The Altruism of Introspection: Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Self-Enquiry

Ramana Maharshi

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”  — Aristotle


mind is complex, cavernous, and labyrinthine, but not by nature. Beneath our immediate and illusory layer of consciousness lies the proverbial, undifferentiated ocean of awareness — the subsurface unity comprising the formless. The brain acts as messenger between these depths and our conscious thoughts, constantly engaged in the profoundest of double-tasking: simultaneously reconciling nebulous surges from within and sensory stimuli from without.

Embodying the spirit of efficiency characterizing the modern Capitalist era, the brain developed tricks — subjective filters — designed to retain information deemed valuable and relegate the rest to the scrapyard of the unconscious. The byproduct of this filtration system is the dogmatic tendency to mistake our own fragmentary collages of the world for the ineffable, inconceivable whole. Coupled with the industrialized proclivity towards valuing only those quantifiable dimensions of life, the repressed pool engulfs progressively more of the interior realm. Any external action ensuing from this inmost and atrophied center — spanning humanitarian efforts to eating a bologna-sandwich lunch — remains subtly plagued by the afflictions of subdued internal ventures (such as the self-excavating force of meditation).

In probably less obnoxious English and certainly fewer words: the systemic neglect of the inner-world incarnates our latent neuroses into the outer world.

The point at the end of this introductory-tunnel sheds a peculiar light on how to best pursue Einstein’s selfless maxim, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” The fallacy that being a positive force in the lives of others corresponds only to external action, and that inner-work’s sphere of influence reaches no farther than oneself is an unhealthy, destructive, and ultimately backwards creed.

Oddly enough, introspection may be the most sane & potent form of altruism.

Beyond the platitudes of New-Age self-help guides that circulate the Barnes & Nobles shelves — “The Best Way to Help Others is to Help Yourself!” — exists a wealth of knowledge urging this very counter-intuitive aphorism, diversely fueled by the masters of the East as well as the intellectual giants of the West.

Sri Ramana Maharshi— one of the great Indian sages — taught this very maxim. Put into words by a disciple:

“Moreover, he [speaking of a Maharshi disciple] outgrew the fallacy, almost Universal in the West and increasingly common in the modern East, that it is possible to help mankind only by outer activity. He had been told that by helping oneself one helps the world; this dictum which the laissez-faire school falsely supposed to be true economically is in fact true spiritually, since spiritually the wealth of one does not detract from that of others but increases it. Just as he had seen Sri Bhagavan at his very first meeting as a ‘motionless corpse from which God is radiating terrifically,’ so everyone, according to his capacity, is a broadcasting station of invisible influences. Insofar as anyone is in a state of harmony and free from egoism he is involuntarily emitting harmony, whether he is outwardly active or not; and insofar as his own nature is turbulent and his ego strong he is emitting disharmony even though he may outwardly be performing service.”

 — Arthur Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge, p. 99

Maharshi’s whole spiel was self-enquiry [sic], that mankind unconsciously lives in fabricated notions of “self”, which actually occlude a true understanding of who we are. Who are we, then, behind the veil? David Godman, librarian of Maharshi’s ashram for eight years and lifelong devotee, gives as decipherable an answer as we may find in words:

The real Self or real ‘I’ is, contrary to perceptible experience, not an experience of individuality but a non-personal, all-inclusive awareness. It is not to be confused with the individual self which (Ramana) said was essentially non-existent, being a fabrication of the mind, which obscures the true experience of the real Self. He maintained that the real Self is always present and always experienced but he emphasized that one is only consciously aware of it as it really is when the self-limiting tendencies of the mind have ceased. Permanent and continuous Self-awareness is known as Self-realization.”

— Godman, Be as you are (1985)

Ultimate self-realization, to Maharshi, is the highest variant of philanthropy. It ends the projection of our neuroses onto, and consequently, into, the world around us. In his signature candor:

Yet the greatest power is at the command of the man who has penetrated to his inmost depth — What is the use of knowing about everything else when you do not yet know who you are? Men avoid this enquiry into the true self, but what else is there so worthy to be undertaken?”

— Sri Ramana Maharshi, Ibid. p. 10

Contrary to the orthodox interpretation of penetrating inwards, Maharshi does not conceive of the act as isolating — Asian philosophies are often misconstrued with asceticism — but as lifting the constraints of the ego and opening to boundless compassion.

We often take the Mindfulness articles infiltrating our Facebook news-feeds and corporate seminars to encourage more time for ourselves; that the 15-minutes of morning meditation is intended to calm our minds, benefiting no one else but us. How smeared with selfishness a selfless act has become. As inextricable members of a cohesive whole, there is nothing we do not impacting the entire system. Our internal investments don’t react in the same tangible sense we are accustomed to observing from our external actions; rather, they operate on that expansive and binding immaterial fabric subject mainly to the invisible influences we broadcast.

But this flavor of wisdom is not exclusively Asian in origin. Even the likes of Soren Kierkegaard from the West advise:

“Not until a person has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning.”

— Kierkegaard, Journal Entry, August 1st 1835

This ideology — introspection as the highest altruism — extends beyond abstractions & philanthropy. Appearing in different outfits of language across the spectrum of human affairs, didactic self-enquiry is considered capable of laying the foundation for functional, sane, and healthy systems.E.F. Schumacher prescribes just this in regards to healing the now-corrosive state of Capitalism:

Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

— Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 318

Neglecting the inner-castle certainly induced a bittersweet state of affairs: booming living standards and material output of the past century live in the curiously neglected shadow of decreasing reported happiness, increased pharmaceutical dependency, historic inequality, weekly mass-murders, and a haunting emptiness.

But, whether this is just a semantic excuse to be solipsistic or a bona fide method for ameliorating the human condition, I don’t know. Still, the considerable lack of downside seems to encourage at least transitioning this dialogue and its pragmatic upsides to the main-stage of social and political debate. Worst case scenario, we become more acquainted with the cavernous depths of our being before imposing ourselves, imperfections and all, upon the world.

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