Respect the Elephant: Self-knowledge Isn’t Denial

(Note: The first part of this Q&A is a response to a quote I was sent of a teacher discussing whether or not you can use self-knowledge to deny or ignore the everyday world.  For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted the actual quote – V). On to my response:  

The goal of Vedanta is to understand how things really are, despite any appearances to the contrary (namely the false appearance of the body/mind/world).  Once you have gained this understanding, it profoundly affects how you view and interact with the appearance.  But in no way does gaining this understanding mean you should ignore or deny the appearance.  The body/mind/world may not be real but they are certainly not non-existent.  For instance, if your spouse is in front of you asking to discuss the hurtful things you just said to them, you can’t stand there with arms crossed, placid look on your face and say, “I didn’t say anything.  I’m the absolute.  This situation is not real.”  Instead, you respond appropriately and have a discussion, all the while fully knowing that you aren’t really responding to anything or discussing anything with anyone.  In fact, you know that you aren’t even a ‘you’ at all.  You know everything is really the non-dual brahman and that the body/mind/world is merely and illusion.  Yet, the apparent you (the body/mind) still acts according to the rules of the illusion. 

The good thing is that, informed with the knowledge that the body/mind/world is merely an illusory appearance of the non-dual brahman, the apparent you is able to respond to everyday situations in a much more objective and dispassionate manner.  This knowledge helps life go more smoothly (otherwise, as you said, what’s the point?) but it in no way is intended to deny life.  People who don’t really understand non-duality will try to use ‘non-dual denial’ to avoid ‘doing’ things they don’t want to do or ‘dealing’ with things they don’t want to deal with.  If an uncomfortable situation arises, instead of meeting it head on, they try to take the absolutist stance and avoid it.  But this is foolish and shows their lack of understanding because they refuse to acknowledge the world and respond when it’s convenient for them but if someone robbed them of their money or set their house on fire, they wouldn’t stand there saying, “I’m not the doer” while the thief ran away or “I’m the absolute that cannot be touched” while they burned alive. 

On the one hand they say the body/mind/world is an illusion—which is true—but on the other hand they act like their actions within the illusion are somehow real and that acting invalidates the fact that reality is non-dual.  Ironically they pick and choose when this applies and this shows they don’t know what they are talking about at all.  They are clearly mixing up the absolute with the relative, which Vedanta never does. 

My favorite story illustrating this point is about a king in ancient India who had two very different teachers.  One teacher was a dualist, who accepted the world as absolutely real.  The other was a Vedantin who claimed the world was merely an illusory appearance.  As the king and his teachers were walking through the forest, debating the various points of their respective teachings, the Vedanta teacher heard something stirring in the trees.  He realized it was an elephant on a rampage and shouted, “Run!  An elephant is coming!” and he pushed everyone out of the way as the elephant crashed across the path, nearly killing them.  After the king and his teachers regained their composure, the dualist pointed at the Vedantin accusingly and said, “Ha!  I knew you were a phony.  If the world, as you claim, is illusory, then why would you jump out of way?”  The Vedantin replied, “The world IS illusory, which means my reaction to the elephant was illusory as well.  My illusory reaction to the illusory elephant in no way contradicts my true nature as the non-dual brahman.”  The point here is that the one with self-knowledge does their best to act appropriately in a given situation, while clearly knowing that the situation and their reaction to it is not real.  They wouldn’t stand in front of a rampaging elephant saying, “I’m the absolute” only to get their guts smashed out on the forest floor.  That would simply be stupid.  Acknowledging the relative in no way contradicts the absolute.  That is the vision of Vedanta. 

With that in mind, let me address your questions. 

T:  I suppose that I have an idea that Vedanta will indeed take care of the doubts, fears and trauma of the body.

V:  It will certainly take away any doubts about who (or rather what) you really are.  The knowledge that you are the limitless, eternal brahman and not the limited, ephemeral body/mind is certainly empowering and helps greatly with fear because it shows you that you are always okay. 

Does this mean that the body/mind will never have doubt?  It may not have a doubt about what its true nature is, but it will certainly have doubts about other things, like whether or not to take a job or the appropriate thing to say to someone in a particular situation.  But when these moments of uncertainty arise, the person of knowledge knows what?  That they are not the one suffering from uncertainty. Uncertainty belongs to the mind alone, not to the self.  It’s like watching a TV show where someone doesn’t know what to do.  You don’t get concerned and think you are suffering from uncertainty because you know the character is unreal and has nothing to do with you. 

This applies equally to fear and trauma.  I know exactly what I am, but if someone points a gun at my body, my mind will naturally feel fear.  At the same time, I fully know that I am not the fearful mind.  And further, I know that if my body is shot and killed, I am not shot and killed. This is no way means I won’t run or try to defend myself.  But this doesn’t contradict my knowledge at all. 

Recently I had surgery.  Did I—or at least my mind—feel apprehension?  Yes.  Did my body feel pain?  Absolutely!  But at the same time, did I know for a fact that despite the fear and pain that I was totally okay?  Yes.  Did that make my mind feel better?  Yes. Again, that is the vision and beauty of Vedanta.  We can’t always change the world or the condition of the body/mind, but despite that, we can know for certain that unpleasant circumstances never affect us in any way.   

T:  (I think) that freedom means that you are not affected by the constant ups and downs that identification with being the body seems to bring.

V:  Sure, but that doesn’t mean constant equanimity and peace of mind.  The mind is fickle and you really never know what it’s going to do or why.  That’s why yoga is a great tool for controlling the mind but its success rate is relatively low.  This is where Vedanta really shines.  It steps in and shows you that despite the condition of your mind, you are always the self and perfectly at peace and unaffected.  Vedanta is total dis-identification with the condition of your mind.  This isn’t disassociation or denial.  It’s simply a recognition of how things actually are.  This means that you are never affected by ups and downs, even when your mind is.  Ironically, the knowledge that you aren’t the mind trickles down into the workings of the mind itself and over time increases its equanimity and poise.   

T:  “Not knowing all the answers” and “getting it wrong sometimes”, seems to indicate to me that there is still work to do? It doesn’t sound like the end of knowledge?

V:  From a Vedanta perspective, not knowing the answers or getting it wrong sometimes only indicates that there is still work to do if you don’t know the answer to the question, “Who am I?” or if you get it wrong by thinking, “I am the body/mind.”  If you know the answer to that question you understand that you are not the body/mind, and that in fact is the end of knowledge.  Why?  Because if you know who you are, you know you are the non-dual brahman, that there is nothing other than brahman.  So if you know brahman, by extension you ‘know’ everything else, in the same way that if you know a single drop of salt water, you know the entire ocean. 

Does this apply to relative matters?  Is self-knowledge omniscience?  Absolutely not!  The body/mind will still be ignorant of certain details of the relative world and will still make mistakes all the time.  But self-knowledge tells you what?  That YOU aren’t ignorant of certain details and that YOU don’t make mistakes at all because you aren’t the body/mind.  Problem solved.   

T:  I’m not expecting the separate self to go away, but that it will be seen for what it is.

V:  Exactly.  You see if for the illusion it is and you stop identifying with it.  This means you can accept it for what it is, even when it has problems.  As I’ve said before, you don’t deny the problems and avoid them, but the knowledge always keeps them in the proper perspective.  If my relative self is afraid of something, I take the appropriate steps to alleviate that fear.  But if that doesn’t work I’ve always got the knowledge “I am not the relative self and I am always fine” to fall back on.  After self-knowledge, life goes on exactly as before, but your understanding of it drastically changes for the better. 

T:  When you know 100% who you are, can you still feel lonely, frightened, confused?

V:  If we are talking about the real you then no, because the self is never lonely, frightened or confused.  If we are talking about the relative you (the body/mind) then absolutely.  Those are natural parts of life.  However, knowing you are the self can, and does, alleviate those feelings over time.  It’s not an instant fix because the mind is an unpredictable and fickle creature of habit.  But as I’ve pointed out, self-knowledge always puts things in perspective by showing you that, without a doubt, regardless of the condition of your mind, you are completely fine. 

T:  Maybe it is complete freedom to just accept those things as being a part of life?

Does this make any sense?

Sincerely, T

V:  Yes!  Now you’ve got it!  The body/mind/world can be accepted exactly how it is because it’s not real, the same way a dream is not a problem when you realize it’s just a dream.  The good news?  You ARE real, and you can never be limited or changed. 

All my best, Vishnudeva