There is a lot of confusion on the path of self-inquiry about the value of a quiet mind, thinking and contemplation. They all have their place, but it is not always clear how they fit together.
The highest is the silence of pure consciousness. Silence exists whether the mind is active or not.
The next highest is the silent mind. This is the state that precedes the destruction of mind and individuality. Sri Ramana warns us of the distinction between a quiet mind (mano-laya) and a destroyed mind (mano-nishta). The former is latent and subject to return, the latter is finished forever.
The next is a mind that alternates between silence and activity. This is a stage of purification when the outward tendencies of the mind (vasanas) are still active but weak. Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras prescribes returning to one’s original nature as the antidote. Sri Ramana calls this abiding in the self.
When the outward going tendencies of the mind are strong then Patanjali prescribes meditation. Sri Ramana prescribes self-inquiry. These are different techniques. Meditation is the effort of making the mind sattvic (pure) by balancing the ebb and flow of rajas (activity) and tamas (dullness). In contrast, self-inquiry is dis-identification through discrimination, which also makes the mind sattvic. The difference is that self-inquiry doesn’t require sitting still. At Sri Ramana’s ashram people didn’t sit around meditating for hours – he encouraged them to go about their business but at the same time to investigate the origin of “I”.
If the mind is brutally strong in its outward movement, as it is in most people, then there are other methods to tame it – mantra, yoga asana, pranayama, service, pilgrimage, devotion, herbs, etc. They all have their place and are suitable for all stages of practice.
Self-inquiry is delineated into three phases:
Hearing, Reflection, Realisation
Shravana, Manana, Nididhyasana
The first stage is learning about enlightenment from someone who knows. Books and gurus are the primary source. It is a matter of sifting through all the material looking for a way out – a solution to the problem of life: freedom from suffering and securing eternal happiness.
The second stage is taking the book-knowledge and ruminating on it until you know that it is true. It is internalizing the knowledge and promise of enlightenment until you have conviction about it.
The third stage requires application and turning the knowledge about freedom and happiness into the experience of them.
All three stages use the intellect. This is not an emotional path, nor is it a place for slack or weak thinking. The entire process is entirely logical, reasoned and calculated. Though it starts with a dry intellect, it is augmented by the creative impulse of inspiration and intuition. It is similar to a mathematician who looks at his equations until one day some creativity comes along and shows him the answer. It is logical in hindsight, but creative in its discovery.
There are many who do not understand the value or virtue of deep thinking. Most of these critics are more suited to other paths, such as devotion, action or meditation. For example, a devotional person who aspires to love does not see love as a product of thinking and may try to convince you to give up contemplation in favour of their own methods. If you do not understand that there are different paths to enlightenment, then such people can be very confusing. I have sought advice from some very enlightened bhaktas who believe their own path is best. Their advice was not helpful to me because it went against my natural inquiring tendencies.
Nisargadatta said that understanding is everything. When we consider the mechanics of self-inquiry, with the intention to discover the Self, we are putting our attention on the goal and becoming more familiar with the territory and the enemy. We learn about the enemy and how to deal with him.
So intellectual understanding is practical experience. Just thinking about the mechanics of self-inquiry is self-inquiry, at least until the mind becomes pure enough to go beyond mental machinations and just rest in being.
There is however a distinction between idle speculation and self-inquiry. The difference between self-inquiry and idle speculation is the intention to be free rather than the intention to gather knowledge about being free. Gathering facts and intellectual trinkets may be entertaining and it may impress others and it may have other uses, but the intention should always be aimed at experiential freedom.
If the knowledge gained about enlightenment is not for the practical purpose of becoming free, then some call that mental masturbation. Sri Krishna says, “The undiscerning who are engrossed in the letter of the Veda, O Partha, and declare that there is nothing else, speak flowery words. (Bhagavad Gita 2.42)
Major Chadwick, or one of those early European ashramites, asked Sri Ramana about what happens at night during dreaming. Sri Ramana scolded him and said that if he gave as much attention to self-inquiry as he did to idle speculation he would be enlightened in no time.
I feel Major Chadwick’s question to Sri Ramana took him a step closer to finding the goal. He then had a new distinction between what is useful knowledge on his quest and what is not.
Rudolph Steiner says in his book Theosophy (page 119):
“One can not in fact emphasize strongly enough how necessary it is that anyone who wishes to develop his capacity for higher knowledge, should undertake the earnest cultivation of his powers of thinking. This emphasis must be all the more pressing because many persons who wish to become seers actually estimate lightly this earnest self-denying labor of thinking. They say thinking cannot help me to reach anything. The chief thing is sensation or feeling or something like that. In reply it must be said that no one can, in the higher sense and that means in truth, become a seer who is not previously worked him or herself into the life of thought. In this connection a certain inner laziness plays an injurious role with many persons. They do not become conscious of this laziness because it clothes itself in a contempt of abstract thought and idle speculations etc.
“But one completely misunderstands what thinking is if one confuses it with the spinning of idle abstract trains of thought. For just as this abstract thinking can easily kill super sensible knowledge, so vigorous thinking full of life must be the groundwork on which it is based. It would indeed be more comfortable if one could reach the higher power of seeing while shunning the labor of thinking. Many would like this. But in order to reach it there is necessary an inner firmness, an assurance of soul to which thinking alone can lead. Otherwise there merely results a meaningless flickering of pictures here and there a distracting display of soul phenomena which indeed gives pleasure to many but which as nothing to do with the true penetration into the higher worlds.
“Further, if one considers what purely spiritual experiences take place in the man who really enters the higher worlds, one will then understand that the matter has another aspect. Absolute healthiness of the soul life is central to the condition to being a seer. There is no better means of developing this healthiness than real genuine thinking. In fact it is possible for the health to suffer seriously if the exercises for higher development are not based on thinking.
“Although it is true that the power of spiritual sight makes a healthy and correctly thinking man still healthier and more capable than he is without it, it is also equally true that all attempts to develop oneself while shirking the effort of thought, all vague dreamings in this domain lend strength to fantasy hunting, and tend to place one in a false attitude towards life.”
For some very interesting and useful descriptions of the Intellectual Path to Enlightenment I refer you to The Science of Being and the Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – this has a small section on this topic – and also Yoga and Kriya by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.