Self-inquiry (Atma-vichara), is considered the simplest and most direct path to Self-realization. However, Self Inquiry is also very subtle and can be difficult to achieve even after years of practice. It depends on great powers of concentration and sharpness of mind along with a strong longing for liberation.
One might say metaphorically that Self-Inquiry requires a certain flame. It requires that we ourselves be a flame and our lives an offering to it.
Without such an inner fire, self-realization can elude us no matter what we may try. Therefore, it is important to view Self-Inquiry not only as a mental exercise but as an energetic movement of consciousness like the emergence of a great fire.
Reality and Appearance
Appearance is never reality and reality never appears. They are two different dimensions altogether. Whatever appears is bound by duality and relativity, whereas reality is only one and absolute.
This is not a statement of abstract philosophy. Neither our reality nor that of the world can be found in the realm of appearances as revealed by the senses, or by any extension of sensory knowledge, including by the subtlest scientific instruments. Reality is the inner consciousness that can never become an object of examination for the externally oriented mind. Similarly, whatever we can observe or see must be ultimately unreal because it is not the awareness within.
The world and how we appear within it can never be the truth and are constantly changing. We will never find reality in the world of appearances, just as a light cannot be found by tracing its shadows on the wall. Appearance is name, form and limitation, which remain trapped in alternating waves of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, coming and going, birth and death. Appearance can never become perfect, however hard we work to refine it. Appearance remains relative, bound by duality, shifting up and down but never arriving at any lasting state of being.
Whatever world we appear to be in, and whatever body we appear to inhabit, is never ultimately real. They are reflections of our inner consciousness and its karmas, like the waves that rise from the sea. They are products of an outgoing view based upon thought in ignorance of our true Self.
We cannot find peace or fulfillment in any appearance, however great. Only in the depths of consciousness does our innate happiness abide. This is not to denigrate the outer world but simply to see it as it is. The world of appearance is like an image, symbol or play—a magic show lasting a few days. It has its wonder and beauty, which can be considerable, but it does not have any lasting reality of its own. To believe that any appearance is real is to be taken in by appearances and lose our inner Self. To see the illusory nature of all appearances is to allow reality to shine forth, through which we pass beyond all illusions and enter into the eternal light of awareness.
Fear of Death
The greatest fear that all living beings have is the fear of death. The fear of death casts a shadow over all that we do and undermines all our peace and happiness. But what is death and who is it that dies?
Actually death is the greatest of all illusions. The fear of death is the root of all ignorance. The shadow of death is not a curse but a misunderstanding of the real nature of existence. Our true being never dies. Death is only the end of one body or another, but not of the being who is embodied.
Vedanta boldly teaches us that no one dies. No one has ever died and no one will ever die. That is to say, your real being, your true Self, soul or essence never dies. In your inner being, you are not subject to birth and death, time and space, coming or going. You are eternal, immutable, pure existence, awareness and bliss. It is only the body that dies, not you as the embodied soul. You are not a material object that is subject to the disintegrating influence of time. You are a spiritual being, a conscious subject that is the witness of all time, space and action.
The Bhagavad Gita states right at its start, “Of that which exists there is no non-being. Of that which does not exist, there is not being.” This is perhaps the greatest statement of spiritual knowledge ever given. Krishna tells Arjuna that the true Self never dies. The embodied soul does not die. Only the body dies, which for the soul, is like casting off one set of clothes for another. You do not weep and think that all is lost if your shirt is irreparably torn. Yet for the soul, our inner being, the physical body is but a vesture that it wears for a time. If that vesture gets worn out or irreparably damaged, the soul must get another one. There is not cause for lasting remorse.
You have always existed and you will always exist. Your body, mind or the world in which you take birth may change, but your inner essence will endure forever. This proclamation of deathlessness is the greatest message of freedom possible for human beings. You do not die. Death cannot touch you. You can freely cast away all the anxiety about death. You are the deathless Self. Nor need you worry about the death of another. No one dies. Our true being stands above all such temporal and material limitations. Even outer sufferings of body and mind are transient, however painful they may feel for a time. We can always take refuge in our inner witness, the deathless Self at the core of our being, which is not affected by these.
To think that one will die is a great misunderstanding of who we really are. You are not the body or the mind. The body has birth and death. The mind has its fluctuations. But these do not relate to your real essence. They are only part of your outer manifestation. You are the being who uses the body and mind as instruments but itself is not affected by them. The body is like the car you drive, we might say. The mind is like your computer. But you are the operator of these instruments. When they break down, you do not suffer any loss of your own being or yourself come to an end.
Our inner being, the Supreme Self or Paramatman, has absolute immortality, absolute existence. Our inner being is changeless, immutable, homogenous, and pure. It can never be stained, harmed, limited or disturbed. It is the detached eternal witness of all events in the universe. It was there when the Sun first shone, when the first creatures arose on the Earth, and when the first human being looked out upon the sky. It has witnessed the beginning and end of entire universes, not to mention innumerable worlds and creatures.
Even our soul, the reincarnating entity within us, has relative immortality. It moves from body to body, birth to birth, but itself never dies. As the Supreme Self you have absolute immortality, as an individual soul you have relative immortality. Death cannot take you away in either case; it can only take you on to another level of existence. Learn to access your immortality so that your life partakes of eternity.
Why is it that we do not know our deathless Self and live in its freedom and happiness? It is because we wrongly identify our inner being with our outer body and mind. This is a mistake of judgment, a wrong perception. We see the body as the Self when it is but a vehicle for the Self. Once this misidentification is removed, there can be no more sorrow. It is like a child thinking that its toys are real and crying when they break or get lost.
Being never dies. Existence never comes to an end. And that eternal and timeless being is your being. You are not limited to this body or this particular incarnation. Your being is everywhere in the universe, in all creatures and beyond. It is beyond all fear. Death cannot reach it. Suffering cannot shake it. Rest in that deathless Self. It is your Divine right.
Take refuge in your inner being beyond the body and mind and witness their play as a Divine sport. Observe the world and all its changes from the central point of your eternal essence. And you will find beauty and wonder at every moment.