Vichara is a Sanskrit word having the sense of investigating, examining, and analysing. Literally it means to go in various directions, and it retains this sense of trying all possibilities. The work of vichara begins with the faculty of clear thinking (buddhi), not with the lower mind of personal feelings, called chitta. Chitta does not try to discover truth, but only to establish what will suit the interests of the ego. In a debate, chitta will try only to win: buddhi, which is pure, tries to discover the truth. Chitta will never admit, “I am wrong”, because that would injure self-esteem. Texts and even clear facts are twisted, and if necessary flatly denied, in order to maintain its own posture. “That is not the way I see it: why should I follow what they say?” Chitta will never perform acts of service, however beneficial, if they have been suggested by someone else. “Why should I do what they say?”
Nearly everyone suffers from this in one form or another; a big part of yoga training is trying to rise from chitta to pure buddhi. While the holy teaching is bent to serve personal interests, that is chitta; when the personal interests begin to bow to the holy truth, that is buddhi.
Buddhi can face facts: this is what ought to be done, this is what is clearly true, this is what the text plainly states. The Gita says about discussions, that when the only aim is to discover truth, it is a manifestation of the Lord in that discussion. But we have to remember that though vichara begins with thinking, it does not end there. The search has to be pushed beyond mere words: vichara is not cleverly manipulating words and concepts. In fact cleverness is often a barrier to progress: the mind shrinks back from what is coming to light, and takes refuge in thickets of words. In the end, sincerity and courage are just as necessary as intellect. “The Self cannot be realised by the weak-willed”, says the Upanishad, quoted with approval by the modern sage Shri Dada, teacher of Dr. Shastri himself.
A classical field of vichara is the dozen or so Great Sayings of the Upanishads: brief sentences, one of which is taken as a sort of spring-board for a leap into the infinite. A famous Saying is: That Thou Art (tat tvam asi). The meaning of the words is analysed carefully, and then the meaning of the sentence. When this has been done properly, thinking comes to a kind of upright wall.
Take a main point of the analysis presented by Shankara in Chapter 18 of his Thousand Teachings classic. With this Great Sentence, the vichara is applied only to the meaning of the word “Thou”, namely the yogic aspirant (verse 180). Reasoning shows that the subject must be different from the object. For instance, the idea “I suffer pain” is an object; the subject is Self, apart from this object. The Self apart is ascertained by excluding from the meaning of the word “I”, the notion “experiencer of pain”. (verse 181)
When this point is reached, the thinking finds itself before a blank wall. Logic may exclude the notion “experiencer of pain” from the notion “I”, but it has no effect on experience, which goes on as before. When in pain, it is difficult even to remember the steps of the logical reasoning: something about subject and object, wasn’t it? … Oh – h – h!
In the face of this situation, there is a tendency to pursue the vichara no further. It seems somehow embarrassing. Can it be that the holy text is talking nonsense? Better perhaps to spend some years in looking for possible parallels in Buddhism, which officially has no Self. Or perhaps take the whole thing as somehow symbolic, and not meant literally. Or else, frankly to turn to minor matters, such as cleaning the temple or ashrama. In this way the inquiry is distracted, and in fact broken off. There is a tacit understanding not to pursue the matter. Such a decision may seem more comfortable (at least, as long as outer circumstances hold up reasonably well), but it brings a sort of insincerity into holy study.
What then is to be done? We are presented with a theoretical position, that Self is not the body, is not a sufferer, is not limited in any way. But this does not affect the present experience of being the body, in suffering, and limited in innumerable ways. However much we think, it seems that it cannot make any difference.
Shankara gives certain hints that it is not just a question of thinking. He says that pain is not experienced when the mind becomes motionless (verse 168). This same phrase is used in the Gita 11.53 to describe the samadhi of the yogi. Furthermore, he says, one dreams that one is hurt, but on waking one finds one has not been hurt.
Then again, parents who see their child hurt can come to feel that hurt in themselves, though in fact they are not themselves hurt. In this way we see in life that it is possible for pain to be wrongly felt, so to speak. These are indeed examples closer to life, but they do not resolve the absolute clash between the theoretical statement “Self has no suffering” and present experience. That is done only by meditation.
The idea of meditation has classically an implication of continued repetition, and this is so in almost all cases. But Shankara quotes (v.100) the case of the incarnation Rama who was under a temporary illusion, and freed from it by the mere declaration of Brahma: “You are God”. He concentrates on that: no other effort is spoken of. The realisation is almost instantaneous. But this was a case where it had already existed, but was momentarily clouded by a harsh necessity in his role of King. Normally it takes a good time, as both the Gita and Patanjali declare.
The reasoning of vichara is summed up finally in a Great Saying, and the meditation process is simply to reduce the shouting of the children of chitta in the mind, as Swami Rama Tirtha describes it. The constant uproar of desires, fears, griefs, and illusions has to die down, so that the Great Saying becomes the single point of attention. Then the hidden essence of the Saying blossoms out, as a clear and direct experience.
Unless the mind is made one-pointed, there will be constant interruptions and contradictions from the chitta part of it. Suppose the reasoning is being reflected on: “I am not the body. To think I am the body is a breach of logic. It is stupidity, it is folly. I am pure consciousness.” Now chitta interrupts: “But here we are, sitting on this chair in this room. No question of that.” Again reflection is taken up: “The scriptures assure me I am not the body. I am consciousness-bliss.” Chitta replies: “You are the body, and we both know it.” Once more the scripture is recalled: “I have no pain, no sorrow, no pleasure attachment, no birth, no death, no mind.” And chitta replies: “If you have no mind, what are you thinking all this with?”
After a certain amount of this, people may give up. In verse 219, Shankara quotes an Upanishad to illustrate how to distinguish clearly the true Self from body and mind: externally renouncing action, internally undisturbed by desire, withdrawing into himself, indifferent to opposites, and attaining one-pointedness by separating himself from the movements of the senses and the mind. This is a description of the state of samadhi of a yogi. It is a picture of meditation.
Most people never actually think undistractedly; they think while reading, or in little intervals between appointments or amusements. So the thoughts are a turmoil, or else repetitive circling; they never progress, and never get deeper. In meditation, however, there is one thought of a resolute nature, and the needle-point of the meditation goes deeper and deeper into it.
Even so, it may be asked, how will this one-pointedness bring actual realisation? It cannot create something which actual experience denies. The answer is, that when the one-pointed state is repeated again and again, it will, so to say, burst into an actual realisation. The object of a true meditation blazes out in its own true nature, which is the true nature of the meditator also.