Here is David Godman describing what the self-enquiry method taught by Ramana Maharshi is and how it can be practiced (Source: Introduction to Chapters 4 and 5 of David Godman’s book Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi):
It will be remembered that in the chapter on Self-awareness and Self-ignorance Sri Ramana [Maharshi] maintained that Self-realization could be brought about merely by giving up the idea that there is an individual self which functions through the body and the mind. A few of his advanced devotees were able to do this quickly and easily, but the others found it virtually impossible to discard the ingrained habits of a lifetime without undertaking some form of spiritual practice. Sri Ramana sympathized with their predicament and whenever he was asked to prescribe a spiritual practice which would facilitate Self-awareness he would recommend a technique he called self-enquiry. This practice was the cornerstone of his practical philosophy.
Before embarking on a description of the technique itself it will be necessary to explain Sri Ramana’s views on the nature of the mind since the aim of self-enquiry is to discover, by direct experience, that the mind is non-existent. According to Sri Ramana, every conscious activity of the mind or body revolves around the tacit assumption that there is an `I’ who is doing something. The common factor in `I think’, `I remember’, `I am acting’ is the `I’ who assumes that it is responsible for all these activities. Sri Ramana called this common factor the `I’-thought (aham-vritti). Literally aham-vritti means `mental modification of I’. The Self or real `I’ never imagines that it is doing or thinking anything; the `I’ that imagines all this is a mental fiction and so it is called a mental modification of the Self. Since this is a rather cumbersome translation of aham-vritti it is usually translated as `I’-thought.
Sri Ramana upheld the view that the notion of individuality is only the `I’-thought manifesting itself in different ways. Instead of regarding the different activities of the mind (such as ego, intellect and memory) as separate functions he preferred to view them all as different forms of the `I’-thought. Since he equated individuality with the mind and the mind with the `I’-thought it follows that the disappearance of the sense of individuality (i.e. Self-realization) implies the disappearance of both the mind and the `I’-thought. This is confirmed by his frequent statements to the effect that after Self-realization there is no thinker of thoughts, no performer of actions and no awareness of individual existence.
Since he upheld the notion that the Self is the only existing reality he regarded the `I’-thought as a mistaken assumption which has no real existence of its own. He explained its appearance by saying that it can only appear to exist by identifying with an object. When thoughts arise the `I’-thought claims ownership of them – `I think’, `I believe’, `I want’, `I am acting’ – but there is no separate `I’-thought that exists independently of the objects that it is identifying with. It only appears to exist as a real continuous entity because of the incessant flow of identifications which are continually taking place. Almost all of these identifications can be traced back to an initial assumption that the `I’ is limited to the body, either as an owner-occupant or co-extensive with its physical form. This `I am the body’ idea is the primary source of all subsequent wrong identifications and its dissolution is the principal aim of self-enquiry.
Sri Ramana maintained that this tendency towards self-limiting identifications could be checked by trying to separate the subject `I’ from the objects of thought which it identified with. Since the individual `I’-thought cannot exist without an object, if attention is focused on the subjective feeling of `I’ or `I am’ with such intensity that the thoughts `I am this’ or `I am that’ do not arise, then the individual `I’ will be unable to connect with objects. If this awareness of `I’ is sustained, the individual `I’ (the `I’-thought) will disappear and in its place there will be a direct experience of the Self. This constant attention to the inner awareness of ` I ‘ or `I am’ was called self-enquiry (vichara) by Sri Ramana and he constantly recommended it as the most efficient and direct way of discovering the unreality of the `I’-thought.
In Sri Ramana’s terminology the `I’-thought rises from the Self or the Heart and subsides back into the Self when its tendency to identify itself with thought objects ceases. Because of this he often tailored his advice to conform to this image of a rising and subsiding `I’. He might say `trace the “I”-thought back to its source’, or `find out where the “I” rises from’, but the implication was always the same. Whatever the language used he was advising his devotees to maintain awareness of the `I’-thought until it dissolved in the source from which it came.
He sometimes mentioned that thinking or repeating `I’ mentally would also lead one in the right direction but it is important to note that this is only a preliminary stage of the practice. The repetition of `I’ still involves a subject (the `I’-thought) having a perception of an object (the thoughts `I, I’) and while such duality exists the `I’-thought will continue to thrive. It only finally disappears when the perception of all objects, both physical and mental, ceases. This is not brought about by being aware of an `I’, but only by being the `I’. This stage of experiencing the subject rather than being aware of an object is the culminating phase of self-enquiry.
This important distinction is the key element which distinguishes self-enquiry from nearly all other spiritual practices and it explains why Sri Ramana consistently maintained that most other practices were ineffective. He often pointed out that traditional meditations and yoga practices necessitate the existence of a subject who meditates on an object and he would usually add that such a relationship sustained the `I’-thought instead of eliminating it. In his view such practices may effectively quieten the mind, and they may even produce blissful experiences, but they will never culminate in Self-realization because the `I’-thought is not being isolated and deprived of its identity.
Beginners in self-enquiry were advised by Sri Ramana to put their attention on the inner feeling of `I’ and to hold that feeling as long as possible. They would be told that if their attention was distracted by other thoughts they should revert to awareness of the `I’-thought whenever they became aware that their attention had wandered. He suggested various aids to assist this process – one could ask oneself `Who am I ?’ or `Where does this I come from ?’ – but the ultimate aim was to be continuously aware of the `I’ which assumes that it is responsible for all the activities of the body and the mind.
In the early stages of practice attention to the feeling `I’ is a mental activity which takes the form of a thought or a perception. As the practice develops the thought `I’ gives way to a subjectively experienced feeling of `I’, and when this feeling ceases to connect and identify with thoughts and objects it completely vanishes. What remains is an experience of being in which the sense of individuality has temporarily ceased to operate. The experience may be intermittent at first but with repeated practice it becomes easier and easier to reach and maintain. When self-enquiry reaches this level there is an effortless awareness of being in which individual effort is no longer possible since the `I’ who makes the effort has temporarily ceased to exist. It is not Self-realization since the `I’-thought periodically reasserts itself but it is the highest level of practice. Repeated experience of this state of being weakens and destroys the vasanas (mental tendencies) which cause the `I’-thought to rise, and, when their hold has been sufficiently weakened, the power of the Self destroys the residual tendencies so completely that the `I’-thought never rises again. This is the final and irreversible state of Self-realization.
This practice of self-attention or awareness of the `I’-thought is a gentle technique which bypasses the usual repressive methods of controlling the mind. It is not an exercise in concentration, nor does it aim at suppressing thoughts; it merely invokes awareness of the source from which the mind springs. The method and goal of self-enquiry is to abide in the source of the mind and to be aware of what one really is by withdrawing attention and interest from what one is not. In the early stages effort in the form of transferring attention from the thoughts to the thinker is essential, but once awareness of the `I’-feeling has been firmly established, further effort is counter-productive. From then on it is more a process of being than doing, of effortless being rather than an effort to be.
Being what one already is effortless since beingness is always present and always experienced. On the other hand, pretending to be what one is not (i.e. the body and the mind) requires continuous mental effort, even though the effort is nearly always at a subconscious level. It therefore follows that in the higher stages of self-enquiry effort takes attention away from the experience of being while the cessation of mental effort reveals it. Ultimately, the Self is not discovered as a result of doing anything, but only by being. As Sri Ramana himself once remarked:
`Do not meditate – be!
Do not think that you are – be!
Don’t think about being – you are!`
Self-enquiry should not be regarded as a meditation practice that takes place at certain hours and in certain positions; it should continue throughout one’s waking hours, irrespective of what one is doing. Sri Ramana saw no conflict between working and self-enquiry and he maintained that with a little practice it could be done under any circumstances. He did sometimes say that regular periods of formal practice were good for beginners, but he never advocated long periods of sitting meditation and he always showed his disapproval when any of his devotees expressed a desire to give up their mundane activities in favour of a meditative life.