A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 24

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Ashtavakra said:
16:1 – My child, you may speak about various scriptures or listen to them being taught.  But you cannot be established in the self unless you forget all.

Scripture is an invaluable aid to self-inquiry because it tells you about the self.  But hearing about the self and knowing that you are the self are two different things.  So if you want to “be established in the self” (have self-knowledge) you must “forget all,” meaning at some point you have to stop taking what the scripture says at face value and investigate its claim for yourself until you see that they’re true. 

16:2 – O wise one, you may enjoy, or work, or practice mental concentration. But your mind will still yearn for your own nature which is beyond all objects and in which all desires are extinguished.

When you have self-knowledge, your body-mind can continue doing what it’s always done.  But knowing full well that that none of the body-mind’s pursuits lead to lasting satisfaction, the mind will still “yearn for your own nature” meaning it will want to dwell in the knowledge that as the self, it’s always okay no matter what happens.     

16:3 – All are unhappy because they exert themselves [in an effort to get what they want]. But no one knows this. The blessed one attains emancipation through this instruction alone.

Exerting effort to get what you want is a hassle.  And it ultimately doesn’t grant any lasting satisfaction because once you get what you want, you usually start wanting something else. Despite what the verse says, knowing this won’t get you enlightened.  But it can help you develop dispassion towards seeking fulfillment in the world, which is a key prerequisite for undertaking the inquiry that will lead to enlightenment.  Because if you’re no longer excessively preoccupied with seeking answers in the world around you, you can properly devote your attention to seeking answers within through the investigation of your true nature.       

16:4 – Happiness belongs to that master idler to whom even the closing and opening of the eyelids is an affliction, and to none else.

Personally, I don’t find opening and closing my eyes to be a problem, let alone an affliction.  Does that mean I’m not happy?  Hardly.  So this verse is simply using hyperbole to point out that no action—big or small—leads to lasting satisfaction.  When you see this to be true, you may become averse to doing so-called normal things that you previously didn’t think twice about.  Or not.  Because if you know that you’re the self, regardless of what the body-mind does or doesn’t do, you can continue doing what you’d normally do—without even batting an eye.     

16:5 – When the mind is free from such pairs of opposites as “this is to be done” and “this is not to be done,” it becomes indifferent to religious merit, worldly prosperity, sensual enjoyment, and liberation.

You become indifferent to action (“this is to be done”) or inaction (“this is not to be done”) when you understand that as the self you’re 1) Not the doer, the ego and 2) Not affected by the actions of the body-mind.  So while the body-mind may continue to pursue religious merit etc., you know they have absolutely nothing to do with the real you, the self.  That way, when the pursuits of the body-mind don’t pan out, you can rest easy in the knowledge that as the self, you’re still completely fine.         

16:6 – One who abhors the sense-objects becomes non-attached, and one who covets them becomes attached to them. But he who does not accept or reject, is neither unattached nor attached.

You can become non-attached to sense objects by avoiding or developing a distaste for them.  And you can become attached to sense objects by pursuing or desiring them.  But to what “you” does this attachment or non-attachment belong?  The body-mind.  So when you realize that “you” actually refers to the self which is unaffected by the body-mind, you see that you neither accept nor reject, that you’re naturally neither attached nor unattached.      

16:7 – As long as desire continues, which is the root of the state of indiscrimination, there will verily be the sense of attachment and aversion, which is the branch and shoot of the tree of samsara.

While it’s true that desire can be a painful thing that keeps you caught up in the web of everyday life (samsara), the root state of indiscrimination is simply not knowing you’re the self.  Realize that you’re the self and desires will still naturally arise in the mind.  While you may no longer feel obligated to pursue those desires, their presence doesn’t mean you don’t know who you are.     

16:8 – Activity begets attachment, and abstention from action begets aversion. The man of wisdom is free from the pairs of opposites, like a child, and indeed he lives on like a child.

Pursuing something (activity) increases your chances of becoming attached to that thing, for instance a relationship.  And avoiding something (abstention), say meat-eating, causes aversion to it.  Both of these mental states can cause agitation in the mind and leave you feeling distressed, which is certainly undesirable.  But if doing something can make you feel bad as well as not doing something, what’s the solution?  It’s to understand that as the self you’re neither attached nor averse, that you’re naturally free from the pairs of opposites.  

Knowing that, how will you act? Hint, it’s a trick question.  Why?  Because if the conclusion of self-inquiry is that you’re not the body-mind, then what good does it do to describe how someone with this knowledge acts?  None.  If nothing else, it only encourages continued identification with the body-mind.  When your body-mind acts in a certain way you think, “I’m enlightened!” and when it acts another way you think, “I’m not enlightened!”

But the point is to know that 1) You’re never the body-mind and 2) You’re the self regardless of what the body-mind does.  So take the descriptions of the so-called “man of wisdom” with a grain of salt.  The point is that when the mind is informed by self-knowledge it can become more peaceful.  But if the mind doesn’t get more peaceful, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t the self or that you don’t know you’re the self.     

Perhaps, being a monk, Ashtavakra didn’t have much experience with children.  Because I’ve never met a single kid who wasn’t extremely aware of the pairs of opposites e.g. what they like vs. what they don’t like.  So if wisdom is crying when my favorite balloon pops or when I don’t get the kind of ice cream I want, I don’t want to be wise.      

16:9 – One who is attached to the world wants to renounce it in order to avoid sorrow. But one without attachment is free from sorrow and does not feel miserable even in the world.

The world is full of sorrow.  When you’re attached to the world—meaning when you believe that the world is a real entity affects you—you may attempt to deal with that sorrow by running from it.  Perhaps you’ll eschew ‘worldly’ things in favor of ‘spiritual’ things, retreating into a life of contemplation and spiritual practice at the expense of your normal pursuits and obligations. 

While contemplation and spiritual practice are good things, they don’t solve the problem of sorrow because once you get up from the meditation seat, finish your yoga session or leave the temple, the world is still there waiting to give you trouble.  The real solution is to see, through self-inquiry, that the world is a harmless illusion and that as the self you’re always completely okay.  That way, you’re not obligated to feel miserable even when the world presents you with miserable circumstances.        

16:10 – He who has an egoistic feeling even towards liberation and considers even the body as his own, is neither a knower of the self nor a yogi. He only suffers misery.

If you think, “I’m liberated” then you’re not really liberated.  Why?  Because ‘liberation’ is knowing that you’re the self that was never bound in the first place.  Also, if you think, “I’m the body” you’re obviously not liberated because the body can never be free; it’s always subject to the woes of everyday life.   

16:11 – Let even Hara, Hari and the lotus-born Brahma be your instructor, but unless you forget all, you cannot be established in the self.

The meaning here is similar to that in Verse One.  You can be taught about the self.  But that information is useless, even if comes directly from Siva (Hara), Vishnu (Hari) or Brahma, until you see for yourself—through reason and analysis—that you are the self.   

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