Hello everyone,

I trust you are all keeping well. We are living in an interesting moment in history, somehow I am feeling optimistic that we can learn a lot from it.

Although, that is not what I will talk to you about in this letter. In fact, for now, I have had enough discussion on the coronavirus.

At the moment, the obvious steps are all I believe we can do. Please wash your hands regularly and do your best to stay at home.

Nan Yar: Who am I?

Venkataraman was a seemingly ordinary sixteen-year-old. One day he found himself suddenly paralysed with a fear of death. He laid down on the floor of his uncle’s study convinced he was about to die. Instead of remaining terrified he asked himself; “Who was it that was about to die? What was it that was about to disappear?”. At once he became liberated.

I pasted the above excerpt from my short 2016 piece: The Absolute Truth.

The young Venkataraman was no longer constrained by his fear for the life of an illusory self. He arose from the floor and realised a freedom he never knew he had — the freedom to simply walk away from his life.

As he walked out, leaving everything he knew for good, a peculiar memory came to his mind. When he was young he had heard of the sacred hill Arunachala in Southern India. It had just occurred to him that it was an actual physical place, that he could go to.

He casually took the next train from his village to the holy hill of Arunachala and settled there for the remainder of his life.

During the next few years of his life, the youth seemed to lose his ability to speak. Dwelling on the mystery of existence, completely absorbed in concentration, he often sat perfectly still for days at a time.

His body grew weak and developed sores all over, but it did not concern him. Insects would persistently bite at his skin as he sat there, but it didn't matter at all. Time and again the locals would have to tend to his wounds — they had taken an interest in him.

This went on for quite some time — after a decade of silence, he spoke once more and began giving dialogues on the nature of consciousness.

He is now known as Ramana Maharshi, the legendary Indian sage who taught Advaita Vedanta.

The mind is a bundle of thoughts.
Thoughts arise because there is the thinker.
The thinker is the ego.
The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Years ago, I committed this pithy instruction to memory.

I first encountered the work of the Maharshi, as with many things, in Sam Harris' 2014 best-seller Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.

Sam was comparing the merits of the different paths and contemplative traditions. The gradual paths where one practices meditation in pursuit of the ideal of enlightenment vs the direct pointing-out where the individual realises it is already here in the present.

"Those who begin in the practice of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realise."

"By contrast, the path of sudden realisation can appear impossibly steep. It is often described as 'nondualistic' because it refuses to validate the point of view from which one would meditate or practice any spiritual discipline. Consciousness is already free of anything that remotely resembles a self — and there is nothing that you can do, as an illusory ego, to realise this."

In the traditional Buddhist traditions techniques of meditation involve striving towards the lofty goal of enlightenment through practice.

In the nominally Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, it is made clear that there is no one there to meditate or strive to become enlightened.

No self, no soul, no agent, no doer.

The thoughts you believe to be yours are in fact not yours, they are natural phenomena like any other. They are simply appearances that arise in consciousness.

All phenomena are a play arising spontaneously.

Self, other, good, bad, doership, agency, striving, goals, discipline, hope, fear, praise, blame and suffering are all concepts that are applied to them after the fact.

Everything happens by itself.

What is Advaita Vedanta?

Advaita is the Sanskrit term where the term Non-Duality is derived from. It literally translates to "not two". When we conceptualise we divide reality into two:

  • When there is the concept good there must be "not good"
  • When there is the concept tall, there must be "not tall"
  • When there is the concept black, there must be "not black"

At the heart of all this is the duality of self and other, of subject and object. To see through illusion, is to see that there is no difference between what is seen and who is seeing it. There is no "you" separate to this experience.

Practices by virtue of being practices are dualistic. They posit a goal and a person to reach that goal through practice. All of which are concepts tiled over this play of experience we call life.

But because we are so habituated to these concepts, to frameworks, to seeking a goal that is other than what we are experiencing, practices are taught. Out of compassion, teachers have made a concession and taught many techniques and practices to help pull us out this way of being

Or as Sam puts it eloquently in Waking Up.

"Dualistic mindfulness — paying attention to the breath, for instance — generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion: One feels that one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath of some other object of awareness because of all the good it will do."

In contrast, in Advaita Vedanta, the final realisation is the starting point. The question: Who am I?

An inquiry is made into who or what it is that is even inquiring in the first place.

Just like a tree falls entire when the root is severed with the sense of self, all other concepts dissolve — including the need for seeking a goal, or the sense that the self is suffering.

If you are interested in learning more about the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, I recommend you check out the contemporary teacher Rupert Spira.

Click here to visit his YouTube Channel.

Self Enquiry

"The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Reality is simply the loss of the ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth by itself. This is the direct method, whereas all other methods are done, only retaining the ego... No sadhanas [spiritual practices] are necessary for engaging in this quest.

There is no greater mystery than this — that being the reality we seek to gain reality. We think that there is something hiding our reality and that it must be destroyed before the reality is gained. It is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now."

I first read this passage of Ramana's teachings referenced by Sam Harris in Waking Up. As an enthusiastic meditator, it had quite an effect on me. I have read it many times over and over, trying my best to parse it.

The mind is a bundle of thoughts.

Moment-to-moment we can see this, thought after thought flowing like a waterfall.

Thoughts arise because there is a thinker.

The assumption here is that these thoughts are evidence of a "self" that thinks them.

The thinker is the ego.

We draw lines around separate stars and call them constellations as if they were real entities. In the same way, we draw a line connecting this stream of thoughts arising in consciousness and call it an ego, person or self.

The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.

Look for that which you are calling "I", and its absence can be clearly seen.

The technique that was prescribed by Ramana Maharshi was known as Atma Vichara, Self-Enquiry. In this technique we ardently look for what it is we believe we are, we look for that which is looking.

We recreate the realisation that Ramana had on the floor of his uncle's study that fateful day and we rest in it.

More Content: Learn more about Self-Enquiry

Recommended resources for those of you interested in learning more about all of this.

Talks with Ramana Maharshi (~14 minutes)
How do I practice Self Enquiry (~13 minutes)
  • My 2019 letter on Non-Duality

  • Call off the Search: A documentary on the Advaita teacher Papaji, who was a devoted student of Ramana Maharshi and a teacher of Sam Harris. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this, but it is an hour and a half.

  • The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi: If you are interested, consider purchasing this book of his teachings. I remember enjoying thoroughly it a few years back.

Thank you for reaching the end of yet another letter.

I hope you are all doing very well and that these letters are making a humble contribution.

I feel extremely fortunate to be able to do this. I have a feeling past Sashin would be surprised to see me now.

This week I received another Patron, who happens to be a friend of mine — if you are reading this, thank you!

If anyone else is keen to support me, please do so here. You are free to do so at any amount large or small, and either one time or regularly. Doing so will free me from my other commitments and provide me more time to read, write and solve the problems I am most interested in.

For everyone else, I am grateful that you are even reading this and are interested in what I have to say. I don't know how many times I've said this, but writing these letters has meaning because you are there reading them — so thank you again.

Please live happily,