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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