A “Hard” Question

Namaste,

How can the Atman(consciousness) appear as something hard? My sense of touch seems to disprove the Advaita stance that the physical world is merely an appearance of the non-physical self.

In dreams, things appear real to me. But in my personal experience, I’ve never felt a hard or soft thing inside a dream. Hence, I don’t find the idea that the world is like a dream to be very useful. Please help.

Hello,

This a complicated subject, that in my experience, I will not be able to adequately explain in a single email. So I will give a summary of the issue. And if you feel so inclined, we can start an ongoing conversation.  

Right now, you are saying that a hard object has an objective existence, meaning that it truly exists, in physical form, outside of your Self i.e. outside of your consciousness. But how can you tell me that this hard object exists? Only because it appears in your mind.  

And how can you tell me that the object feels hard? Only because you experience the sensation of “hardness” in your mind in the form of a thought.

Since that is the case, then you only know the object and its “hardness” as a thought. Even though you may experience thoughts and sensations in waking life differently than you experience thoughts in dream, they are nonetheless both thoughts.  

While waking life and dream life thoughts may feel different, they both only appear as thoughts, in you, the conscious Self. Yet, while no one hesitates to dismiss dream life as fanciful, we take waking life at face value because it “feels real”, not considering the fact that these feelings and sensations are just thoughts in our minds. 

To prove that a physical world actually exists, independently of the conscious Self, you would have to step outside of your consciousness and attempt to verify a physical world without using your mind and senses. 

Why? Because the mind and senses are the only instruments we have available to use for acquiring knowledge, for proving something. Right now you are using the evidence of your mind and senses to say that the physical world is actually “out there”, outside of your consciousness. 

I am not arguing that your mind and senses don’t make a very convincing case for a real, physical world. But observe how many times in your life that your mind and senses have deceived you. For example, everyday your mind tells you that the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. But in reality, this is not true.

So I would ask you to prove to me that this physical world actually exists, because I only experience it as a thought, as an object in my consciousness. This is no special power that I have, because it’s already like that for you too. We are both the conscious self, passively witnessing the universe as a thought appearing in us. Through inquiry, you merely see for yourself that this is true. 

One note: I am not saying that the world exists purely in your mind, meaning in SJ’s mind. SJ is but an individual. An illusory person. He does not create the universe. Nor does the universe only exist when SJ’s individual mind is aware of it, as some schools of Buddhism and philosophical Idealism claim. For instance, I assure you that I exist here in America, writing this email while you are halfway around the world, completely unaware of what I am doing.    

In summary: There is only you, the Self. From you, the Self, arises Isvara, the creator and sustainer of the universe. Isvara is a thought in the infinite awareness of you, the Self. From there, the universe arises as thought in Isvara’s mind. One thought within that thought of the universe is the body-mind called SJ. In turn, the body-mind called SJ experiences the “thought-universe” of Isvara, in the form of thoughts in his own mind. 

There is no physical world. Just the thought of one in Isvara’s mind. And every individual person (jiva or body-mind) experiences that “thought world” of Isvara in their own minds. But Isvara, the universe and the individual people who inhabit it are nothing but thoughts in you, the Self.

I hope that helps. 

All my best,

Vishnudeva

Relationships & Non-Duality

S: What is the relation of the Self to the body/mind?

V: Relation is only possible between two different things. But the self alone exists. So there is no relationship between the self and the body/mind because there is no actual body/mind. There is only the self appearing to be a body/mind. The appearance of the body/mind is none other than you. All you have to remember is that appearing as a body/mind does not affect your true nature in any way.

S: I am aware of the sensations of the body, and thoughts of the mind appear to me like other perceptions from the world. But I am not aware of pain in another’s body or mind. In that sense, it is different from other objects. What is the special/additional relationship I have with the body?

V: Again, there is no special relationship. You’re looking at this issue from the perspective of the mind, not the self. 

Where does S.’s body/mind appear? In awareness. Where does Vishnu’s body/mind appear? In awareness. Does this mean there is more than one awareness or that awareness has a special relationship to either of our body/mind’s? No. Just as one sun illuminates all objects on earth, there is only one awareness in which all body/minds appear. Awareness is aware of your body/mind in the exact same way it’s aware of mine. 

When you say, “I don’t know your thoughts” what you are saying is, “My mind doesn’t know your thoughts.” And this is correct because the mind is a limited instrument with a limited range of perception.  It will not experience what another mind is experiencing.  But awareness illuminates both your mind and my mind equally.  To the self, there is not even a “my mind” or “your mind.” There are just minds appearing. So while your mind may not be able to read my thoughts, as the self, you “know” (illuminate) my mind the exact same way that you “know” S.’s mind. 

S: Also, terms like ‘act as an embodied spirit’ or ‘play the role of a son/friend, etc.’ also suggests hypocrisy and artificialness. How do I cope?

V: Yes, it can be strange to know that you’re the self while other people don’t. But that’s just how it goes. When you radically change your thinking, it takes time to adjust. And most people will never understand what you know. It can be disorienting at first, but you just get used to it over time. 

So just be S., all the while knowing you aren’t S. There’s nothing artificial about it because it’s true. Act normal. Live your life. Friends and family are good. Enjoy them. Your relationships with people aren’t fake just because you know you’re the self. In fact, they are much more real because you can relate to people in a more open, loving way. Why? Because you know you don’t have to be compelled to act from the selfish standpoint of the ego.

So self-knowledge isn’t intended to interfere with your personal relationships. It simply helps you approach those relationships with more understanding, objectivity and compassion. You can actually care about people on a deeper level when you know they are none other than yourself. Your relationships can become more authentic because your thinking is in alignment with the truth. The only inauthentic way to relate to people is from the false standpoint of the ego. Let me know if that helps. 

All my best – V

Breaking Body Identification

Hello Vishnu, I hope you are doing well. 

V: Hi S.  I am doing well. Thank you. 

S: I can report that I am making slow but sure progress in my understanding of Advaita. I have a doubt about letting go of body identification. I am convinced that as the limited body I will continue to be affected by problems from which there is no escape. Consciousness on the other hand is infinite and unaffected by anything.

V: You are correct. The limited body, because it is part of the unreal world, will continue to be affected by problems: Sickness, fatigue, old age, death etc. This is the case for both the enlightened and the unenlightened. 

S: How do I shed my body identity and start seeing myself as consciousness?

V: Up until this point you have spent your whole life thinking you’re the body. In other words, identifying yourself with the body is a long standing habit. That means it will take a long time to break that habit. And how do you break an old habit? By starting a new one. In this case, you practice thinking of yourself as the Self until it replaces your old habit of thinking of yourself as the body. Here’s one way to do it: 

Constantly monitor what you think and say. Whenever you say or think the word “I”, ask yourself, “What ‘I’ am I talking about?” 

Here’s an example. Say you didn’t sleep very well. You go to work and a friend asks, “How are you today?” You reply, “I’m tired.”  At that moment you ask yourself, “What ‘I’ am I talking about?” What ‘I’ is tired? In this case the ‘I’ is the body. You remind yourself that only the body is tired. Draw your attention to the fact that you are the consciousness that illumines the tired body, and you, consciousness (the self), are never tired. 

Do this anytime you make a statement or think a thought like this. “I am hungry”, “I am sad”, “I am sick”, “I am happy” etc. Remind yourself that the “I” you are talking about in these statements is just the unreal body. Then draw your attention back to the fact that you are the Self that knows the body and mind, the Self that is never hungry, sad, sick, happy etc. 

This is one way that I found to be very helpful in regards to breaking body identification. The bottom line is that when you see identification with the body appear in the mind, you simply draw your attention back to who you really are. If it’s a stubborn identification, go back to the basics and use the logic you already know: “I know the hunger, so I cannot be hungry. The hunger was not previously present. I was. The hunger will go away. I won’t. The hunger is a transient state and therefore unreal. I am the real Self that knows the hunger and I am unaffected by it.”

Alternately, you can spend time affirming who you really are using descriptions of your Self in the scriptures. For instance, you know that you, the Self, are ananda, limitless. So say this to yourself and think about it. “I am the limitless Self.” Ask yourself, “Is there anything that limits me?” Think about the body, the mind. Are they real? Are they always present? Do you change when they change? No. You are ever present and unaffected by them. 
In this way, not only do you affirm the limitlessness of your true nature, but you also walk your mind through the logic that proves this is true. The mind has spent its whole life thinking of itself as a limited being. But over time, doing this practice retrains the mind to think of itself as what it really is: the limitless Self. 

This is nididhyasana, the process of retraining yourself to identify with who you really are, the Self, rather than the body and mind.

You can use what I’ve suggested as a guideline but also feel free to modify the practice in whatever way works best for you. The point is to diligently watch for identification with the body and mind in your thoughts and then gently remind yourself that you are really the Self. 

I say “gently” because this is an ongoing process. Don’t obsess about it or beat yourself up if you continue to see body/mind identification in your mind. Just stick with it lovingly and patiently. Over time, the identification will continue to appear in your mind. After all, it’s completely normal to say things like, “‘I’m tired”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m sick”, etc. The difference is that, after practice, hen those thoughts or words appear, they no longer cause you as much distress. Or no distress at all. 

And here’s the kicker: The Self neither identifies with the body/mind NOR doesn’t identify with the body/mind. Identification only happens at the level of the MIND. So when the mind identifies with the Self rather than the body/mind, then great. But you, the Self, are not identifying with anything. The identification is known to you and it doesn’t affect you. 

 Likewise, when the mind identifies with the body/mind rather than the Self, it’s no real problem. You, the Self, are not identifying with anything. The identification is known to you and it doesn’t affect you. 

In other words, identification with either the body/mind or the Self are states of the mind that are known to you, the Self. Yes, the mind identifying with the Self as much as possible is a good thing because it leads to peace and happiness. But peace and happiness are simply states of the mind that don’t actually affect you, the Self. Likewise, sorrow caused by identifying with the body/mind are also states of the mind that don’t affect you. So work on identifying with the Self as much as possible. But don’t get upset when you catch your mind identifying with the body/mind. It’s just a passing mental state that doesn’t affect you.

Always remember this while doing this practice because changing your mind is an incidental benefit to the practice of discrimination. But the real point is know that no matter what the mind is thinking, you are always the unaffected Self. You are not the mind, no matter what it thinks. And THAT is true knowledge. Good luck S. Just let me know if you need help. 

All my best – Vishnudeva

Working Out Your Karma

I have been in a very unhappy marriage for the last 10 years. There’s no affection, no sex, no kindness, no warmth, no communication. My wife has given me the silent treatment for the last 2 years. I am slowly going insane.

I realize that she is I and that I am she. There is only Self. So my question is the following: Would you stay in such a marriage if it drives you insane (literally) just to work out past karma? Or, would you leave? I remember the Buddha left his wife and children behind. Very confusing because he must have realized all was Self and that any action like leaving a wife and children behind was thus futile (there is no such thing as divorce; Self always is).

Not sure if you are married but you are a realized person so I wanted to ask your opinion. Sorry for the deep question.

Thank you,
A

V:  I’m sorry to hear that you’re unhappy but I’m a Vedanta teacher, not a marriage counselor. So I am not qualified to answer your question about marriage.  

But I can address your understanding of self and karma.  Realizing the non-duality of the self does not have anything to do with passively accepting one’s circumstances on the basis that they’re just an illusory appearance of one’s own self.  Sameness only applies at the absolute level of the self.  It does not apply to everyday circumstances.  In other words, not everything in life is equal, just because it’s all the self.  Some things are, relatively speaking, better, healthier and more constructive than others. 
 
Further, working out karma doesn’t mean accepting suffering and unhappiness.  Sure, everyone will have some degree of suffering and unhappiness in their karma.  But karma is not fate.  The point of the theory of karma is to put you in the driver’s seat. It says your current circumstances are the product of your past choices and actions.  The implication is that your future circumstances can be influenced by your current choices and actions.  

So once again, I am not qualified to give you relationship advice.  Nor am I interested in doing so because my purpose here is to teach Vedanta.  But I hate to hear that you’re unhappy.  So I wanted to say that Vedanta, non-duality and karma all allow for positive change in one’s “personal” well-being.  They are not in conflict with you doing what you feel is best for your happiness.  The point of this teaching is peace of mind.
 
All my best,
Vishnudeva    

A: Your answer is incredible and I quote only partially: “But I can address your understanding of self and karma.  Realizing the non-duality of the self does not have anything to do with passively accepting one’s circumstances on the basis that they’re just an illusory appearance of one’s own self.”

I was stuck with this question for so many years and you understood it and gave the answer I was looking for so I will re-read it because it is so very very valuable.

Thank you very much,
A

Emotional Zombie

Hi Vishnu,
In your reply to a recent questioner who was asking about the role of joy and indeed other emotions obtaining in the mind after self knowledge, you said that ‘over time the mind slowly becomes less happy, sad, angry or otherwise emotionally disturbed’.

Now, I don’t believe you are advocating becoming an emotional zombie here. I believe what you meant was what the Buddhists call ‘equanimity’, a preponderance to less and less emotional extremes. This is actually required before self knowledge, but it continues to bed in after self knowledge.

However this doesn’t mean you are never emotional, relatively speaking, but you are less prone to veering from extreme to extreme? Having no emotional responses would be pretty useless, not to say impossible anyway, but that’s not what you’re saying. 

Vishnu:  Correct. 

D: One way I thought about it is if feeling/emotions are a tone, then equanimity is in the mid range, it becomes your home setting, and while it fluctuates up and down from there, the mid range becomes the centre around which it revolves, rather than veering all over the place. Or another way is to think of it as a volume control, set to mid volume: it can, and does, go up and down from there but in a moderate way, rather than as if some madman was spinning the dial wildly one way or another!

Vishnu:  These are great metaphors.   

D: Of course, there will always be times when it does veer to extremes, that’s part of the human condition and will happen forever. But over time should occur with less frequency.

V: Yes, extremes will surely still occur.  They may occur less frequently or they may not; extremes may go away for a long time only to unexpectedly come back.  It all just depends on the person’s mind.  Since 1) The mind is not totally under our control and 2) We are not the mind, this is of no ultimate consequence. 

 D: Vishnu, would you agree that we are *always* feeling something, because emotions are generated by thoughts, (even when we’re feeling numb, that’s actually still an emotion/feeling tone: we’re ‘feeling’ numb), so ‘transcending’ emotion is not about not having emotions, which is actually impossible anyway, but about realising they don’t affect your true nature?

Vishnu:  Exactly.  The relative person has a modicum of control over how their mind feels.  But in the end, the mind is going to do what it’s going to do.  People who continue to try to make their minds a particular way in order to prove to themselves or others that they’re enlightened clearly have missed the point that enlightenment is about knowing that they are not the mind, or to me more accurate, that they are not affected by the mind.  

That means having an agitated mind does not make you any less the self; or relatively speaking, less enlightened.  Having a peaceful mind doesn’t make you any more the self; or relatively speaking, more enlightened.  You are the self either way:  that’s just a fact.  Recognizing that fact, relatively speaking, is “real” enlightenment, not trying to make the relative person think, act or feel a particular way, which is the textbook definition of samsara.      

Don’t get me wrong: Having a peaceful mind is a good thing. And striving to be the best person you can be is a constructive and worthy undertaking. But it’s not enlightenment, which clearly shows you that you are not a person, or more accurately, that you are not affected by the person in any way whatsoever, good or bad.   

D: I’m always reminded of the story of Ramana, who, after watching a travelling stage play about a heroic quest of some saint or other, turned around to his followers in floods of tears! They were all shaking their heads, saying ‘how can Ramana be affected by such aspects of dualism!’ But Ramana simply responded by saying ‘how can one not be moved by such tales of heroism and self sacrifice!’

I always find that funny, as he was just acknowledging the human aspect of his nature, which was perfectly ok, whereas his followers, clearly showing incomplete understanding, just didn’t get it, just like many a neo-advaita teacher today, many of whom seem keen to portray him as some remote, absolutist godlike figure, which is more of a caricature than anything else.

Vishnu:  As you’ve pointed out, this kind of misunderstanding is common in the so-called spiritual world. This is because self-realization is internal and its outward manifestation as certain behavior depends entirely on the previous conditioning of the self-realized person’s mind. For the self-realized person who knows directly that they’re not actually a person, this is not a problem; they let the apparent person be how it is, knowing it doesn’t reflect on their true self in any way. They witness the apparent person naturally responding to its environment, without judgement.

But for those still seeking self-knowledge, this can be confusing. Through no fault of their own, they’re forced to evaluate a self-realized person based on their preconceived notion of enlightenment, which is inevitably linked to their idea of what an enlightened person’s behavior or temperament should be like. And no amount of explanation can dispel this confusion: It can only be resolved by following self-inquiry to its logical end, which is the direct intuition of the fact, “I am the limitless self. I am not defined or affected by the condition of the body and mind.” When that is known the question of performing certain actions or abstaining from particular emotions become moot. In his Dhyanasvaruam, Swami Teyomayananda illustrates this point nicely with the following quote from Jivanmuktananda Lahari:

“One whose ignorance has been destroyed by knowledge given by the guru never gets deluded as he goes around roaming the city, seeing and enjoying the beautiful sights, men and women dressed and decorated, as he knows that he is the witness of all. He is silent with the maunis, wise amongst the wise, scholary amongst the scholarly, sympathetic to the miserable, rejoices with the happy, enjoys when he gets pleasurable objects, acts ignorant among the ignorant people, youthful with the young, displays great oratory skill in the company or orators and is a total renunciate amongst the reununciates. Blessed is the one who has conquered the three worlds.”

All my best – Vishnu