One of the great ironies of life in a world that is almost wholly preoccupied with the profit margin of any business transacted within its context – which in more personal terms equates with the degree of personal happiness that is the intended product of any action that one performs – is the fact that most people squander the greatest natural resource at their disposal for procuring the bounty of contentment they seek.
Duped by maya and suffering an innate condition of ignorance, the vast majority of people remain so preoccupied with the alluring objects calling for their attention in the surrounding world that they fail to realize that they themselves – i.e. the quality and texture of their own mind – are the source of the peace and happiness they experience through their acquisition of items, accomplishment of ends, and/or achievement of ambitions. They fail to see that it is not the objects themselves they desire, but rather the sense of fulfillment they feel so sure these objects will afford them. Instead of reveling in the joy that is their inherent nature as the limitless self, they dissipate their inner tranquility by training their attention upon objects – both subtle and gross – that they believe are the founts of satisfaction.
However, as Lord Krishna, speaking as the self, says in the Bhagavad Gita, “Fixing your mind on me, you shall pass over all difficulties, through my grace; but if, through egoism, you will not listen, then you shall perish” (18.58). Rather than an ultimatum issued by a jealous god, this assertion is simply an appeal to practicality. As long as the mind is distracted by objective phenomena it will be incapable of discerning the true nature of reality and remain unable to discriminate between the real and the apparent, the self and the not self, that which is inherently limitless, free, content, and blissful and that which is inherently limited, bound, agitated, and to a greater or lesser degree anguished.
Therefore, if such discrimination – i.e. atma-anatma-viveka – is the heart of self-inquiry, we might say that attention – and more precisely the ability to turn one’s attention “inward” and train it on the self – is its backbone. It is no arbitrary coincidence that samadhana, the ability to sustain concentration on a given topic for a long period of time, is one of the fundamental qualifications for a seeker of self-knowledge. Focused attention is indeed the foundation of all three aspects of the process of self-inquiry – i.e. hearing (shravana), reflection (manana), and meditation (nididhyasana) – that leads to the assimilation of self-knowledge and ultimate inner freedom (moksha). It requires a mind with a unique form of OCD – a mind whose attention is characterized by the qualities of openness, critical thinking, and determination.
Shravana, the first phase or aspect of self-inquiry, requires a mind whose attention is characterized openness. Though referred to as “hearing,” shravana is more than simply the passive intake of information. More to the point, shravana is a matter of actively engaging the teachings to which one is being exposed, or at least of allowing oneself a mental arena in which to hear the teachings as they are intended to be heard. This means that one must temporarily set aside one’s previously acquired beliefs, opinions, and fantasies concerning the nature of reality and one’s own essential identity and listen with an receptive mind. In other words, one must be able to focus one’s attention solely on the matter at hand in order to truly hear what is being said. If one’s mind is distracted by incessant voices of dissent, so to speak, it will be unable to follow Vedanta’s logical and unbiased analysis of one’s own previously unexamined or erroneously interpreted experience. Thus, ignorance will continue to reign rather allowing for the arrival of the valid knowledge that would most assuredly overthrow its authority.
Manana, the second phase or aspect of self-inquiry, requires a mind whose attention is characterized by critical thinking. In this context, however, critical thinking does not equate with skepticism. Though Vedanta does not ask that one blindly believe in its teachings, it does ask that one place enough faith in them to afford them due consideration. This provisional faith is based on both the fact that despite one’s best efforts, one has not yet been able to “crack the code” of self-knowledge or realize ultimate inner freedom by means of the spiritual paths and practices to which one has previously been exposed and/or adopted and the fact that Vedanta has a proven track record of revealing the true nature of reality and setting seekers free that stretches back farther than recorded history. Equipped with such heartfelt consent, one is able to critically examine one’s present beliefs and opinions in light of the teachings of Vedanta. Meticulous attention should be paid to the logical unfoldment of the teachings and to the discrepancies that exist between what one has held as true and what the analytical reasoning that is the hallmark of Vedantic self-inquiry irrefutably reveals to be true. Moreover, no stone should be left unturned, so to speak, for every last doubt needs be resolved before the mind will fully surrender to the assault of reason and fully accept the jurisdiction of the truth.
Nididhyasana, the third phase or aspect of self-inquiry, requires a mind whose attention is characterized by determination. Though the mind may have accepted the logical conclusions about the non-dual nature of reality and one’s own true identity as limitless awareness, in virtually everyone’s case there remain deeply-ingrained vasanas, or likes and dislikes, desires and fears, that color one’s experience of life and compel one to act at their behest with which to contend. While not all vasanas obstruct self-inquiry and the assimilation of self-knowledge, those of a binding nature that sustain one’s identification with the mind-body-sense complex and maintain one’s conviction that one is an individual doer and enjoyer with independent volition and riddle one with a sense of incompleteness and inadequacy do need to be neutralized if one is to realize one’s innate freedom. In order to render binding vasanas unbinding, the mind needs be determined enough to reach its goal of moksha, or ultimate inner freedom, that it vigilantly monitors its content, relentlessly detects the erroneous thought-patterns and egoic promptings that arise from its conditioned ignorance, and repeatedly applies the antidote of self-knowledge.
Though often dismissed as an arid intellectual endeavor, self-inquiry is essentially a matter of love or devotion. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna, speaking as the self, intimates, “Those who are eternally steadfast, who worship me, fixing their minds on me, endowed with supreme faith; I consider them to be the most devoted to me” (12.2). Despite its romantic reputation, love is not a feeling per se. It is simply a matter of willing attention. In other words, whatever one willingly places one’s attention upon is what one loves. In this regard, Vedanta asserts that the most lovable thing is oneself, which is verified by the fact that everything everyone does is done with the intention of pleasing oneself. Even when we love someone or something “other” than ourselves, we do so because of the joy we experience within our own being as a result. Moreover, the essential revelation of Vedantic self-inquiry is that in reality the only thing that exists is oneself – the singular awareness, that is, which is universal self of all.
In the end, therefore, Vedantic self-inquiry is fundamentally a devotional practice, a matter of focusing one’s attention on the singularly existent awareness that is the substratum of all objective phenomena and whose nature is limitless bliss. As Lord Krishna, speaking as the self, says, “…at all times meditate on me, with your mind and intellect fixed on me. In this way, you shall surely come to me” (Bhagavad Gita, 8.7). Though couched in experiential terms due to the limitations of language, the “coming” of which Krishna speaks is not a matter of reaching any objective destination, either physical or psychological, but rather a matter of simply giving undivided attention to the truth of one’s identity as whole, complete, limitless, actionless, unborn, self-dependent, self-evident, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness.