Neti-Neti (‘not this, not that’) is a traditional teaching that teaches us to negate all phenomenal objects as being not-self (anatman). This is also known as the via negativa (negative way) as it points to what we are NOT. The basic idea is that through negating or discarding what we are not, what we are, that which is Nameless and beyond concepts, is revealed.
This is in contrast to the via positiva (positive way), which points out what WE ARE and directs us to recognised THAT and abide as THAT.
Whilst many teachings contain both via negative and positiva, you will see that in Advaita Vedanta and the teachings of great sages like Sri Ramana Maharshi, the via positiva is often emphasised but the via negativa is also explained. In other teachings, such as in many Buddhist texts, the via negative is often emphasised, but the via positiva teachings are also present.
Why is this? I’ve noticed that the via-negativa teachings are more attractive to those with a more intellectual inclination – and that is because negation is an activity of the intellect or mind. It by itself can only take you so far. However it is the via positiva (only if done correctly) that leads one to transcend the mind. Let us see Bhagavan Ramana explain this:
Cease all talk of ‘I’ and search with inward diving mind whence the thought of ‘I’ springs up. This is the way of wisdom. To think, instead, ‘I am not this, but That I am,’ is helpful in the search, but it is not the search itself.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, Ulladu Narpadu (Forty Verses on Reality), Verse 29
When the Vedas have declared, ‘Thou art That’ – not to seek and find the nature of the Self and abide in It, but to think ‘I am That, not This’ is want of strength. Because, That abides forever as the Self.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, Ulladu Narpadu (Forty Verses on Reality), Verse 32
The above verses are more fully explained in the text The Path of Sri Ramana in Chapter 7. Here is an excerpt from page 126:
‘That is why it is impossible for the mind to negate anything by thinking ‘I am not this, I am not this’ (neti, neti).- On the other hand, if our (Self’s) attention is directed only towards ourself, our knowledge of our existence alone is nourished, and since the mind is not attended to, it is deprived of its strength…‘
Here on the next page, page 127, it states:
‘If we are told, ‘Abandon the east’, the practical way of doing so would be to do as if told, ‘Go to the west’! In the same manner, when we are told, ‘Discard the five sheaths, which are not Self’, the practical way of discarding the non-Self is to focus our attention on ourself. ‘What is this I?’ or ‘Who am I?’. ‘
Thinking ‘I am not this, not this’ (neti, neti) is a negative method. Knowing that this negative method is just as impractical as saying, ‘Drink the medicine without thinking of a monkey’. Sri Bhagavan has now shown us the practical way of drinking the medicine without thinking of a monkey, by giving us the clue, ‘Drink the medicine while thinking of an elephant’, that is, He has reformed the ancient negative method by giving us the positive method ‘Who am I?’…
…Thus Bhagavan Ramana has declared categorically
that Self-attention alone is the correct technique of eliminating the five sheaths!
Now let us see Sri Ramana explain this to two seekers who have both read the traditional texts and have been practicing neti-neti but who have not been able to progress in their sadhana. This following is taken from the book Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 197:
Gul and Shirin Byramjee, two Parsi ladies of Ahmedabad, arrived this day. They spoke at night to Maharshi: “Bhagavan! We have been spiritually inclined from our childhood. We have read several books on philosophy, and are attracted by Vedanta. So we read the Upanishads, Yoga Vasishtha, Bhagavad Gita, etc. We try to meditate, but there is no progress in our meditation. We do not understand how to realise. Can you kindly help us towards realisation?”
Ramana Maharshi: How do you meditate?
Questioner: I begin to ask myself “Who am I?”, eliminate body as not ‘I’, the breath as not ‘I’, the mind as not ‘I’ and I am not able to proceed further.
Ramana Maharshi: Well, that is so far as the intellect goes. Your process is only intellectual. Indeed, all the scriptures mention the process only to guide the seeker to know the Truth. The Truth cannot be directly pointed out. Hence this intellectual process. You see, the one who eliminates all the ‘not I’ cannot eliminate the ‘I’. To say ‘I am not this’ or ‘I am that’ there must be the ‘I’. This ‘I’ is only the ego or the ‘I-thought’. After the rising up of this ‘I-thought’, all other thoughts arise. The ‘I-thought’ is therefore the root-thought. If the root is pulled out all others are at the same time uprooted. Therefore seek the root ‘I’, question yourself “Who am I?”; find out its source. Then all these will vanish and the pure Self will remain ever.
Questioner: How to do it?
Ramana Maharshi: The ‘I’ is always there – in deep sleep, in dream and in wakefulness. The one in sleep is the same as that who now speaks. There is always the feeling of ‘I’. Otherwise do you deny your existence? You do not. You say ‘I am’. Find out who is.
Questioner: Even so, I do not understand. ‘I’, you say, is the wrong ‘I’ now. How to eliminate this wrong ‘I’?
Ramana Maharshi: You need not eliminate the wrong ‘I’. How can ‘I’ eliminate itself? All that you need do is to find out its origin and abide there. Your efforts can extend only thus far. Then the Beyond will take care of itself. You are helpless there. No effort can reach it.
Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 197