Neti-Neti is not Self-Enquiry | Ramana Maharshi – The 5 Sheaths (Pancha-Koshas)

Neti-Neti means ‘not this, not that’. Who am I? What am I? Not this, not that. In this context, this and that refers to objects, any object that arises. Notice, when you say neti-neti, not this, not that, it’s the mind saying it. Ramana makes this point, he says when you do neti-neti, you can only do so up to the mind. He’s talking about the teaching of the five sheaths.

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2 thoughts on “Neti-Neti is not Self-Enquiry | Ramana Maharshi – The 5 Sheaths (Pancha-Koshas)

  1. Hi Tom,I have heard of this comment by Sri Ramana on Neti-Neti before, it appears that he is addressing a surface level practice of neti-neti, or perhaps this is the common way it’s being taught in India.

    Actually, neti-neti and self-inquiry are entirely cooperative, they work together and I will explain.

    There could be a surface level practice of self-inquiry where one THINKS or remembers the thought “who am I?”. Of course this is on the level of the mind and might serve as an introductory practice. But we know that “who am I?” is actually a sustained inward attentiveness subtler than thought (right?). Nobody should criticize self inquiry as merely a thought process, although some may start at that level?

    Similarly, it seems people practice neti-neti on the level of the mind repeating as if a mantra “I am not the body, not the mind etc…” but this is on the level of the mind…. and has little value. I say it has “little value” considering many teachings such as “you aren’t the body” which remain merely as a mental content without any realization.

    If you are settled into Self Inquiry (sustained inquiring attention)… likely at some point this meditative attention will be lost or diverted into some kind of outward distraction. At that instant when you spontaneously effortlessly see that attention has been lost into some distraction, then you return to self inquiry. At that instant, you have performed “NOT THIS [distraction]”. 

    So I don’t see how you can practice Self Inquiry, or indeed any type of meditation without this spontaneous recognition “not this distraction” and back to attention.

    Neti-neti is NOT a structured meditation (such as negating each sheath), but rather turning away from identification or attachment arising in the present moment which is highly personal. It seems that neti-neti is taught as referring to the sheaths etc… but the real practice (just as with self inquiry) is a vigilant watchful attention in the present moment. Neti-neti simply elaborates and focuses on the potential nature of identification, whereas other styles of meditation focus on different aspects.

    Shankara notes Mandukya Karika 3.44 that “If the mind has attained to the state of equilibrium, then do not disturb it again.” So if one constantly repeats “not this sheath, not this sheath”… this is a repetitive mental activity, not “equilibrium” (which IMO is Self Inquiry).

    One must also assert “NOT – not this”… in other words if the attention is fixated on negation… this is also attachment. Rather, true negation is back to the state of attention then do not disturb attention, what has been negated is an arising distraction aka attachment aka identification, and once attention has returned, BE that.

    Also, we do not negate a sheath or any other material form, what is actually negated is the IDENTIFICATION or attachment or the loss of attention into the object in the present moment. The object may exist without any effect of distracting attention.

    So I agree with Sri Ramana’s comments since they apparently refer to what may be a common surface level practice of neti-neti, but there is a deeper practice.


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