A visitor to Sri Ramana's ashram has his first direct experience of the Self.
Annamalai Swami, one of Sri Ramana Maharshi's closest disciples, says in his autobiography that "when the rejection of mental activities becomes continuous and automatic, you will begin to have the experience of the Self."
What is this experience of the Self? How is it different from the experience of one's self that everyone has all the time?
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We found an answer in a collection of reminiscences by Ramana's devotees that was published in 1946 to celebrate his 50th birthday. In the final chapter of that volume, an anonymous author describes his first direct experience of the Self which occurred during a six-day visit to Ramana's ashram in 1939.
The following excerpt from that description begins two days before the experience. We start there so you can see that the author was suffering from feelings of despair and humiliation when the experience occurred. Perhaps those feelings helped cause the experience by weakening the author's attachment to his ego or by reducing his propensity to act. Despondency can promote surrender.
As the excerpt begins, the author has just handed a written question to Ramana.
Maharshi read my question and smiled, and smiling he turned towards me. I was sitting there with folded hands and eyes filled with tears. As he looked at me I was overwhelmed and a violent emotion convulsed my body which set Maharshi laughing. He laughed merrily for some time and then silently folded the paper and left it on a bookshelf which stood nearby. He did not speak to me nor did he seem to pay any further attention to me. The mind cannot remain in a tense state for long; sheer exhaustion calms it down. My mind calmed down after some time. The bell rang summoning us to dinner and we followed Maharshi to the dining hall.
I had placed my case before Maharshi. He did not even speak to me; rather he laughed at me! There was nothing more to be done. I must return home and be a laughing-stock also to my friends and relatives. What could be done? He could not be forced to bestow Grace. With these thoughts the mind became resigned.
After the night meal they used to spend half an hour in meditation in the hall in Maharshi's presence. Mechanically I followed them and sat with them in the hall. A few minutes passed. Then suddenly I felt a pleasant coolness inundating me. It seemed to emanate from the very bones, cooling the whole being. Is this the spiritual fragrance spoken of as emanating from Maharshi? Whatever it might be, I had no doubt that it came from Maharshi and at his will.
This was on the night of the third day of my visit. On the next day, while sitting before Maharshi, I experienced a sudden pull in the region of the heart. I was astonished and, as I sought to observe it, it passed away. Nothing like the experience of the previous night was repeated. The remainder of the day passed in keen expectation, but nothing happened, even during the meditation period after the night meal. Perhaps expectation obstructed its manifestation.
Next morning, i.e., on the fifth day of my stay at the ashram, news came of further heavy bombing of the eastern coastline by the Japanese, and I naturally became anxious for my family. Moreover, as I did not experience anything unusual during the meditation periods of the previous night and of that morning, I thought that I had obtained what I deserved and that nothing more would be gained by a further stay at the ashram. So I decided to return home. In the afternoon I wrote out my intention to go home on a piece of paper and placed it before Maharshi. He read it, silently folded the paper, and left it on the shelf. He spoke nothing and did not even look at me. Another rebuff.
I made preparations for my departure, packed up my small belongings, and, after taking my evening meal, requested an inmate of the Ashram to kindly get a carriage for me; but I was told that no carriage would be available at that hour, that I should have informed him earlier so that one might have been fetched from the town. I was thus compelled to stay at the Ashram for another day.
Next morning I attended the usual prayers. I did not experience anything abnormal during the meditation period. Discussions generally take place when they assemble in the hall after breakfast. Maharshi also answers questions from earnest seekers. That morning also discussions were going on. As they were talking mostly in Tamil (a language not known to me) my attention was not attracted till I found some people turning their heads and laughing at me. On enquiry I learnt that they were discussing the subject-matter of my first letter to Maharshi. Evidently, he had spoken something to them regarding this letter. Though made a laughing-stock, I was still glad to find that he had at last taken notice of me. I took part in the discussions and, as I was in the back row, some distance away from them, they asked me to come nearer so that there might not be any difficulty in following each other, and I obeyed. I was thus brought very near Maharshi's seat. Our discussions over, I heard Maharshi say, "He is concentrating on the reflection and complains that he cannot see the original." It struck me forcefully. What did he mean by reflection and what was the original? I shut my eyes and tried to find out the meaning. Immediately after, I felt a pull in the region of the heart, similar to what I felt two days previously but much stronger in intensity. My mind was completely arrested—stilled, but I was wide awake. Suddenly, without any break in my consciousness, the "I" flashed forth! It was self-awareness, pure and simple, steady, unbroken and intensely bright, as much brighter than ordinary consciousness as is sunlight brighter than the dim light of a lamp. In ordinary consciousness the "I"-sense dimly remains in the background—as a matter of inference or intuition—the whole of the consciousness being occupied by the object. Here, "I" came to the foreground, occupied, or rather became, the whole consciousness, and intensely existed as pure consciousness, displacing all objects. I was, but I was neither the subject nor the object of this consciousness. I WAS this consciousness, which alone existed. There were no objects. The world was not, neither the body nor the mind —no thought, no motion; time also ceased to exist. I alone existed and that I was consciousness itself, self-luminous and alone, without a second... Suddenly, and again without any break in my consciousness, I was brought back to my normal, ordinary consciousness.
A great miracle had been performed in broad daylight in the presence of so many people, without their knowing it. No argument of the greatest philosophers and scientists of the world will now make me doubt the possibility of experiencing the "I" in its pure state or pure consciousness, without any subject-object relationship. Of course, I myself had not the least inkling of such a state even a second earlier, and I never expected to get such an experience. I, an insignificant creature, wallowing in the mud of mundane existence, and without any sadhana, being granted this supreme experience!—an experience which is rarely obtained even by great yogis after austerest spiritual practices strenuously performed for ages together. Such is the wonder of His Grace!—immeasurable and unfathomable Grace!