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 know 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
Consider using this gentle Guided Self-Enquiry to facilitate your daily sadhana (spiritual practice)
The Following teaching statements of Sri Ramana Maharshi are taken from the text Guru Vachaka Kovai (Garland of Guru’s sayings). This text is widely consider to be the most authoritative text on Sri Ramana’s verbal teachings – you can download it using the link below.
In the following video I have read the quotes to form a guided meditation/guided contemplation. You are invited to sit comfortably and allow these soothing words to wash over you and guide you to the Self.
393.One who has wisely chosen the straight path
Of self-enquiry can never go astray;
For like the bright, clear Sun, the Self
Reveals itself direct to whoso
Turns towards it.
391. Those who do not dive into the Heart
And there confront the Self in the five sheaths hid
Are only students answering out of books
Clever questions raised by books,
And not true seekers of the Self.
835. Renouncing this phenomenal world
Which seems to, but does not, exist
We gain (the great ones say) the Self,
The Awareness shining all unseen.
755. If without wasting time one starts
And keeps up steady self-enquiry,
One’s life becomes at once ennobled,
One is no more this wretched body,
And there wells up within one’s heart
A sea of bliss supreme.
647. If you refrain from looking at this
Or that or any other object
Then by that overpowering look
Into absolute Being you become
Yourself the boundless space of pure
Awareness which alone is Real
432. …If you observe
Awareness steadily, this Awareness
Itself as Guru will reveal
291. For those who seek eternal life
The assurance stands: the senses five
Retracted tortoise-like, the mind
Turned homeward to the Self and there
Abiding is pure bliss.
130. When will the fool, who thinks the body
And the world are permanent and clings
To them, find peace? Only when this
Folly leaves him and he trusts
And like a limpet clings to That,
The Self within. Thenceforward he
Shall never more know pain.
390. Without abiding in calm solitude
As the Being-Awareness shining in the heart,
To tear oneself away and look for truth
Fussing everywhere without,
Is like searching with a lighted torch
For a diver in deep water sunk.
420. The knowledge that ignores the Self,
The knower, and holds as true the field
Perceived, is but illusive folly…
293. Know that these countless things are pictures
In a dream and none is real
Apart from the beholder. Shun
This phantom world of names and forms
And dwell in the pure, blissful being
697. …Not an iota of the past can touch
Those who dwell unceasingly
In the firmament of Self-Awareness,
Vast, boundless, frontierless and full.
921. None can confront and overcome
The mind. Ignore it, then, as something
False, unreal. Know the Self
As the real ground and stand firm-rooted
In it. Then the mind’s movements will
898. When we with mind serene and still
Experience pure unbroken Being,
That is samadhi. In this state
The mind, abiding as the Self
Supreme, shares God’s own Being.
399. If in this manner day after day
Practice is maintained, the mind
Is rendered flawless, pure, the quest
Becomes so easy that the moment
It begins the Heart is reached.
877. Only when the world-illusion goes
Does the blissful light of Self arrive.
Life lived in this bright, blissful light
Is our true, natural life. Other ways
Of life are full of trouble and fear.
974. Unbroken Self-awareness is
The true, bright path of devotion or love.
Knowledge of our inherent nature
As indivisible Bliss supreme
Wells up as Love
418. The only true and full awareness
Is awareness of awareness.
Till awareness is awareness
Of itself, it knows no peace at all.
Here Sri Ramana not only outlines how we can discover for ourselves the truth of the world, but also he succinctly outlines the path to liberation:
If, on the contrary, you withdraw your mind completely from the world and turn it within and abide thus, that is, if you keep awake always to the Self, which is the substratum of all experience, you will find the world, of which alone you are now aware, just as unreal as the world in which you lived in your dream.
~Ramana Maharshi, Maharshi’s Gospel
The above was an excerpt taken from the following post: Ramana Maharshi: ‘…unless you give up the idea that the world is real…’