Steady Wisdom: Day 39

Steady Wisdom: 108 Verses On Changing My Thinking

DAY 39

Just as all clay pots are nothing but clay, the whole universe is nothing but me.  Thus proclaims Vedanta.
-Brahma Jnanavali V.19
Meditation

Everything that exists is me, existence itself.  And yet, I myself am not a thing.  Just as all clay pots are nothing but clay, the whole universe is nothing but me.  But just as clay is never truly a clay pot, I am never truly the universe or any part of it.  Therefore, I am free from samsara. 

Read Series Introduction

Steady Wisdom: Day 10

Steady Wisdom: 108 Days of Changing My Thinking

DAY 10

I need no support but I am the support of all; I have no desires to be fulfilled; I am the immortal, changeless self.
– Brahma Jnanavali V.15
Meditation

The universe depends on me but I do not depend on it. For how can anything exist without me, existence itself? Therefore, I do not have to rely on the body, mind or world for security. Because they are ever-changing and unreal objects, they have nothing to offer me, the immortal, changeless self. So I watch the objects come and go, all the while remaining satisfied in myself. OM.

Read Steady Wisdom Introduction

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 2

1.8 – Being bitten by the great black snake of egoism, you think, “I am the doer.” To be happy, drink the nectar of the conviction, “I am not the doer.”

Identifying yourself with the ego—the thought or concept of “I” in the mind—is like the bite of a poisonous snake.  How so?  Because it leads to the false conviction that you are the one that acts when the body and mind act and thinking this is ‘fatal’ to happiness.  When you believe, “I am doing this” or “I am doing that” you falsely claim ownership of the results of what the body and mind do.  That this is an impediment to happiness is obvious when the results of body-mind’s actions are unpleasant.  What is not as evident is that this is also an obstacle to happiness when the results are pleasant, the reason being that achieving a desirable result does not lead to permanent happiness.  Once the pleasurable effect wears off, you are inevitably left with a desire to do something else to try to regain happiness, thus creating an endless cycle of action and desire that never lead to the contentment you want.  So Ashtavakra astutely points out that if you truly want to be happy, step out of cycle of doing and enjoying entirely through understanding.  When you have been poisoned by the belief, “I am the doer” the antidote is the conviction, “I am not the doer.”  If you are not the doer, the problem of action, desire and reaping the results of action—good or bad—does not belong to you.      

1.9 – “I am the one, pure consciousness.”  In the fire of this conviction, burn down the forest of ignorance and be happy.

Just as a forest is made up of countless trees, the forest of ignorance is composed of the innumerable ways you can mistake yourself to be the body-mind.  You ‘burn’ this ignorance with the conviction that you are the consciousness that knows, and is therefore free of, the body-mind and all of its problems. Or alternately, ignorance is incinerated by the conviction that since you are one alone, you are not affected by the body-mind because it is only an appearance.  This is stated in the next verse.     

1.10 – Although you are consciousness, the highest bliss, you are imagined to be the world, just as a rope is imagined to be a snake.  Know this and live happily.

When a rope is mistaken to be a snake, the snake is only an appearance.  Despite the illusion, nothing but the rope ever exists.  Similarly, when you, consciousness, are imagined to be the world (“world” here includes the body-mind), the world is merely an appearance while nothing but you ever exists.  Believing that there is actually a world is ignorance, an error based on the misperception of reality.  When this error is corrected, you can live happily, knowing that the world, just like an illusory snake, can cause you no harm. 

In this verse Ashtavakra says that consciousness is the highest bliss.  The word “bliss” can only be taken in the metaphorical sense because bliss is a feeling, a state of mind, and it has been clearly stated that consciousness is free of the mind.  A synonym for bliss is satisfaction, so by calling consciousness the highest satisfaction it indicates that the only way to get real satisfaction—as opposed to temporary satisfaction gained from everyday pursuits—is to understand what your true nature is.  When that happens you see that you lack nothing and have nothing to fear because there is only you and you are never touched by the appearance of the world. 

1.11 – He who considers himself free is free indeed and one who considers himself bound remains bound. “As one thinks, so one becomes,” is a popular saying in this world, and it is quite true.

In a text brimming with excellent verses, this is by far the finest because in two short sentences Ashtavakra gives a disarmingly simple summary of the essence of the entire teaching:  freedom, self-knowledge, enlightenment, moksha or whatever you choose to call it is only a matter of how you think about yourself.  While it is easy to get distracted by Vedanta’s ornate symbolism, hyperbolic metaphors, theoretical propositions, dazzling intellectual gymnastics and multitude of spiritual practices, freedom is really that simple.  If your idea of self is “I am ever-free consciousness” then you are free because that is actually the truth.  But if your idea of self is “I am the body-mind” then you are bound because that is the also the truth (at least for you).  “As one thinks, so one becomes.”  Take the word “becomes” loosely because you cannot become what you already are i.e. consciousness.  And as consciousness your nature is ever-free so you cannot become bound any more than fire can become cold or water can become dry.  You can only ‘become’ free by understanding you have always been free and you can only ‘become’ bound by believing you are bound.

Since it is so crucial, at the risk of being redundant, I want to repeat myself:  freedom is how you think about yourself.  That means right now is the time to start taking the stance that you are free even if you don’t yet understand how that can be.  Every time you catch yourself identifying with the body-mind and thinking a limiting thought about yourself, stop and apply an opposing thought, one that is harmony with who you really are.  If you find yourself identifying with the body thinking thoughts such as, “I am tall, short, skinny, fat, male, female, black, white, pretty, ugly etc.” stop and think, “I am not the body.”  If you identify with the mind with thoughts such as, “I am happy, sad, angry, peaceful, afraid, focused, distracted etc.” stop and think, “I am not the mind.”  If you find yourself thinking, “I am doing this, I am doing that” stop and think, “I am not the doer.” Or in general if you find yourself thinking in any way, “I am bound, I need to get free” stop and think, “I am free.”  Regardless of whether or not you see how these assertions can be true, they are nonetheless fact, and in time the supporting logic behind the statements you are making will become clear.  When they do, you have already put in the hard work to change the habitual thinking patterns of the mind, getting them into alignment with your true nature.  This is something you will inevitably have to do, either before or after enlightenment, assuming you are interested in mental peace.  So you might as well do it now. 

Contrary to the belief that enlightenment is a momentous realization that occurs at the end of an incredibly difficult spiritual journey spanning countless lifetimes, one that can only be achieved by an exceedingly rare and select few, if you can see that it’s possible to change the way you think about yourself, then enlightenment is available to you in this very lifetime. “As one thinks, so one becomes.”    

1.12 – You are consciousness, the all-pervading, full, actionless, unattached, desireless and peaceful witness. You appear as the world or of the world through error. 

This verse provides a timely opportunity to practice thinking differently about yourself.   You can put it in first person, say it to yourself, and contemplate its implications.  “I am consciousness, the all-pervading, full, actionless, desireless and peaceful witness.”

Of the words used to describe you in this verse, “full” and “peaceful” have not yet appeared in the text.  “Full” means that as the non-dual reality, you are complete; there is nothing left out, nothing that can be added or taken away; you cannot be perfected because you are already perfect.  “Peaceful” indicates that since you are ever-free witness of the conditions of the body-mind, you can never be disturbed. 

Part 3 coming soon.

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Is the End of Suffering a Sufficient Goal?

This is a continuation of a previous discussion.  Read it HERE.

L: Much, much thanks.  This is all extremely helpful.  Your knowledge is deep, teacher.

V:  You’re welcome.  

L: I like these realization statements (from the previous email) quite a lot and my mind has been processing them every day.  I feel that the gears are turning and I’m getting traction.  Your additional statement is very useful.  Thank you.  I’ve added a few different angles and permutations.  I have this feeling that I’m connecting all these different elements (my true nature, the universe, all living beings, my body and mind, infinite conscious awareness) with threads of relationships and equivalences, and knitting them all closer and closer together until they merge and I’m basically just left with the thought, “There is just one consciousness,” or something like that.  They are really all kind of the same statement.   

I understand what you’re describing with the necessity of the empirical viewpoint and the value of the absolute viewpoint.  The things I’ve read describe the goal of Vedanta as the end of suffering.  I see how this is important but every time I read this, I wonder if that alone is sufficient as an end goal. 

V: Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t.  Being enlightened doesn’t mean you cease having goals or aspirations in your day to day life.  But if we’re talking strictly about Vedanta, the only goal is the end of suffering, specifically mental suffering.  Vedanta doesn’t have any other goals. 

L:  I have these two other thoughts that I’m trying to fit into the context of Vedanta: living wide open as love, and having impeccability of purpose.  These are empiric-perspective concerns. 

V: Yes, they are.  And they are worthy concerns.  But from a Vedanta perspective, here is the problem:  you can’t live wide open as love (or any other way for that matter) if you aren’t really a person, and you can’t have impeccability of purpose if you are not the doer, the illusory body/mind complex.  As I said, the empirical viewpoint must always be respected.  So in that regard if you want to live wide open as love etc., go for it.  But you MUST clearly understand that you are not really living that way or doing anything to be free from suffering. Why?  Because suffering only accrues to the doer, the body/mind.  So you must get it clear that you aren’t the body/mind, and then it can be as it is.   

L:  In a way, neither of these goals can be possible if one is suffering, and I suppose minding one’s immediate suffering must take first priority, like putting the airplane oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.  Attempting to live open as love has the pitfall of self-deceptive do-goodery, and to be this way genuinely I think one must first know that all living beings are within one consciousness.

V:  It’s only a problem if you identify with the do-gooder.  I’m just trying to be clear, not downplay the seriousness of the issue, because false-identification is the root issue of Vedanta and the cause of suffering.   

L:  Having impeccability of purpose perhaps can only be possible with the clarity and detachment of examining one’s life from the absolute viewpoint. 

V:  The absolute viewpoint gives you objectivity, and objectivity helps in anything you ‘do.’  But you’ll have to explain to me what exactly you mean by impeccability of purpose.  I don’t want to assume I know what you’re talking about. 

L:  These are just early thoughts I’ve been having.  Would you say that the end of suffering is a goal that encompasses these other aspects? 

V:  To be clear, “the end of suffering” doesn’t mean perfect peace of mind and perpetual happiness.  The body/mind is the sufferer and it will always suffer in one way or another.  This means that the end of suffering is simply the end of identifying with the sufferer.  The body/mind suffers.  But if you aren’t the body/mind, then you don’t suffer.  Problem solved. 

That being said, knowing you aren’t the one suffering gives you the objectivity I previously mentioned.  And objectivity helps in whatever it is you choose to ‘do.’

Another aspect of knowledge is clearly understanding that, despite appearances to the contrary, everything is one, brahman, you.  When everything is known to be yourself, it makes accepting and loving the world much easier. 

L:  Are there teachings to apply Vedanta knowledge to these empiric perspective goals as well?

V:  Sort of.  As I just said, the implications of non-duality can certainly help the way you view the world.  As far as impeccability of purpose, I can’t say until you explain it to me a little more.  If you mean acting in the correct manner with the appropriate motivation, Vedanta is useless, because it negates the false idea that you do anything in the first place. 

However, at the initial stages of the teaching, Vedanta advocates yoga, specifically karma yoga, in order to show one how to act appropriately in the world.  It also advocates devotion or religious practice in order to purify the mind and heart.   

L:  I’ve been having a strong inclination to take some time and go into nature for a while, and fast and meditate.  My instinct is to corral together the “I-ness” to package it up.  I see your teaching that the I-ness can never be completely packaged or dropped, only through knowledge can it be put in proper perspective. 

V:  I honestly think you should do what you are inclined to do.  Taking a retreat to contemplate and meditate is never a bad thing. 

I’ll add this:  regardless of what you do, always remember that the way Vedanta ‘packages’ the “I” is strictly cognitive.  It teaches you how to objectify the apparent person and see him for what he is:  a transient illusion.  One way to do that is to always be aware of using the word “I.”  Every time you say it or think it, ask yourself, “What ‘I’ am I referring to?”  If you say, “I am sad” ask yourself if the word “I” is referring to you, the self, or to the mind.  Or if you say, “I am hungry, fat, thin, etc.” ask if the word “I” is referring to the body or to you, the self.  You can apply this to everything you think and in this way you continually ‘package’ the body/mind by recognizing it as the transient object that it is.  Then you bring your attention back to what you really are, that which knows the illusory, transient object known as L.  That is the real “I.” This practice can, and should, be done at all times until you have broken the identification with the body/mind i.e. L.  And it can be done in everyday life as well as in a retreat.    

L:   But, as you have said, the experience wouldn’t hurt, either. 

V:  Yep.  Even though you aren’t L, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be as happy, fulfilled or satisfied as possible.

L:  I have Ted Schmidt’s book Self Knowledge and it looks very useful.  Is there a Vedanta community? 

V:  Yes but it will vary depending on where you are.  Arsha Vidya and Chinmaya Mission are worldwide, as well as being first rate Vedanta organizations.  I personally prefer Arsha Vidya and their lineage of teachers.  The possible drawback for you is that both of those organizations are very Hindu, and they intermix Indian culture along with the teachings, Arsha Vidya less so than Chinmaya Mission.  I personally don’t have a problem with that except for the fact that the religious and cultural aspects can sometimes obscure the Vedanta part of the teaching. There are Westernized Vedanta groups but none that I can confidently recommend.  

All in all, it can be good to have a group of people to do inquiry with but it can be more trouble than it’s worth because you have to deal with their issues and egos in the process.  Further, if they don’t know what they’re talking about, how can they be of any assistance to you?  Besides, in the end, inquiry is a solitary path that you must travel mostly by yourself.  That’s what I did.  However, do with that what you will.  I am a very solitary person by nature but I know that doesn’t work for everyone.       

L:  It has been extremely helpful to hear from you, instead of just reading books.  I really appreciate it. 

V: I’m glad to hear that.  You’re welcome. 

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A Progressive Vedanta

THE QUESTION

I recently read your post, “A Vedanta Atheist?.”  I’ve never heard anyone express the point of view that Vedanta can work for atheists.  Does that really conform to the teachings of Vedanta?  Do you advocate atheism? 

THE ANSWER

I’m not surprised. I’d only ever heard the idea that atheism and Vedanta are compatible expressed privately in discussions with fellow Vedantins.  That’s exactly why I wanted to go on record and say it.  The idea of atheism is certainly not new but I think its prevalence today—coupled with an increasing number of spiritual people who do not believe in religion—requires a proper response from Vedanta.  I believe it’s fully in line with the tradition of Vedanta to progressively extend eligibility to groups previously excluded from studying the teachings.  There was a time when someone like myself, a caste-less foreigner from outside the religious tradition, would most likely have been denied the teaching.  There was also a time, not so long ago, when it was controversial to teach Vedanta to the general public.  It was even more controversial when it was taught in English!  I am very thankful those times have passed and grateful to the pioneering teachers that ended them.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to a teaching that has dramatically changed my life for the better.  So it’s no surprise that continuing to make the teaching available and more accessible to an even broader audience is near to my heart.  I think Vedanta can—and should—be progressive while staunchly holding on to its fundamental principles, namely the pursuit of freedom through self-knowledge. 

Perhaps even the most progressive Vedantins would balk at the idea of a Vedantic atheist.  But I would have to politely disagree because I actually know a few.  It can and does work.  I would also say that Vedanta is such a vast and beautiful tradition.  If one teacher or their views don’t appeal to you, there are so many other good teachers to learn from.  I’m not trying to upset anyone or claim that my view is the only right one.  I’m just a link in the chain, albeit one that’s a little funny shaped.  If you think what I say makes sense, great.  I think my point of view is reasonable.  If you disagree with me, well, you probably won’t attain enlightenment 🙂  I’m kidding.  You’ll be just fine.  That’s my point.  Vedanta can accommodate a wide variety of people and opinions. 

All the same, I’d like to clarify what I mean by atheism.  Atheism, as I understand it, is a lack of belief in a personal, anthropomorphic God.  In other words you don’t believe in the whole “man-in-the-sky” idea of God.  Perhaps you don’t believe in anything supernatural at all.  Now, are the ideas of a personal, anthropomorphic God and supernatural occurrences present in Vedanta?  Absolutely!  Just read the Upanishads. 

But…are those things presented as absolute truths in Vedanta?  No.  They are only true from a relative point of view.  This means they are not essential, and therefore don’t preclude someone who doesn’t believe in those things from studying Vedanta.  Does that mean someone can have success in Vedanta while being an atheist in the sense that they think the universe is merely a blind mechanical process consisting of matter alone?  I doubt it.  Why?  Because Vedanta is unyielding when it declares that the universe is ultimately nothing but brahman, pure consciousness, not matter or anything beholden to it.  And precisely because brahman is pure consciousness, Vedanta contends that the universe is a deliberate and orderly ‘creation’ not a blind, mechanical chaos.

Still, is being open-minded to these contentions incompatible with a rational mind that doesn’t believe in a personal God or the supernatural?  No, because brahman is consciousness and consciousness isn’t something we have to believe in.  Consciousness obviously exists because we are obviously conscious.  Granted, the exact nature of consciousness and how it can be the entire universe requires much investigation to understand but the jumping off point of our everyday conscious experience is rooted in fact, not belief.  Something else rooted in fact is the existence of the universe.  We all know it’s there because we experience it.  Since “I only believe in what I see” is often the criteria for belief according to an atheist I contend that Vedanta’s concept of God works fine with atheism, at least in the way I’ve defined it above.

How? Vedanta says that God (Isvara) is simply the world around you as well as the laws that govern the world.  So if someone is an atheist in regards to a supernatural personal God but they accept that the world exists and runs on natural laws, then they essentially accept Isvara.  Again, the part that Isvara is actually pure consciousness (and hence not really a God at all) requires a lot of investigation to understand but as in the case of consciousness, the starting point is rooted in fact, not belief.  And since Vedanta says that brahman is ultimately none other than yourself, no belief is required there either because no one needs to believe in themselves.  That we can even contemplate our own existence proves that we exist because a non-existent entity can’t contemplate anything.  For all of these reasons, I see atheism—at least a certain kind of atheism—as compatible with Vedanta. 

I certainly don’t mean to be dismissive but whether or not this view conforms to so-called traditional Vedanta doesn’t really matter to me.  I’ve already seen it work for people so the question of conformity serves no purpose.  I’m extremely practical, and considering that freedom is the point of Vedanta, whatever helps get someone get free is fine with me.  Besides, there is no definitive consensus among Vedantins as to what the ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ Vedanta even is.  A brief examination of the history of the teaching shows that some groups within Vedanta strongly disagree while others outright contradict each other.  The umbrella of Vedanta accommodates many viewpoints, any of which you are free to disregard if you so choose, so I don’t see why allowing atheism in Vedanta should cause a problem for anyone.      

As for the last part of your question, asking if I advocate atheism, I don’t really advocate anything in regards to belief or lack of belief in a personal, supernatural God because that is a purely personal decision.  Since I want to be able to decide for myself what I believe or don’t believe in that matter I extend that same courtesy to others.  And because I want Vedanta to be available to whoever is interested in it I try to remain open to other points of view and teaching methods, even ones I may not necessarily share or agree with.

What I do advocate is an open-minded, progressive Vedanta with the hope that everyone’s pursuit of freedom will be successful, whether the pursuit is traditional, non-traditional or something else entirely.   

All my best – Vishnudeva