Sample from the Fall 2007 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine
An Interview with David Godman
David Godman (his family’s actual surname) read a book in 1974 about the great sage and jnani, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and two years later traveled to his ashram in India. Since then, he has lived almost continuously in Tiruvannamalai, the town where Sri Ramana spent all his adult life. He recently moved into a new home he built about two miles from the base of Sri Ramana’s beloved Arunachala, a holy mountain in South India. David has now published thirteen books on Ramana Maharshi, his teachings and his direct disciples, and shares the inspiration and wisdom of Sri Ramana with our readers.
IYM: Would you tell us something about Sri Ramana’s own spiritual journey?
DG: He had a normal, ordinary childhood in which he exhibited little or no interest in spiritual matters. At the age of sixteen he had a spontaneous awakening, attaining complete and full enlightenment when a sudden and unexpected feeling that he was about to die prompted him into a spontaneous act of self-inquiry. He told no one what had happened to him, but about six weeks later he left home, without telling his family, and headed for the sacred mountain of Arunachala. He spent the rest of his life there.
In one of his poems, composed years later, he wrote, “From my unthinking childhood the immensity of Arunachala had shone in my awareness.” He didn’t know in his childhood that it was a place he could go to; he just had this association with the word Arunachala. He felt, “This is the holiest place, this is the holiest state, this is God himself.” For many years he was in awe of Arunachala and what it represented, without ever really understanding that it was a place of pilgrimage he could actually go to.
After his enlightenment experience, he understood that it was the power of Arunachala that had precipitated the experience and pulled him physically towards it. In that same poem I just quoted from he also wrote, “When it [Arunachala] stilled my mind and drew me to itself and I came near, I saw that it was stillness absolute.” This contains a very nice pun. “Achala” is Sanskrit for “mountain” and it also means “absolute stillness.” This poem describes Sri Ramana’s physical pilgrimage to Arunachala, but in another sense he is talking about his mind going back into his heart and becoming totally silent and motionless.
IYM: Many associate the question, “Who am I?” with Sri Ramana’s teachings. Was this the main teaching?
DG: He always maintained that his primary and most effective teaching was the silence that radiated from him on account of his Self-abidance. It stilled the minds of the people who were fortunate enough to be with him and, on occasion, it even gave them a taste of the direct experience that he himself was experiencing all the time. The words, the spoken teachings and the various methods he advocated were for those people who were unable to attune themselves to these silent emanations.
I would say that self-inquiry, telling people to ask themselves, “Who am I?,” was his most distinctive teaching insofar as it was a new and innovative path that no one else had taught before, but I would not even say that it was his main verbal teaching. He spent a lot of time telling people, “You are the Self. The Self is already realized. Just be it,” but of course no one believed him. Instead, they would say, “Yes, but that’s not my experience. What do I do to attain it?” When people spoke to him like this, he would often ask them to do self-inquiry.
IYM: Can you explain the technique of self-inquiry?
DG: The key to understanding self-inquiry is Sri Ramana’s assertion that the individual “I” can only exist in association with the thoughts and perceptions that it latches onto. In “I am angry,” “I see a tree,” “I am a lawyer,” there is a subject “I” who is associating with an object of thought or perception. Sri Ramana taught that, when these associations cease completely, “I” itself disappears.
He said that if one could put one’s attention exclusively and continuously on the subject “I,” without being distracted by any extraneous thoughts, this “I,” the sense of individuality, would subside into its source and vanish, leaving an awareness of the Self that is unmediated by any sense of being an individual person.
It’s all about redirecting attention. When you become aware that your mind is directing itself to other thoughts, objects that are not the “I,” he suggested asking, “To whom do these thoughts or things appear?” The answer is, of course, “To me.” Then, having switched attention from objects of thought to the perceiver or thinker of them, Sri Ramana says, “Ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’ or, ‘Where does this “I” come from?’”
Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2007 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.