I am currently reading a book by Ramana Maharshi titled Be As You Are, edited by David Dodman. In one of the chapters Dodman discusses how Ramana Mahashi is not a fan or advocate of the neti-neti approach as a method of practice.
Neti-neti—not this, not that—is a type of practice in which a seeker is asked to identify what s/he is not. Are you the body? (Your hands? Your feet? Your abdomen? Your head? Your brain?) Are you the sensations that are perceived? Are you the thoughts that arise? Are you the feelings that arise? Are you even the ‘I’ thought?
Ramana’s concern was that in attempting to identify what you are not, separation of subject (‘me’ or the ‘I’ thought) and object is reinforced. To Ramana, neti-neti is an intellectual exercise that only reinforces the ego because it is the mind or the “self” that is used to inquire what is not “me.”
Instead, he advocated for what he thought of was a direct approach: self-inquiry. Self-inquiry involves inquiring directly into the source of all sensations, perceptions, cognitions, feelings, etc. Rather than focusing on trying to identify what you are not, the idea is to try to find what you are.
Self-inquiry involves asking questions, such as “What am I?” or “Where does this ‘I’ come from?” or even “Who or what is even asking the question?”
He warned, however, that such questions were not to be used as mantras to be repeated over and over, as a type of intellectual exercise.
Instead, self-inquiry involves turning one’ attention directly back on itself. It is attention paying attention to attention. It is awareness aware of awareness.
By looking for what you are, by placing your attention on itself, over time, the ‘I’ thought morphs into just a subjectively experienced feeling of ‘I’. Fred Davis calls this the sense of being. Continued practice means keeping your attention on the sense of being whenever you can. This can be done at any time of day. Eventually, the subjective feeling of ‘I’ no longer connects with or identifies with thoughts and objects that arise, even the sense of being or feeling of ‘I’. It disappears entirely and one becomes what one already is: being itself.
However, I don’t entirely agree with Ramana about neti-neti. Many modern-day teachers, such as Adyashanti, Fred Davis, and Jim Dreaver, for example, use some version of the neti-neti approach in their method. However, it is always used alongside self-inquiry.
Neti-neti, when used properly, can bring the mind to a point at which it cannot go any farther. By engaging in neti-neti, the mind may come to the conclusion that it does not exist in any object of perception, including thoughts. For example, the mind may come to see that it is not the body; nor any thoughts that arise, including the ‘I’ thought.
This can be quite disconcerting because the mind cannot locate itself. The mind is at a loss because it has nothing to hold onto. There is nowhere to go!
This is where self-inquiry can be used to create a shift in perception. “If I am none of these things, then what am I?” “What is left when everything else is eliminated?” “What is it that is even asking this question?” At this point, the mind may fall away, and the source of all sensations, perceptions, cognitions, and feelings is understood. What remains is just being (in the form of a verb, not a noun). And it is being from which all the entire universe arises, including the ‘I’ thought.