but in earlier years maybe not so much.

          Edit: I wrote this before I saw your most recent comment and realized we were thinking the same thing.

  2. Beautiful.
    Thanks very much for the link to Michael James’ wonderful translation and commentary on Nan Yar in your brilliant website.
    It is clear the mind can never understand awareness – in other words never understand ‘Who am I?’ Neither mind nor anything else can be aware of Who we are, only that Awareness itself can be both self-aware and aware of everything else. In fact, as noted in the 4th and last section of the Yoga Sutras, mind would have no ‘pretend awareness’ without the Self (Awareness) reflecting into and through it.

    1. Thanks Brian. Do you think the mind can understand anything or does understanding belong exclusively to Awareness? In other words, when the mind creates thoughts, are they like printed words in a book that can only be understood by a reader?

      I had forgotten Patanjali’s “pretend awareness” but the phrase reminds me of the “intransitive awareness” that Michael james describes in his introduction to that translation which I agree is excellent.

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