A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 23

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CHAPTER 15: Part Two
Ashtavakra said:
15:11 – In you, the infinite ocean, let the waves of the universe rise or fall according to their own nature. It means no gain or loss to you.

The waves in the ocean continuously change but the water remains fundamentally unchanged.  In the same way, the circumstances of the body-mind and world are always changing, but as consciousness-existence you’re always the same.  So essentially, you can let the world be as it is.  This doesn’t mean you have to passively accept whatever comes to you, good or bad.  But when you understand you’re always okay as consciousness-existence, you can live your life not feeling obligated to ride the roller coaster of elation and depression that normally accompanies the changes in your personal circumstances.  Granted, this is no easy task; it takes diligence to remember who you really are amidst personal struggle.      

15:12 – My child, you are pure consciousness.  This universe is nothing other than your self.  Therefore, how can you have the idea of acceptance or rejection?

You can’t accept the self because you are the self.  And you can’t reject the universe because it too is you, the self.  The statements in this verse may seem confusing since they contradict the preliminary teachings of Vedanta that instruct you to reject the universe as ‘not-self’ and accept yourself as the self.  I’ll discuss this seeming contradiction further in Verse 15. 

15:13 – How will there be birth, action or egoism for you who are the one, immutable, peaceful and all-pervasive consciousness?

Birth—and the inevitable death that follows—along with action and egoism (the notion of being an individual, separate “I”) belong to the body-mind alone.  As non-dual, unchanging, imperturbable and omnipresent consciousness-existence, you’re free from them all.   

15:14 – You alone shine in whatever you see, the same way that gold alone shines in gold jewelry. 

Any time you see gold jewelry, regardless of the form it assumes, you’re seeing nothing but gold.  Similarly, whatever you see in the world, regardless of its form, is nothing but yourself. 

15:15 – Completely give up such distinctions as “I am this” or “I am not this.” Having seen that all is the self, be desireless and happy.

Initially, self-inquiry instructs you to completely reject all physical and mental phenomenon (the body-mind and world) as ‘not-self’ and accept yourself as consciousness-existence, the self.  But since this practice is based on the fundamental duality of ‘self’ and ‘not-self,’ in the later stages of the teaching it must be given up.  At that point it’s not a matter of “I am this (the self)” or “I am not this (the body-mind and world)” but “The body-mind and world are me but they’re merely appearances that don’t affect me.” 

As I mentioned at Verse 12, it seems like Vedanta contradicts itself here.  And technically it does.  But Vedanta is a practical teaching that takes into account where the student begins the process of inquiry.  And for most, it’s at the stage where they naturally—albeit falsely—identify with the body-mind.  From there, to simply jump to the vision of non-duality is nearly impossible.  So an intermediate step is set up to gradually lead the student to that conclusion.  If you want to skip the first step, be my guest.  There’s no rule saying you can’t.  But for everyone else, I recommend starting at the beginning. 

15:16 – It is through your ignorance alone that the universe exists. In reality you are one. There is no individual self or supreme self other than you.

The universe exists—meaning it’s taken to be real—simply because it’s believed to be real, similar to the way a dream is believed to be real while it’s happening.  This is what’s referred to in this verse as “ignorance.” But just as a dream is seen to be unreal upon waking, the universe is seen to be unreal upon ‘waking’ to the knowledge that everything is yourself, consciousness-existence.  At that point it no longer ‘exists’ as an objective reality but is seen as the transient appearance it really is.

At the beginning of the teaching, Vedanta divides the self into two parts, the individual self of the inquirer (atman) and the ‘supreme’ universal self (brahman).  Like the categories of ‘self’ and ‘not-self’ discussed in the previous verse, these distinctions are conditional and therefore temporary.  The reason for this is the same as above:  It’s easier to start your inquiry from the point with which you’re most familiar; in this case it’s the point of viewing yourself as an individual.  From there you can inquire into the nature of the ‘individual’ self, eventually seeing it’s none other than the ‘supreme’ universal self.      

15:17 – One who knows for certain that the world is an insubstantial delusion becomes desireless.  Shining alone, come to peace as if nothing exists.

I think it would be more accurate to say that the one who knows for certain the world is an insubstantial illusion may have less desire.  Because what living being has no desire, even if it’s just the desire to have no desire?  Besides, the conclusion of Vedanta is that you’re the self, unaffected by the presence or absence of desire in the mind.  Furthermore, if desire is part of the insubstantial delusion of the world then the presence of desire is insignificant seeing as it too is insubstantial. 

All the same, the idea is that if you see the world is an insubstantial delusion, why would you desire anything in it?  Or alternately, if the world is nothing but yourself then what’s to desire seeing as you can only want something you don’t already have?  While this is true, it may or not help you be a happier person in your everyday life.  Why?  Because, for instance, even though you may already ‘have’ that new job insofar as it’s nothing but yourself, it doesn’t mean you’re going to feel more fulfilled in the bad job you currently have and feel stuck in.  Change is still needed.  So I would argue that it’s a matter of perspective.  Go about your business, trying to accomplish what you feel needs to be accomplished, all the while keeping in mind that you’re ultimately fine no matter what happens.           

15:18 – In the ocean of the world, one alone was, is and ever will be.  There is no bondage or liberation for you.  There is nothing to be done or not done. Live happily. 

You’re the self.  You’ve always been the self and you’ll never not be the self.  This means you were never bound and never will be bound.  And if you’re never bound then you can never be freed from the bondage that never existed in the first place.  The problem is that initially, you don’t know this.  So paradoxically, you have to seek liberation from your non-existent bondage though self-inquiry.  Only then can you truly see that the whole venture is an ironic farce.  At that point there’s nothing to be done or not done and you can relax. 

15:19 – Do not disturb your mind with affirmations or negations.  Be calm and abide happily in your own self which is bliss itself.

When you understand that you’re the self and that you alone exist, the practice of affirming yourself as the self or negating the body-mind and world as ‘not-self’ loses its value, at least as far as the question of, “Who am I?” is concerned.  But to “be calm and abide happily” in that knowledge (assuming that’s what you want) is no easy task.  Even though you know who you are, you may need to periodically remind yourself of what it means to be who you are.  In other words, you may need to affirm that you’re always alright even when things aren’t going your way and negate any belief to the contrary.  When thinking of yourself like that becomes more habitual, you can “disturb” your mind less and less with affirmations and negations and “be calm and abide happily in your own self.” 

In this verse, Ashtavakra describes the self as being of the nature of bliss (ananda in Sanskrit).  Whether or not this description is literal is a hotly debated topic in the Vedanta world.  Considering that 1) Bliss is a transient feeling produced by the mind and 2) Vedanta clearly states the self is the permanent substratum of the mind, not a temporary product of it, I think it seems most reasonable to interpret the word bliss metaphorically.  In that case, to say the self is bliss itself means that the self is the essence of all bliss, seeing as anything sought for the sake of bliss is none other than the self. 

Could this be viewed as a stretch, a bit of creative interpretation?  Absolutely.  But consider this:  when a feeling of bliss comes into existence, do you come into existence along with it?  No.  You already exist, otherwise a feeling of bliss couldn’t arises to you.  And when that feeling of bliss disappears, do you disappear?  No.  You continue to exist while another thought, feeling or emotion arises.  If you continuously exist before, during and after the feeling of bliss arises, how could you literally be the feeling of bliss which exists temporarily?

15:20 – Completely give up meditation and hold nothing in your mind. You are verily the ever-free self.  What will you accomplish by thinking?

Meditation, if you choose to do it, is a good practice for overall health, the same as exercise and healthy eating.  So just as you don’t have to give up jogging or good nutrition in light of self-knowledge you don’t have to give up meditation. 

What really needs to be given up is the belief, held by some proponents of self-knowledge, that by meditating you can somehow become the self or merge with the self.  Why?  Because you can’t become what you already are or merge with what you already are by focusing the mind and directing its thinking (or by any other means for that matter).  So use meditation as a tool for self-inquiry until you know who you are.  After that, if you want to keep doing it simply for the sake of mental health, go for it.  But do so knowing that you’re the self whether the mind is meditating or not.   

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 22

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CHAPTER 15: Part 1
Ashtavakra said:
15:1 – One of pure intellect realizes the self even by instruction casually imparted.  One of impure intellect is bewildered in trying to realize the self even after enquiring throughout life.

A pure intellect—meaning a clear, focused mind—is an essential component in self-inquiry. For some, this comes naturally.  For others a bit of work is required.  In that case, Vedanta recommends meditation and various spiritual practices.  But while meditation etc. are extremely helpful tools for improving the mind’s ability to inquire, they aren’t necessarily mandatory (as some teachers and texts make them out to be). I personally know several self-realized people who didn’t meditate or have a formal spiritual practice while they did self-inquiry (I am not one of them). 

They key is not to assume you’re such a person right off the bat.  Be open to the idea that your mind may need work and save yourself the grief of inquiring—sometimes for years—to no avail (I know several people like this as well).  Inquire, and if it comes to you easily then it’s a sign that your mind is properly prepared.  If it doesn’t, then work is needed.  The practices for preparing the mind for inquiry don’t fall under the scope of an advanced text like the Ashtavakra Samhita, so I won’t go into them here.      

15:2 – Non-attachment for sense-objects is liberation; love for sense-objects is bondage. This is knowledge.  Now do as you please.

Being attached to sense-objects can certainly be unpleasant.  But it isn’t true bondage.  True bondage is to believe that you’re the body-mind.  Therefore liberation is to divest yourself of that notion.  Because anyone can rid themselves of desire for certain sense-objects and increase their peace of mind.  But being unattached to sense-objects doesn’t mean you know you’re really consciousness-existence, the self. That’s true liberation because it shows you that regardless of whether the mind is attached or non-attached to sense objects, you’re always the ever-free self, beyond both attachment and non-attachment. 

15:3 – Knowledge of truth makes an eloquent, wise and hardworking person mute, inert and idle.  Therefore it is shunned by those who want to enjoy the world.

Or it doesn’t you make mute, inert and idle.  Why?  Because since self-knowledge shows you that you’re not the body-mind then whether the body-mind is eloquent, wise and hardworking or mute, inert and idle is immaterial.  The action or inaction of the body-mind says absolutely nothing about you.  This is good because self-knowledge is about freedom, not about accepting another set of rules and regulations—from either family, society or scriptures—about how the body-mind should or should not be.  So if you know who you are and you want to do something, then do it.  Or don’t do it.  Just remember that as the self you’re not involved one way or the other.  Identifying with the actions of the body-mind is the problem self-knowledge aims to fix, not specifically what the body-mind does or does not do.  

However, taken in a less literal sense this verse means that self-knowledge makes the normal aims of life seem less important or altogether unimportant. Because if you realize that you already are what you’re seeking, you don’t have to feel so compelled to accomplish things in life for the sake of feeling fulfilled.  As the self, you’re always full.    

15:4 – You are not the body, nor is the body yours; you are not the doer nor the enjoyer. You are consciousness, the ever-free witness.  Go about your life happily.
15:5 – Like and dislike belong to the mind.  But the mind does not belong to you.  You are consciousness, changeless and free of thought.  Go about your life happily.

I have a dog.  While it’s clear that me and the dog are two different entities, I still feel like the she ‘belongs’ to me.  And because of that I sometimes take credit for her good behavior and feel responsible for her bad behavior.  But really, the actions of the dog—good or bad—have absolutely nothing to do with me. 

In the same way, while Vedanta makes it clear that you’re not the body-mind you may still be tempted to identify with it thinking it somehow belongs to you.  But Ashtavakra is quick to point out that it doesn’t.  You aren’t the self that owns a body-mind.  You’re the self that appears as a body-mind.  But that appearance doesn’t affect you in the same way that the appearance of waves doesn’t affect water.  So you can relax.  Or not, as long as you remember that the state of the body-mind doesn’t have anything to do with you either way.   

15:6 – Realizing the self in all and that all is in the self, free from egoism and free from the sense of ‘mine,’ be happy.

Understanding that everything is you helps you to shift from a very particular, personal perspective of yourself—the perspective of the “I” e.g. the ego—to a universal, impersonal perspective.  At first this can be daunting because of the habitual conditioning to value one’s personal sense of self.  But what does identifying with this personal self, the ego, have to offer?  Nothing, other than the feeling that you’re disconnected from everything around you and that you’re completely defined by the ideas of “I am this” and “I am not that.”  If you can see the value in that, then seeking self-knowledge is for you.        

15:7 – You are indeed that in which the universe manifests itself like waves on the ocean. You are consciousness; be free from the fever of the mind.

Like waves in the ocean, the world arises and resolves in you.  And just as the fundamental nature of water is unchanged by the appearance of waves, your fundamental nature as consciousness-existence is unaffected by the appearance of the world. 

15:8 – Have faith child, have faith. Never confuse yourself in this. You are knowledge itself, you are the lord.  You are the self and you are beyond the material world.

No faith is actually required in Vedanta because it gives you the tools to investigate its claims for yourself, allowing you to validate them with reason and personal experience. You can see firsthand that you’re knowledge itself—consciousness-existence.  As consciousness-existence you’re the ‘lord’ insofar as the appearance of the world depends on you to exist and not the other way around.  But because you have no location in time or space—and furthermore because there’s nothing other than you that exists—you can’t literally be ‘beyond’ the appearance of the world as if it were something separate from you existing in a different place.  So in this context, ‘beyond’ means that you’re always unaffected by the appearance of the world.         

15:9 – The body, composed of matter, comes, stays for a while and goes. The self neither comes nor goes. Why, then, do you mourn it?
15:10 – Let the body last to the end of the universe or let it go even today. Where is there any increase or decrease in you who are pure consciousness?

The body is a temporary collection of matter. This is plain to see whether or not you know you’re the self.  But when you do know that you’re the self that never comes and goes, you can take the transient nature of the body in stride knowing that its presence, absence or current state neither adds nor takes anything away from you. 

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 21

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Janaka said:
14:1 – One who is void of mind, whose thoughts of sense objects are spontaneous and who remains awake while sleeping has their recollections of worldly life exhausted. 

In Swami Nityaswarupananda’s excellent translation of the Ashtavakra Samhita he interprets “void of mind” to mean that the mind of one with self-knowledge is devoid of desires, habitual mental tendencies and knowledge of objects.  Unless I’m misunderstanding his words, I politely but heartily disagree.  Because how could a self-realized person write, teach—or do anything else for that matter—without the desire to do so?  How could they have a personality without habitual mental tendencies?  How could they function in the world without knowledge of objects?  Either self-realized people do have desires, habitual tendencies and knowledge of objects or those with the desire to teach self-knowledge, using their personality and knowledge of objects to do so, aren’t actually self-realized. 

The latter scenario is problematic, seeing as there would be no living proof that enlightenment is possible.  So I contend—and I think Vedanta supports this contention—that “void of mind” means despite the fact that self-realized people have desire etc. in their minds, they are void of the belief that the contents of their minds either belong to them or affect them.  

The idea that a self-realized person’s thoughts of sense objects are “spontaneous,” meaning they simply come to that person’s mind rather than being the product of a deliberate desire-based thought process is rooted in the theory that a self-realized person is free from the karmic cycle of cause and effect.  In other words, once they give up the notion of being the doer, the body-mind, they’re passively reaping the effects of past karma created by the doer rather than actively creating new karma. 

If the theory of karma is true, then perhaps this is correct.  But if self-knowledge clearly demonstrates that you’re not the body-mind—and therefore never involved in the cycle of karma in the first place—what does it matter?  The fact is that regardless of self-knowledge, the body-mind is going to keep functioning as it always has until it dies.  The key is to know it has nothing to do with you either way. 

To “remain awake while sleeping” can mean two things: 1) A self-realized person is ‘awake’ to the knowledge of their true nature even while appearing to still be ‘asleep,’ meaning while appearing to still be a regular person ignorant of who they really are and 2) A self-realized person knows that they’re always ‘awake’ as consciousness-existence, even though the body-mind may be asleep. 

To have your “recollections of worldly life exhausted” is not to develop amnesia upon gaining self-knowledge.  Rather, it’s to no longer identify with the sum of your past actions, thinking they somehow define or affect you.   

14:2 – When desire has melted away, where are my riches, where are my friends, where are the robbers in the form of sense-objects, where are the scriptures and where is knowledge?

Self-knowledge puts things in perspective.  It demonstrates that money, relationships and sense objects—while they all have relative value in the everyday world—don’t offer any lasting happiness, owing to their transient nature.  For those who eschew such mundane pleasures and instead seek peace in so-called spiritual things such as scriptures, Janaka is quick to point out that they too have no lasting value.  Even though the scriptures can be useful guideposts on the path to self-knowledge, once you’ve ‘arrived’ at the goal, they no longer serve a purpose, the same way a map is useless once you’ve reached your destination.     

“Knowledge” here can be taken in two ways.  The first is as worldly knowledge, which suffers the same drawback as money etc.  The second is as indirect knowledge of the self obtained from either the scriptures or a teacher.  “Indirect” means you’re told about the self.  But once you understand that you are the self, these indirect statements are no longer useful.      

14:3 – Realizing I am the self, the witness and the lord, I have become indifferent to both bondage and liberation and I no longer think of my own emancipation.

Bondage and liberation are dualistic concepts that only apply when you think you’re the body-mind.  But when you know you’re consciousness-existence you understand that the desire for liberation—although a necessary component in the process of self-inquiry—is ultimately irrelevant seeing as you were always the self, the witness of the body-mind seeking liberation, and therefore never bound in the first place.   

14:4 – The state of one inwardly free of doubts but who outwardly moves about at their own pleasure like a deluded person can only be understood by others like them. 

Self-knowledge doesn’t dictate certain behavior precisely for the fact that it demonstrates you’re not the doer in the first place.  So just because someone’s body-mind goes about their life in a completely normal way, just like those without self-knowledge, doesn’t mean they don’t know who they really are.  Although this fact can be used by unscrupulous individuals to justify their bad behavior, it’s nonetheless true.  So if you know who you are, your body-mind can still act like an asshole.  But I certainly don’t recommend it.  Because if you truly know that everyone is actually yourself and that you’ve got nothing to gain or lose, what’s to be accomplished by abusing or taking advantage of ‘others’? 

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 20

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Janaka said:
13:1 – The tranquility born of the knowledge that there is nothing but the self is rare even for one who wears but a loin-cloth. Therefore giving up renunciation and acceptance, I live happily.

Gaining self-knowledge is no easy task, even for hardcore monks who renounce everything (except, thankfully, their underwear). But the good new is it’s not as difficult as it’s often made out to be.  With a clear mind and a bit of persistence, self-knowledge is attainable for anyone whether they’re an average Joe with a family, a day job and a proper pair of pants or a half-naked monk who meditates in the woods all day.  One of the greatest obstacles to self-knowledge is simply believing that it isn’t possible for you.  Guess what?  It is. 

To give up renunciation and acceptance is to 1) Understand you’re not the one who accepts or rejects e.g. the body-mind and 2) Know that acceptance and rejection are ultimately irrelevant seeing as everything is actually yourself. 

13:2 – There is trouble of the body here, trouble of the tongue there, and trouble of the mind elsewhere. Having renounced the idea of being the body-mind, I live happily.

Trouble belongs to the body-mind alone.  So by giving up the idea that you’re the body-mind, you relinquish ownership of the problems associated with it.  Then, when problems arise, you’re able to take whatever steps are necessary to deal with them, all the while keeping in mind that they never actually affect you.     

13:3 – Fully realizing that nothing whatsoever is really done by the self, I do whatever presents itself to be done and live happily.

I once knew a very intelligent computer programmer who was apprehensive about gaining self-knowledge because he thought it meant he’d have to quit his day job—which he really enjoyed—and become a Vedanta teacher.  His fear was based on the all too common idea that gaining self-knowledge means you have to only do so-called spiritual actions while minimizing or entirely avoiding everyday activities. But since self-knowledge shows that you’re never actually involved in the actions of the body-mind, you can let the body-mind do whatever it needs to do—whether spiritual or mundane—and rest easy.      

13:4 – The yogis who are attached to the body insist upon action or inaction.  Owing to the absence of association and dissociation, I live happily.

Yoga—meaning spiritual discipline—can be an exceptionally useful supporting practice when doing self-inquiry.  How so?  Yoga leads to increased mental concentration, an essential ingredient in the recipe for self-knowledge.  But since yoga is based on purification and control of the body-mind, it comes with the perpetually burdensome notion of doership.  This means when the yoga practice goes well, you associate with that state and feel good.  But when it doesn’t, you associate with that state instead and feel frustrated. But when self-inquiry yields the knowledge that you’re not associated with the body-mind at all, you can find peace regardless of its state.    

Classical yoga, based on the philosophy of Samkhya, posits two eternal realities, purusha and prakriti, which can be loosely translated as spirit (your true nature) and matter (the fundamental building blocks of the body-mind and world).  It says you, the spirit, are suffering because of your association with matter.  But if you can disassociate with prakriti by permanently ceasing the functioning of the mind through meditation, prakriti and its tribulations will disappear forever and you’ll be able to rest happily as an isolated spirit. 

The rub here is twofold:  One, it’s entirely hypothetical that you can meditate enough that your mind completely stops and never restarts.  Two, a non-functioning mind isn’t necessarily desirable.  Because in that case, the joys of life disappear right alongside the problems. 

Luckily, Vedanta is non-dual.  It asserts that instead of there being two realities, there’s only one reality (yourself, consciousness-existence) appearing as two.  That means there’s no body-mind or world to literally disassociate with.  You only have to ‘disassociate’ from the body-mind and world by understanding that they’re merely appearances that don’t affect you.  Essentially, you get to have your cake and eat it to, meaning the body-mind and world can stay as they are and you can appreciate them for whatever they’re worth without the feeling that they’re real entities that define or restrict you in any way.       

13:5 – No good or evil accrues to me by staying, going or sleeping. So, whether I stay, go or sleep, I live happily.

As the self you’re untouched by the actions of the body.  So while good and evil may accrue to the body, it never accrues to you. 

13:6 – I do not lose by sleeping or gain by striving. So giving up thoughts of loss and elation, I live happily.

Whether the body sleeps or strives, you, the self, remain the same.  In other words, you’re always okay no matter what the body gains or loses. 

13:7 – Observing again and again the inconstancy of pleasure and pain under different circumstances, I have renounced good and evil, and I live happily.

Pleasure and pain come and go.  So what’s the point of being excessively concerned about gaining pleasure or avoiding pain, especially seeing as you’re the self, unaffected by both?  Granted, keeping this perspective in mind is no easy task and it’s certain that the minds of those with self-knowledge can still be overwhelmed by joy, saddened by loss and frustrated by adversity.  But by continually bringing the mind back to knowledge that you’re really the unaffected self, these reactions will lessen in intensity over time.  This illustrates a critically important point:  self-knowledge isn’t about having a perpetually pacified mind.  Peace is only a secondary byproduct while the primary goal is to see you aren’t the mind in the first place.  

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