Atma-vichara is the Sanskrit name for the inquiry into our true nature. The widely recognized authority on this topic is Sri Ramana Maharshi. The following is based on his teaching.
In the tradition of Yoga of Intellect (Gyana Yoga) there are three stages on this path with enlightenment occurring at the end of the third step:
1) Hearing (Shravana): listening to the guru describe the Self
2) Reflection (Manana): focusing ON the Self with the intellect
3) Realisation (Nididhyasana): remaining AS the Self without using the intellect
This path of knowledge is also called the Mountain Path because it attempts to go straight up the side of the mountain, rather than making a circuitous route to the top. The path is steep, direct and difficult.
The principle difficulty in self-inquiry is ignorance. We don’t know the path, how to navigate our way or much about the goal. So we gather knowledge about it. This is the first stage.
The second stage we process this knowledge and make it our own. We take what we have learnt from books and teachers and study it deeply until we arrive at conviction and deep understanding.
The third stage is transforming our learning into direct experience.
All of these stages require a tremendous amount of personal growth and effort. After all, it is the Mountain Path. Sri Ramana says that it takes effort right up to the very end. This effort is required in different ways at different stages on the path.
In the beginning the effort is finding a way out of the jungle of life. This stage takes many lifetimes but eventually the person comes to the conclusion that the answer is found in spirituality and that becomes the focus of the person’s life.
In the later stages of the path the effort is to not be distracted by outward going tendencies (vasanas) like desires and attachments and to simply “be still.”
I’ve been told that it is okay to strain the mind resisting and breaking these old outward-going mental habits. Obviously, the ego does not want its own death and will resist enourmously – hence the great effort required.
Whilst it is easy for the mature soul to “just be,” it is definitely not easy to get to that point. It takes a lot of effort, purification and determination. The path may wander through many different methods: meditation, service, study, fasting, emotional healing, pilgrimage but the key is always to do what you think is best and to follow your intuition.
This path is a path of a thousand mistakes and 1001 corrections and it gets both easier and harder as we proceed. It gets easier because we become familiar with the path and rather than dealing with the confusion of the whole world, we are only dealing with a very specific small issue – the nature of “I”.
However, it gets harder as we face our deeper and stronger attachments (vasanas). Unraveling the subconscious often leads to major upheaval in a person’s life, both inwardly and outwardly, which most people resist. Who really chooses to lose everything? Fortunately, once the path is started Grace takes over and finishes it for us, we need only do our best to stay out of our own way.
For more about this see my previous article here.