Personal Essays

Self-Inquiry and the Householder

imagesThe sprawling campus of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai is home to hoards of red-faced and black-faced monkeys, dozens of brooding and feather-preening peacocks whose loud cries punctuate the heavy pre-monsoon air, which is otherwise silent but for the whispering trees, and hundreds of devotees from all over India and the world. Ramana was a 16-year-old boy, living an unremarkable and unprivileged life in turn-of-the-century Southern India when he “woke up”: he was stricken by, and overcame abinavesa (fear of death) and through this experience, in which his Ego perished, her came to know the eternal, undying, true Self and the impermanence of the mind/body, and this plane of existence.

Following his awakening, Ramana journeyed to the mountain Arunachala, which is not only Shiva’s home but said to be the deity himself. There, Ramana sat in a cave, wearing only a short white cloth over his lower body, and did nothing, for years. Gradually locals became aware of his existence and brought him food; over time, disciples began appearing to care for him and within years there were scores of devotees flocking to Ramana in his cave, ensuring that his needs were met and hoping that the enlightened one’s presence would assist them in their own spiritual quests and worldly affairs. Eventually Ramana switched to another cave, and finally he came down the mountain to live in the ashram that his devotees had begun building in order to better serve their Bhagavan.

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Chai time at Ramana’s ashram

Today this ashram offers free lodging and communal meals to devotees from all over the world who come to meditate, pray, and make offerings in Ramana’s presence. In the evenings, Brahmans chant from the Vedas and douse the receptacle for the Bhagavan’s ashen remains, as well as those of his mother who also achieved enlightenment, with several bovines’-worth of milk, curd, and ghee, as well as rose water and honey, and finally the shrines are garnished with flowers and metal adornments. Meanwhile, devotees chant, meditate, bow deeply, or walk meditatively in circles around the shrines.

It is an astonishing display of worship, and humbling. I am but a mere curious Westerner, a yoga teacher, a lover of human culture and experience; the prospect of true enlightenment seems to me beyond my Ego-laden purview and beyond my desires as a householder–literally, as I have an apartment in New York awaiting my return, as well as loved ones and unfinished artistic ventures–and even beyond my karma. (FYI, “householder” in religious terminology refers to one who maintains a job/home life while pursuing spiritual aims, as opposed to a renunciate who gives up these things.) What can I, given these self-assessed limitations, hope to learn from Ramana?

SAM_2559Perhaps I am not destined to become enlightened in this lifetime, but I do have my sadhana, a practice that includes yoga, writing, and an aspiration toward unconditional love and self-acceptance, which matters to me very much. In the published conversations between Ramana and his disciples that took place at the ashram in the 1940s, when the Bhagavan lived in a small room furnished only with a bed where he sat or reclined while receiving visitors at all hours, many people press the question of balancing secular life–worldly concerns like work, family, love, material needs, and so on–and the quest for enlightenment. Ramana was not challenged by this ostensible paradox; he advised that if one surrendered to God (isvara), to the present moment, to the highest Self, then all else would follow. The difficult thing for his disciples, and me and perhaps you, dear reader, to understand is that this is not an intellectual truth–it’s not something Malcolm Gladwell can confidently quantify and explain and package in a best-selling book–but rather it is known through intuition, through the heart and deep meditation. All Ramana advocated was for people to practice self-inquiry: Who am I? And to be still, so as to let that inquiry finds its true answer.

And yet, I sit to meditate and find myself wrestling furiously with the ugly, childish, whining Ego, rather than meeting the glorious and effervescent Self. Still, I persist, hoping that the practice will prove worth in one lesson: that if I cannot simply become enlightened and reside in the divine Self, then at least I can perhaps learn to always have in my purview that Self, and never stray from it too far.

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