The third stage of Vedanta is nididhyasana, the internalization and assimilation of self-knowledge to the extent that there’s no gap between what I know about myself and how I think, feel and act. At this point there’s no special effort put forth to invoke the knowledge. It’s spontaneously available whenever I want it, like a mental app running quietly in the background of my mind’s operating system. This is called jnana nishta, becoming established in self-knowledge.
Becoming established in self-knowledge can be accomplished in two ways: The first is to continue dwelling on the teaching. I can read scripture and listen to it being taught (even though I’ve already realized the import of the scriptures directly). I can write about what I know, putting my self-knowledge into words. I can discuss what I know with friends, having my self-knowledge strengthened through both affirmation and challenge. I can teach others what I know. I can sit and meditate on what I know.
The second way to become established in self-knowledge is to imitate the behavior of someone who’s already established in self-knowledge, a jivanmukta. If I don’t personally know such a person, the scriptures give me helpful examples. For instance, Ashtavakra Samhita 17:8 says, “Being fulfilled by self-knowledge alone, with their minds absorbed and contented, the wise ones live happily while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and eating.” So even when I haven’t fully internalized self-knowledge, I can model my behavior after that of a jivanmukta from scripture until it becomes my own.
What’s the surefire sign that I’ve become established in self-knowledge? The transformation of my thinking. More often than not, I’ll be mentally composed and free from negative emotional reactions such as attachment, fear, anger and anxiety.
If I’m seriously interested in making progress on the path to jnana nishta, I might be tempted to judge myself based on the standard above. If that’s the case, I’ll be happy when I stay peaceful and composed—I’m totally a jivanmukta. But when I lose my cool, doubt about my jivanmukta status creeps in and ironically, I get even more upset than I already am because I feel like I’m not making progress. Now I have two problems: my initial negative reaction and the self judgement that follows it! In order to deal with my secondary reaction—that of judging myself—I consider the following points:
1. My mind can never be totally free from disturbance. Krishna says as much in the Bhagavad Gita when he tells Arjuna that the mind of one with self-knowledge, although primarily peaceful, will continue to fluctuate. Mental disturbance, therefore, can only be reduced, not totally eliminated. Knowing this, my goal is clear and my expectations for my progress remain realistic.
2. Reduction of mental disturbance isn’t instantaneous. Rather, it’s a gradual reduction in the frequency of disturbance, followed by a reduction in the intensity of disturbance. So first, I become upset less often. Then, when I do get upset, I’m able to keep the disturbance at the mental level alone, not letting it manifest as a physical or verbal reaction. After lessening the intensity of my mental reactions, I’m able to shorten the time it takes for me to regain composure between mental disturbances.
But I always remember that this process will vary from person to person and from emotion to emotion. Perhaps for me anger goes slowly while depression goes quickly, whereas for someone else, anger goes quickly and depression goes slowly. Knowing this, I see that it’s not constructive to compare my progress to that of others.
3. Reduction of mental disturbance isn’t a linear process where negative reactions continuously decrease. Fear, for instance, may temporarily lessen only to flare up again later. Knowing this, I don’t feel elated and declare victory over a particular negative reaction when it temporarily disappears. Conversely, I don’t get dejected and feel like a failure if it returns again later.
4. Mental disturbance is caused by innumerable factors, many of which are unconscious and therefore unknown to me. If I can’t determine the cause of a particular mental disturbance, it’s unlikely I can change it (except by accident). Knowing this, I relax in the understanding that not every negative reaction is directly under my control.
5. Not all mental disturbances can be controlled by self-knowledge. Knowing this, I don’t doubt my self-knowledge in the presence of a persistent mental disturbance. Nor do I expect self-knowledge to get rid of all of my mind’s undesirable tendencies and reactions. Some of them may stay with me my entire life, while others may need to be addressed with conventional methods such as diet, exercise, therapy etc. Some may go away on their own over time, in light of maturity gained from life experience.
6. This is the most important point, the one that puts all the others in perspective: Reduction of mental disturbance is only the secondary purpose of self-knowledge. The primary purpose is to show me, with complete certainty, that I am not my mind nor am I affected by my mind. Knowing this, I’m not overly concerned with the conditions of my mind, bad or good.
The logical conclusion of this understanding is: If I’m truly unconcerned about the condition of my mind and I’m convinced it doesn’t affect me in the slightest, I don’t need nididhyasana. If, however, I feel motivated to work on my mind (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that), I do it in an objective manner, without anxiety or tension, not feeling upset when I fail or elated when I succeed. I view it as a lifelong process that I do for its own sake, without self-judgment or an inflated self-image.
Further, I understand that doing nididhyasana doesn’t mean I don’t have self-knowledge. Nor do I think that not doing nididhyasana means I somehow have more self-knowledge than people who do want to do it. Why? Because feeling like I do or do not need nididhyasana is just a thought in my mind and I know that I am not my mind.
As I said above, nididhyasana is simply changing the way that I think about myself. As the Ashtavakra Samhita says, “He who considers himself free is free indeed and he who considers himself bound remains bound. “As one thinks, so one becomes,” is a popular saying in this world, and it is quite true.” Previously, I thought I was the body-mind and I developed the habit of identifying with all of its flaws and limitations. Now I know I’m the perfect, limitless self. But because I’m so used to believing I’m the body-mind, it can take time to get used to thinking of myself as the self (even though I know it’s true!). To change this I can practice taking the stance, “I am the self” again and again until it becomes as habitual to my thinking as my former belief, “I am the body-mind.”
One way for me to practice thinking of myself as the self is to take a statement of self-knowledge from the scripture and contemplate it’s meaning throughout my day. If I feel so inclined, I can do this this as a formal, sitting meditation. Or I can simply bring a statement of self-knowledge to mind amidst my regular activities, especially when negative thoughts and reactions contrary to self-knowledge arises. As I mentioned, there are many effective forms of nididhyasana. But contemplating statements of self-knowledge from the scripture will be the focus of this series.
It’s important to note that I don’t have to have self-knowledge to practice nididhyasana—it can be done at any stage of self-inquiry. Granted, if I don’t yet know I’m the self, I may feel like doing nididhyasana is just trying to convince myself that I’m the self through mental tricks and repetition. Or worse, I may feel like I’m duping myself by indiscriminately adopting a belief system. To assuage my doubts, I consider that the result of either believing I’m the self or knowing I’m the self is the same: my thinking changes for the better. So it’s a win-win situation.
But thankfully, as long as I’m diligently doing self-inquiry, I’m not tricking myself or being asked to believe anything. Instead, I conditionally take the scripture at its word to the extent that its claims seem reasonable, make me happy, grant me peace and give me clarity. I adopt an attitude of good faith, and with an open mind and heart I investigate and scrutinize the claims of scripture until I see for myself, in my own experience, whether or not they’re true.
With that attitude, on the first day of the New Year, I accept the scripture’s challenge to think about myself in a radically different way, as the limitless reality I am. For the next 108 days I will contemplate a statement of self-knowledge each day while taking an honest look at how I think and act. By the grace of the sages from whom these statements come, may my thoughts, words and deeds be in harmony with what I know about myself. But at times when they aren’t, by the grace of Vishnu, may I always remember the true message of Vedanta, that I can’t be defined, limited or affected by the thoughts in my mind or the actions of my body. As the Avadhuta Gita 1:55 says: I am absolutely pure. I am without body and mind, and unaffected by the illusory world. I am not ashamed to say, “I am the self, the supreme reality.”
Ignorance cannot create any doubt in me. Why should I care about thoughts? They appear and disappear like bubbles in the water.
Avadhuta Gita 2:7
Ignorance cannot create any doubt in me. It is merely a thought and thoughts come and go like bubbles in a can of soda—they aren’t real. Anything that isn’t real can’t affect me. For the very fact that I recognize ignorance to be the unreal thought that it is, no doubt about my true nature can arise—I am the self, unaffected by either the presence or absence of ignorance.